"It was just a thing that I was supposed to do": Jim Herrington on "The Climbers"

Jon Foro on February 16, 2018


Mark Powell, from Jim Herrington's The Climbers

Note: As this was published, news began to spread confirming Jim Bridwell's passing on February 12 at the age of 73. RIP, Bird.

"Why climb Everest?" When a reporter asked an exasperated George Mallory a question he must have thought obvious, his answer was suitably disingenuous: "Because it's there." But over the decades, Mallory's famous bit of snark has evolved, assuming a zen-like depth in its simplicity: Of course it's obvious; it's there, so let's climb it. Ur-environmentalist and alpine evangelist John Muir put it another way, inadvertently coining a slogan for a minor industry of coffee mugs and t-shirts: "The mountains are calling, and I must go." (Disclosure: I'm a big fan of the man, but a future piece might deal with my ambivalence toward Muir's fragrant prose.)

Of course, not everyone agrees. To more grounded (or ground-oriented) humans, why anyone would choose to climb Everest or any other mountain, risking literal life and limb, remains a valid question. Jim Herrington doesn't need the answer; aside from his remarkable career as a music photographer--his credits include Tom Petty, the Rolling Stones, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson--he's also a climber, a veteran of California's Sierra Nevada mountains.

He went looking anyway. Herrington sought out legends of the sport with the purpose of photographing those who were "still alive and had some stories." Beginning with Yosemite pioneers like Royal Robbins and Jim "the Bird" Bridwell, Herrington expanded his project to include more American climbers and eventually the likes of European giants Gwen Moffat and Riccardo Cassin. Published in October of last year--in time to win the 2017 Banff Book Award Grand Prize--The Climbers collects 20 years of arresting images spanning multiple "Golden Ages" of climbing from the 1930s through the '70s. Paradoxically, the strength of Herrington's portraits is their lack of mountaineering action: There's no climbing, no shots of thewy athletes clinging by their fingertips to granite faces, crags, or seams. Instead, Herrington looks for the meaning of the koan in the faces of the climbers themselves, through their stony gazes and crenellated skin. There's a bit of Rasputin to these people, and it's mesmerizing stuff.

I spoke to Herrington in Seattle, in between stops on his lecture series supporting the book. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Your main gig as a photographer is music and musicians, and you've had a long career documenting famous people. How did you get your start, and how did you get in with people like the Stones, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard...?

When I was very young, my dad had these old Life magazines laying around, from the 1930s and '40s. Later I found out that those were Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange photographs--they were these full-bleed, page-to-page, edge-to-edge, black and white photos. It immediately had an impact on me. It was amazing, just to see people, places, and things. It dawned on me that people took these photos, and then it dawned on me that it was probably their job. It just seemed like the coolest thing in the world to be able to go out and give your impression of a thing and bring it back in kind of an artistic way, but also in this functional, practical way. A bit of science and art. Journalism.

At the same time, my parents were playing a lot of really good music around the house. I remember being a fetus practically and hearing Benny Goodman, Live at Carnegie Hall: 1938. He had a lot of big band; mom had rock and roll, soul, and Motown. I just loved all that stuff. My dad took me to see Benny Goodman when I was 12. I had my first 35 millimeter camera, and I crept up and shot about five or six frames of Benny. That's what I call the beginning of my career. I was a fan of music and this camera became a passport to start doing things, which it still is to this day.

I got out of North Carolina in the early '80s and moved to Hollywood and started doing the same thing. I shot Tom Petty, and that was the big break, when things actually started happening. I spent a couple of years photographing him, and we became friends. That's what jump-started the music stuff.


Fred Beckey

How did The Climbers project get started, and who was the first one you photographed?

Another one of my lifelong obsessions was the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, which I had read about, seen in Humphrey Bogart movies and Twilight Zone episodes, Ansel Adams photos, Jack Kerouac stories. I stared reading Doug Robinson's stories--I liked the way he wrote about the mountains and  how to experience them. John Muir. California, Sierra Nevada loomed large, and that's where I had to go.

I'd been reading about Norman Clyde, who was a very early climber in the Sierra Nevada in the '10s. Interesting character, and I knew that there were two people still alive who had climbed with him in the '20s and '30s, Glen Dawson being one of them. And so I thought, I'm going to go photograph this guy. Not thinking about a book yet, because I never think that far ahead. It was just a thing that I was supposed to do: Document this man that was still alive and had some stories. So I found him and photographed him, and that was the first photo. And then I found Jules Eichorn, his partner--they both did the east face of Mt. Whitney in 1931 with Clyde. I thought this was going to be a little Sierra Nevada series.


Gwen Moffat

A lot of these portraits were taken in homes or domestic situations. Was there a purpose to this choice, other than many of them being older? Is there something that you wanted to find in them outside of the context of climbing?

A lot of people are surprised [because] there's nobody climbing in this book. We've seen these people climbing. The vast majority of them are not going into the mountains, to climb at least. Some of these people died a week later from old age--Riccardo Cassin.

But this is a documentary portrait series, and I wasn't so interested in having them in the rocks. I thought that would be kind of predictable, even cheesy. I like going to their homes and seeing what they are. Part of this is about who they are after these great accomplishments and the obsessive part of their life.

That approach makes some interesting parallels between your climbing and music photography. I was looking at your pictures of John Doe.... Is there something that you're looking for across both these sets of people?

I think I do have a similar approach, both ways. I'm not necessarily trying to make these musicians look musician-y, and definitely not trying to make these climbers look like climbers. I want them to look--I guess iconic is a word--but worthy. If you didn't see a caption, I would like you to be very interested in finding the caption.


Riccardo Cassin

You mention that it's an exercise in documentation, and you mentioned Cassin. Is there a "race against time" element for you?

I shot the entire book on analog film. Back in the early 2000s when the digital revolution came, they just stopped making darkroom papers and films were disappearing--Kodachrome went away, all kinds of films disappeared. And these climbers... I was missing some of them because they were dying. It seemed like a race. What's going to disappear first, these climbers or the film that I'm actually shooting them on?

Is there someone that you didn't get a chance to shoot?

There's quite a few that I weep every night about. Walter Bonatti. I don't want to name them, because I'll start weeping now.

This thing was a Sierra Nevada project, then it was an American project, then it was international. The thing was morphing as I was figuring it out, as I did it. At some point, I had to decide that this was not going to be an encyclopedic list of everybody from that era; it was a representation of an era. I think I did a good job of that.


Jim Bridwell

Is it an ongoing project, or are you done?

I think I'm done. A lot of the great ones, older ones, died. If I did a part two it would have to be probably the mid-century and beyond. But frankly, I spent 20 years on this--the promotion, the printing, the editing, the writing. 20 years seemed long enough.


The Climbers by Jim Herrington

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