Faraway sights lure photographer, but valley is home

After years of long hours on a farm, Paul Westheimer finally saw his opportunity to document all the

After years of long hours on a farm, Paul Westheimer finally saw his opportunity to document all the sights he never had a chance to capture.

He and his wife, Rose, sold their Schoharie crop farm 17 years ago, bought an RV and began a trek across the country that eventually landed them in Alaska.

It was there the native of Switzerland took some of his most treasured photographs. The Alaska scenery itself is breathtaking. But a visit to Denali National Park yielded a rare sight.

“Mount Denali is actually higher than Mount Everest,” said Westheimer, 81. “The total elevation isn’t of course. But the base of Mount Denali is much lower. So the mountain itself, from the base to the top, is taller than Everest. And that was a pretty awesome sight.”

Denali is actually most known as Mount McKinley, and stands as the centerpiece of the Denali preserve. Westheimer’s photo of the overwhelming mountain will be on display at the Schenectady Jewish Community Center on Balltown Road in Niskayuna until Nov. 30.

It’s just one of several photographs featured in his “Four Seasons, Near and Far” exhibit in the center’s Farber/Miness Lounge.

Though Westheimer moved to America with his family when he was 11, he went back to his homeland at age 16 and spent three years there.

On his return, he worked for several years on his parents’ dairy farm in Middleburgh, and then was given a rare respite for a few months with an exciting companion: an expensive Leica camera.

“It belonged to a relative of mine who was off somewhere and he just said, ‘Go ahead and use it until I get back,’ ” Westheimer recalled. “And it had a lot of interesting features that sparked my interest in photography in a really serious way.”

Prior to the Leica, Westheimer had worked with a “little” (by today’s standards, quite big) box camera called a Brownie, which was first introduced in 1900. It was cube-shaped, very basic, with no adjustments and a button shoot.

Now, almost 70 years later, Westheimer is an enthusiastic fan of digital photography. His children gave him a digital camera as a present on his 70th birthday in 2000.

“Of course, one advantage is you see what you’ve taken right away and if you don’t like it you can get rid of it and take it over,” he said. “Yeah, you have a lot of leeway with editing and film photography, too, in a darkroom. But you still have to mix the chemicals and it takes quite a bit of time.”

Sitting in his Smith Road home at the top of a hill in the Schoharie Valley, Westheimer can look out his living room window to the vast acreage that used to be part of his farmland. Surrounding it is miles and miles of colorful fall foliage, the kind on which Schoharie County prides itself.

He takes a lot of photographs from this spot, just outside the house on a raised porch. But he says landscape photography isn’t his only niche.

“I’m pretty omnivorous,” Westheimer said. “I’m really not focused on one particular thing. I do a lot of landscapes. But I do some close-ups of flowers, and once in a while try to come up with something a little more abstract.”

There was nothing abstract about Aug. 28, though. As the Schoharie Creek began to overflow and pour into homes, ravage farmlands, and destroy a majority of the village, the devastation was very tangible and very concrete. Westheimer’s home was safe on its hilltop, but he couldn’t bring himself to document the pain and devastation before his eyes.

Though natural disasters are exhilarating for some photographers, the floodwaters affected a community in which he grew up and loved. And he couldn’t separate himself from it as a photojournalist might.

“I felt a little uncomfortable pointing the camera at the people suffering devastation,” Westheimer said. “If I’d had a press card on my hat or something like that, I might have been less hesitant. But these were people, many of whom we know, and to take a picture of it was — it’s just different when you know the people.”

The couple remained in the Schoharie Valley all these years, despite selling their farm, because it’s a beautiful place, Rose Westheimer said.

But Paul’s favorite photographs usually come from trips he manages to take on random weekends, or at a relative’s wedding in Ibiza, Spain, and of course, his cross-country trip to Alaska.

Paul said he plans to photograph until he can no longer hold a camera still.

“I think one of the things he enjoys about it is that it’s a continuous learning process,” Rose said. “And he likes to do new things and experiment.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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