Of country music legend Dolly Parton, Herrington says, “She’s one of the friendliest and coolest people I’ve ever met, and we got along great. But, still, when it’s Dolly, there’s an army of people involved. But we did the whole day—a big-label, big-deal shoot. Every situation is different, which I like. But some of the situations can be very stressful when you don’t have enough time. Most of the time I know what I’m getting into, so I know if this is going to be a big setup or not, and I kind of plan accordingly. Obviously, you’re going to get my looser, more documentarian style if I only have 30 minutes. Your mental kit bag needs to be packed with a lot of tools.”
As one might expect of any photographer with 40 years of experience, Jim Herrington has a masterful grasp on the medium. At a glance, his work appears simple, maybe even stark. A deeper dive into his portfolio—made of mostly black-and-white images, all of them portraits—reveals his sublime eye, a keen attention to decisive moments and an affinity for subtlety. Never flashy, his photographs are deceptively simple, with an effortless, less-is-more vibe. In short, he’s one of the finest portrait photographers working today.
Known largely for the pictures of musicians he has made throughout the last few decades for high-profile American magazines and virtually every major record label, his latest collection comes from another inspiration that’s equally close to his heart.
“I’ve got three great passions in my life,” Herrington says, “which are music, photography and climbing. And for all of them, I seem to have an inordinate amount of interest in their history and the early practitioners. I’ve been like this since I was 5 years old. I’ve just got a deep interest in old stuff: history, people, things. My father had a collection of 1940s LIFE magazines laying around when I was very young, and I feel like those sparked my interest in not only photography but also faces and travel. I’ve never been super-concerned with the current state of things; whatever I get into, I get into the history and the greats that came before.”
For 19 years, what Herrington has been into is photographing the pioneers of the mountaineering world, the legends of climbing who blazed trails in the early and middle 20th century. The body of work—all black-and-white, all shot on film—is collected in his new book, The Climbers (Mountaineers Books, October 2017).
“More than photography,” he says, “I think maybe my talent is finding these stories and people that I find really interesting. I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘Oh, those old faces are so fun to photograph, aren’t they?’ And that’s not really…I’m not into the typical craggy-face-old-man cute picture. They happen to look that way because of the lives they’ve led, and that’s the part that’s more interesting to me.”
In many ways, Herrington approaches his subjects as a documentarian. Even when meticulously posed, his images have a spontaneous quality, and his book includes each climber’s remarkable stories alongside their portraits. There’s Doug Scott, who broke both legs on a treacherous descent of a Pakistani peak known as The Ogre, forcing him to crawl on his hands and knees for eight days to reach base camp, only to discover the camp was abandoned and his colleagues had left him for dead. Or Riccardo Cassin, an Italian legend who started climbing in the 1920s and continued through the 1970s. A man of many legacies, he died just a few days after Herrington traveled to northern Italy in 2009 to photograph him at his family home.
“He was 100-and-a-half when I appeared at his house,” Herrington says. “He fought for the Italian resistance in the streets of Lecco, and his climbing partner was shot dead beside him. He had already had a climbing career before the war, and then he went on afterwards just to really dominate and climb all over the world and design gear. He spoke no English, and I speak three words of Italian, so there was mime and hand gesticulations and a general understanding of each other and what we were there to do. The family was around, holding their vigil—grandkids, great-grandkids, great-great-grandkids, I think even great-great-great-grandkids. They all were hanging out for days, having a very Italian-style goodbye.”
Instead of photographing his subjects in the most obvious fashion—bedecked in climbing gear and perched on some rocky outcrop—Herrington often poses his climbers far from the mountains, in a much less obvious fashion.
“That’s all I hear,” he says, “‘Oh, so you went climbing with these people?’ And I’m like, well, no, they’re 95 years old, they haven’t climbed, some of them, in half a century. A couple of them were 100 years old. Even when I describe it as portraits of climbers who were climbing in the 1930s, people still ask, ‘So, what climbs did you do with them?’ I do like the non-typical approach, and we’ve all seen the über-classic shots of these guys from the golden age, the 1940s, the 1950s, shots of Gaston Rébuffat in the Alps, and, you know, they’re amazing photographs, but they don’t need to be done like that again. We’ve seen them in their prime looking heroic and fantastic. You know, my interest in this is not just about climbing. It’s about aging, in a way. These guys could be pinball machine repairmen, or maybe that’s a bad example, but people who have compromised a whole lot to be good, like anybody, like an actor or a musician, they’ve compromised relationships, they’ve compromised finances. To be driven to be the best in your field, there’s a lot of good and bad that comes with that, and it’s interesting to meet someone after that’s all gone away and discover, was it worth it? I got lots of different answers. It’s a tapestry. It helps me a lot, philosophically, as I get older. What are these moments like that I live right now, and what are you working for, and what do you expect to get out of it? I can’t say there’s one answer, but I certainly discovered a lot more answers.”
