Exposure is a series that turns the lens on our creative contributors.
Jethro Kiernan had what you could call the traditional climbing apprenticeship. Inspired by one of the classic pieces of mountaineering literature, the North Wales photographer first experienced the sport on his native rock. That early trad apprenticeship is visible in his photography, which often features big walls and the exposure that comes with them.
How did you first get into climbing?
After reading Joe Brown's The Hard Years I convinced a mate to climb with me: Bowlines and a length of blue polyprop rope at what is now crag X at Rhoscolyn. A helpful teacher gave some guidance later on and I progressed onto Holyhead mountain.
The climbing really took off at Bangor university with the BUMS; I served a typical old school apprenticeship that brought me into the orbit of the Llanberis scene.I still climb with friends from those university years.
With the prevalence of indoor gyms now, that is the kind of apprenticeship that may today are unlikely to have. How do you think your route into climbing the impacted your view of the sport?
The classic apprenticeship exposed me to just more than the climbing it was cultural, musical, political and social. It encouraged me to travel and explore and it developed my interest in photography. Climbing-wise it also let me climb routes I wasn’t capable of leading but did appreciate at the blunt end.
I think [an apprenticeship] is still possible; I was out at Rhoscolyn the other day photographing Archie Ball and James Williams. Both have come from the wall background but are revelling in trad. My own daughter is making the move from the wall to the outdoors. I do think the sheer volume of people who have taken up climbing at the wall means that not everyone will get the old school apprenticeship; however if you really want to get outside there are the routes to achieve this, either through forums such as UKC, BMC intro days or a course at Plas Y Brenin or Glenmore lodge. People enjoy passing knowledge on and I don’t know many people who wouldn’t mind revisiting a classic mountain HS to show someone the joys of climbing.
What led to you taking up photography?
I had an interest in photography from the 6th form, mainly arty B&W. I got my first second hand Nikon as an 18th birthday present not long before heading off to college. The climbing and photography kind of intersected at that point as I became the unofficial recorder of events.
What kind of approach do you take to your climbing photography and what do you look for in an image?
I like the image to form organically. With climbing photography I will usually limit my input to suggesting certain times of day to be on the route (this was especially true in the days of Velvia) and maybe a t-shirt change. After that I just let the climb happen with little or no input; it’s up to me to capture it then. With mountain landscape I will often place myself as the subject, usually because I can’t find people to run up into the mountains at silly times. I like to have a sense of place with the figure in the landscape or a connection to the facial expression that is going on.
You've captured climbing for a number of decades now, through a shift from film to digital and print to social media. How have you seen photography of the sport change over that time?
Life was a little easier with film in some respects. It was very unforgiving medium so if you could master light and shadows with Velvia or Kodachrome and had an eye then your pictures could stand out. I did find the initial transition to digital difficult looking back on it, as I had very much a film head on and I didn’t initially get to grips with the full potential of digital. I’ve since learnt and am still learning the potential of digital which is amazing and have also started to dabble in filming and drones. Social media is an inspiration and a millstone. My Instagram throws up amazing pictures from around the globe. The constant stream of images and adventures can put pressure on you to do more. If you channel it correctly it can help you with a route map to doing more. The quality of climbing pictures has increased over the years and is a lot more accessible but some of the Instagram-focused pictures lack soul. The pictures in Extreme Rock and On The Edge, when it was out, had a certain rough charm that captured the spirit of climbing.
Trad and mountains are my favorite place to climb and shoot. I’m wanting to move to climbing as landscape with photography. Plus I have an ongoing love hate relationship with sea cliffs.
The camera, obviously; the key is keeping kit minimal. I use the Nikon D810 for my main camera and if I had to choose one lens for it I’d go for the 16-35mm—great for landscapes and climbing. I’ve also started using an Olympus micro 4/3 which is great as a carry around camera and a tough system. I’m starting to become more comfortable with leaving some camera kit behind now, as with drones, lenses, filters etc you can become weighed down with too much choice as well as weight. Although I shoot Nikon full frame as much as possible, the Olympus micro for a thirds system is great for those times you want to travel light but still want the option of good shots.