Photographer Jim Herrington and I talk about his iconic portraits from Benny Goodman to Fred Beckey [EP 229]
Today I’m speaking with Photographer Jim Herrington. Jim’s celebrity portraits include Willie Nelson, Morgan Freeman, Dolly Parton, and his images have appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone and Esquire. He has a fabulous portrait series of many of the climbing legends such as Ricardo Cassin, Royal Robbins, Fred Beckey, and many more in his acclaimed book The Climbers which was awarded the grand prize at the 2017 Banff Book Awards. Facebook Twitter Instagram The Outdoor Biz Podcast Please give us a rating and review HERE Show Notes Dorothy Lange and Walker Evans. But that's who a lot of those people were. So it was a good early place, just kind of the first place where I saw good, interesting photography. What were you shooting? I was trying to mimic that lifestyle probably. I felt like I did have kind of a serious approach to it, even if the results didn't show it. I was definitely influenced by that stuff. We also had an old 1950s encyclopedia Britannica in the house filled with stock photography to illustrate whatever entry was. But, you know, even that stuff had this kind of, Jobie craft to it. Even if it wasn't art there was a kind of beauty to some of these. I remember looking up the Sierra Nevada and just seeing some black and white photo of it with a red filter probably on it, so that you've got the dark sky and just this classic Sierra image and immediately thinking, well, this is where I have to go. Walker Evans would have turned into kind of an artistic style and statement, which wasn't that far from just a guy shooting stock photography in a way. So I kind of liked that approach early on. Just finding these things that had their kind of inherent, quiet, coolness. And a lot of those shots back then versus now seemed like they were more artistic and more crafted as opposed to looking through magazines these days. And granted there's a lot more magazines and a lot more images, but some of them just look like stock photography. These days it just looks like somebody who's out there firing off snapshots. Those shots, those shots back in those magazines were art almost as well. A lot of it was art. It was beautiful. Back then you had to know what you were doing. You, you had to learn how to operate a film camera. You had to usually know how to work in the dark rooms so that the learning curve was of a certain, you know, distance and math. You couldn't really just pick up a digital camera and futz around in Photoshop and end up with something. So there was a kind of base-level ability to those people. Looking at it now, anything shot on a big format camera, even if it wasn't so great holds a bit of weight, looks a bit serious. People now it's, just such a different playing field, there are so many photographs. We, as a culture, as a world, the humans we've seen so many photos were so burnt on everything, we've seen it all nonstop. And that was a certain naivete back then. People weren't burned out on photos. There was a lot of newness. It just wasn't that not everybody could do it. In the first 10 or even 20 years of my life, there were certain jobs that I got, simply because I owned a camera. I'm not joking, you know, “who do we know that owns a photographic camera?” Uh, well, this guy, Jim Harrington knows, in fact, he even knows how to operate it. It just was true. You know, I got a lot of jobs that way. I remember in the nineties, I would get weird jobs in North Dakota or somewhere. And it was just because we didn't have as many photographers. Now you could pick the tiniest village in North Dakota and there's probably 20 guys with a website or girls, you know, cause they're a photographer. Tell us about your first portrait shoot. Was that the family dog. Did you have the dog sit for a shoot? Was it a family member? First portrait shoot, where I thought I was actually doing something? Well, that shot I did of Benny Goodman, wasn't a portrait sitting. It was him live. And my dad turned me on to Benny Goodman when I was like, practically a seed, very young. I love that kind of music. And at one point Dad said, “Benny Goodman is coming to town. Do you want to go?” And I said, yes. I had that first FinTech and I shot a couple of frames, I was very scared, walked up to the stage in front of all these people. That felt like I was actually doing something, trying something, and actually got something out of it, but still portraits. I'm sure it was just one of my friends that I grabbed where I was trying something that was a little more considered that I'd seen and in some kind of art book or photography magazine and just attempting it. Was there a first paid portrait shoot that was kind of like, Ooh, this is important. I gotta make sure I do good. This is so sad that it's noteworthy and telling. But there, I