Music. Photography. Climbing. This unlikely triad of passions has influenced Jim Herrington’s life from a young age, one occasionally pulling him further away from the others, as he strove to find an elusive equilibrium.
Now aged 54 and based in New York City, Bishop California or wherever his nomadic tendencies take him, Jim has built up a successful career as a music photographer, shooting some of ‘the greats, near-misses and never wases’ of the industry: Dolly Parton, Keith Richards and Morgan Freeman indicate the calibre of his subjects.
Over the last twenty years, two of these passions have intertwined in pursuit of an ambitious side project – Jim’s self-confessed ‘tawdry secret’ - to create a photo book paying homage to rock stars of a different kind; those whose records weren’t for selling, but for setting on virgin peaks and faces by means of first ascents and gutsy endeavours, during the loosely defined ‘Golden Age’ of climbing from the 1920s to the ‘70s.
Beginning as a modest, parochial mission to capture early paragons of the Sierra Nevada climbing scene in California - an area held in reverence by Jim since childhood – the scope of the project soon widened as Jim encountered new characters, pointed his lens further afield and broadened his focus. ‘A short series on Sierra climbers’ instead became a 20-year international pilgrimage to document veteran ascensionists worldwide, some of whom were living out their final days as octo- and nonagenarians. Many of the featured climbers have sadly since passed away, and a few departed before Jim could meet them. In line with Jim’s summation of his musical subjects, these climbers are certainly more than ‘has beens.’
Their pioneering achievements live on through route names, history books, footnotes and photographs – and The Climbers brings their halcyon days back to life through Greg Child’s scholarly yet personal essay, spanning from pre WWII to the 1970s alongside Jim’s portraits; immortalising the ‘ripened mortals’ - as he describes them – in striking black and white photographs shot exclusively on silver nitrate.
Swapping Dolly Parton for ‘Dirtbag’ Fred Beckey, Keith Richards for Chris Bonington and Morgan Freeman for Gwen Moffat, Jim sheds light on some less conspicuous, occasionally raucous and often reluctant rock stars and thespians of the climbing theatre. Jim gives an agency to these luminaries that is rarely afforded to past generations, never as pertinent as in this modern age, where digital images and videos of present-day social media heroes and heroines are ubiquitous, but tangible, film photos from the past are an increasing rarity.
The lofty heights of their youth appear distant in these portraits, with faces as featured as the ones they scaled in their heyday and the effects of age occasionally – but not in every case – compromising their situation. Mountains and rock faces appear just once or twice throughout the collection, and instead Jim frames the climbers at home, in the intimacy of their living room, a garden or in a convenient hotel room where their paths converged. As Alex Honnold succinctly describes in his foreword to The Climbers, Jim has captured the humanity of a group of people whose achievements would often overshadow the person behind them; their being clumsily pigeonholed as 'superhuman' and other such cliché terms.
Climbing and photography were nascent passions that took hold of Jim nigh on simultaneously. The old 1940s Life Magazines that his father collected and the 1950s-era Encyclopedia Brittanica were amongst the first imagery that piqued Jim’s interest. ‘I was really turned on by the photos in both, the photos in the Encyclopedia were a bit more utilitarian, the ones in Life may have had a more subjective slant,’ he remembers. In these tomes, Jim recalls poring over early photographs of climbers in the Alps and Himalaya: ‘Seeing these lusty B&W photos, perhaps of some Frenchman, who knows who by now, high up on an alpine arête, bedecked in twill with a cig hanging from his lip. Hard not to be attracted to every single thing about that, for me anyway.’ Although photography and climbing remained abstract thoughts at this young age, Jim filed them away for a later date. ‘I just had to get a camera and find a mountain,’ he says. ‘Both eventually happened.’
To complement his eye for photography and detail, Jim has an insatiable hunger for history and an ear for stories, with a self-confessed attraction toward romanticism and the noir. ‘I can’t seem to do anything without wanting to know the deep ancient history of it all…whether it’s music, photography, Italian cooking or anything else,’ he admits. In his home range of the Sierra Nevada, Jim wasn’t short of historical climbing material. Glen Dawson and Jules Eichorn, two Sierra climbers going back to the late 1920s, were still alive and provided a direct connection to Norman Clyde, all of them having climbed together on the first ascent of the East Face of Mt. Whitney in 1931. ‘I wanted to meet them, hear some of their stories and photograph them,’ Jim explains. ‘I thought, maybe I’ll do a little series on the last of the early Sierra climbers. Nineteen years later here we are.’
