An old man sits alone in his chair, looking out of his window at the mountain top ahead. There is a proud defiance in his gaze that contrasts his ageing body. He is Riccardo Cassin, a legendary mountain climber who died a week after his photograph was taken. In his latest book, The Climbers, photographer Jim Herrington recalls his encounters with Riccardo and other famous mountaineers. The American artist spent 19 years capturing mountain climbers from all over the world and has created and curated an affectionate, insightful and compelling archive of images.
California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range has intrigued Jim since he was a child. He had seen it in Ansel Adams’ photos, read about it in Jack Kerouac and Edward Abbey writings, seen glimpses of it in the Twilight Zone episodes and Humphrey Bogart movies that were filmed there. After years spent reading about the mountain range’s history, Jim discovered that a couple of climbers were still alive from the 1920s and 1930s era of Sierra climbing. Jim initially set off to document these two climbers, but has since travelled across the globe to photograph renowned mountaineers and to share their stories.
What motivated you to capture various climbers from around the world?
Initially I thought I might do a small series on Sierra climbers, but that soon grew into a project about American climbers, which, in turn, became international. There was no turning back by that point, I had a huge project on my hands. I’m a climber myself, but I was less interested in people from my era. I wanted to delve into something pre-me. I focused on climbers who were active between the 1920s and 1970s when mountain climbing was an underground activity that relied on rudimentary gear and was mostly unknown to the general public.
Your images are absolutely captivating. Do they tell a story?
I see this as a documentary portrait project. It could be about old Paris sewer workers as much as climbers. There is a lot of writing in my book, but if we’re speaking strictly about the images, I’d hope that the photos do the job of pulling the viewer in and intriguing the viewer to learn more about the stories behind the faces I photograph. I obviously pay a lot of attention to the style of the photography, but it’s these people that I’m trying to depict in a way to get someone excited. It’s hard to explain these things, but I guess if you saw one of my photographs and you weren’t curious about who the people in them were or what they did, then I have failed in some way.
How do you decide your shots?
It was a laborious process. By the time I started laying out the book, some photos that I considered final picks years ago had to be requestioned. The three main criteria boil down to: Firstly, what are you trying to get across with the portrait, how do you want to depict this person? Secondly, there’s the purely photographic considerations and the mechanics of the final image. In other words, how the paint sits on the canvas. Thirdly, I wanted the photos to function together as a body of work. I thought a lot about the rhythm and continuity throughout the book, how the entire thing fits together as a whole.
You must have met some incredible individuals. Is there a specific photograph or story that stands out to you?
It’s hard to pick favourites because they all stand out. High in the Italian Alps, the great Riccardo Cassin was dying when I met him. He was 100 years old and surrounded by his kith and kin who were holding vigil in his final days. He sat in a chair that was turned towards the open window, so he could look out over the tall mountains he had started climbing in the late 1920’s. He died one week after I left.
What, if anything, have you learnt from shooting The Climbers?
It took me a while but over time I found out that it was about more than just climbing. These are elderly people, many of whom near the ends of their lives. They had found a talent, passion, an obsession really, and were now on the other side of an incredible accomplishment. You have energy and stamina when you are young, but youth is not a time for introspection, nor should it be. These people have shoved everything aside in order to perfect one thing — perhaps with some messy marriages and dodgy finances along the way. I suppose after committing to a 20 year project like this, it’s hard not to think about your own obsessions, commitments and the ways you’ve chosen to spend your time.
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