Profile: Tara Kerzhner—A Study in Contrast

The serious and lighthearted sides of photographer and filmmaker Tara Kerzhner
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Tara Kerzhner Photographer Rock Climber Portrait

Photo: Tara Kerzhner

“Knock-knock,” Tara Kerzhner said to me below The Eighth Day (5.13a), Rifle, Colorado’s endless, vertical, notoriously crimpy roadside testpiece. It was August 2013. Kerzhner, then 29, her husband, Greg, and I had spent most of the summer camping and climbing in the park.

Frazzled, I pulled at my knot. For the millionth time, I’d fallen off our shared project’s crux, halfway up the wall. Kerzhner could use a tiny crimp and precise feet for the difficult traverse, but my fat hands barely fit the holds and my feet kept skating.

“Who’s there?” I asked. I wondered what bad joke this slight, 5’5” comedian with dark hair and brown eyes wanted to tell me.

“Interrupting sloth,” Kerzhner said.

“Interrupting sloth … ” I started. Kerzhner’s hand interrupted me. She moved her fingers slowly toward my face, inching her digits like a sloth. “Who?”

While you might not know Tara Kerzhner (née Reyvaan), it’s likely that you’ve seen her work: contrast-rich photos and artistic videos of top climbers. An accomplished climber herself with 5.13 redpoints and multi-pitch 5.12s under her belt, Kerzhner lives on the road with Greg in a 2005 Toyota Tundra. Her itinerant lifestyle has helped her develop her eye for great climbing shots and video. Her photographs have been featured in Climbing, Rock and Ice, and Alpinist. Meanwhile, her video work has become popular with EpicTV, Black Diamond, and at global film festivals. As of press time, her most recent project with Jonathan Siegrist, a short documenting his epic seven-week journey to send Pachamama (5.15a) at Oliana, was making the rounds on the Web.

Kerzhner hails from Bend, Oregon, near the world-famous Smith Rock. “Growing up in Bend is like growing up in a cliché Kodak moment,” says Kerzhner, describing the town’s endless pine forests and clear, high-desert air. “It’s accessible to the outdoors, and the liberal community puts money into school programs for the arts.”

Tara Kerzhner Kalymnos Aegialis Rock Climbing Sport

Tara Kerzhner enjoys the coastal climbing of Kalymnos on Aegialis (5.12d). Photo: Ben Ditto

Kerzhner came into the world on March 13, 1986, when Deborah and James Reyvaan had their second child, to join their two-and-a-half-year-old son, Josh. Her father, a Nez Perce Native American, worked as a tile setter, while her mother drove a school bus. Both parents are evangelical Christians, and with them Kerzhner and her brother attended the Westside Church until she was 18. For Josh’s birthday, from when he was 8 until he was 14, Deborah and James would bring the family to Smith Rock to hike the Misery Ridge Trail, eat cake, and have a party. “In every photo we have of the party, Tara is on the rock climbing away,” says James. By contrast, on Kerzhner’s birthdays, her mom made her bunny-shaped ice cream cones. “I remember watching a speed-climbing competition on TV with my dad,” says Kerzhner, “and wanting to do that.” Given a choice between continuing flute lessons or going climbing, Kerzhner stuck with the flute, though climbing remained lodged in her subconscious.

Growing up, Kerzhner spent most of her time with a small group of friends and her camera. When she was 12, Kerzhner used her mom’s old Pentax to take pictures of the family cat. She never developed the film; she just enjoyed shooting. “I feel better after taking pictures,” Kerzhner says. “The act of going out and taking them gives me the most fulfillment.” In high school, she took darkroom classes, learning about development and exposure. The darkroom was a sanctuary, a place where she could escape her strict religious upbringing. Surrounded by photo paper, developing trays, and chemicals, she immersed herself in the details of black-and-white photography, getting lost in the contrasting light.

In 2003, Kerzhner took a trip with a few girlfriends to Inclimb, a now-defunct climbing gym in Bend. The day after, she went again—and again, and again. Kerzhner climbed inside for years—she was strictly a gym rat, but she loved it. In the meantime, she studied Edward Weston, a California photographer who in the 1920s created a series of close-ups of seashells and vegetables that use light to evoke rich textures. “I would shoot at farms, focusing on dew on the grass and the way the light would create contrast in photos,” Kerzhner says. She shot in sunrise and sunset light, playing with contrast and depth of field, inspired by her roots in black and white.

Tara Kerzhner Deception Little Rock City Bouldering Climbing

Kerzhner channels her inner starfish on Deception (V7), Little Rock City, Tennessee. Photo: Dru Mack

In August 2008, she got married. In 2009, Kerzhner began climbing outside at Smith Rock, but her husband was more interested in settling down than climbing. With a group of friends, she’d head out to Smith and follow them up easy routes. Soon, she began to lead herself, putting up the rope on routes like Purple Headed Warrior, a 5.7 on the Western Ship. The excitement of climbing offered a detour off the predictable path she’d been on.