As Greg Child asks in his essay, what, or when, is this “golden age of climbing” touted by writers, historians and climbing amateurs? A nebulous concept with no distinct cut-off points, Child concludes that the boundaries are porous, loosely defined as ‘the decades of innocence, exploration, and experimentation, when blank spots on the maps were the norm, when more terrain was unclimbed than climbed.’ Jim gave himself the freedom to construct the book according to his own criteria, and recognises that the selection is also constrained by the limitations of his own lifetime. ‘It was very specific in the beginning, with the Sierra climbers,’ he says. ‘I wanted the earliest, oldest ones I could find that climbed in that range. But as the project expanded, so did my choices. I did want names but I also wanted the journeymen, and women, who got little mention. I did want both men and women. I wanted Sherpas. I tried to get a varied geographical representation. I wanted to represent the UK, the Alps, the Himalaya, France, the Sierra, bouldering, Italy, high altitude, Japan, etc. And then I had my own subjective personal reasons for choosing subjects — what their climbing might mean to me, my attraction to them for any number of possible reasons.’ The 1970s was the rough cut-off point for Jim's chosen rogues.
'By the 1970s, climbing was becoming more common and indeed a lot safer, due to improvements in the gear and an increased likelihood of rescue if a climb went awry. And by the ’80s, the glamour was gone; the remarkable had become commonplace. You might have even seen a Coke commercial featuring cheery climbers wearing Lycra tights in some garish color palette.'- Jim, Preface
The subjects, of course, needed to be alive, ‘which was an issue with some of them,’ Jim admits, resorting to euphemism. Working intimately with those at the end of their lives was a delicate yet important part of the process. Italian mountaineer Riccardo Cassin - first ascensionist of the multiple eponymous 'Via Cassin' routes - died at the age of 100 one week after Jim's visit in 2009; a patriarch surrounded by generations of family in what Jim describes in the foreword as being like 'a scene from the Godfather.' After photographing Cassin, Jim could 'hear the clock ticking, creating a heightened sense of urgency' that compelled him to capture other climbers nearing the end, before it would be too late. In some cases, the clock stopped and death won the race.
For those whom Jim was privileged to capture, therefore, age and ageing is an edifying theme that unites his subjects. ‘In almost all of the cases, climbing is what my subjects did, not what they’re doing now. It’s similar to the photographs I’ve been taking for for most of my life of old music legends,’ he explains. ‘There is certainly value in documenting people when they are in the prime of their lives, doing the exemplary things that they do so well. But what’s interesting to me is finding these people long after the footlights go dark and all of the hubbub is over. So what are you left with?’ Indeed, a question that seems particularly pertinent to climbing and mountaineering, as pursuits in which many of the brightest talents are quenched prematurely. Perhaps it's also a case of whom we are left with.
Fame and accomplishment are intriguing concepts for Jim, who is fascinated by the tremendous sacrifices that highly talented individuals make, whether it be musicians, actors or climbers. ‘I think finding these people not in their prime, after they’ve had a chance to ruminate and percolate about what they’ve done… it’s an interesting place to find people and hear what they have to say,’ he continues. ‘Has age and wisdom tempered the desire, dampened the flame? Did they overstay their welcome or did they get out when the getting was good? The flurry of being young, productive and grooving is not usually the time for introspection.’
‘This book was never intended to be an encyclopedic be-all end-all collection of every person that ever mattered in the climbing world. It’s a representation of an era, not an absolute.’
As traditional in his photography as his subjects were in their approach to climbing, Jim refused to use digital cameras for the portraits, despite film photography becoming as passé as Tricouni boots and hemp rope over the course of the book's production. 'Indeed, at times it was difficult to know which would vanish first, the climbers I was photographing or the film I was using,' Jim writes in the preface. Aside from a bit of 4x5 in the beginning, he used the following apparatus: a Leica M6, Hasselblad, Fuji 6x9 and a 1956 Rolleiflex 2.8E.
Most would argue that the archetypal ‘rock stars’ in their conventional guise as musicians are more mainstream than climbers or mountaineers of bygone eras. However, some facets of the bohemian climbing lifestyle struck a chord with that of the rock ‘n' roll rogues – for Jim at least. ‘I actually see a lot of similarities. The climbing lifestyle, especially in the early/mid 20th Century was certainly an underground, renegade activity,’ he explains. ‘But keep in mind, someone like Willie Nelson, who’s extremely famous now, “first-name-only” famous, but he had multiple eras of being very much a renegade and having odds stacked against him. He was a visionary that went completely against the grain of the established music business. A real pioneer and renegade if there ever was one who chanced very risky decisions to do things he wanted to do.'
