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In the footsteps of a roving genius

Photographs and an interview from high peaks of the Alaska Range.


Climber, painter and Salt Lake City-based documentary filmmaker Renan Ozturk spends a lot of his time in the world’s highest places, from the Himalayas to the Tetons. His current project, mostly self-funded, is a film inspired by the exploits of Bradford Washburn, an American explorer-photographer who traveled Alaska and Canada’s Yukon Territory between 1930 and 1951. Ansel Adams called Washburn, who was known for lugging a 53-pound camera up storm-racked summits, “a roving genius of mind and mountains.”

In The Sanctity of Space, Ozturk and co-director, Freddie Wilkinson, retrace Washburn’s expeditions in the high peaks of the Alaska Range. The work combines footage of their adventures, both on foot and in the air, with profiles of the locals they meet on the way. The film takes viewers deep into the heart of Alaska in search of the legacy of a nearly forgotten artist and mountaineer. HCN recently spoke with Ozturk about the film, which they hope to release by fall 2015. 

High Country News Renan, how did you end up becoming both a professional climber and an artist?

Renan Ozturk It’s a pretty unexpected combination. The last class I took in college was drawing. After graduating from (Colorado College), I gave away all my belongings and hit the road — pretty much your standard dirtbag-climber tale  — except that I was also doing landscape paintings. Eventually, I gained a sponsorship with the North Face, which let me do these bigger trips around the world. From there, I started doing larger-scale murals in these far-off places. But I was finding it harder to tell the stories of these adventures just through painting, so I started cutting my paintings up and doing animation  — until one day I just picked up a video camera.

HCN Will you describe your current project in Alaska?

RO I’ve been going to Alaska every year for a while now to do exploratory climbing with my friend, Freddie Wilkinson. We started looking for new objectives and came across an old Bradford Washburn photo — though we didn’t know it was his photo at the time. The photo was of the “Moose’s Tooth” massif, which is one of the most striking skylines in the Alaska Range, and we envisioned a climb that would traverse the teeth. There are a lot of teeth on this particular ridge — there’s the Eye Tooth, the Sugar Tooth, the Broken Tooth. Some of them had not been climbed before and it took us a number of years to complete the whole traverse.

HCN And how does Washburn come into the picture?

RO Over the years we spent trying to climb this route, we learned more and more about Brad Washburn, who made somewhere around 70 expeditions to the Alaska Range to photograph the mountains from the air — which he took by squeezing himself into the open door of antique airplanes with his camera. He was also engaged in rich conversation with Ansel Adams, a close friend of his, about the nature of landscape photography and whether there should be people in it.

He was the first person to map Denali from the air. He also mapped Everest from the air for National Geographic. But unlike Ansel, who was famous for his mountain photography, Washburn is just this forgotten hero. So after we completed the climb, we went back to the range and photographed it from the air like Washburn, but with an aerial camera system called a Cineflex; it’s a video-camera gyro mounted to a helicopter that we felt was very much in the spirit of how Washburn would have wanted to document figures on a landscape.

HCN What is it about that style of photography that speaks to Washburn’s legacy?

RO The Alaska Range is so huge that Washburn felt unless you put a figure in the landscape, it’s hard to perceive the scale. He really pioneered the use of aerial photography in the mountains of Alaska, which inspired hundreds of climbing expeditions and contributed to our understanding of this remote place.

So our goal was to connect Washburn’s legacy with a broader exploration of this landscape that has inspired so many people. Alaska is this haven for misfits, so in addition to the story of our own climb, we wanted to bring in these other characters — bush pilots, homesteaders and the people from Talkeetna air taxi, the Alaska mountaineering school and the National Park Service that we’ve been working with.

HCN So you’re weaving the story of your climb — inspired by a Washburn photo — with these other elements of Alaska’s culture and history?

RO Exactly. It’s really about celebrating the spirit of exploration. We go into the history of the area and the role of aviation. For instance, climbers and pilots worked together to make these technical glacier landings possible — where they’re just barely hanging onto the sides of mountains. But Brad (Washburn) is really the cornerstone of the film.

HCN I’m curious about why he never came close to approaching Ansel Adams’ fame.

RO I think he just did too much. He wasn’t just a photographer — he was a mapmaker, a pilot, a museum director. He had more of a scientific mind. Even up until right before he died, he would never admit that he was an artist. There are some recordings of him getting drilled by an Outside magazine journalist who was writing an article about him. Washburn wouldn’t admit that he was returning to these mountains over and over again to find the right light conditions for artistic reasons.

I think that’s what makes him even more compelling as a character. He was drawn to the Alaska Range to create art — and he didn’t even know it.

Sarah Tory is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @tory_sarah.