Montana State University

Police, rickety planes fail to deter MSU engineer/photographer

November 3, 2003 -- Jean Arthur


German skier Martin Strasser telemarks an unnamed peak in Uzbekistan. Photographer and MSU engineering senior Kyle Amstadter spent most of two summers in Central Asia photographing a telemark ski expedition, a kayak expedition and the "Faces of Central Asia," which opened this week in the Exit Gallery in SUB 286. Photo used with permission of Kyle Amstadter.   High-Res Available

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Bozeman -- At times, mechanical engineering student Kyle Amstadter wishes he lacked a thorough understanding of mechanics. Amstadter, a Montana State University-Bozeman senior, found himself trying to erase his engineering knowledge last summer as he flew over Uzbekistan. He was seated in a 1960s-era Soviet-made Yak 40 transport airplane that whined like a dog with a broken leg.

Other times, his engineering background saved the day and the photographs. He had to dismantle a Nikon camera at 14,000 feet on a wind-scoured mountain, fix a film-advance mechanism and put the camera back together -- successfully.

Amstadter, 25, graduates next month. Between engineering courses 101 and 464, he spent months at a time among some of the world's tallest peaks, most remote villages and distinctive peoples.

With an MSU Undergraduate Scholars Program scholarship, Amstadter traveled to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, two former Soviet Union enclaves now in the Commonwealth of Independent States. He completed a photography project titled "Biased Portrayals."

"The project began because I recognized that when someone travels to a remote place, that person is later seen as an expert on that country," says Amstadter, who grew up in Helena and Spokane. "The images, the photographs that person brings home are often a biased vision of the place. Willingly or not, that bias will be transferred to the audience. I sought to project a show with a non-biased view."

Amstadter's images are on display in the Exit Gallery in 286 of the Strand Union Building on the MSU campus. An opening reception is 7 to 9 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 4.

The Exit Gallery show, "Faces of Central Asia," highlights a dozen framed photos on gallery walls. A 20-minute continuous slide show provides evocative images of the many faces of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The Undergraduate Scholars Program provides grants for scholarly or creative activity ranging from traditional scientific experimentation to creation of artistic work. Project recipients receive up to $1,500. Upon completion, the student is asked to create a final report and give a public presentation.

It was en route to some of his photo subjects that Amstadter bought a plane ticket and flew aboard the Yak 40.

"It began with a terrifying taxi ride," he says. "I took a 10-hour taxi ride from the capital city Bishkek to Jalal Abad in Kyrgyzstan," he recalls. "The taxi driver spent most of the time on the left side of the road. Normally, people drive on the right. There were huge craters and many portions of the road were not paved. There's been little road repair in the years since the Soviets pulled out in 1992.

"So on the way back, I bought an airplane ticket. The Yak 40, a Soviet model, probably was not maintained for the last dozen years either. As we flew at 20,000 feet, I was wishing I was not a mechanical engineer, and that I didn't know what made the plane's vibrations -- an imbalance in a motor or propeller. I wound up on several of those kinds of flights."

Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked republic, slightly smaller than South Dakota, with a population of 4.7 million. It's bordered by China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan share the western Tien Shan and Pamirs-Alai mountain systems, with peaks above 25,000 feet.

The mountainous regions of Central Asia lack Western amenities, Western economies and French fries, yet the area attracted the MSU student for the culture and the water -- frozen or frothy.

During the summer of 2002, Amstadter spent eight weeks in the region on a telemark skiing expedition and another four weeks with a kayak expedition this summer. Some of his images of the Tien Shan skiing and other travels in South America have been published in the Patagonia catalog, Back Country magazine, Rock and Ice, and Bergsteiger, the German equivalent of Outside magazine.

Through his photography and previous guiding experience in Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Argentina and Mexico for Camp 5 Expeditions, he was invited to freelance photograph a four-week kayak expedition in Kyrgyzstan. He photographed on seven rivers including the Little Naryn, the Ouzinguegush, the Kekemeren, the Chichikhan and others.

"I spent six weeks before the kayak trip working on the images for the MSU scholarship," he says, noting that he packed 200 rolls of slide film, 40 pounds of camera gear and his scanty Russian language skills.

While Amstadter was sufficiently prepared for the travel -- his passport contains 15 different country stamps -- he was not prepared for arrest. Kyrgz police saw his camera shutter fire too many times and tried to arrest him on four different occasions. Police suspected the young bearded American was a spy.

"Fortunately, I speak Russian at a basic level pretty well," says Amstadter, who took Russian classes last year. "I avoided arrest by obstinate bluffing."

Each time he was threatened, Amstadter would say that he had a friend in the military or as a police chief.

"I'd write down the police officer's name and his badge number," says Amstadter. "They always wanted to take me to headquarters. To leave headquarters would mean paying them off, a large bribe. Finally, the officer would tell me it was only a warning, and that I was not to photograph in the market again."

Yet the market is where he found his best image.

"I saw a stunningly beautiful woman in the bazaar," he recalls. "She was working in a stall selling clothes with her mother, brother and sister. I wanted a tight face portrait, but the woman was understandably shy -- there were cultural considerations I had to keep in mind."

He asked the family for permission to photograph and spent equal attention on each family member.

"I used a 300 millimeter lens and stood about 15 feet away so as to be less intrusive," he says. "But the light wasn't very strong because the bazaar is covered with tarps. I used a slow shutter speed. I don't know her name, but I call her Eva."

The portrait and others hang in the Exit Gallery through Nov. 15. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday.

"Photography has a significant technical component, and the optics, the chemistry and the machine seem to appeal to artistic people with a technical inclination," says John Hooton, media and theatre arts, and Amstadter's advisor on the Scholars project. "Kyle took just two photography classes but took to the technical information quickly and established his visual acumen, then forged into commercial and journalistic work right away."

Next for the wanderlust-stricken engineer is tidying his Web site, http://www.mtnphotos.com and paying the tab for school and travels.

" I would like to ride my bike across either part of China or Bolivia if I can get the timing right between school and an engineering job," he says.

Contact: Kyle Amstadter 406-581-0525