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Gallery of Fine Photography
220 Sierra Manor Road - Unit 4
Box 100 - PMB 300
Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546
photo by Vern Clevenger. Vern Clevenger took his 4x5 camera along for this trip over Italy Pass in the John Muir Wilderness, taken the morning of Sept. 1, 1998. He had known of its potential since a trip in 1981.
Famed photographer and rock climber Vern Clevenger will again participate in what has become a juried fine arts show over the years – Mammoth Celebrates the Arts – over the Fourth of July weekend. He has exhibited there “in various incarnations” since about 1982, Clevenger said during a recent interview in his Mammoth Lakes studio. The focus of his photography is still very much mountain-oriented. He approaches the same subjects with an unerring sense of place, as the late Andrea Mead Lawrence described it, but in a more refined way. “And winding up in the right place in the right time,” he added. “It’s not an accident that he winds up like that,” said his wife of 29 years, Margaret, whom he met in Tuolumne Meadows when they were both young rock climbers in 1978. “He keeps a list with light and time. He knows in an annual way how the sun is going to hit a particular area and he’ll make a date to go back five years later to get a particular photograph. It’s fabulous what he does,” she said.
His photograph of “Seven Gables and Big Bear Lake” is a case in point. He first visited the location in 1981 with a 35mm camera, and returned over Italy Pass in summer of 1998 with his 4x5 large format camera, staking it out methodically. “It snowed a few inches each day, so I set up early the next morning hoping to catch the fresh snow on the scene,” he describes in Sierra Sojourns, his recently published book. “As it turned out, the better image transpired later in the day as the snow melted and revealed the bright green of the wet grasses. The cloud cover put the foreground in the shade while the peaks in the background received ample direct light.” That photograph, among many others, will be on display at his booth at Mammoth Celebrates the Arts.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call him an autodidact, but I think he is so self-taught,” said longtime friend Derrick Vocelka in a phone interview from Bishop. Vocelka knows Clevenger from family connections dating to the 1970s in Yosemite National Park.
“When Vern was a young man taking up the challenge of photography, he would come into the curatorial staff in Yosemite and ask my mother-in-law, B Weiss, who was assistant curator at the museum, and Jack Gyer, who was curator, to critique photographs. He was unbelievably conscientious. He listened a lot to these two people.” Vocelka said the late photographer
Galen Rowell, also famed for spectacular images of the Sierra Nevada, was also a key mentor. Clevenger met Rowell as a high school student in the Bay Area and the two men shared a friendship of outdoor and photographic passions that endured until Rowell’s death in 2002. “I miss him,” Clevenger says today.
Vocelka believes that once Clevenger discovered 4x5 large format photography, he was driven toward that for more reasons than simply finding a niche apart from Rowell. “I think he saw the detail that was really important to the kind of images he wanted to get across,” Vocelka said.
Another influence was Steve Solinsky of Nevada City, who worked more formally from his studio. “I think that kind of same structure in Vern’s photographs was that emulation of form and composition,” Vocelka said.
But it is Clevenger’s instinctive sense of light and his diligence in documenting it, along with his intimate knowledge of the Sierra Nevada terrain through years of rock climbing, that give him a unique edge in knowing where and when to be in terms of lighting. “It wasn’t like he said, ‘I’ll visit a place a million times and I’ll figure it out.’ He really has good intuitive sense of this is a south facing wall or an east facing wall, and the peak will be best at shadow or sunrise or sunset,” Vocelka said.
“People know him now as a photographer, but people knew him in the 70s for his rock climbing,” said Margaret Clevenger. When asked which he considered his most legendary first ascent, Clevenger said it was the Minarets, which he traverse from the east. “It was years before that was done again,” he noted. “That was really an incredible thing they pulled off,” his wife agreed. “It was all of the Minarets in one day.”
She laughingly said that she’d read about her future husband before she met him. “He was already famous in 1977 as a rock climber. I imagined him as a real crazy man – with a club in his hand! Because I’d read about what a crazy, wild climber he was. I had this image of Grizzly Adams.” But when she actually saw “a cute guy” at the little Tuolumne Meadows tent store, sharing his photographs with people at a picnic table, she was astonished to learn it was Vern Clevenger. “That’s Clevenger?!” she recalls exclaiming. “We went climbing after that, and the rest is history.” The couple climbed together for 10 years before the arrival of their two children, Dylan, 19, and Sabrina, 12. “That was a fabulous part of our life together. We climbed El Capitan and Half Dome – all the hard stuff,” she said. “But the truth of the matter was the hardest stuff was the four or five days that we climbed every day, every week through all those years, in Tuolumne Meadows.”
They still do a lot of mountaineering with their kids. “Every summer we do hard cross-country lines,” she said. Son Dylan has become a superb mountaineer in his own right and also helps carry his father’s heavy photographic gear. Clevenger is proud to describe himself as a mountain-family man who shoots regularly with his family. “Most photographers don’t do that,” he noted. “I do better with the family. I can’t stand traveling alone anymore.” To give their children a love of the mountains, each for their third birthday was taken along the entire John Muir Trail from Yosemite to Whitney – Dylan at three being “the king in the pack” and Sabrina at three “the queen in the pack.” Margaret explained it has taken a long time to work out how best to integrate the business of photography into family life. “It’s very complicated when you have to work all that together,” she said of the business that used to require a lot of absences but has been eased by the Internet. “We function on a number of different levels as a family,” she elaborated. “We time breakfast to happen after the picture is taken. And then dinner, he actually does the cooking, and then he has a date with his camera – the other woman!”
Recently the Clevengers offered a slide show for the community featuring his trips to the Himalayas. He said he did it primarily for his kids to get them interested in traveling. “He tends to discount that part of his work because he thinks it isn’t good,” his wife clarified. “But it’s a real important aspect of how we evolved as a couple and as mountaineers.” Clevenger made five trips to the Himalayas, some with Rowell. “He did the first ascent of Mt. Cholatse. It was the last Everest sister that was still unclimbed. It was very hard technically,” Margaret said.
More recently, Clevenger has been challenged with a diagnosis of brain cancer in 2004. He went through what he describes as a very serious surgery. His health is good right now, he said, but he is still being treated. “A lot of people think he’s been cured,” his wife said. “But he just finished a full year of chemotherapy. He’s very, very healthy, but the cancer has come back three times, and unfortunately that’s a lot of times for it to come back.” She believes the most important impact that has had on his life is examining his priorities. Family has always mattered to him, she said, but it matters even more now. “When he was first diagnosed, we treated it like a hard climb,” Margaret said. “It reminded me of our climbing days and how we handled all that stress together. The feeling kind of was, we know how to do this.” Mammoth Celebrates the Arts runs July 3-5 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at corner of Old Mammoth Road and Main Street.
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