One might think that a coffee table book about some of the world’s most accomplished mountain climbers active between 1920 and 1970 would feature plenty of images of craggy peaks, pockmarked granite, and crevasse-riddled glaciers. But in Jim Herrington’s book, The Climbers (Mountaineers, 2017), the deepest creases and most prominent features are found on the faces of the adventurers themselves.
The Climbers consists of 60 portraits of mountaineers from the sport’s golden age. “The period covered predates my personal involvement,” Herrington, who started climbing in the mid-1970s, explains. “It begins in the era of hobnail boots and hemp ropes, and ends before the age of specialization, when the exceptional started to become commonplace.”
Herrington started shooting in the pre-internet era, when simply finding out if these climbers were still alive proved challenging. “Introductions needed to be made. Letters had to be composed, translated, and then mailed,” the American photographer recalls during a visit to Vancouver, in town for the 2018 Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival. “Then, you waited for a letter or a phone call.” There was a sense of urgency to complete the task before some of the more elderly climbers began to pass away. He got to Ricardo Cassin’s home in the mountains above Lecco, Italy while his family was gathering around and holding vigil for the 100-year-old climber, who died one week later.
Before—and during—the Climbers project, Herrington kept busy paying the bills (and honing his creative craft) by taking photos for magazines as well as album covers for musicians such as Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Keith Richards, and Merle Haggard. It turns out that there are some similarities between photographing rock stars and rock climbers. “These are talented people who spent an inordinate amount of their lives on an obsession,” says Herrington, who splits his time between Southern Europe, New York City, and Owens Valley, California. “Along the way, they probably messed up a marriage or two and likely had some dodgy finances.”
For the book, Herrington managed to catch the legendary and peripatetic Fred Beckey, who was still living the vagabond climbing life, shortly before his death at age 94. “We met on one of his trips to Seattle in a rather ornate room off the main lobby of the Hotel Sorrento,” Herrington recalls. “He took his shoes off and proceeded to lie down on the sofa as if he was having one of his famous naps.” Now that’s the perfect summit.
Herrington describes his style as “working small.” He often shot his Climbers subjects in gardens, kitchens, and coffee shops, and even on the way to the airport, focusing less on the mountains where they achieved their fame. After all, as he puts it, “we already know what they did.” And now we will never forget.
See more from Autumn 2018.