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Looking at infinity

Pecos Big Horns, Pecos Wilderness, New Mexico, 1989, 377 degrees by Gus Foster. (Courtesy of the Museum of New Mexico Press)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

In 1972, Gus Foster aimed a camera through his car window to capture the rolling landscape in a visual notebook.

Soon, those images transformed into film and, later, panoramic vistas that took him to mountaintops, glaciers and Times Square in a 360-degree carousel of imagery and time.

The Taos-based photographer recently released “Gus Foster: American Panoramas,” (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2021, $55) a monograph of his 45-year career.

Sunset, Moonrise, Highline Ridge, Taos County, New Mexico, 1986, 403 degrees by Gus Foster. (Courtesy of the Museum of New Mexico Press)

Foster spent 15 years photographing the Rocky Mountains, crossing the continent from Mexico to the Canadian border, climbing the highest summits carrying a 65-pound camera. His lens focused on the Pecos Wilderness, Taos Pueblo and Chaco Canyon, as well as Yellowstone National Park and Colorado’s Maroon Bells.

“I crisscrossed the United States; one year, I crossed it 13 times,” Foster said in a telephone interview from Taos. “Gas was cheap then and it was a way to see the United States.”

Soon, he was filming movies from his car, creating films without plots or dialogue.

Cirque of Towers, Bridger Wilderness, Wyoming, 1990, 380 degrees by Gus Foster. (Courtesy of the Museum of New Mexico Press)

“You’d drive for an hour and you’d see a 60-mile panorama,” he said. “I made movies about panoramas and the passage of time. The kinds of things I was shooting were more like art films; they were more contemplative. I find that experience very restful, meditative.”

Foster had moved to Los Angeles after spending 10 years as a curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. L.A. boasted labs that could support his pursuit of professional photography. In 1974, his business partner Larry Bell bought the shell of a Taos laundry. The pair transformed it into dual studios. It was in New Mexico that Foster narrowed his focus to his first panoramic still camera.

“A still image is a static thing,” he explained. ” I like the conundrum of revolving and recording twice.”

He began with an early 20th century panoramic camera called the Cirkut.

Casa Rinconada, Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico, 1993, 404 degrees by Gus Foster. (Courtesy of the Museum of New Mexico Press)

Emerging in the 1920s, panoramic cameras were commonly used to take high school class photographs.

“The class clown would invariably run around the bleachers and get into the picture twice,” Foster said. “I always liked that aspect of it and it implied that time had changed.”

When Foster moved to New Mexico, he started shooting the state’s mountains and mesas. He custom designed and built an enlarger capable of large prints. In 1985, he began using the Globus-Holway camera, a state-of-the-art invention capable of much larger images.

Foster’s panoramic camera turns in a circle; you can see everything in one glance.

“It’s like having eyes in the back of your head,” he said.

He began a multi-year project to hike the summits of 75 mountains. There were few trails ascending these peaks.

Foster turned to a friend who was an experienced mountain climber to scale the state’s 13,000-foot summits, as well as Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks . He became immersed in the outdoors, obsessed by the lure of the mountains.

It became “like looking at infinity from all points on the compass – all the world became a single emotion.”

Today, his largest works span 12 feet; he confines the smallest to 6 feet.

“I jokingly call them my wallet-size,” he said of the latter.

“When you get up that high, you can see for 100 miles in any direction,” Foster said. ” It’s a vast, uninterrupted landscape. Hopefully, they’ll be like that in 10,000 years. To me, they’re treasures.”

His sublimely foolish enterprise yielded spectacular results.

“I tore a few muscles and had a few surgeries,” he acknowledged. “It’s hard work and it’s harder work coming down. But it’s the price of admission.”

The book’s cover photo displays Eagle Peak Ridge in Yellowstone National Park. Careful observers can spot his pack goat named William Henry (named for William Henry Jackson, the great Western photographic pioneer) in the tree shade on the right.

In 1991, he ascended to Alaska’s Riggs Glacier in the Glacier Bay Wilderness. Between seven and eight glaciers terminate into a lake.

“I had to charter a plane to get there,” Foster said. “My climbing partner was a guy from Sweden who had a lot of experience climbing on ice. I had never climbed on ice before. We never had good visibility. It took us eight hours to get there.”

When Kodak went out of business in 2006, it effectively ended Foster’s photographic career. Today, he owns a digital camera, but says it’s not the same.

“It took me two years to talk them into making the film in the first place,” Foster said. “I have to find a whole new muse.”

In the book, Foster described the Continental Divide as as the place where he walked along the spine of the United States. Today, he refers to himself as the adopted son of the Rockies.

The book will be accompanied an exhibition at Taos’ Harwood Museum of Art on Oct. 22.

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