For nearly three decades Ray Wood's images have been an ever-present companion for British climbers. Frequently published in guidebooks and magazines, Ray's early work was characterized by bold black and white images, particularly of North Wales. To many outsiders, those distinctive images shaped their view of that burgeoning Welsh scene in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Ray continues to be a sought-after photographer and is still capturing iconic images of British climbing.
You've been an influential presence on the British climbing photography scene for many years, but who or what were your main influences starting out?
Just as a bit of background I bought my first SLR when I decided to come home early from a planned year trip to Australia in 1988. The weather had turned in the Arapiles with the arrival of winter so we headed up north, climbing at Frog and Girraween before finishing in Darwin. From here I thought I’d head home and buy a camera in Dubai on the way back with the money I had left and see if I could use it to make a living taking photos. Initially, I did a lot of paragliding shots, as like a lot of climbers at the time, I was drawn to what was a new and exciting sport to get into. A particularly memorable outing was flying off Mont Blanc du Tacul in winter with a Spanish guy I’d met in Chamonix. I spoke no Spanish and he spoke no English. It was tricky trying to work out who was going to go first. I wasn’t even sure if the wing I was flying would clear the Midi ridge—they were pretty basic back then. I wrote up the experience for an article in High magazine.
After a couple of years of covering adventure sports I wanted a grounding in using photography to tell a story and to feel confident in understanding what makes a good photo, so I did a post-graduate diploma in photojournalism at the London College of Printing, spending most of the week in London and long weekends back in north Wales. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done and a real eye-opener in terms of what education should be about. Not learning for the sake of getting a bit of paper but because you’re passionate about what you’re doing. Everyone on the course wanted to be there. There was none of the "lets get this done as quick as possible and get the hell outta here" vibe; it was like doing a degree at university. The college caretaker had to throw people out of the darkroom when he needed to lock up. Having working, big name photographers regularly come in and give a talk was a huge inspiration.
As far as climbing photography goes I guess my earliest influences would have been the photos I saw in the climbing books that I read in the school library. I always remember John Cleare’s black and white shots that were in Pete's Eats café. John’s photos in the book Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia from the sixties set the template for modern climbing photography. Ironically, some of my black and white shots now hang on the walls in Pete's. There weren’t many "climbing photographers" as such in the UK when I got into covering it as a subject. The Australian photographer Glenn Robins had been on the scene for a while, adding a touch of exotica with his trademark black leathers and cap, and I always liked a lot of Steve Lewis’ shots. Galen Rowell was definitely an inspiration as the camera for him was clearly a way of communicating his passion for adventure and engaging with the wider world. I wonder what he’d make of Instagram if he was still around—he died in 2002 just as the digital photography revolution was getting underway.
Galen Rowell often talked about the potential for the photographer to be an "active participant" in both action and landscape images. It could be argued that climbing photographers have more chance to live by that idiom today than at any point in the 15 years since Rowell's death. How has changing technology and connectivity impacted on your work as a professional in that time?
That’s a big question and one that’ll be interesting to see the answer to in five or ten years' time. The democratisation of photography really began with digital cameras and then exploded once we had social media and smart phones. The latter has been an immensely useful tool for the outdoor photographer: From simply keeping track of life stuff like emails to being able to download shots from your DSLR camera to your phone if they’re needed somewhere fast. Because of connectivity and the ease of taking a well-exposed photo, Galen's "active participant" notion is definitely more relevant than ever. Take the example of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson sending photos from their portaledge on Dawn Wall and look at that great "in the moment" shot caught by Matty Hong of Margo Hayes having just become the first woman to climb 9a+ and how quickly it spread around the world.
In climbing it’s interesting to see the proliferation of bouldering shots and video on social media—I guess because the activity is so accessible. As a positive feedback loop it’ll only serve to increase its popularity. Perhaps this means trad will become increasingly niche because it’s much more of an effort for people to get decent trad shots for their social feeds? As a working snapper one of the downsides with social media is that with each post you can feel your worth is constantly being recalibrated, which isn’t a healthy mindset. However, an upside is that brands need content to feed the insatiable appetite of Facebook, Instagram, etc. It’s where the majority of their target audience are looking and every post needs an image. There’s plenty of potential for photographers to benefit from this need although monetising it can be tricky. The ground rules haven’t really been established yet.
