Photo Books

Book Publishing: After 19 Years, Jim Herrington Publishes The Climbers

March 14, 2018

By David Walker

The veteran celebrity portrait photographer explains how he finally turned a two-decade personal project making portraits of the world’s most legendary climbers into a photo book.

PDN: How did you start this project?
Jim Herrington: Everything I’m into, I tend to be into the history and the legends. I’m a climber, and the Sierra Nevada [mountains] are my home range for climbing, so I ventured into the Sierra to find and meet and photograph the oldest [climbers].

PDN: What’s your process?
JH: The entirety of the book is on location. I’m not showing up with a bunch of assistants, and a bunch of gear. You walk into an ugly apartment and you have to draw from your experience, your creativity, and all the pictures you’ve looked at in your life, and somehow put together the person with the environment.

PDN: What look and feel were you going for?
JH: I’m not trying to glamorize [the climbers], nor am I trying to make them look old and ugly, which I’ve been accused of. They’ve had time to introspect about why it mattered to put so much into something. [Young people] are doing great things, which is wonderful, but I find people near the end of their life, after they’ve done great things and the footlights have gone out, to be a lot more interesting.

PDN: Are there particular images you’re most proud of?
JH: Fred Beckey, who just died, is one of the major climbers. He showed up in the brightly lit lobby of this hotel, and lay down on this big leather couch. I got this photo of him in repose, like he was finally taking a rest. By chance, the shadow of his shoulder had created what looks like two mountains right behind him. You can never plan this stuff.

PDN: Was editing difficult?
JH: It was a massive process. This project took 19 years. There were a lot of photographs early on that I was convinced were the best ones. But I grow as a person and photographer, and the project grows, and the things [have to] fit together in context. I parked myself in a ranch house and deliberated for months. And some of the early decisions I made were changed.

PDN: Like what?
JH: One image of [Patagonia founder] Yvon Chouinard I was convinced for years was the shot. [Later] I thought he looked a bit too heroic. I wanted to show a little more hunger in the eyes, the way he might have looked back in the day.

© Jim Herrington

Climber Gwen Moffat (born 1924) began climbing after deserting the British Army during World War II. She went on to become Britain’s first female mountain guide, as well as a mystery writer. © Jim Herrington

PDN: Can you say more about your editing process?
JH: I shot on film. I would scan just about everything. I made prints roughly the size of the book—11 x 12 Xerox prints—and storyboarded it. I played with that forever. There are a lot of connections page by page between the people that might have been climbing partners, or maybe had an Everest or an Alps connection. But the main thing is a visual flow, and where the images were placed on the page. I spent months on that.

PDN: How did you achieve the visual flow?
JH: I shot a lot of different formats: 35 mm, 4 x 5, medium format, rectangles, squares. They dictated the size of the book and the pages. I wanted to go back and forth, page by page, between formats. It’s just a personal esthetic, with a visual flow that keeps your eye moving and the interest going.

PDN: Why did the book take so long to produce?
JH: It was all self-funded, and it began in the pre-internet days. Just finding [some of the subjects] was a trick. Many times I would spend my last money to take a one-way flight somewhere, then figure out a way back.

PDN: How did you get a book deal with Mountaineers Books?
JH: They approached me. I was looking for a fancy New York art book publisher. I didn’t think Mountaineers really does the kinds of books I had in mind. The editor [Kate Rogers] said, “But we want to.” You have to give people a chance, and Mountaineers gave me a very good offer.

PDN: What did you like about it?
JH: Even [some] good publishers want you to bring in a finished book, and pay for [publication] yourself. I had done no writing, and had a lot of photos to take, and [Mountaineers] still took it on and gave a very good advance. I wanted very good printing, and I had an idea of the way it should be designed and they approved.

PDN: What were the design ideas? Did you hire a designer?
JH: I picked Beth Middleworth, and [Mountaineers] hired her. We worked on album covers and book covers for decades. There’s a mid-century classic approach that I wanted it to take with a kind of a minimalist approach on the typography, and she was on it.

PDN: How much of the marketing has fallen on your shoulders?
JH: There has been no end to what I’ve done to market the book. I hired an outside publicist, Hilsinger-Mendelson.

PDN: What marketing did they do, and what did you do yourself?
JH: They got [coverage] by the Wall Street Journal, NPR and “Good Morning America.” I also had a very nice run in England, and that was something I set up myself. A friend of mine who works at the BBC [arranged] a ten-minute interview on TV, then BBC World News called and asked for a radio interview.

PDN: What other coverage have you gotten?
JH: Outside magazine came via friends. I’ve gotten speaking engagements through friends. The paid speaking engagements are starting to pile up.

PDN: Have you marketed it on social media?
JH: I have. People enjoyed the travelogue I did for years on Facebook and Instagram, [recounting] the adventures of going to find these old climbers. So that [travelogue] turned into talking about the book.

PDN: What advice would you give to other photographers about publishing a book?
JH: It’s surprising how few of the younger [photographers] I talk to look at photography books and [study] the history of photography. I learned so much studying the people who came before me. [That way] you can’t delude yourself into thinking you have something [new to say] when maybe you don’t.

The other thing is just pure luck and fortitude. I tried for years to get something going on this project, and for 17 years, it looked hopeless. Persevering does work.

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