Every great climbing shot hides an even greater story. The waxy-looking climber dressed like a harlequin and crankin’ the gnar’ on some beautiful, scenic piece of stone eclipses the savage cluster taking place behind the lens. But that’s where the real action is. As climbers, our greatest asset is the ability to accept enormous risk for very little reward, so you can begin to see why photographing other climbers appeals to many in our tribe.
Climbing photographers have it hard. Get an alpine start, skirt certain death, situate somewhere rare and dangerous, take a shot, miss the shot, drop a lens, there goes $1,900, spend hours editing photos, make a little money if you’re lucky, and listen to every dilettante chode bicker about whether or not the photo is too “posed” or “Photoshopped.”
In terms of suffering forever, this process is almost identically parallel to establishing a new route, where you risk your life and spend time and money creating something only to have a bunch of dumbass bottom-feeders criticize your hard work. A person must be absolutely insane about climbing to endure such abuse and deprivation.
I painfully remember the first time I went on a photo shoot, more than five years ago. I’d been working at the magazine for all of two weeks, and we needed to get some crack-climbing photos for a how-to-climb guide. Out of sheer convenience, Duane hauled then photo editor David Clifford and me, the amateur climbing model, down to Castle Valley for a long weekend of steak, whisky and desert towers.
Barring the humiliating string of gawky, mechanical photos that were taken of me in grade school, no one had ever deliberately shot my picture. I feel inept in front of a camera lens, and become a plastic Halloween mask when the shutter snaps. Duane and Cliffy didn’t know this about me yet, and graciously chose to ignore my many glaring features that are unsuited to composing a pleasing image: my faint but unseemly widow’s peak (no top-down shots, please), my amorphous chin (profile shots are out, too), my dark lusterless eyes that swallow up any catch-light as if they’re two cosmic black holes in my face. The goofy haircut. The bad posture. The unibrow. Please, must I go on?
The North Face of Castleton Tower is a beautiful four-pitch crack climb, but we only had business with the first pitch: a nice splitter hand/fist crack that I was told would shoot great. Duane offered to lead first in order to set up a fixed rope from which he would hang and take illustrative crack-climbing pics.
Duane is one of those climbing partners that you should never let choose the rack, nor trust when he says that something with potentially catastrophic consequences will be “fine.” Whereas forgetting a harness or rope or any other vital piece of safety equipment would normally cause most people to head back to the car and try again another day, Duane is merely inconvenienced—nothing a little bit of Okie ingenuity can’t solve.
Duane clipped a few pieces of gear to his harness and started jamming up the crack before I had even fished my belay device out of my pack. He placed his one and only #3 Camalot at about 20 feet and continued up the splitter corner.
Unfortunately for Duane, that #3 would’ve come in handy over the next uniform stretch of crack. Nevertheless, he pushed on unprotected into the ground-fall zone. At about 50 feet, the wide hand crack constricted a little and he was able to gingerly set a tipped-out #2. Feeling insecure, and seeing yet another 15 feet of #3 climbing up ahead, he did something that, I’ll admit, probably would never have occurred to me. He down-climbed those hard-won 30 feet, with labored breathing and shoes skating on slippery sandy smears, and retrieved the #3 Camalot. Like a machine, he chugged back up the route, shuffling the #3 with him. I watched all this with my guts in my throat, and imagined how pumped he was from up and down climbing the 5.11 crack, and how that would soon be me. With Duane, though, you never know. He reached the anchors, fixed the rope, rapped down, and with a straight face, handed me the woefully anemic rack.
“Your turn,” he said. Before he had even caught his breath, he was jugging up the fixed line with his camera gear to take position. “Oh,” he called down. “Put on the red shirt! No, the really red one!”
I stared up at the corner, conflicted by a desire to prove myself in front of my new co-workers, the pressure of having come all the way up here for this sole purpose, and my better sensibilities. Actually, I was more nervous about having my photo taken than I was about the sparse gear. Cliffy put me on belay and I plunged upward, shuffling the #3 with me. I felt the camera lens penetrate my flesh like ultrasound, and became tenser, squeezed tighter and got more pumped.
I remember the anxiety, but more so, the confusion: I was unclear as to what my role was, to fire the pitch onsight, or to provide Duane with a few usable pictures—hanging, repeating moves, or if need be, posing.
We were, after all, here for “work,” and even though it wasn’t “real” work, it also wasn’t the kind of climbing you do with friends on Saturday (unless you’re a narcissistic professional who is perverted enough to get off on that sort of thing).
I soon became acutely aware that I was doing the very thing that I could see myself—in bitter-ranting-smarty-pants-editor mode—criticizing. Yet here I was: the guy doing something dangerous for the camera.
It was cruel and confusing, and I soon grew weary and hung from the #3.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Duane advised, looking at the 50 feet of rope running free below me, straight down to Cliffy’s ATC.
“I don’t have a choice,” I said, brutally flash pumped. We both laughed.