“I felt so stuck,” Kerzhner recalls. Her life seemed destined to be one in Bend. Her marriage faltered as her husband wanted to buy a house and Kerzhner just wanted to climb Magic Light, a 5.11a at Smith’s Morning Glory Wall. In 2010, the pair divorced. A year later, in March 2011, she redpointed her first 5.13, Taco Chips, a crimp line next to Magic Light.

At 26, while working a marketing job at the Bend-based dog-accessory company Ruffwear, Tara Reyvaan met Greg Kerzhner out at Smith. The computer programmer and avid rock climber was working in Portland and traveling to Smith on weekends to climb. The pair started climbing together. When Greg’s contract ended, he invited Tara to “Come to San Francisco.” Having seen the same people since high school, she was more than happy to flee her hometown. Greg’s contract programming work allowed him to work remotely, and they began driving to sport crags across America.

Schooled on the vertical tuff of Smith, Kerzhner had learned to climb in an inchworm style, locking off holds, reaching, and then repeating up difficult sport climbs. “I’m still suffering the consequences of only climbing those vertical, crimpy routes,” Kerzhner says. “She would slide gracefully up the endless slabs of Smith Rock, unaware that anything else existed,” says Greg of first meeting her. “I took her and sometimes literally dragged her up climbs of all styles and disciplines, from the spider-covered roofs and overhangs of the New River Gorge to the gumby-covered granite cracks and corners of Yosemite Valley.”

Kerzhner initially thought, “Trad climbing sucks,” but as her skills on multipitch and steeper routes matured, so did her appreciation for different styles. In 2014, she climbed the 1,600-foot limestone route Soy Hombre Nuevo (5.12c) on Naranjo de Bulnes in Northern Spain, swinging leads with Greg, pulling on just a single draw on the first pitch to get started. In 2015, she returned to Smith, climbing the steep Aggro Monkey (5.13b) in the Aggro Gully. The route involved “Big lockoffs for my tiny kitten arms,” Kerzhner jokes.

Tara Kerzhner Siouxie Sport Climbing Rock Siurana Spain

Kerzhner balances her way up Siouxie (5.13a), Siurana, Spain. Photo: Jonathan Siegrist

Though a serious climber with—among the routes previously listed—ascents of 5.12 deep-water solos in Mallorca and highball V7 boulder problems in Little Rock City, Kerzhner retains a lighthearted attitude. In a March 2017 Facebook post, she showed bits of cut fabric in her hand with a caption reading, “Why cut beer and sugar out of my diet when I can just cut the elastic waistband out of my climbing pants?”

“There are very few things in the world that Tara really cares about, but those things, Tara obsesses over,” says pro climber Jonathan Siegrist, who first met Kerzhner at Smith Rock in spring 2010. Over the years, the pair has created climbing films at the Fins of Idaho and in Oliana. “It could be going to the dinosaur museum, a craft beer, or the perfect light for a photo,” says Siegrist. It’s often the latter. While filming Siegrist on Power Inverter (5.15a) in Oliana in late 2015, Kerzhner insisted on shooting the route at sunset. She shot the first 10 meters at 4:32. The following day, she shot the second 10 meters at 4:33. She then continued to shoot the entire 40-meter route at sunset so she could create a video infused with perfect golden-hour light. They continued the process for a second video of Siegrist on Pachamama, another Oliana 5.15.

Kerzhner’s obsession with light runs through her film work. In 2015, she produced Last Light, a three-minute Brescia Winter Film selection short that focused on climbers in evening light at Smith Rock. In January 2017, she released a short about rebolting in the Fins that was shot almost exclusively at sunrise. In March 2017, she released Defy the Dark, a two-minute Black Diamond headlamp video that showcases night and sunset climbing at Smith. Her emphasis on light has brought in enough income to support a frugal, traveling lifestyle.

This year, the Kerzhners will be climbing in the Grampians, Australia, and Rocklands, South Africa, before returning to the States to climb at the Red River Gorge in autumn. Throughout their travels, Kerzhner plans to continue her film and video work, shooting in each location, with her trademark slow, steady dedication.

Speaking of which: That day back in August 2013 at Rifle, I finished untying my knot at the Project Wall and pulled the rope. The long cord rattled down through twenty draws. As I waited, I turned to Kerzhner. Her hand continued to move sloth-like toward me. For another three long minutes, her hand inched in my direction. I stood there awkwardly, not sure what to do. Her dedication and focus contrasted sharply with the absurdity of the joke, forcing a smile onto my face. I soon started laughing.