At the apices of the world where only the bravest and most daring of us tread, Jackson, Wyoming–based mountaineer and photographer Jimmy Chin captures stunning vistas of nature that few have the privilege to see. In his more-than-20-year career, he has photographed the mountains of the Himalayas, the Karakoram, the Patagonian Andes and the Tetons, and he has brought us into his adventures through documentary films made with filmmaker (and his wife), Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. But throughout his photography, the human element shines through: the climbers standing among the vistas, both reveling in the majesty of the natural world and their own potential fulfilled. It’s not just high-altitude nature that inspires Chin, but the adventure of humans experiencing it.
This makes sense, of course, when I learn that Chin first fell in love with adventure before the documenting of it. “I got really into climbing late in high school and started looking at climbing magazines,” he explains. “But I never really studied photography or thought much about being a photographer. I grew up looking at the National Geographics that my parents had—like many people, I think.”
Chin’s initial forays into photography were with a point-and-shoot camera with which he first documented the road trips he took during college and then his adventures while he lived on the road. It was during an adventure to Yosemite, where he began spending a lot of time, that he got a taste of being a photographer on assignment. “A friend of mine basically handed me his camera,” he says. “He showed me how to use it, and I took a photo with it.”
That was Chin’s first experience with a single-lens reflex camera (SLR), and the photo ended up making him $500. “[My friend] sold that photo and [gave me] a check, which—in my early twenties and being a climbing bum—was a lot of money,” Chin says with a laugh. “And I was like, ‘Wow! You can make money as a photographer?’ Which turns out isn’t exactly true…”
But that sale proved to be the impetus for an emerging artistic career. In his book There and Back: Photographs from the Edge, Chin recalls reaching out to his fellow climber and adventure photographer Galen Rowell for advice on planning an expedition with some of his friends to the Charakusa Valley in the Karakoram mountain range in Pakistan. In the office of Rowell’s Mountain Light Gallery, Rowell showed him images and told him stories of traveling to Pakistan and photographing the Karakoram, telling Chin: “Make sure you bring a camera.” So, Chin took the $500 he’d made from that Yosemite photo and bought an SLR of his own. “I’d really put some thought into shooting this expedition and documenting it as well as I could,” he says. “And that was the beginning of my photography career.”
Chin’s eloquent visual style emerged quickly. In his documentation of his expedition to ascend K7—a mountain in the Karakoram range—with climbers Conrad Anker and Brady Robinson, the monochromatic, swirling landscapes of sheer cliff faces covered in snow are only broken up by the neon uniforms and gear of the climbers, scaling the mountain or peering out from portaledges. “I was surrounded by a lot of Chinese landscape art in my childhood, and I think those imprinted in my early mind,” Chin says. “When I was out shooting and climbing, my initial compositions were really about this incredible scenery with these figures in the landscape. A lot of my friends were doing these amazing things in the mountains, and I was documenting these adventures that we were on. I loved the idea of putting a human into these grand landscapes, which really gave it scale. And the people within the images gave it context as well.
“Then, as my photography advanced, I learned to tell a broader story in more of a photo essay, capturing emotional moments,” he continues. “I learned a lot over the years, particularly when I stated shooting editorial stories that needed to convey more than just a pretty picture. You wanted more diversity and focal lengths as well as the subject matter. [My work] then evolved even more, you know, to become—as Cartier-
Bresson made famous—decisive moments in a story.”
When I ask about how he developed his abilities, Chin humbly speaks about the many outdoor photographers he’s worked with over the years and how they’ve helped him. For example, on Chin’s first National Geographic expedition that he underwent in 2003, he got hands-on mentorship from Rowell. “In my mind, he embodied the kind of shooting that I really admire because it was participatory,” he recalls. “He was in the action. He was part of the story. He would shoot it from the inside out. Getting to watch him shoot a National Geographic assignment by being right there over his shoulder and seeing the decisions he was making—and he was 62 at the time, so we were talking about decades of experience refined—was better than any sort of schooling I could have ever gotten in photography. I feel really grateful for the people I’ve gotten to work with who have pushed me as a photographer and as a filmmaker and helped me keep that mindset of following my instincts—of following my heart—and being able to tell the stories I want to tell in the way I want to tell them.”