I dogged up the rest of the pitch, and thankfully, Duane took a few usable images. The shot that printed in the how-to-climb guide shows me jamming; I’m looking up and appear to be sticking my tongue out, smiling and having a good time. In fact, mine is a look of sheer terror. I know because I have another photo of me making the same face while riding the pig on El Cap, delicately clipped to a pair of ascenders and experiencing that helpless gut-sinking sensation of the rope scraping over sharp granite edges as I swung into space a thousand feet up in the air. Apparently, I look like I’m having fun when I’m scared shitless. (Maybe that’s why I like climbing.)
The caption that ran with the photo read:
Perfect hand jams, on the perfect route, on the perfect tower. The North Face of Castleton Tower (5.11b). In a corner crack such as this, don’t get so focused on the jams you neglect to notice the myriad face holds that will help you unweight those taxing jams.
I wondered what people would think. Would they assume I was sending, which I wasn’t, or see the rope draped hauntingly down the wall, not clipped to any pro but the one #3 by my hand, and think I had chosen to run it out like that?
I’ll admit that this article was spurred by a few reckless comments made in Outside magazine’s latest photo issue, which singled out climbing photography for being particularly staged—saying that because ropes often have to be rigged in advance for the photographer to get into a prime position, and the climber repeats a route for the camera, climbing photography is a “re-creation,” implying that it’s somehow fake.
We live in a brutally cynical age. Most politicians, athletes and icons in our society have turned out to be mangy, crooked bastards. In this context, it’s not surprising that non-climbers, like our fellow editors at Outside, (and many climbers, too) see well-lit, perfect, sublime shots of climbers in amazing positions, they suspect total graphic chicanery.
I have actually witnessed the making of a truly fake and posed climbing shot. The photographer put this poor girl—an attractive, fit blonde—in new climbing gear and a sports bra that didn’t fit. She was just getting into the sport and didn’t really know her way around a route. Still, she tried to lead up a bolted 5.12, but was more or less unable to do a single real-looking move. The best shot was of her hanging underneath a bolt clipped overhead. The rope was taut, holding her on the wall and awkwardly pulling her harness swami up to her chest. She looked like a gazelle in roller skates with a hockey stick. It was the most unflattering, fake climbing image I’ve ever seen. Luckily, those photos never saw the light of day. A fake photo that succeeds in deceiving the viewer is, in all likelihood, harder to get than a real climbing shot.
Photography presents a telling and dissonant interplay of three distinct entities: the photographer who creates an artifact or visual interpretation of a moment, the subject immersed in his or her own reality, and finally, the viewer of the final image, who inevitably brings personal judgments, inferences and conclusions to the artifact. The photograph is a symbiosis of these three parts, through which a story, often with the help of a caption, emerges.
Photography, like journalism and art, is only as compelling as the story it tells. And the goal of every good story is not to deceive, or to recreate reality perfectly, but to illuminate some underlying truth. How different would that photo of me on Castleton be if the caption had read:
Andrew Bisharat desecrates a classic climb with his chicken-shit whimpering. If he were any more of a sell-out, he’d rival the many baby boomer bands that have sold their anti-establishment music to car companies and iPod commercials. But check out that hand-jamming technique!
I recently asked a half-dozen of the sport’s best photographers about the importance of a caption to climbing photography. Interestingly, all said that a photo should be able to speak for itself and stand alone; however, they also admitted that, at a minimum, the name of the climber and the name, grade and location of the route should be mentioned. This a balance that all climbing magazines struggle with.
Greg Epperson brought up one climbing periodical that has attempted to offer “full disclosure” in all its captions—in his eyes, to its detriment. “The irritating ‘full disclosure’ photo captions were usually run-on, unimportant side notes that never made me think differently of the photos,” Epperson wrote.
I also discovered that sometimes the best stories are the ones of photos that were missed.
“It feels horrible,” says the climber/photographer Boone Speed about missing a shot. “Especially in climbing, where sometimes people are risking their safety. Chuck Fryberger wanted me to shoot him soloing a 40-foot 5.13 in Hueco, an old John Sherman toprope. He had it wired.” Unfortunately, Speed didn’t nail the shot and Fryberger had to repeat the solo. “I thought his girlfriend was going to kill me. That was over four years ago, and I haven’t missed anything of consequence since.”
Jim Thornburg recalls missing a shot years ago at Fremont Canyon:
“I had my camera trained on a guy who fell off a route, ripped ALL of his gear, flew past his friend at a hanging belay, and back-flopped in the river—a 65-foot fall! It was the most spectacular thing I’ve seen, and I watched the whole thing through the viewfinder and didn’t snap a single frame. I was too horrified.”
In my case, was it a deception or, worse, a lie, to have not mentioned that I wasn’t sending the splitter on the North Face of Castleton? Or is a photo sometimes just a photo?
Like every good climbing shot, that photo told a story, but not the greater story. In this world of lying and fakery there still remain instances of truth that cannot be faked, and the much-maligned climbing image is a good example of this paradox. Behind the lights and setup is always a human being—and moves, exposure, pro and height. I’d say that my experience on Castleton was as real as any climbing experience I’ve had.
Check out www.rockandice.com/tnbphotography for the author’s interviews with climbing’s top photographers.