An interview with the lens legend who combines climbing, music, and deep personal storytelling

“How did I become a photographer? In the 1960s I was a child in a small town in North Carolina. There was no technology back then. My father collected old Life magazines, from the 1930s and 1940s. I would look at these huge black-and-white photos that narrated a fantastic world – a world that didn’t exist around me. I remember shots from the North Pole, from Rome and Paris, portraits of Brigitte Bardot…. As time went on, I realized that those pictures were being taken by someone. And that someone had the most fantastic job in the world” 

In order to immerse yourself in Jim Herrington’s magmatic photographic production, you have to think of a multidimensional space, where every image becomes the visual mouth of a long series of artistic and human tributaries. It’s the will to tell a story, to represent it in its entirety through a single moment, a single expression.

Mark Powell by ©Jim Herrington
Minoru Higeta by ©Jim Herrington
Tom Frost by ©Jim Herrington

A philosophy unleashed in two of Herrington’s main narrative strands: the one related to music and the one connected to mountains, to its main protagonists, the pioneers of twentieth-century mountaineering. Figures who turn out to be as mythical as they are evanescent, destined to be lost in the flow of time: a fate that Herrington wished to avoid thanks to an intense documentary work that flowed into his magnum opus, ‘The Climbers’ book.

“Somewhere along the way, I realized that storytelling was fundamental to my work. It was something within me, in my roots. I’ve always loved stories, I remember having a mantra at dinner with my family: if you don’t have something interesting to say, make something up. I photographed legendary musicians for decades, some of these people had been forgotten…. The same was true for so many climbers who had radically revolutionized the idea of mountain exploration between 1920 and 1970. I have always thought that there were enormous similarities between these two categories of human beings: I’m referring to the desire for progress, for overcoming limits, for independence, for a free lifestyle untethered from economic logic”

wen Moffat by ©Jim Herrington
Hamish Mac Innes by ©Jim Herrington
Joe Brown by ©Jim Herrington
Pat Ament by ©Jim Herrington

From Benny Goodman’s clarinet to Riccardo Cassin’s equipment, from Willie Nelson’s guitar to Reinhold Messner’s courage, from the futuristic notes of the Rolling Stones to the first, historic woman on Everest, Junko Tabei. Herrington’s photographs are constant evidence of an inexhaustible interest in life, in the personal experience that, despite its exceptionality, becomes a paradigm of a collective condition, a collective passion.

Riccardo Cassin by ©Jim Herrington
Reinhold Messner by ©Jim Herrington
Junko Tabei by ©Jim Herrington

Herrington brings with him an infinite treasure of outdoor notions and adventures – a knowledge accrued in 59 years almost entirely devoted to the sensitive study of the human and natural elements.

“Mountains play a big role in my life and artistic career. I grew up hiking in the Appalachians, on this  range that two million years ago reached the same height as the Himalayas. At the beginning of my journey, I used to travel with nothing: there was no connection, you could get lost, but you always discovered something new. Today everything is different, everything has become digitized. And this process has downsides, it seems obvious to me, but also many upsides. It may seem ironic, but thanks to Instagram, for example, I’ve trained my writing abilities for ‘The Climbers.’ Whenever I compose the caption of my photos on this social, I feel like a 1960s pop song writer who has to shape short, incisive lyrics”

Fred Beckey by ©Jim Herrington
Armando Aste by ©Jim Herrington
Pierre Mazeaud by ©Jim Herrington
David Brower by ©Jim Herrington

Herrington’s learning ride has no intention of stopping even during his artistic maturity and still allows this photography legend to inspire and be inspired, to process and rework an archive of images limitless in form and quantity.

“I love documentaries, photojournalism/street photography…. The giants of the past that I’ve most admired are people like Jacques Henri Lartigue and Robert Frank. I like the idea of a personal journalism. People usually know of me for my  portraiture, but I am also a big fan of landscape photography. I particularly admire the midcentury Japanese visual school, where landscapes are treated abstractly. Looking back, if I had to choose one shot that typifies my career, I would say the Cormac McCarthy portrait: a dark, reclusive writer whom I photographed in the middle of the desert with a light that, in my opinion, imprints and brings out so many nuances of his literary output. Now I feel time passing and on the one hand I’m aware that I should work on my past production, adjusting and rearranging it, but I also feel that I want to continue photographing and experimenting. And this is a feeling that I cannot ignore”


Thanks to ONA Short Film Festival for this article.

The Black Keys by ©Jim Herrington
Ian Mc Kellen by ©Jim Herrington
Morgan Freeman by ©Jim Herrington
Dolly Parton by ©Jim Herrington
Cormac Mc Carthy by ©Jim Herrington
Gillian Welch by ©Jim Herrington

Credits: Jim Herrington
IG @jimherrington
Text by Gianmarco Pacione