In an interesting parallel, Chin’s recognition that he stands on the shoulders of giants extends to his understanding of climbing as well. There’s that famous quote by mountaineer George Mallory who, when asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, responded: “Because it’s there.” And while those not in the know think of the word it in Mallory’s quote as referring solely to a mountain, what scaling a mountain symbolizes to climbers is not just their own attempt, but all the climbs attempted before. “Every generation of climbers thinks certain expeditions are impossible, and then a generation later, climbers will come along who shatter those conceptions,” Chin says. “A kind of narrative thread, generation after generation, shows that our potential to continually push and achieve the impossible is a human characteristic. So, a lot of the stories that I’ve focused on—both in photography and in film—are about human potential, achieving the impossible, and the extraordinary humans I’ve been fortunate to call my friends [who] have trusted me to tell their stories.”
Being in a unique position of a photographer belonging to climber culture led Chin to his first feature for National Geographic in 2010: Yosemite from a climber’s perspective.
“I had pitched a story to show a different perspective of Yosemite,” Chin says. “Part of the problem was that there were so many stories about national parks, and Yosemite had been shot many times by many great photographers, but I wanted to show the park through the climber’s eye—and, beyond that, the climbing culture of Yosemite, because it’s kind of a nexus in the world of climbing.” The series shows the many joys of the human experience in the national park, from free soloist Alex Honnold scaling the climbing route Separate Reality without any ropes or protective equipment, to people BASE jumping from the top of Half Dome.
Chin’s work on editorial assignments taught him the importance of patience and allowing moments to happen in front of you. “I would say that my favorite type of photography is when I’m on an expedition and shooting on the fly,” Chin says. “It’s the most challenging but purest form of my photography, because I have to push myself physically and mentally as a climber and a ski mountaineer while still having enough space and bandwidth to be creative under duress.”
What he enjoys about that style of photography is its spontaneity. “Sometimes it’s not about trying to find a shot, because the shot will come to you if you wait and put yourself in a good position,” he says. “This really informed my visual style as a filmmaker too.”
It was on that same 2003 National Geographic expedition that Chin also discovered his love of filmmaking. “There were [supposed to be] four legendary adventurer-explorers [on that trip]: Conrad Anker; Galen Rowell; writer Rick Ridgeway; and the filmmaker David Breshears, who had to pull out of the expedition,” Chin explains. “Conrad recommended me to come on as the filmmaker even though I had never filmed before. But in a lot of ways, I fit as a great partner on the expedition side, and they knew I had the eye. Rick told me, ‘Just commit and figure it out.’ He had done a ton of shooting before, so he taught me the very basics of filmmaking: how you shoot a scene—starting with an establishing shot and then close-ups—and how to follow the story and what moments are important. That was my first real taste of it.”
After that, Chin began putting together branded film content while thinking of what kinds of stories he would like to film, and it was on a 2011 Himalayan expedition to climb the Shark’s Fin route of Meru Peak with Anker and climber Renan Öztürk that he found the story for his and Vasarhelyi’s 2015 documentary Meru. “The narratives and theme of the expedition were, in a lot of ways, bigger than climbing and the subjects themselves,” he says. “I wanted to express that kind of friendship, the loyalty and the mentorship [that we have when] pushing through these challenging situations.
“Also, I think it gives a sense of why climbers do what we do,” he continues. “As a professional climber, you’re always being asked: ‘Why do you do it?’ It’s really hard to explain, but in a film—if you make it right—you don’t have to tell people anything. They experience it for themselves, and they can come to these conclusions through the craft of filmmaking.”
The enduring themes behind Chin’s work are not only to portray our relationship with nature but also encourage people to experience it themselves. Chin, who has worked with many environmental conservation organizations like Conservation Alliance, Protect Our Winters and Tompkins Conservation, finds that the philanthropy helps fuel his creative mission to bring us into the outdoors. “The outdoors is elemental to us as humans,” he says. “Landscapes have an intrinsic value outside that which we place on them. If there’s something I would love to share with my children and that they would want to share with their children, it’s these wild places. I hope a lot of my work encourages people to get out into those wild places—and to do it responsibly.” ca