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STORY BEHIND THE IMAGE: The Moment Before It All Changes

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Todd Snyder rappels off Eichorn’s Pinnacle at sunset. The West Pillar is a 5.9, 5 pitch climb in Tuolumne Meadows, California. Fuji Velvia / 50 ISO / 17-35mm / f/5.6 / 1/250th of a second. 

As a photographer, I’m acutely sensitive to light: how it changes from moment to moment, or even from season to season. I was thinking about this last week during the summer solstice—the time of greatest light. Thus far every day of 2013 had been building toward that single great culmination. Now, the sun is in a new phase of retreat.

As with any big victory or achievement in our lives, the solstice is not a permanent state. It’s just one point on a journey. All climbers know that the summit is only half the battle. Any high, or low, point is, in reality, just a mid-point in a continuing cycle of rise and fall, culmination and decline. Ascent and Descent.

What I’ve discovered over the years is that the most interesting moments—the ones worth photographing or writing about—always seem to occur just before or after that decisive culmination. What happens directly preceding or following these points of extraordinary transformation, in which one phase ends and another begins, perpetually reveal themselves to be the most significant. Those are the moments that truly tell the greatest story.

That could mean the change from dark to light, as the sun rises, or light to dark, as the sun sets. These natural laws somehow even apply to our own lives, as we make those big choices that drive us from one place to another.

For me, one of those pivotal, dramatic transitions came right in my last year of school. Originally, I’d begun college as a photojournalism major at San Jose State University. However, I was actually spending most of my time not in the classroom but outdoors, shooting the things I loved. Rock climbing, in particular.

Eventually, I transferred to Fresno State University because it was only 1.5 hours from Yosemite National Park, where I was spending just about every weekend anyway, climbing and shooting.

During my admittedly lackluster college career, I began to notice a phenomenon: There seemed to be a direct correlation between my GPA and the number of images I was getting published in magazines. The more time I spent outdoors shooting the things I loved, the more images I got published. The more images I got published, the worse my grades became. The cycle compounded and spiraled. More images published meant more checks coming in, which meant more money for film and gas, which equaled more resources to get outdoors and photograph the things I loved.

Eventually, three classes shy of a degree, I recognized what the universe was trying to tell me and acquiesced. Really, I was traveling on assignment so much, already doing the job I was allegedly studying to learn how to do, that I no longer had time for school.

Another phenomenon I noticed was, the more photos I got published in magazines, the more frequently I received totally random phone calls from prospective clients who had seen some image of mine in print, looked me up online, and cold called me to hire me for a commercial advertising shoot.

Just after leaving Fresno State, I got one of those phone calls from Nike ACG—the technical outdoor-apparel division of Nike. They wanted striking rock climbing and hiking images set in the High Sierra. Winter was just around the corner. I knew Tuolumne Meadows, with its staggering granite formations, would be the perfect location. But I also knew it was risky to plan a late-autumn shoot here because the instant a single snow flake touched down, the Park Service would close the road.

Still, I pictured  Tuolumne’s iconic, captivating formations, like Cathedral Peak and Eichorn’s Pinnacle, and knew I needed to take the gamble.

Upon leaving school, I’d set up a studio in Sacramento and already had enough work to justify hiring Todd Snyder as my first full-time studio manager. Through his life, Todd has enjoyed wearing many hats. Todd was actually a teacher at my high school, Quartz Hill High. He was a mentor and one of my first climbing partners when I was growing up. Before being a teacher, Todd was an aerospace engineer—a rocket scientist. Now, this guy who was always looking for the next challenge had decided to take on the one of helping me, a 20-year-old college dropout, turn his photography passion into a business.

There was some part of me that intuitively understood that staging a successful shoot begins with assembling the right team. Todd, with his enormous climbing and teaching experience, would be invaluable. I also brought on Justin Bailey, our part-time employee, to run logistics and put to use his incredible skills as a backcountry chef. Finally, I invited my father, Dave Rich, who had just recently retired, to help us shuttle cars and gear in and out of Tuolumne.

When the first day of the shoot finally arrived, Dad shuttled us into Tuolumne Meadows, and Todd, Justin, two athletes from Nike and I suddenly found ourselves situated in the surreal, almost magical reality of the high Sierra.

That first day, we shot Eichorn’s Pinnacle. After I captured the cliche images of the athletes standing in victory on top, they descended and headed back to camp for dinner. Meanwhile, I hung back and waited for Todd to rappel down and clean all the anchor equipment and ropes from the wall. As Todd descended, in a moment just before the sun set, he pushed out from the wall and I took this photograph.

Jim Balog, a photography mentor and great friend of mine, once said that you should never be satisfied with the image you’re making. You can interpret those wise words in many ways, but I think that he meant that you should never stop pushing yourself. Don’t put down the camera and head back to camp for dinner, even though it was a long day, before the sun has set and all the light is absolutely gone.

The ultimate value in Jim’s advice, however, is that it forces you to stay out there and be in position to witness those rare, transcendental moments always seem to occur right before or right after some significant moment—the transition from day to night, or fall to winter, or even from a climber on the summit to a regular guy back on the ground. The idea is that you need to push yourself mentally, physically and creatively to capture those moments. It always seems to involve some degree of discomfort, if not downright suffering, too. Never be satisfied and never call it a day before the day is done. I believe that that is what it takes to create any lasting photograph that stands the test of time.

Those two days in Tuolumne were huge.  As predicted, the late autumn weather was fickle, throttling toward winter. Nights were freezing and windy. We were way out in the backcountry, among the granite giants of Tuolumne Meadows, with a storm moving in.

 When the shoot ended, and we hiked out to meet my father waiting for us at the cars, the first few snowflakes of the year began to fall. We escaped from the park just as the rangers shut the gates behind us, ending the climbing season for the year.

But for me, as I sped ahead toward my office in Sacramento, I felt as if a new phase had just begun.

Comments

  1. great shot – great story

  2. Carmen Wisdom says:

    Have been swept up in the Dawn Wall experience through your photography. This weekend my boyfriend asked if I’d seen the photographs in Time, they were taken by his former student. So, anyway, Corey, Mr. House from QHHS says You’re doing pretty cool stuff in this world!

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