Ten O'Clock Blues
Climbing photojournalism is dead. I’ve been thinking this for years, but it really sank in this morning as I discovered the DSL connection wasn’t fast enough to let me flip through the latest DPM in search of a climbing photo I cared to look at for over two seconds. Page after page of ten o’clock high compositions interspersed with the now obligatory over-pumped fill flash bouldering shots. At least I wasn’t assaulted by any perspective control lens blurfests. This pattern prevails in the other climbing rags as well. Recently I read in a climbing photo annual that modern climbing photography was “as real as it gets.” Tell photojournalist Robert Capa that as he lay on a road in Indochina in 1954, his left left blown off by a land mine, chest wound sucking, dying with his camera in his hand.
Does the problem lie with uncreative photographers or lazy photo editors? Is it both? While climbing mags may claim to be a reflection of the climbing experience, make no mistake that their top priority is to sell advertising space. Can anyone blame the photo editors then for portraying climbing as cheery fluff? Just fill the pages with shots of healthy young boys and girls frolicking in exotic locations and everyone’s happy. The photographers know this and the sportsbra/fill flash formula is simple and sells just fine so why engage in producing art or serious journalism? Photographers see what’s getting printed so they just repeat the formula and cash their meager checks. In return the photo editor gets a light table full of pics that all look the same as last issue’s and we end up with the classic chicken v. egg debate.
What’s missing from today’s climbing photography is any shred of visceral content. The closest we see to emotion is some kid’s smile as they hoist a trophy for a good day on the plastic. It’s a shame, as the current crop of photographers seem technically capable of producing good work -- exposures are accurate, focus is clean. But is climbing only about clipping the next bolt? If I try to imagine what’s going through the model’s head I come up with “I hope they photoshop out that zit on my nose.” Or “My sponsor’s logo better be legible so I can get the $15 kickback I negotiated in my contract. Otherwise how will I ever pay for all those business cards I had printed that declare me a Professional Climber?”
Contrast this with the climbing photos from the 60s and 70s, by guys like Tom Frost, Glen Denny and Dean Fidelman. Back then there was no such thing as a “climbing photographer”, it was climbers with photo skills documenting the era. The best shots were rarely action pics, but lifestyle shots - bivies on El Cap, gritty impromptu portraits in Camp 4, and the like. I hope similar shots are being taken today, only to surface on an enlightened photo editors desk someday. Maybe not.
The hardest climbing photo I ever took was shot on Denali. It was back in the mid-90s and I was on the volunteer rescue team stationed at the 14,000 foot camp. A few days before a pair of climbers descending from the summit encountered white-out conditions while crossing the steep slope above the 17,000 foot camp. A gust of wind, a loss of balance, a misstep? Combine the howling wind with a down hood and a wool cap and the scream was never heard. All the survivor knew was that at the base of the traverse, when he turned around to look back, his partner wasn’t there. Most likely his partner ragdolled down the slope and was swallowed up by the enormous crevasse complex called Jaws. A lengthy search revealed nothing, he was just gone. On the final day of the search the Lama high altitude helicopter took off from the rescue camp for one last pass. I had my camera in hand. The missing climber’s distraught partner stood alone by the landing pad on the glacier, watching the dragonfly chopper take off in huge swirl of blowing snow, his hopes going with it. The lighting wasn’t spectacular and there were no Hollywood flames erupting from the airship. Just one man standing in defeated posture, watching his last hopes fly off. How had the climb of a lifetime come to this? What would he tell his partner’s family, his partner’s wife? Would he ever feel normal again? Whole? I felt odd lifting the camera, prying into such a private moment. I almost didn’t push the shutter release, but I did. I felt sick doing it then and even writing about it now I feel that lump in my throat.
Climbing is fun, climbing is sexy. It’s downright pert. But if you stick at it long enough it’s full of hard work, sacrifice and sometimes heart-rending loss. You wouldn’t know that by looking at today’s mags.