Focus explores the creative talent within the climbing community.
Climber and photographer Jim Herrington has shot some of the greats. During his career he has taken the portraits of many of the best musicians and actors of our time. Over the past two decades he has pursued a personal project to capture some of climbing's most iconic protagonists, eventually turning it into his award-winning new book, The Climbers.
How did you first get into photography?
By looking at pictures, I suppose. It was certainly slim pickings in regards to the time and place that I come from, 1960s small-town North Carolina. But two things always stand out from when I was very young: My father’s collection of old Life magazines from the 1930s to 1950s and the 1950s-era Encyclopædia Britannica. Both were chock-full of black and white photographs of people, places and things from around the world. The photos from Life, often full-bleed with double-page spreads, were more impactful, even artistic, but the ones from the encyclopædia, photographed in a more utilitarian, meat-and-potatoes manner, were equally enthralling to me. I would lay on the living room floor, devouring every page and studying every inch of these photographs. They excited desires in me, possibilities, but I was too young to put a finger on it yet. Around the same time, this would have been between the ages of six to 11, I became mesmerized by maps and the old atlas we had at home. At some point, maybe when I was 10 or 11, it suddenly dawned on me: Somebody, a person, was actually taking these photos. They were going out with a camera, hobnobbing with these interesting people, traveling to these far-flung locales, interacting with the world using a camera and bringing back a sort of evidence. A visual diary. Subjective. Suddenly, to me, the atlas and the photos became companion pieces, like a two-part training manual and guidebook. The possibilities, once I connected the dots, felt initially exciting but then ultimately deeply disappointing once I realized the odds of me setting off for Skardu, Saint-Germain or the South Pole with a Leica at age 11 were slim-to-nil.
How did that early fascination then develop into your first experiences shooting?
As much as I was beginning to look at all kinds of photography—fashion, landscape, still life, abstract, etc—and slowly breathing in the work of the greats that came before me, there did seem to be a story-based, documentarian angle to where I was headed. I was, and still am, wanting to photograph things, people, places that I thought were worth photographing. Subjective history. My biggest ambition when I was a boy was that my photos would be found in a shoebox under my bed after I died and people would marvel over my exquisite taste in all manner of things.
How did you go from those initial ideas to developing your style?
It’s like skiing. The first time you try it you don’t care how you look, you just want to stand up on the things and get to the bottom of the hill without hitting a tree. For me, maybe a better analogy is that it’s a lot like music. Ask any guitar player that started out simply wanting to figure out a Chuck Berry lick note-for-note, perfectly like Chuck played it on a record. If you study all your heroes obsessively, and even shamelessly copy them in the beginning, sooner or later you start feeling your own way. Hopefully you’re also pickpocketing in the jazz part of town, a little Eddie Lang, a little country, a little rocksteady. If you do your homework and draw from disparate areas it finally occurs to you one day that you’ve stopped copying and you’re doing your own thing. And in the process you’ve developed a nice tool kit, a broad range of influences that give you a foundation from which to do your own work. It’s only fun or helpful copying someone in the beginning, to see if you can figure out the nuts and bolts. I think it would be strange to try and figure out your own style if you didn’t know and appreciate what came before you yet I meet photographers starting out that don’t seem interested in the history of it all. I think that kind of knowledge is as important as learning f-stops and bellows extension factor. I probably thought about “style” more when I was younger. It’s more intuitive and free feeling to me now, which goes back to music. A good, experienced guitar player has crammed his brain for years with the important stuff so now he can just play without thinking too hard about it. It’s inside him.
You’ve shot a wide range of different people in your career. Which are the subjects and images that stand out to you as defining moments?
As far as the music work I’ve done, Tom Petty would be a fork in the road. In the late 1980s a friend of mine introduced me to Petty and I photographed him over the next year or two. Tom was at his zenith then, and things changed for me after I got those photos in my portfolio. I got a lot of calls after that, so thanks Tom. The Petty stuff really got things revved up for me. Another one would be after I moved from NYC to Nashville in 1991. It wasn’t even a move, it was a short visit, but one that ended up lasting for 10 years. I stumbled into photographing the great Charlie Rich within a week of first arriving. Then it dawned on me that I had come down to where most of the music I like was recorded, and it was where most of those musicians still lived: Memphis, New Orleans, Nashville. Similar to the climbers of another era that populate my new book I’ve been drawn to these musicians from from the early days of rock & roll, country, R&B, and blues since I was young. So Nashville, a city I didn’t want to stay in for more than a week, turned out to be one of the best moves of my life. A lot happened in the decade that I spent there in regards to my music photography. I was still living there in 1998 when I began the climber project, in fact.
How did the climber project come around and eventually develop into the book?