don't guess this happens anymore, but in the old days when I was young if you were some sort of celebrity, maybe an actor or actress or musician, and maybe you had gone a bit beyond your prime. If there was, for instance, a new appliance store opening in some town, you would appear at the grand opening. And sure enough, this early friend that I'd made, an older guy and he'd lived in London, kind of exciting person. I met in Charlotte and he had been around the music scene of London. He was managing this tiny, mid-century kind of mall, like a prototype of a mall. And there was an appliance store in it. And Eileen Fulton, I don't know if anybody's going to recognize this name, but she was a big soap opera star in the fifties and sixties and seventies. But I think by like 1981, she was probably a bit washed up. Still glamorous, but you know, a little past the due date. And she came to be an appliance store celeb. So I got paid $40 to go photograph Eileen Fulton at the opening. Ah, humble beginnings What inspired your quest to photograph all the famous old climbers? Well, it still kind of goes back to the life magazine stuff. And later on, I don't know if you want to call it journalism documentary, it's a little of both. But you know, it slowly started growing out to these more cerebral types of documentary street people. Gary Winogrand, Friedlaender, even Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Cartier Bresson, you know, I just started really getting into the whole world and the history of this stuff. And, being very influenced by these people I had a real hunger for the history of photography and the great people that had done it through the decades. And I did start shooting the music scene early on, kind of the punk rock, new wave, et cetera, scene of Charlotte and I kind of felt like I was documenting that. Then I moved out to Hollywood pretty early on and started seeking out the current scene. But I was definitely interested in finding some of these kinds of older obscure people, which I did throughout all my music photography. And in fact kind of really got into that. As years went on, really finding a lot of these kinds of roots in America, a blues country, Jazz, R & B, whatever. Especially if some of these people had kind of disappeared and that became a bit of my schtick for a long time and I built up a big archive of that. And with climbing, it was kind of the same thing. Cause I got into climbing, and everything kind of happened around the same time. The early mid-seventies when I started hearing about stuff and I'm into exactly what I was into as a kid. And climbing. I mean, especially, in America in the seventies, the California influence, you know, kind of driven by the Sierra, even the, you know, just the Chouinard catalogs, just that whole thing. It was like propaganda and, um, or even the, um, do you remember the, uh, save mono Lake poster? Yeah, I was going to say even that the Sunset magazines and AAA, all those things had photographs of Yosemite, Death Valley. All that stuff. There was such a strong California propaganda to me, as a guy that had his antennas up, certainly for the climbing. But yeah, Sunset magazine, the beauty of that stuff. And even like I said, that encyclopedia Britannica just seeing the Sierra Nevada. I mean, you know, just the trees, the way the whole place looked like a Japanese Zen Garden, it all made sense to me. And I particularly got super into the history of it and reading about it. And so, around the mid-nineties, I decided, well I knew that Glen Dawson and Jules Eichorn were still alive. And they were about the oldest people I could imagine, anyone else older would have died already. So I just thought, well, I'm going to go find these guys and photograph them and meet them and that's that, right? And so I did, I ended up, this is in the pretty early days of the internet. I don't even know, this was before Google. I don't know what I would have even searched on back then, but I actually somehow found Doug Robinson's phone number. I mean, this is like a primal search. I have no idea, but suddenly it came up on the screen, Doug Robinson, here's his phone number. I thought, really this easy huh? And I just immediately called him. I'm just going to completely, this is probably not the way you're supposed to use the internet, but I'm calling this guy. And so he picked up, we talked for like two hours and just kind of really hit it off. And I told him, I said, you know, I think I'm going to come out. So he thought that was very cool. And then somehow that turned into him and I climbing together and photographing him, Cause I love Doug's writing, I was deeply impressionable and fell under the gaze of Doug's. It was just part of the whole stew that I was digging, you know? And so I went out there and I got Glen Dawson down in Pasadena and then I drove up to Owens Valley and met Doug and