One image in the book, a beautiful head-and-shoulders portrait of Glen Dawson, was shot on large-format film. The first portrait Herrington made for the project, the image uses selective focus to drive the viewer’s eye directly to Mr. Dawson’s. The rest of the portraits in the project were all shot with medium-format cameras or 35mm cameras—and all on film. According to Herrington, he’s not choosing to shoot film so much as he has chosen not to abandon it. These are the tools and techniques that have always worked for him.
“Black-and-white is simply what I’ve always shot,” he says, “and the whole set is shot on analog film also, which I never stopped shooting. It’s not really a big decision. Now it’s considered ‘vintage,’ but I never stopped. I like touching stuff. The digital world becomes this ethereal, cloud-based world where you don’t get to hold things, nothing ages. I like holding prints, I like holding and looking at film and standing up and not sitting at a computer so much. I’ve had people almost get angry with me for shooting film, as if I’m doing something wrong. Would you get angry at Picasso for using an oil instead of a charcoal? These are things I didn’t even think about before. As digital has become such a big part of the world, I have thought about it, and I like the constraints, actually, that film gives me. I like having to work hard to get the picture. There’s not unlimited possibilities; a lot of it has to be done in the camera when you take the picture. I like the commitment and the knowledge of craft that it requires. And I like that the roll of film ends and you have to stop for a minute. Now I really love the gear. I’ve got my Hasselblad, my Rolleiflex and my Leica, and they’ve never not worked. They don’t run on electricity, and they just keep getting sexier-looking every year, whereas the digital stuff seems to be obsolete a year after you buy it. That’s just not cool to me.
“It’s not a real conscious thing,” he adds, “it’s just what I like. It’s comfortable, and I’ve only philosophized about it here lately as I’ve been asked about it, but it’s really just a tool that I use, that I like. With art directors at magazines, many of these photo editors don’t know what a lightbox is, they don’t know what the word lightbox means, or a loupe. I have clients that love that I shoot film and they really want it. But there are some clients who want stuff tomorrow and they just don’t want to bother and pay. So I will shoot digital when I have to. I’m fine with it; I’m not anti-digital so much. But, you know, when I have the choice, I pick film.”
One of the most impressive things about a Herrington portrait is his light touch. He doesn’t seem to be interested in showing off, being flashy with things like lighting or post-processing techniques. Instead, he creates beautiful, simple compositions and focuses on moments in a way that’s simply exceptional. Herrington’s portfolio could teach a portraiture class.
“I think my not showing off is showing off,” he says. “If you want to talk about it that way, I don’t think the flashy technique is the only way to show off what you have to offer. I think subtlety and taste are things that are as important as anything. It always goes back to music with me. There are great songwriters and even guitar players who can do anything on a guitar, but if they’re devoted to the song, then they’re serving the song. People always talk about Ringo’s drumming, and there’s an ongoing debate: Is he the best drummer ever? It’s like…he serves the song. That’s even better than showing off with drum solos. And I think that’s what you should do with a photograph is serve the photograph. You don’t need to prove your might and muscle every time you get behind the camera. There’s a song to serve.
“It’s not all flash,” Herrington adds. “Hopefully, I have a modicum of taste, but that’s part of the whole craft: knowing when not to do something.”
Both with his portraits of climbers and the musicians he’s photographed throughout his career, Herrington relishes the opportunity to experiment during a portrait session. It’s part of his creative process, and sometimes it springs from necessity.
“Part of it is required,” he says, “because I’m showing up in Tokyo or the Alps or wherever to some person’s house, and I have no idea where I’m going to be taking pictures in 30 minutes. And it’s not like everyone’s coming to a studio where I can control the situation. I love it, and it’s scary as hell. I know I’ve got one chance and I’ve got to make it work. But you’re also coming into a situation where you’re a stranger; you have to be kind of conversational, make pleasantries and gain trust, but out of the corner of your eye you’re looking around, thinking, what am I going to do? There’s always a bit of setup; I mean it’s not completely like wartime documentary. It’s a combination, you know, a combination of…I’ve got so many masters and heroes of photography that I’ve studied since I was a kid. They range from: Avedon and Penn to Robert Capa and Friedlander and Winogrand and Arbus.
Like music, you steal from everybody until you don’t need to steal anymore, and it becomes a little ingredient of your own recipe.”