Photographer Jim Thornburg has climbed rocks with some of the greats, but it should also be said that those climbers have had their pictures taken by one of the great lensmen to specialize in rock climbing photography. To focus for a moment on one image, the cover of Rock and Ice from August 2014: a miniscule figure hangs from the lip of a cave, poised to ascend, and we see every detail from the inside: starting with the stalactites of the cave roof and reaching to the ocean beyond.
When I spoke with him, he was two weeks out of another shoot for Rock and Ice, and several years into a sort of professional renaissance in which he has focused almost exclusively on projects that inspire passion in his photography. “You have to be protective of passion,” he said, “in order to make it work.”
Thornburg started climbing when he was 17 and knew soon after that he wanted to spend his life outdoors. When he was 21 he learned that would mean making some tough choices. Ron Kauk, the Chris Sharma of the 1980’s, was visiting Mickey’s Beach, north of San Francisco, where Thornburg was among a small group of locals putting up first ascents. It would have been a big deal to show him around. At the time, however, Thornburg was working at a climbing shop in Berkeley, and his boss wouldn’t give him the day off. Thornburg missed the event and a few days later put in his notice.
Spending as much time as possible climbing, Thornburg nurtured a talent for taking photos of his friends on rocks. He had relatively little formal training, he said, but one very good college course set him in motion, and he was able to learn on his own from there.
After looking at some of Thornburg’s slides on a trip, a friend encouraged him to submit photos to the Chouinard Equipment Catalogue, which published photos of rock climbers taken, by and large, by other climbers. The slide sheet for photo submissions for the catalog had spaces for 20 slides, and Thornburg had an easy time picking out 19 photos he thought would do well. He figured he should fill the 20th space, though, so he finally decided on a picture he had taken at Smith Rock, of climber Jim Karn. That was the first photo he ever sold.
Thornburg was working minimum wage at the time, and the $300 he was paid for the photo had an instant impact on him. He said that was the moment it dawned on him that he could shoot photos for a living.
You’ll see Thornburg’s work on the covers of the two biggest climbing magazines in the US: Climbing and Rock and Ice, and a slew of guide books, calendars, and gear adds for companies like Patagonia, Prana, and The North Face. He made it, in other words. He achieved what every aspiring outdoor photographer must dream about: working outdoors, exposure to a wide audience, and access to superstar athletes, not to mention free gear.
At the peak of his career he was working for the biggest climbers and outdoor brands in the world, but then he let it go. “It started to feel like a job,” Thornburg said.
Looking at the results of a photo shoot on a magazine cover, it can be easy to forget the work that goes into that spread. But climbing photographers have to climb, dangle from ropes, deal with exposure, wind and cold, just like climbers do. It’s important to have a passion for the work every time you’re out on a shoot, Thornburg says. “The times I haven’t it’s been grueling and scary.”
Some people may remember an incident in 2000 in which four climbers were kidnapped in Kirghizstan. Beth Rodden and Tommy Caldwell, two relatively big names in climbing, were among them, as well as a photographer for The North Face. Everyone in the group survived the ordeal, but not before they were forced to march for days on starvation rations and shot at.
Thornburg had been invited to go on this trip but ultimately took a pass. He says he wasn’t feeling good about it and decided not to go, even though it had the potential to impact his career--if you turn down too much work as a climbing photographer you eventually stop getting offers.
After that narrow miss, he slowed down on work for big clients. He had to adjust, taking jobs he may have passed on before, but he said it has worked out well: “Most photographers go for the Holy Grail, working for the big companies, but there are other ways.”
One of Thornburg’s more recent projects has been the foundation of Potlicker Press, a small publishing business that brought him back to writing and shooting photos for two self-published books, Bay Area Rock, a 420-page guidebook to climbing in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Stone Mountains, a large-format, 320-page coffee table photo-book that explores 35 of North America’s top destination crags. “These projects are perfect for me,” Thornburg said, “because I get to shoot and write about exactly what I find most exciting; sharing info and psyche with climbers about climbing areas.”
When he’s taking photos, Thornburg said that he aims for what he calls an “organic blend” between photography and climbing rocks. It’s rare that he just shoots photos, he said, because doing the actual climbing produces inspiration for the work.
When asked what excites him about climbing in general, Thornburg said he’s interested in the way it’s evolving, particularly the way rock climbing’s next generation is driving change. “What young people do in gyms today has a direct effect on climbing outside five or ten years down the road,” he said.
Bridging the generational gap is a common theme in climbing culture today, with rock gyms proliferating and inspiring new climbers to migrate outdoors. Thornburg said he thinks it’s a mistake for older climbers to disregard the next generation’s contribution to the sport, adding that the latter, “Care(s) about the climbing community and about climbing areas and history. They help with building trails, replacing bolts, and cleaning up trash. They give back.”
Check out Jim Thornburg's work on his website, www.jimthornburg.com.
By Brian Gruters
Brian writes about science, conservation, and ways that people interact with nature for various publications, as well as his blog, www.briangruters.com. He is an aspiring surfer, member of the Southern California Mountaineers Association, and likes to explore mountains and canyons.