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Picture perfect in Milwaukie

Adventure photographer Mark Gamba sets up shop to bring something a little wild to local art lovers
by: mason west, Mark Gamba checks negatives in his studio.

Mark Gamba's photographs have graced the covers of magazines including National Geographic, Communication Arts and Outside. They've been used to market products from Adidas shoes to Snickers candy bars.

But now Gamba is trying to show his photos in a new venue: your living room.

'I've always been an artist first and a commercial photographer second,' Gamba said.

In December of 2005 he and his wife Chantelle opened the Mark Gamba gallery in downtown Milwaukie, for the first time presenting his work as fine art as well as commercial or journalistic photography.

Though you'd be hard pressed to pick them out, at least half the pictures displayed in the modest gallery space came from commercial photo shoots.

Take for instance the photo hung opposite the front door: A large canvas-style print of a cowboy, lasso in hand, caught mid-gallop chasing down a ranch cow. It's from a recent shoot for Carhartt clothing. But before it's gussied up with logos and ad copy, it is a photo Gamba loves.

It's a fitting image to greet anyone who visits the gallery because it is the product of Gamba's most challenging marriage of artistry and technical skill to date. The shoot was commissioned to produce, among other things, in-store boards 4 feet tall and 20 feet wide.

The only way to produce a billboard-sized picture crisp enough to be viewed up close was to shoot with a large-format camera that makes negatives bigger than the developed photos you get from Walgreens: up to 8 by 10 inches. Basic photography knowledge tells you that to capture fast action in crisp detail, the shutter must open and close very quickly, yet these format cameras require longer exposures.

How exactly Gamba was able to do both would require pages of explanation. Calling it 'magic' isn't much of an overstatement.

While high-quality photography has become more and more accessible to consumers through the digital technology (though Gamba still shoots film), there is still an air of mystery to just how those truly special photographs are captured and made. A look through Gamba's Web site, www.markgamba.com, reveals pictures that beg the question, How'd you get that?

If you can make it there…

Part of the answer lies in years of training and practice. Gamba, now 47, began studying photography in junior college at the age of 18. The eight years following his graduation at 20 he spent feeding his 'Kodachrome addiction,' scrounging enough money for food, rent and film doing whatever jobs he could. Shooting around his native Colorado and traveling abroad, he built his amateur portfolio.

At 29 he left the rural life he loved to make a name for himself in New York City.

'It was the perception in the business that there was just something about a New York shooter that made them better,' Gamba said.

Right or wrong, it's true. The five years he spent playing the game established him as one of the country's premier adventure photographers. But for Gamba, family is more important than fame. When his young son came toddling back from a playground holding a crack pipe, it was more than enough to send the Gamba family to Central Oregon in 1994.

One of the reasons Oregon won out over returning to Colorado is its geographic versatility.

'If a client wants some kind of outdoors shot that isn't at a specific location, chances are I can do it in Oregon,' Gamba said.

Two years ago, family again prompted Gamba to relocate. With a new wife and two new daughters, the need to provide a good education brought Gamba to Milwaukie, where he bought a home only two blocks from the Waldorf school his children attend. When looking for a gallery/work space he didn't have it so easy - he had to settle for five blocks from home.

Moving to the Portland area has made Gamba accessible to local publications such as Portland Monthly Magazine, which hired him to shoot their 16-page Gorge Go Guide published this August. Art Director Jason Blackheart explained this assignment carried the additional burden of being done without any on-site direction because he was unable to attend the three-day shoot.

'Usually, it would be essential that an art director go out with the photographer for such a large assignment. But with a guy like Mark, you can just tell him what you need and know you'll get it.'

'The really great images, you just feel…'

The Gamba biography shows a commitment to his craft and his character. But it still doesn't reveal how he manages to get what he gets on film.

'The really great images, you just feel,' he said. 'I can set up a shot that will sell cars or cell phones... but there are images you make that you fall in love with. I suppose why that happens is when a photographer has an image in his mind and then develops the film and finds that is exactly what he captured.'

Behind the gallery is a room with a wall of tall file cabinets. These contain the lifetime photo library of Mark Gamba. One of his fierce professional convictions is to maintain the rights to reuse and resell his photographs as he chooses - a principle so strong that caused him to repeatedly turn down cover assignments for National Geographic.

As the story goes, he had already shot for the magazine, but then the contracts changed. Unable to come to terms with the lawyers, he refused the work but the photo editor continued to seek out his talent, ultimately asking what it would take to get him short of letting him keep the photo rights.

'Oh…' he said 'Shooting whale sharks in Western Australia.'

For those who don't know, the whale shark is literally the biggest fish in the sea and is hard to find. A 13-year-old Gamba, awestruck by Jacques Cousteau, was convinced he would grow up to be a marine biologist. The request was a boyhood dream that had gone unfulfilled - well worth a serious pay cut.

Sure enough, three months later, Gamba had the assignment. And he still has some photos he was able to keep for himself. They're in the 'favorites' file from which he chose most of the prints in the gallery.

Changing tastes

But taste is subjective, Gamba's quick to say, and what drives it is hard to pin down. For instance, since the country has gone to war, Gamba has noticed fewer and fewer advertisers using active images to promote products. Bad news for Gamba considering the industry likes to pair artists with certain styles and only call them when a 'fitting' project comes along.

'My guess, and it's only that, is that when society is in a war and people are out risking their lives - some not by choice - in an ugly way, all of a sudden this other stuff seems superficial, arrogant… somehow wrong.'

Gamba became an adventure photographer because he is an adventurous person and he takes pictures. He dives, kayaks, climbs, cycles, skis… in fact, there's little he doesn't do.

'A truism of adventure photography is that the photographer has to do everything his subjects can do - and lug 60 pounds of camera equipment.'

Writer David Quammen captured the photographer's plight in Feburary 2002 edition of National Geographic Explorer magazine, where he and Gamba documented a kayaking trip down the Grand Canyon.

'…He runs Soap Creek backward, bracing himself with his paddle held in one hand, deploying his camera with the other, clicking off motor-drive shots of Rob amid the churning jiggle-jaggle of the waves. Halfway through, Mark flips upside down… Underwater, he drops the protective container holding the camera and gets both hands on his paddle, then rolls briskly up, only to discover that one of his surf-housing straps has failed and the apparatus - all $3,400 of it, with a Nikon F-100 inside - seems to be gone… Then he notices the thing trailing behind him on one strap, like a drag bag of beer left in the water for chilling. He reels it in.'

Gamba is leaving soon for a third trip down the Grand Canyon - one of his photographer perks considering people wait between 10 and 20 years for a private permit.

Shooting these assignments has always been his bread and butter, and more than that, but as the public begins to define him as an artist, it may be for a different style of photograph.

Facing each other on opposite walls, and in stark contrast to the other work in the gallery are two nudes. While aesthetically, they are the exact opposite of the work he's become known for, the philosophy is the same: Nature is beautiful.

The nudes have been Gamba's best sellers since opening the gallery. But beyond being commercially successful, he has seen these images illicit more emotion from viewers than any other.

'At our fist art opening we were packed and people were shuffling around. But there was one woman just standing and looking at this one photograph (a naked woman curled up on a dry lakebed). Eventually, I got curious and peered around to look at her. There were tears streaming down her face.'

Gamba engaged the woman in a conversation about what the image meant to her, and her partner later purchased it as a Christmas present. Watching people interact with his art on this level is a new experience for Gamba, but ever-perceptive he's already developing ideas about how to frame it.

'The average person has many worries - too many to worry about the world outside of their lives. Art distills reality down to something where the average person can, consciously or unconsciously, see something bigger.'