Something about that shapely highway winding around all those shapely bluffs and forests spoke to Vancouver photographer Matthew Smith, one of two local winners in the fifth annual Friends of the Gorge photography contest.
Smith meant to be scouting photogenic balsamroot flowers in the Columbia River Gorge, but weather got in the way. He ended up wandering about the Rowena Plateau near Mosier, Ore., until he noticed those three harmonious curves in the Columbia River Highway below. Smith loved the way the curves lined up so neatly from his viewpoint, and he also knew a little something of the road’s remarkable backstory.
“(The highway’s designers) pioneered a new era of civil engineering, building roads not just as a means of travel but with an elegance to take travelers through all the natural beauty along the route,” Smith wrote about his photograph.
It took top honors in the photo contest’s “Nature and Nurture” category for documenting the intersection of the Gorge and human beings.
“The angle of this shot perfectly conveys how the historic highway follows the curves of the topography within the Gorge,” contest judge Debbie Asakawa wrote.
This round of the annual Gorge photography contest has special relevance to current events, Friends of the Gorge spokesman Burt Edwards said, because trailheads, public lands and recreation activities in the Gorge are nearly all closed now thanks to coronavirus social-distancing requirements. If we can’t welcome visitors to this natural wonder anytime soon, the Friends organization figured, we can at least help them enjoy it through great photography.
“Not since the Eagle Creek Fire have we asked the public to not visit the Gorge,” said executive director Kevin Gorman. “These photos bring the Gorge to all of us, reminding us that the beautiful Gorge is still there and promising better days to come.”
All winning and honorable-mention photos have been posted at gorgefriends.org. (The Friends organization has also employed the same strategy with poetry, and recently posted the winners of a Gorge haiku contest.)
Environmental advocateHistory and nature are always central to Smith’s photography, he said. He grew up in an artistic Pennsylvania family but never quite found his own creative niche. He moved to Washington in 2004 to work for the National Park Service in the Puget Sound area. Then he took a job at Paradise Point State Park in Clark County, where he stayed until 2012.
“When I left Paradise Point, I was looking for some way to continue to do environmental advocacy,” he said. “I picked up photography as a way to help people connect more with our shared and public lands.”
It was a raw venture into something he’d never tried, Smith said, but his results were immediately rewarding. “It’s been a really enjoyable outlet,” he said.
The website Smith set up to show and sell his photos has a slightly obscure name, but there’s a reason for that: www.lenkerbrookphotography.com honors Smith’s uncle, the late David Lenker, an accomplished watercolorist and inspiration for his nephew. The family farm in Pennsylvania is still called Lenkerbrook, Smith said.
Smith snapped his prizewinning photo of the Rowena highway curves one impromptu moment in May 2019, but he already knew plenty about the subject. Built between 1913 and 1922, the original Columbia River Highway was nicknamed “King of Roads” for its artful design and the way it highlighted the beauty of its surroundings.
“I was really inspired to learn the history of that highway, which is so interesting,” he said. “I usually put in hours of research before I visit.”
But then, when he goes, Smith tries to forget any preconceptions and keep his eyes wide open. The result is a deep connection between his subject and his audience, he said.
The “Rowena Curves” photo has been a popular seller on Smith’s website. “You just never know what’s going to speak to people,” he said.
“I do spend a lot of time in the Gorge. It’s such a unique geologic and cultural icon,” Smith said.
Vancouver photographer Tim Archer described himself as a technology geek whose love of nature and wildlife came later.
“Every piece of new digital camera technology, I have to have it,” Archer said. “I guess I’ve spent a fortune, but that’s what got me back into photography.”
Archer has done landscapes, weddings, baby photos and sports photography. When he retired from a career as a software engineer and infrastructure manager, he got intrigued by wildlife.
“The Gorge has such an abundance of wildlife. I like all wildlife, but I really got hooked on birds,” he said. “I had all this time on my hands, and I really love a challenge.”
For Archer, whose photos you can check out at www.instagram.com/tim/archer115, the main challenge of wildlife photography is having patience.
“That’s my downside,” he said. “I’m used to juggling 15 things at once. Serious nature lovers who sit in a bird blind for hours — that’s not me. I need to be moving around.”
Archer sees his ruffled hummingbird photo, which he snapped at Washougal’s Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, as a major stroke of luck. It won an honorable mention in the Gorge photo contest.
“Hummingbirds are such fascinating creatures, they way they hover like helicopters,” he said. “I spotted this particular bird buzzing back and forth, and then he just stopped and sat there. The light was perfect, the composition was perfect.
“I got a little too close, but he didn’t seem to mind,” Archer said. “It looks like he’s looking at you. He’s not too concerned but he’s keeping an eye on you. I was in the right place at the right time.”