Most companies today are very image conscious, and successful climbing brands are no exception. Social media output is often very carefully curated. Does this change the relationship between client and photographer, and photographer and climber, compared to say 10 or 20 years ago?
You say they’re image conscious but I’m not so convinced and if that is the case then I don’t think that generally translates into an understanding of the skill and effort necessary to maximise the potential. Of course that isn’t across the board and Friction Labs seem to get it while Patagonia have always been consistently eye-catching. Many outdoor brands don’t give social media the fiscal investment it deserves from a marketing perspective and prioritise quantity over quality. The potential is so huge and should be a massive opportunity for photographers. While brands may spend a £1000 on the back cover of a guidebook, they may shy away from paying for a photo/video clip to use on social media and elsewhere. Yet I’ve seen work I’ve done posted on a brand’s Facebook page, such as a first ascent clip of a problem by one of their climbers, be viewed 40k times and reach 180k people. A photo that fits with the brand’s message might reach 80k people. It’s all comparable advertising. Of course you have to understand what is likely to work. Commonly, the disconnect is that the marketing person behind the desk doesn’t come from a image-making background. We communicate visually more than ever.
Thinking back to your photojournalism background, of telling a story through images, how does this sit with the climbing social media world? Does the natural home for this still lie in print media?
It doesn’t, and it’s where "analogue" media wins, being able to effortlessly scan several images and captions at once, recap by turning a page, etc. The process is relatively seamless and probably why many documentary photographers are producing photobooks. Telling a story through images just doesn’t seem to gel as well with the mechanics of digital platforms. Tapping or clicking your way through a story is still a relatively painful process. Compare it with a photo essay in a Sunday supplement. The paper version is a more immersive and considered experience. Social media doesn’t engender you to spend time on one post. They aren’t "quiet" places. Their very nature is to keep you scrolling within the timeline—exposing you to more adverts and ideally they don’t want you to leave their stream. Digitally we get gimmicks coming along now and then, like plotographs that are popular at the moment, but it is still hard to beat looking at a great still image. Perhaps for me the idea of the photo-essay is a nostalgic throwback to the past because I can remember chinagraph pencils being used to circle key shots on contact sheets. However, I definitely think that there are things that can go on at a subconscious level when we look at an inspiring still image or series of images without always being able to say why. Seeing photographs in a gallery, book or magazine is a very different experience to viewing them online. I recently heard a fascinating comment from Christopher Nolan, director of the film Dunkirk, where he said cinema viewers may not be able to tell the difference between analogue film and digital but they’ll have a different emotional response. I picked up the book Yosemite in the Fifties (published in late 2015), while answering this question and tried to imagine reading it online. Without a doubt it’d be a far less visceral experience.
Despite the development of digital media there have been some great climbing books published in recent years; it is encouraging that the tactile appeal and impact of the printed medium still has value. One book from before the digital revolution is John Redhead's ...and one for the crow from 1997, an iconic and unique work, still sought after today, which you provided a lot of the images for. To what extent did you work alongside John to shoot images with the book in mind?
John's book is definitely unique, reflecting an era that is in many ways far removed from today's climbing scene. A climber emerging from an indoor wall probably couldn't relate to the anarchic and anti-establishment pulse that beat at the heart of climbing when John was establishing those routes. But that's okay, I think. Everything evolves. Not always for the better but that's the way it goes. Climbing has taken off in new directions and although John may not like them they also offer up exciting opportunities.
The photos John and I took for the book were visualised beforehand and it was about making the shot rather than documenting a day out climbing. Time and weather always seemed to be against us. We used a black and white printer in Manchester, Bernard Harris, who was great to work with and hand printed the selenium toned shots with great care and attention. I think the style of shots suit John's theatrical nature. He is a natural clown who loves an audience. People forget that when they take him too seriously.
