The Wright Stuff: The Other Side of the Lens

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National Geographic photographer Carsten Peters slums it with Cedar in China's Stone Forest.

The heaps of out-of-focus butt shots and over-filtered landscapes on Instagram these days may suggest otherwise, but climbing photography truly is an art form. And as a professional climber, I’ve been lucky to work with some of the biggest names and artists in the business. I’ve “posed down” for countless shooters, from old-schoolers like Heinz Zak, whose shirtless shots of the Huber Brothers freeing the gnar on El Cap are nothing short of iconic, to new-schoolers like Keith Ladzinski, who brought “skateboard style” photography to climbing. I’ve eaten goat with Jimmy Chin before dangling from a roof on a huge spire in the middle of Africa so that he could capture his vision. I’ve soloed back and forth on 5.9 for Corey Rich so that he could get a full spread in Climbing. I’ve climbed naked for Dean Fidelman and an ill-conceived spin-off of his Stone Nudes project called Stoned Dudes. And I’ve slacklined across a crevasse in the Himalaya so that Tim Kemple could make a few more bucks.

Some of these guys are the most successful photographers in the business, and I’ve found that they tend to turn this dubious hobby of snapping climbing pics into a legitimate career by having not just a good eye, technical proficiency, and an obsessive work ethic, but also a signature style coupled with a sharp business acumen. In fact, if I were going to try to make it as a professional climbing photographer and had to choose between God-given talent and a top-notch business sense, I’d lean toward the latter. No matter how amazing your photos are, at the end of the day, you’ve got to hustle.

Ironically (or perhaps not), the photographers who crack this code typically make way more money than the climbers they photograph. Sometimes this kind of bothers me, but the reality is that climbing imagery has popped up in credit card, beer, and tortilla chip ads, and the general audience could care less who the somewhat-famous-in-climbing-circles climber is. It’s more about the overall beauty, feeling of awe, or empowerment communicated through the photo. I used to joke with Jimmy Chin that his camera shutter didn’t go click, it went cha-ching. But if you’re dreaming of quitting your desk job to get that easy climbing-photog money, stop right now. Rarely is a star born overnight. The guys at the top are true grinders. Most of the big names have scraped it together, living in their truck on next to nothing for a few years while they build out their portfolio, connections, and clients to a point where they can even consider such luxurious possibilities as an office or apartment.

There are a lot of roads that could lead to a successful photo career, but what I find really interesting are the path and style in which each individual photo is reached. For instance, probably more than 50% of the climbing photographs that you see today are completely posed. After the climber has sent their project, the photographer goes up with them to the most impressive or scenic part of the climb, wardrobes them in bright clothing, and waits for the perfect light to snap the pic that you will then associate with the climber’s accomplishment. Alternatively, Andrew McGarry and John Dickey, two of the first guys I ever worked with, really believe in capturing the actual moment and pride themselves on a more raw and real image. Another guy who I respect tremendously for his more journalistic style is Andrew Burr, the senior contributing photographer here at Climbing magazine. He is probably the hardest working photographer I know. While most photographers will put their camera away in the harsh midday light or wait until the climber is ready to pose, Burr searches for unique angles even when there is no glory light, when the action is naturally happening. Conversely, I remember having Corey Rich repeatedly tell me to look over my shoulder and put a leg out because it made for a nice silhouette, and I reluctantly got up at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m. to get morning light in Yosemite for Australian photographer Simon Carter. And guess what? All of their photos were amazing!

great pic

Ultra-professional Keith Ladzinski doesn’t need no stinkin’ signs.

So, don’t get me wrong; I’m not bagging on photographers who set up and pose things a bit. The reality is that all climbing photographers do a bit of both: capturing the moment and idealizing it. Some of the most iconic climbing photos in the world are at least a little posed. And sometimes “posing down” can be a great workout for the climber! While working with Tim Kemple, he once had me repeat the crux of a route so many times that my fingertips were bleeding and I could barely lift a beer to my mouth that evening. But he got the shot he wanted on the last round when it looked like my head was going to explode I was trying so hard. I got Tim back, though. He came to meet Renan Ozturk and I in Pakistan in 2006, and I “accidentally” neglected to mention to him that it was a seven-day journey to reach us, complete with a ride on the world’s most dangerous road, the Karakoram Highway, and a 30-mile hike. After this, he coined the phrase “getting Cedared” (an extreme form of getting sandbagged), which is a point of pride for me!

To be a great climbing photographer, you need to be at least a decent climber, too, and you have to love climbing very much, or else what’s the point? You also need the fitness and technical ability to be able to ascend a rope at breakneck speed, and rig sometimes very complicated webs of rope because the top-down climbing photo is still the bread and butter of the industry. And high-angle photography is not without its risks; just ask Cory Richards about shooting deep water soloing in Mallorca. In a hurry to get in position, he had slung a seemingly bomber thread of limestone and rappelled in. As he began to shoot, his anchor exploded and he plummeted 60 feet into the sea with all of his photo equipment, which was completely destroyed. Luckily Cory was unscathed—except for his pocketbook.

The tides of climbing photography are constantly changing, and staying relevant and ahead of the curve can be a challenge. Perhaps the biggest change in recent history is the HDSLR, which enabled photographers to shoot both stills and video. This technology sprung up right around the time that digital content became a huge part of any major brand’s marketing budget, and the savvy photographers learned to shoot video in a hurry. There are still some guys who are strictly stills, but more and more, the guys who can buy houses and cars are doing a mix of both.

Perhaps that’s a little too much of how the sausage is made for some people, but the true beauty and power of an exceptional climbing photograph won’t ever change. As a wide-eyed newbie climber, I remember paging through Climbing and being deeply impacted by photos of the likes of Lynn Hill on the Nose or Chris Sharma as a young kid one-arming his way up 5.14. Those photos help us see the beauty, difficulty, and exposure of a particular climb, working to inspire and motivate the next generation. All with a single cha-ching. 

Cedar Wright is a contributing editor for Climbing. He’s a professional climber, filmmaker, and world-class goofball who resides in Boulder, Colorado.