we had this amazing two weeks together. We did a first ascent in the Palisades. We went all over the place, went to the needles, a really incredible trip all the way along. And then after that went up to the Bay area and shot Jules. And so, boom, I had these three guys and, it felt kinda cool and it's like maybe I should continue and get these Sierra Nevada guys. This will be a cool little project. So I did, whenever I got the money, you know, this was just a personal project and I was living in Nashville at the time. So I had to keep paying for plane tickets, just all that. That was always a thing. But I slowly got Royal Robbins and Chouinard and got more of these people. And so I thought, maybe there's a little Sierra Nevada series. Maybe it's, I don't know, Outside magazine did a spread, but then at some point, it just kinda grew. I got Bradford Washburn on the East coast, which suddenly it wasn't a Sierra project anymore. Okay. It's an American project, but then a couple of years, three years later or more, I ended up getting Ricardo Cassin and Italy and suddenly it was international and nobody gave a damn about this thing. Really. It was just, people thought I was crazy. It was climbers like some really smart, interesting climbers thought, well, why are you doing this? Like you're shooting like young, hot climbers. It's like, really don't fucking get this at all. I just, it's so obvious to me. I wouldn't want to be shooting young, hot climbers. Like these are legends man. And they're sitting around in their living room. Some of them just waiting for someone to come visit. It was like a dream job and nobody recognized it. That's awesome. It's amazing. You went all over the world doing it and for a personal project! That has gotta be some expense involved in that, but you got some great portraits. I love it. And I love some of the stories you were telling when you were here in Bishop about how you got some of those guys, I forget who it was, you were photographing at his kitchen table. And that story was just, that had to be a great experience. I mean, unbelievable. It was crazy. I started getting very bold in my penniless travels, putting myself way out there without a way home with my camera and my bindle. And it was, I mean, I've always traveled, you know, since I could, since I was young, but it was definitely an experiment of just how far out on the edge you can go with an idea and no money. How about the inspiration for each individual? Did you have a person that you just wanted to, get on the list or you wanted to meet him? Did you have a recipe or an idea of the shot before? You know, again, the early recipe was the Sierra Nevada. The fact that I got Bradford Washburn who was amazing and also his photography was amazing. I just thought, how can I turn that down? That kind of made me turn it into, okay, it's an American thing. I didn't really want to be this big about it, but it's getting big. It also, while it made it more difficult, it also made it easier without the restriction of just the Sierra Nevada. Now, if there's these other people that it's going to make it bigger and messier, suddenly I know I can get this guy and this guy. It's a mixture of guys that I knew and respected. I did have to start thinking about well, I don't want to get too many from one area. You know, this thing's becoming global, then I want to diffuse it out a bit. Sometimes it was all about the person. Sometimes it was wanting to represent an area or scene, obviously the Alps or the Calanques, you know, outside of Marseille. There became these sort of little mini reasons. Obviously I wanted to get some Sherpas, there were all these many reasons. Some people died that were really heartbreaking that I couldn't get, and got so close to that was a super big bummer, but I had to philosophize that and how to keep myself sane. And ultimately I had, and I liked the reasoning that I used, which is this book is a representation of an era. It was never intended to be a who's who complete encyclopedia. That would have been too big anyway. It would have been a really unwieldy book. It would have been just too much so, and that's true. And also it saved me from going insane for the people that I did miss. So I do feel confident that I represented the era very well, which is the 1920s to 1970s. I think if you'd had just tried to get everybody, then all of a sudden it becomes too much like an encyclopedia or library book or something, and it loses the emotion. I think that you've captured the emotion of the era as well as the stories. It's great. And the book is a good size. It's not too big. There are 60 climbers, 60 portraits. I think that's just about right. Any more than that and they sort of lose importance. It may make you skip a couple of pages and keep looking. What were the years photographing the musicians like that had to be pretty wild too, cause those