I tend to be attracted to stories about the past. All the things I’m into: music, photography, climbing and my other interests, it’s not that I get into these things and then start learning about the history later on, it seems to be how I enter into them in the first place, through some ancient back door that’s cracked open, that I always seem attuned to finding. The people, places and things that make up a history of something really gets to me. And somehow the camera has been my passport to get into and around these people and things. I know that’s a tired premise, but it not only gives me access, it’s my way, or maybe one of many ways, of getting close to something, learning about something—“aesthetically appreciating” something. It can be pretty things, interesting or odd things, even ugly, repellent things. There’s nothing I wouldn’t photograph. Anyway, this is a long way of trying to say how I get into any of these things I photograph. The answer is, I don’t rightly know. It’s a feeling like being hungry, I know I need to go do it. I grew up seeing the Sierra Nevada mountains in movies and photo. I kept reading about people that had a connection there, Lon Chaney, Ansel Adams, Jack Kerouac. The place was really interesting to me, and especially the topography, the way it looked. I also began running across photos and stories of the climbers there, it felt mythological to me, this 1930s to 1960s California climbing lifestyle. I kept learning about it, and them, more as I grew up and began climbing a lot. At some point it just clicked. I knew that a few of the old guys were still around and I wanted to meet them. So I did. I eventually found Glen Dawson, Jules Eichorn, David Brower and others. They go back to ‘30s climbing, a couple of them back to the late ‘20s. I photographed them but wasn’t thinking so much about a book at the time. Or maybe I always am; books to me are the holy grail. Regardless it started slow and I thought it would be just a California thing. Or just a Sierra Nevada thing. A small portfolio of Sierra Nevada geezers, perhaps. But once I photographed Boston’s own Bradford Washburn, then it began to grow, first to being an American thing then eventually international in scope. But that all started 19 years ago and the book deal only finally happened last year. It’s been quite the adventurous solo project in between.
It's an incredible undertaking, to continue that pursuit over 19 years. The body of work that you have created from that endeavor is something truly special for the climbing community. We've all had great ideas and tried to start projects, but so many of us fail to take them to completion as you have. What kept you going all of that time and what was it that you think drove you to complete the project?
Thank you for those kind words. I’ve been asked this before and it’s always tempting to mention my stubbornness, my unwavering fortitude. But perhaps the real reason is that I had the luxury of having nobody look over my shoulder. Few knew or cared about this project for many years so I was under no pressure to get it done within a certain time frame or in a certain fashion. It was my secret little project. Except for the final six months, it was all self-funded, often during some very lean and knotty times. I did the photos when I was able and I figured it would be finished when it felt finished. But in fact I am stubborn too, and this was something that felt important to me and I simply wanted to see it through to the end. I had a thought the other day: What if I had gotten unlimited support and funding years ago to knock this thing out fast? I certainly would have been able to get some of the climbers that died before I got to them. But I also think that the suffering and time that went into this project makes it special somehow. If I had a bottomless budget and producers who arranged logistics for me I could have done the entire thing in a year, but it would have felt rote. Methodical. Like an assignment. “OK, Cassin today, Bonington on Tuesday, Messner on the weekend…” The way it ended up being done, there’s a story with every climber in my book regarding the extended travels and travails, a hobo-like existence at times, that were required to get the final shot. It’s made the entire thing much more interesting for me, to think back on it.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to pursue a similar long term project? Do you think today's climate, where the democratization of photography means very few individuals can make a decent living professionally from their images, will have an impact on projects like this being pursued in the future?
There are all kinds of forces at play these days and the photography game has changed drastically since I started taking pictures. It’s true, the democratization of photography (AKA: the ease, speed and convenience of modern digital photography) has had a profound affect on every corner of life. However, I think all of that should have no affect on the person who has a camera and a good idea—or more than an idea, a strong need to do a particular a project. It’s always been hard, for one reason or another, to make these things work. What did Werner Herzog say once, something to the effect of “Every man should pull a boat over a mountain once in his lifetime.” Making a decent living is okay. It’s nice to eat and buy new shoes. But in almost perfect correlation, the more you concern yourself with comfort and “a decent living” the less likely you are to go out and risk something, and in turn, discover something. In some ways I’m not even sure if I could have pulled this off if I was living in docile comfort. Some of the limitations that I had could sometimes be, conversely, great advantages. I did manage to continue this project through some very trying times, some great ups and downs but was too stubborn to think of not continuing. I’m not sure if I would necessarily recommend my own method, it bordered on ridiculous at times. But ultimately there are no excuses. Get creative, not just with the photography but the entire thing. If you make excuses of money or time or whatever, maybe you’re not the one for the job or maybe the job itself is not worth doing. So my advice is, take a risk and just find a way to do it.
Your portraits are all intimate in nature. What kind of process do you go through to gain the trust of your subjects to allow them to open up?
That might be the secret recipe and I’m not sure that I know what the ingredients are myself, or even that I want to know. I normally shoot with a pretty minimal kit, so I don’t arrive all “photo-shoot-y”. Unless it’s a big commercial job that demands it I almost never use an assistant. I’m often photographing people that I know have some similar interests as me, fellow enthusiasts about some subject or another. I like talking to people. Maybe it feels like I’m a guy that came over to talk who happens to have a camera. I’m not sure. I honestly don’t want to think about it much for fear of ruining it.
Read our review of Jim's new book The Climbers here.
Follow Jim on Instagram here.