Friday, 24 June 2016


It is all too easy in these days of Crags, Hard Rock, Mountain and Climbing to assume that the state of mountaineering photography has never been better. The recent entries of still photos for the Kendal Film Festival displayed a breadth of ability and enthusiasm which would have been unimaginable a decade ago. Fed by inspirational books and magazines, and armed with the excellent new cameras that have become cheaply available in the last few years, climbers can, and are, taking photographs of their activities that are infinitely superior to those of a decade earlier.

The broad plateau of competence in this field is doubtless due to a number of factors. Apart from those already mentioned, one could also note the increasing demand for good pictures for magazines, books and adverts. Moreover, the increased expedition activity with its attendant sponsorship and book and lecture possibilities has also encouraged climbers to produce better results. Thus in all these fields—action photos, alpine views and expedition narratives—the state of the photographic art in mountaineering is in good shape and we can feel confident that this can only improve. It is in an altogether different field that I fear we are in danger of neglecting; for the amateur, the impromptu snapshot, or for the keener photographer, the telling observational photo that illustrates the world of the climber in a more human way.

Original Caption ' Example of the work of Jed Storah,a young photographer who shows particular talent in capturing the unusual in climbing situations: Image- Extra runners being thrown up to Gabrial Regan on 'The Swan' Roaches.

Recent lectures and illustrated articles have left me bored, despite excellent photographic material, by the inhumanity of it all; an endless procession of bronzed athletes caught in mind-boggling situations doing stupefying moves on routes of tediously repetitive excellence and in permanently magnificent weather. Yet we learn nothing of them as people, nothing of their epics and tribulations, nothing of their lifestyles.

These days people never fail, use camps merely for a few hours sleep, only climb in the sun, never fall out with one another, never lose the route, never get overtaken by storm, never injure themselves, never wobble and never get frightened. The only preoccupation is increasing ones fitness for the next very clinical, very physical confrontation with the latest super-route. The scene has become ever so slightly boring in its technical brilliance. Characters and events have been suppressed by an endless procession of technical successes.

Somehow the photography has begun to reflect this too—we risk being bored by photographs which a few years ago would have had us gasping with amazement for weeks after their publication. At this point I begin to ask myself whether it is me. Whether after half a lifetime of climbing and climbing photography I have seen it all and become too familiar with images and situations that still impress younger climbers. I think not however. The declining attendances at lectures, the increasing tedium of climbing writing, the growing uniformity of photographic features in magazines—all tend to support my basic complaint. But if this article is about photography, what value is there in digressing into a personal diatribe about the decaying fibre of the sport? Namely this: By their efforts, photographers can direct climbers' attentions to new interests in the sport.

In the past I have quite cynically encouraged activity on certain crags or in certain climbing areas by publishing some good photos. Usually the cliffs badly needed traffic to establish newly discovered routes— Lundy is a good example.

It should therefore be possible to encourage in visual terms a move away from the more soulless attitudes to the sport. Of course not everyone is taking pictures for magazines, books and lectures. Many are shooting for personal pleasure and record. In many ways using a camera as a personal diary is its most valuable function. But I suspect the ordinary fun photographer, influenced by the magazines and the possession of better equipment, has begun to elevate his ambitions.

I can imagine countless dusty cupboard-fulls of slide boxes full of tedious action sequences on ordinary climbs, and half-baked landscapes imitating some vaguely remembered painter or photographer. Such "amateurs" (and I use the word hesitatingly for it is they who are truly in touch with the real roots of the sport) would be far better occupied in following the traditional amateur pursuit of the snapshot of the sport, the personalities involved, the campsite life, the extra-mural adventures, peripheral activities like sea level girdling, club dinners, booze ups and the like, editors, confronted by rich new stocks of interesting pictures would soon respond.

While searching through the unpretentious photo collections of some of our folk hero climbers, I have been constantly impressed by the historical value of pictures that were originally conceived as mere snapshots. John Cunningham's superb picture of the Creag Dhu at Jacksonville (in Games Climbers Play) is one memorable image that comes to mind, and another is Geoffrey Bartrum's lyrical portrait snapshot of Menlove Edwards at the foot of the Milestone Buttress (opposite page 87 in Samson, or Mountain 18). I tore my hair when The Black Cliff was published because of the poor reproduction of the photographs.

Yet people didn't seem to mind and still don't. They valued a certain sense of period, a realness in the pictures that a slicker book might have destroyed. Of course, by their nature snapshots cannot be achieved by careful professional planning. They are photographic records of fleeting moments, sometimes technically awful (early pictures in The Black Cliff for example), sometimes approaching perfection such as the work of the professional snapshots hunters— photo-journalists like Cartier Bresson or Donald McCullin.

I suppose I am saying that in pursuing the fickle goal of sports and landscape photography in mountaineering, we have sadly neglected the photo-journalistic side. In the past this was naively achieved by unpretentious wielders of Brownie Box cameras. Today we need to consciously seek such pictures so that our period can be faithfully reflected by more than a catalogue of athletic action shots. Finally I would like to say a word in defence of the photo album. I have always kept one, not for my best professional work, but for pictures that are, in effect, personal diary entries. Looking back at ones first Alpine season or ones early trips to Wales, remembering half-forgotten friends, rekindling nostalgic memories, is always entertaining.

From the same era: John Cleare's classic 'Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia' cover shot.Photo-John Cleare Mountain Picture Library.

As the years go by such collections gain in historical and retrospective value. Photo albums are difficult to keep in these days of the colour slide, but I advise anyone who is taking pictures solely for personal pleasure to forget the colour slide and opt for the black and white or colour snapshot. By careful selection and notation a photo album of real value can be assembled. Trade postcards can always be used to illustrate the mountains, huts or places one has visited, but the really valuable contribution that the photographer can make to himself and to posterity is to try and make a really good record of the nature of his activities and his friends. Therein lies the true enjoyment and value from the cameras we all lug around these days. 

Ken Wilson: First published in Crags Dec/Jan 1981