were some wild years. Well, that was fun. I mean, I'm still doing it. I never really quit, but you know, it's a different playing field now. Well, certainly with COVID, but who knows what's going to happen. I’m a huge music fan and grew up loving, I was kind of a product, I guess, of the punk rock years. But I was a big, again, I love big band, Benny Goodman, the stuff my mom and dad turned me on to early rock and roll and jazz. So just everything good. I was into, good as subjective, and I just wanted to document it and I did kind of force that one along. It was great, you know, it was, it was fun to start getting published and getting my name on album covers and magazines and getting paid. But it really was, these were my people. I was an only child in a small town in North Carolina and I didn't feel like, it felt like I had to go out in the world to find this world that I related to. I felt like this was where I should be. And I just had to go find these people. These were friends I hadn't made yet is the way I felt about it. And it turned out to be true. And I think it's the same for those people too. Everybody wants to find their people. I got to be friends with a lot of them, many of them. I mean, And the same with climbing you know, Doug Robinson's one of my best friends. I mean, it's weird cause he was this legend in my eyes. I have to call him today, check up on his new hip. So yeah, I always just felt it was, you create the world you want to be in and that's the world I wanted to be in and it was comfortable and I understood it. And I felt, I kind of felt like I was doing a public service documenting these people. Like maybe you don't realize it now, but one day you'll look at these pictures after this was all gone. And it was pretty adventurous of you to go travel around the world. And even as a youngster doing this stuff, are there adventurers in your family or where did that adventure bug come from? Well, this is something I think about a lot. I had to learn how to do that. I mean you know, my dad turned me on to it. I remember I sorta had the blueprints in our humble little living room. We had a globe, you know, an old fashioned globe. We had an Atlas, we had these life magazines and we had an encyclopedia. And that was like the only four things I remember. It was some kind of visual stimulus, but it was everything. If something came on the news on TV, you know, dad would always show it. We'd look on the map. It's like, Holy shit, what's that? The middle East? What are those people, I want to go. So I had are very early on, but the thing is the Herrington's, um, where a burgeoning grocery empire in the tiny town of Salsbury, North Carolina, My dad's dad who kind of inherited the three very happening stores and a fish market, that my dad's dad's dad's dad had started. But then my grandfather, my dad's dad, he seemed to be some kind of traveling Playboy. As I heard it told he would only come home long enough to get my grandmother pregnant, then take off again. But we have a passport stamped with Tokyo during world war two. And I can't figure out why in the hell . . . we also have papers that he was on the Graf Zeppelin from Rio to Europe. And they used to say, well, you know with the grocery store you would have to travel. You would have to go to Cuba to buy bananas and coffee. And I believed that for a few years. But then I got just slightly older and it's like, no he's not! I mean, at best he would go to Miami, but there are distribution points. He's not going to Cuba to pick out bananas. Cuba to talk to Castro, maybe. So, I don't know. But, um, I guess it's a Herrington thing. My dad was a traveler. There's definitely some restless stuff in the DNA. What about favorite people, who was the most fun to photograph? Oh, there's a bunch, there's so many, you know, Dolly Parton, I always mention her because I think everybody kind of loves Dolly Parton. You know she plays the dumb blonde act. I think most people, you know, that it's actually an act. She's not really acting. She's just kind of effortlessly amazing. I mean, she's truly got an aura around her of super cool, super funny, razor, sharp, smart business. She writes all her songs. She's just like a fully formed, complete human being. I really loved her. Keith Richards, he's a good guy. There's a lot of them. Morgan Freeman was great. Was anybody specifically challenging in a unique way? Couldn't get them to engage? Yeah. I don't like to give them much press, but I've definitely had some dark moments with some people that are definitely good bar stories. I'll tell ya. We'll save that for when you come to Bishop, we'll have a beer somewhere. I sort of, I talk about Warren Harding in my slideshow. That's a long soliloquy, he was . . . we'll call that challenging. Our friendship was over the phone strictly, and things fell apart before we actually met. But, but it did make