Bradford Washburn
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, June 2001

Late in his life, Ansel Adams spoke extremely highly of a fellow black-and-white mountain photographer. He described Bradford Washburn as “one of the very few people who have combined spectacular experience in the wilderness with equally spectacular achievements in the world of civilization. One never knows what next to expect from this roving genius of mind and mountain, but whatever it is, we know that it will be excellent and effective.”

Washburn had come to know Adams and to absorb technical information from him like a sponge. His prints had the same sort of tonal range and luminosity, but with a strikingly different esthetic. In 1999, he published his first book of his own work, just before he turned ninety. For almost forty years, he was the founding director of the Boston Museum of Science, but that didn’t stop him from pursuing photography at the highest level.

Perhaps one reason he didn’t publish a book of his own images sooner was that he did not create them with art in mind. His love of photography has been as a craft, never for art’s sake alone.

Perfection of his craft enabled him to make some of the most exquisite aerial images of mountains ever made. While still in his twenties, just after Kodachrome was introduced, he did aerial field testing for 8 x 10 color sheet film for Kodak, as well as black and white testing for both Kodak and Agfa flying low over remote parts of the Alaska Range in days when glacier landings were something new.

In the mid-seventies he had an exasperating experience that every mountain photographer has had and tried to forget. He was in a jet when Mount McKinley suddenly appeared in perfect light between two parting cloud banks. But he was looking through a hopelessly dirty plastic window.

Instead of cursing his luck, he had a revelation. The window happened to be in the emergency exit of a British executive jet, on which he was flying back from the oil complex on the North Slope of the Brooks Range. He thought, “Why not make a special emergency exit window of optical glass?” And while he was at it, why not make it fit a more common personal jet? (Got a Learjet? I’ve got a special window for it . . .) And why not ask his good Boston friend, Edwin Land of Polaroid, to procure the perfect optical glass so he wouldn’t have to fly over McKinley for aerial photos with the door off in –70F temperatures ever again. Yes, 3/4-inch fused quartz of optical quality would do just fine.

Though none of Brad’s incredible Mount Everest photos made on 9-inch film at 39,000 feet through his special window appear in this book, he and the late Barry Bishop gave me a huge signed print that hangs in a special place in my office. It was one of the images he used for cartography to create the finest-ever map of Mount Everest, a tour de force of diplomacy for permissions to overfly the border between Tibet and Nepal, as well as having the best Swiss cartographers interpret the information. And by the way, Brad was 78 when National Geographic published 10.6 million copies of the map to insert in every copy of a special Himalayan issue.

In 1980, when Brad was a hearty seventy, he motioned me over to his table in a restaurant at an annual AAC meeting. When I mentioned that I was about to embark on a National Geographic assignment that had to do with climbing and trekking around Anye Machin, once thought to be higher than Everest, Brad’s eye’s lit up like the lasers he later used to measure the true height of Everest. He grabbed a napkin and casually sketched the area around the peaks, with each summit’s height in meters. He had been there in 1948.

When I got home, Brad’s sketch did not conform well with the features on the classified Army map that I had gotten to view by special permission of Cap Weinberger, who served on an environmental board with me. He made it clear that no copies of that map were to go to Tibet with me, because the Chinese might discover how much ground information we really had. Months later, after I returned home, I again had another chance to view the Army map, and my conclusion was that Brad’s napkin was the more accurate rendition!

He used prints from 9-inch black-and-white negatives to publish the world’s finest topographic maps of Mount McKinley, the Grand Canyon, and Mount Everest (of which 10.6 million copies were inserted into a special Himalayan issue of the National Geographic.

They had a mutual friend in Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid, a prolific inventor who aptly called photography “an extended continuum from science to beauty.” Washburn was the founding director of the nearby Boston Museum of Science for almost forty years. How did his images come to be regarded as art? Washburn explains that when he was 19ready a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club, he entered their mountain photo contest and won. He had begun photography not to document his mountain experiences so much as to show new and old possibilities for climbing routes and to further the scientific research that was already in his mind.

I’ve met many older photographers who had a passion for it in their youth, never quite followed it through, then returned to it after retirement, to produce some nice images that people liked, and, in some cases to publish their own books late in life, on with their own money. Washburn does not fit this pattern. His passion has yet to wain as he’s going on 91.

The flawless visual power of Brad’s impeccably reproduced book of large-format photographs is reminiscent of the best reproductions of Ansel Adams’ work, but they have a very different feel. The majority are aerials, and two Alaskan images juxtaposed on pages 51-52 show as much about the enduring nature of Brad’s dedication to photography as they do about the wonderfully aesthetic banding patterns of two different glaciers. One is dated 1938; the other 1994. (taken at ages 28 and 84). To my quite trained eye, the quality looks similar, though I’m sure Brad would debate that and mail me two original prints to compare, along with a cordial, but directly worded cover letter.

