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Leigh Ortenburger Photographer

[Leigh Ortenburger]
Leigh Ortenburger photographing in the Cordillera Blanca, 1964. Chacraraju is in the background. Copyright ©2000 by by Tom Frost.

Leigh grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, and was class photographer for his 1946 high school yearbook. He mastered darkroom technique in the photo lab at the University of Oklahoma while earning a degree in mathematics. He began climbing during trips to Colorado and the Tetons; those scenes probably triggered his interest in mountain photography as well. His first camera was a 21/4x31/4, used on the North Face of the Grand Teton in 1953. But for Ortenburger, Ansel Adams set the standard for photographic excellence, so he started using large-format, sheet film cameras, eventually settling on a 4x5 Linhof Technika III, with Schneider lenses from 90 to 360 mm. This camera became his constant companion on ten Peruvian expeditions, where the beautiful and challenging peaks of the Cordillera Blanca became the main focus of his photography.

Most climbers are content with shooting a roll or two of slides during an ascent and projecting them when they get home; few realize the difficulty of creating images like Ortenburger's. Camera, tripod, lenses, film holders, changing bag, and other paraphernalia meant carrying much heavier packs than his companions up 20,000-foot peaks. During hard climbs, while others rested, he performed a painstaking ritual countless times: Plunge the tripod legs into soft snow until they are solid, mount and level the camera, select and attach the lens, huddle under the head cloth while composing the dim, upside-down image on the ground glass, with the wind snatching at the cloth and shaking the camera. Then take off your gloves and spin the delicate dials on the light meter, calibrate the exposure, set the aperture, and cock the shutter, while your fingers still have feeling left. Insert the film holder, pull out the slide, squeeze the cable release very gently, and replace the slide. There! One shot taken.

Back home in the Bay Area, where he had access to a professional darkroom, the discipline continued. Irene Beardsley recalls, "We used to go there on weekends and work continuously, sleeping on the floor and eating cheeseburgers. He did all of his own printing there until we constructed a darkroom in our house."

Ortenburger was planning a book of photographs on the Cordillera Blanca when he died in the Oakland Hills fire of 1991.

Nearing the summit of Chopicalqui (20,998 ft.), 1954. Copyright ©2000 Estate of Leigh Ortenburger.

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