I'd love to do more black and white prints. They have a longevity to them that is in stark contrast to the churn of images in the modern world. And it does come down to time and money - or the lack of the former and the need to find more of the latter. Perhaps people would pay an artisan premium for hand printed b&w work.
Has that transition from film to digital changed the way you work or approach your photography? How has your approach to digital work evolved since first taking the plunge?
The transition from film to digital has made my work a lot easier and less stressful, that’s for sure. It took a while for me to go digital as some magazines were initially reluctant to accept digital photos. Taking the cost of film and processing out of the equation is a big money saver. That and the fact you’ve such a large latitude for error with exposure compared to slide/transparency film are a couple of reasons behind the "democratisation" of photography that has taken place. It’s far more accessible and fun now. However, clients often overlook the time involved in editing and the post-processing required to get the best out digital shots. Sometimes these are just subtle improvements that they and most people wouldn’t notice but I feel are necessary.
People are sometimes surprised how few photos I take on a shoot but if you know the shot you’re looking for why fill up your card with a load of megabytes that you know are never going to be used? Part of that disciplined approach is probably a hang over from the film days. Plus I’m a bit of a perfectionist which is a bit of a pain in the arse. I’m loathe to submit a photo that has something about it that bugs me.
The immediacy and turnover rate of photography these days, especially in the social media age, often means the shelf life of the average image is pretty limited. In this context, how do you go about creating images with enduring value today?
I think that the shelf life of the average image is pretty limited in much the same way that it has always been. Perhaps what we notice is that there are lots more average images out there, particularly of a certain type or style. Recurrent themes such as "small lonely figure in a big landscape" or the same place photographed in a similar way crop up again and again in our feeds. Perhaps most people don’t notice this or aren't bothered about it. Cameras are also used far more these days as a visual notebook or diary where the impact of the shot isn’t necessarily so important. However, a stand-out photo will always be just that and the image will stay with you if there is some emotional connection between the viewer and the photo. As a photographer I think you have to accept that obviously not all your photos are going to be stand-out shots but hopefully your "average" shots will be better than most of the material out there. The only way you can do this is by caring about what you’re photographing and recognising what is or will be a strong image. Sure, there’ll be the odd exception where someone has literally just taken a snap without much thought and come away with a good shot but they will not be able to do that consistently. Great light will always help your cause but if you’re documenting a first or important ascent then you have to make do with what you’re given. Even in this situation you’ll already have an idea, even if only a rough one, of the photo you’re looking to make. You’ll have made several decisions beforehand, with considerations about viewpoint, what to include or exclude within the frame, which section of climbing are most likely to be interesting, etc. Sometimes the historical significance of a photo will lend it gravitas and it’ll become remarkable with the passing of time.
The shot of Leo Houlding’s 1999 first ascent of Trauma, given E8 7a in the latest Llanberis guidebook, has an historical significance that became clearer much later in that it was Leo’s swan song before moving on from the north Wales climbing scene and felt like the end of an era. Something that the late and great keeper of the traditional spirit of climbing Ken Wilson probably recognised, since he stuck it on the front cover of his 2006 reprint of The Games Climbers Play. If the shot had been staged or we’d gone back to get it it wouldn’t have as much "feeling". The fact you know it’s the real deal adds to it. Perhaps it’s not something that bothers the viewer although I’d like to think it does. Incidentally, shot on black and white film there are only a couple of large prints in existence and the negative is sadly lost. All I have is a pretty poor scan.
When I took photos of Ben Moon on the first ascent of Black Lung (V13/8B) in Joe’s Valley I had no idea at the time that in years ahead the problem would be called legendary so it’s kind of nice to have been there to record it. It was freezing and Ben literally climbed it in between snow squalls on his last attempt.
The historical accuracy when it comes to captions doesn’t seem as important nowadays but even looking back there were classic mistakes like the cover of the 1986 book Welsh Rock with the shot of John Redhead on Raped by Affection claimed as the first ascent when it wasn’t and John even has the finger he broke on the first ascent taped-up in the "recreated shot" taken by Dave Towse who had belayed him on the actual first ascent. All very anoraky but it's interesting how factual accuracy gets lost in the mists of time.