I’ve only known Brad for 35 years, first contacting him to get copies of his photos of unclimbed mountain walls in Alaska. He had published heavily illustrated articles in the American Alpine Journal, which I read voraciously in the sixties, feeding my passion to photograph and climb in the most remote ranges of Alaska. He would present a stunning visual essay of aerial photographs and suggest what the best future climbs might be, gaining personal satisfaction when his efforts led the younger generation to succeed on expeditions much like those of his own youth.

When I wrote Brad for photos of rock faces that I hoped to climb in the Alaska Range, I received incredibly crisp original prints back in the mail that show

From the beginning, Brad was no shrinking violet. At sixteen he climbed Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, and the Matterhorn, then sat down and wrote a book about it called “Travels with Bradford,” commissioned by G.P. Putnam, who later married Amelia Earhart. It was published when Brad was seventeen, after his guide to “Trails and Peaks of the Presidential Range” was already in print.

By twenty, Brad was lecturing for the National Geographic Society and embarking on a feature film about the Alps. But after graduating cum laude from Harvard and starting graduate work in surveying and aerial photography with the college’s Institute for Geographical Exploration, Alaska caught his lifelong fancy. He went on to make many first scents of high peaks and later produce an exquisitely detailed map of the mountain, based on his aerial photography.

Brad got his pilot’s license at 24 and two years later interviewed to be Amelia Earhart’s navigator on her attempt to fly an equatorial route around the world. After carefully considering the radio navigation situation over the Pacific Ocean, he withdrew, and that’s where Amelia disappeared.

Within the year after Amelia vanished, Brad became the first director of the Boston Museum of Science, a position he held for nearly forty years. This gave him a close relationship with the top figures in both science and industry.

BRADFORD WASHBURN: MOUNTAIN PHOTOGRAPHY
Edited and compiled by Antony Decaneas;
Introduction by Clifford S. Ackley
Seattle: The Mountaineers; 1999

If God is in the details, Brad Washburn’s first book of mountain photography is sacred art. Why he waited until his ninetieth year to publish it may also be in the details. H. Bradford Washburn is a certified perfectionist—without a doubt the most singularly exacting human being I have ever met.

Many obsessive perfectionists fail to accomplish much in life, because nothing ever seems perfect enough for them to move forward. Brad is not among them. He has always sensed just the right moment to go for it, whether climbing mountains, doing science, or taking photographs. His mother first advised him to use a larger format camera, but his real inspiration was the great Italian photographer/mountaineer, Vittorio Sella, who accompanied the Duke of Abruzzi to K2, the Ruwenzori, and Alaska’s Mount St. Elias, perhaps accounting for Brad’s urge to make the first winter crossing of the St. Elias Range, which he photographed for a National Geographic story when he was 25.

By themselves, the one hundred full-page reproductions of large-format mountain photographs could have come off as somewhat sterile, despite their impeccable quality, were it not for a visual narrative of smaller images of people, activities, and Brad at different ages in the field. These give the book a very personal flavor, fully justifying the Indeed, though some of Brad’s photographs have been exhibited in prominent art galleries, he clearly states that he has not taking them for art’s sake at the time. He was merely taking pictures of aspects of the natural world that fascinated him, such as mountains, glaciers, and patterns in rock formations that speak legions about the geology he went back to study at Harvard, but perhaps more about his natural eye for elegance in the natural world. There is something about a Washburn image that is clean, bold, and totally captivating without being stark. It may have to do with the level of detail, especially in this superbly reproduced book.

Had this book not been published within Brad’s lifetime, something like it would have appeared soon after he was gone. Thus it ends with a chronology of a still-active scientist/mountaineer/photographer and a telling quote from Geothe: “What you can do, or dream you can, begin it; boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

Back in 1974, my climbing partner David Roberts brought along a Washburn original print of the 4,500-foot Southeast Face of Mount Dickey on our attempt to climb it. I thought I had the route well scoped out, but high on the wall a blizzard hit and we navigated the final pitches by reference to the fine detail on the 8 x 10 print. The reproductions in the current book appear to have every bit of this original detail, which is no mean feat for a book printer and for the staff that oversaw proofing and production for The Mountaineers.

At nearly 91, Brad is still very much here and seemingly as vigorous as ever, though he denies it. He recently supervised a remeasurement of Mount Everest by having a team place a GPS device drilled into the summit rocks that gave him a figure down to a fraction of an inch, some seven feet higher than the previously accepted measurement.

Galen’s columns are reproduced on our web site courtesy Outdoor Photographer.
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