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More than a picture book

Silently, landscape photographer hopes new book has role in Mount Hood protection

November 30, 2005

The day after Peter Marbach will be autographing his new book at Waucoma Bookstore, U.S. Reps. Greg Walden and Earl Blumenauer will be hosting two summit meetings in Hood River and Portland.

Each event — the signing of Marbach’s “Mount Hood: The Heart of Oregon” and the representatives’ summit meetings “A Legacy for Mt. Hood” — is the result of three years of research, collaboration with Mount Hood National Forest, and long, sometimes grueling hikes.

Both are intensely, you might even say obsessively focused on the same subject: Mount Hood.

But the thematic similarities of these two projects stray from each other at one point:

The summit meetings are about Mount Hood’s future.

Marbach’s 144-page photo essay on the state’s tallest mountain is about its past and present.

And hopefully, Marbach says quietly, that will have a role in its future.

“I felt like the book could be a part of the process in some form,” Marbach said in a Monday morning interview at his Hood River home. “I hope it’s a reminder of what we all love about the mountain, that we need to protect the mountain and we need to do it in a way that is right.”

Marbach, like Mount Adams photographer Darryl Lloyd, is a long-time advocate for wilderness protection on areas of Mount Hood.

Despite his passion for the 11,239-foot volcano, however, nothing in the book blares overt political opinion.

The pages feature photos of faraway wilderness areas and groomed ski slopes.

The 7,000-word essay by Hood River News reporter Janet Cook describes in an objective, descriptive tone, the history — both geologic and human — of Mount Hood.

In a subtle way, however, most images betray the photo author’s objectivity. They show in 100 different ways how much he truly loves his subject.

“Early on in my career, what mattered most was getting published,” he says. “Now what’s important is getting photos published that matter.”

You can see this philosophy on page 14 in Marbach’s full-page photo of a Rhododendron bush blooming within a grove of old Douglas Firs.

And on page 83 in his idyllic image of the Timberline Trail.

His sunset picture of the Bull Run Reserve was “five hikes in the making,” he says. “But it was important to get because the book needed the variety and I wanted to show people Bull Run.”

The federal government has protected Bull Run since 1892 when President Benjamin Harrison established it as a reserve. Since then, the natural lake has become Oregon’s single largest source of fresh water. Twenty-five percent of Oregonians receive their water from this reserve. And because of that importance and the heightened threat of terrorism, the state has forbidden the public to visit its water source — except by the occasional guided tour.

Marbach found his vantage point along the Pacific Crest Trail and he found his shot after a few previous attempts disappointed him, due to the dismal or flat lighting.

When asked to identify his favorite photograph in the book, Marbach decisively turns to page 36 and 37.

“This is without question my favorite,” he says.

It’s a two-page photo of Eliot Creek and Mount Hood, the top of which is buried in a pinkish cloud.

In the picture, Mount Hood is glowing in morning sunshine.

A few inches down the page, Eliot Creek, trapped in the mountain’s shadow, wisps over black basalt boulders.

If a photographer merely aimed the camera at the same subjects, one of two results would occur:

The mountain would be lost in a sky of whiteness or the creek would be totally black.

To get the shot, Marbach had to find the balance between five f-stops using a slide of glass, half of which is darkened to compensate for the slow shutter speed.

The shot lasted 15 seconds, he says.

He called the image: “Morning has Broken.” It has become a fine art poster.

“Mr. Marbach’s photos show the beauty of Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge,” said Geoff Stuckart, deputy state director for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. “Anything that helps people understand the natural beauty of Mount Hood and the Gorge is also helpful to the effort to set aside and protect additional areas of wilderness.”

Rep. Earl Blumeneauer had similar accolades: “After looking through ‘Mount Hood: The Heart of Oregon,’ I was reminded of the 41-mile hike that Greg and I took this summer around the mountain,” he said. “Seeing these photos and reading the history really put the exclamation point on the plan that we are announcing this week to preserve the legacy of Mount Hood for many generations to come.”

This third book by Marbach followed his two others: “Hood River Valley: Land of Plenty” and “Oregon Harvest.”

And like most great books, it follows a winding path of passion, failure and mission.

Marbach, the 49-year-old son of a journalism professor and grandson of a medicine-educated lawyer, found photography fairly late in his life.

He was a stressed-out 35-year-old director of development at Maine’s environmental school Unity College, when the dean suggested he take a class to relieve his mind.

At the time, Marbach was focused solely on the high-profile project of relocating the White House’s abandoned solar panels to the small campus of Unity College. (He succeeded.)

Early on in his class, however, he discovered the point at which all his ambition, passion and mission converged.

“That became the motivation for going to work – going to class,” he says.

In those two and-a-half years in Maine, Marbach’s wife, Lorena, landed a job offer at La Clinica in Hood River.

Marbach was torn. In Maine, he lived 15 minutes from his mother. He had a stable, secure job. Familiar ground.

Hood River was where he could cultivate his new-found passion of photography, the couple decided.

“It was a tough decision,” Marbach says. “But it’s what got me here. Part of the deal was I’d get to pursue photos.”

He began submitting photos to magazine editors, selling his first for the 1997 Sprint local phone book.

From phone calls with editors, he learned a Pentax Medium Format negative sells photos more effectively than a 35 millimeter negative.

So he switched.

To get published, he learned he’d have to be patient, persistent and flexible.

And then, in 1997, five years after his wife Lorena’s new job at La Clinica brought them from Maine to Hood River, Marbach, then a struggling, inexperienced freelance photographer, won the bid to produce the commemorative poster for the Mount Hood Jazz Festival.

It was a prestigious project that established Marbach as a shooter in the area’s bounty of talented landscape photographers.

One other event also propelled his career — and ultimately this book — though Marbach wouldn’t call it a breakthrough.

A breakdown might be more accurate.

He was exploring a new vantage point to capture the Sandy River flowing out of Mount Hood in late June 2001 when he felt a flop in his chest.

Two days later, a surgeon had opened up his chest and with a triple-bypass surgery was working to repair his damaged heart.

Nine months later, Marbach was standing on Mount Hood’s summit.

“Until I stood on the summit of Mount Hood I did not feel whole,” he says.

And that, he says, was the beginning of this book.

“It’s the most meaningful to me because of nearly dying and because of my connection to the mountain. The mountain is one of my greatest sources of joy.”

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