Jim understands that most people will remember his photos of Willie, or the Rolling Stones, or Dolly Parton, because they’re famous. ‘But I’ve photographed many more who are little known, or completely unknown, who were real geniuses but never made the history books,’ he adds. ‘My climber book has the exact same range of "celebrity" as my music series does, I feel. And I wanted to show both sides of that.’
Meeting his climbing idols and building a rapport in order to photograph them at ease proved difficult for Jim in some cases. Reinhold Messner – the man, the myth, the mountain – brought a suffocating presence to the banquet room of a Seattle hotel. His reputation as a stern Tyrolean mountaineering monarch goes before him, and Jim felt more like the object of his gaze, rather than a photographer with a subject. ‘Messner famously doesn’t require oxygen, but I do, and there didn’t seem to be any left in the room,’ he writes in the foreword. “Reinhold, you’re scaring all of us,” Jim exclaimed with a laugh. ‘A smile cracked across his face, there was air to breathe, and finally we could talk…but I still know him no better than I do the remote north face of Everest.’ The sole two climbers who disagreed to partake in Jim’s project were the ever elusive Voytek Kurtyka, the Polish mountaineering legend whose comically polite rejection explained an unpreparedness to be involved with a display of ‘the decay of heroes’ and ’the march of death,’ as he put it, and Warren Harding, whose sudden falling-out with Jim provided the most disappointing metaphorical gap in the book.
"There’s more than a fair share of heavyweights and famous names but I was also keen on getting some lesser-known underdogs that in many ways, to me, exemplified the spirit of climbing."
When the same language was shared, spending time with these aged climbers resulted in many stories and much imparted wisdom. ‘One of the ones that I often think about is Glen Dawson, the first climber I shot,’ Jim says. ‘Nowadays you can drive from Los Angeles to the Owens Valley, where a lot of the Sierra Nevada climbs start from, in a short 3 hours. He told me that in 1931 when he did the East Face of Mount Whitney, it took them a full 2 days to drive there, camping or staying in some rough lodge along the way. They were young, I imagine they had a used car. Imagine what a car built in the 1920s looked like full of the climbing gear of the day. Hemp rope, canvas rucksacks. No garish colours or plastic to be seen. The Mojave Desert was bleak and the cars of the day could easily overheat and leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere. No billboards, no In-N-Out Burger. Not the most adventurous story,’ Jim adds, ‘but it’s just one of many examples of seeing how the world looked back then through these people’s eyes.’
British climbers are well-represented in the book, with Jim having travelled the length and breadth of the UK to photograph Sir Chris Bonington, Doug Scott, Joe Brown, Hamish MacInnes, Gwen Moffat and Martin Boysen to add their names to the roster.
'Doug Scott was obviously an important one to get. He kindly treated me to a lunch at the Royal Geographic Society and gave me a little tour before we did photos in the beautiful old map room there. He looks so regal and respectable now… in the old photos he looks like John Lennon during his “Lost Weekend” phase.
'Martin Boysen, the incredibly talented underdog whose name pops up everywhere, on so many climbs in so many regions. I spent some time with him and his wife Maggie, they’re great, funny, entertaining people to be around.
'And what can you say about Chris Bonington that hasn’t been said? Well, I can say: I’d love to go through the thousands of Kodachrome slides from his many expeditions that I saw in his office closet. What a force he was, not only for the climbs themselves but the logistics and promotion required that he was such a master of.'
After 20 years of globetrotting to capture these pioneering climbers, what purpose does Jim hope that his book will serve? Spending precious time in the company of these characters was a form of time travel, in which Jim could bear witness - albeit vicariously - to the historical and materialistic changes in the climbers' lived experiences. 'Gear has always played an important role in the development of climbing, but I hope this book serves as a reminder that climbers also require something much deeper. Something internal,' he writes in the preface. Something that transcends the passage of time. Jim is interested in their individual idiosyncrasies as much as their unifying spirit as climbers, which, as Alex Honnold writes in the preface, enables us to 'look at these climbers who have dared so much on the big walls of the world and realize that they are all of us.'
Whatever you do, don't ask Jim which is his favourite portrait. 'I don’t play the favourites game very well,' he says, before reeling off a long list of names and reasons. 'You know, I like all of them. I should, I put them in the book.'