up a good long story for the slide show, which is kind of dark and funny. I was talking to Greg Thomsen as I was preparing for this interview. And he was saying, he thinks of you as the Anthony Bordain of photography and climbing history, but way more alive. What do you say to that? Well, I'm a fan of Bordain. I will accept the compliment and I met Bordain actually. I was doing a job shooting, Kris Kristofferson, and basically just around him for the day in New York City. And he had to go to the David Letterman show for a couple of hours to do a little thing. So we went to the Letterman show together and, you know, you just hang around backstage for a couple of hours before you do your bits. So I was there, Joan Baez was in a room. It's very low key and quiet back there. Steve Martin stopped by for a bit, but basically it was just kind of boring. And then I passed this one dressing room on the far end and poked my head in and I was like, wonder who's in there. And it was Bordain. Just sitting by himself, watching TV up on the wall, near the ceiling. He kind of looked over and nodded. So I went in and we ended up talking for an hour, he was that guy. I like him, very sad to hear him gone. Have you photographed the Thomsen brothers yet? You know, I should do the kind of a formal thing with them because, they're the other guys that I had heard about early on out of California, these guys doing stuff. And in fact, on a photoshoot, I ended up becoming the defacto model for some Wilderness Experience stuff that was shot. I actually got a free Wilderness Experience pack in the early eighties. But yeah, I knew of those guys and, you know, they did such great work. It's been cool to get to be friends with them. And Greg has done some wonderful things for me, for the book, like really super great stuff. So I'm in debt. I'm glad I've gotten to be really friendly with them over the last couple of years. Hi boys. Do you have any suggestions or advice for someone wanting to get into photography these days? Well, that's a tough one because I guess I would need to know what their reasons were. Why would you want to do this? It’s so challenging, it always was. I mean it always was a hard thing to get into and no doubt, but God, there's just oceans of photographers. Now everybody has a nice DSLR and the learning curve, the progress is so fast because they can get good results and Photoshop. So that just makes the playing field thick. But also it's, the magazines haven't raised their rates in a long time. It's really, you know, digital has hurt everything from the record industry to publishing. So those people, a lot of them are just disappearing or they don't have the budgets they used to have. So it's a, just a battlefield everywhere, but it's also invented a lot of new opportunities, which I'm still sorting out myself. Like what, what are they. I guess my thing, and it's only my opinion, but I would definitely go kind of crazy deep into the history of photography. I do meet a lot of kids, young people who asked me this and I discover that they're not really learning about any of the past great people. I guess that's fine. Is that fuddy-duddy? I don't know when I was a kid I was obsessed with the history of it and these great people, and I think you can learn so much. I just think it's important to know the arc of it all. Then that will inform your craft and style so much. And I think just having a point of view is also the hard thing. When I see younger people there, sometimes they're kind of lucking by luck, falling into some good stuff, but, just developing a style and a point of view that is kind of replicable, or not copying, but have a unique way, develop yourself as an artist and have a reason for doing things this way. And don't be haphazard, really be serious about it Everything takes a certain amount of pain, you know? I sound like an old Catholic nun or something, but, like practicing guitar, practicing piano, or just being a painter, if you really want to rise above, there's going to be late nights, you're going to avoid your friends. There's going to be a certain amount of pain and hard work to kind of rise above. And I don't think that ever goes away. In any craft, sport, art, all of it. If it's too easy, you're not doing something right. Do you photograph every day? Oh, no, absolutely not. I'm thinking about it every day. I mean, even if it's in my mind, I'm working on it. Why am I doing it? What does it mean? What is the new stuff I have? My archives are so huge. It was really depressing the other day, I was looking for something and it just dawned on me. If I don't take another photo, the rest of my life starting now I have enough to keep me busy. That just put me in a funk for the rest of the day. Because if I choose to not do that, Oh, screw that I'm going to keep producing new work. Well, that means I'll never get to the old stuff. Or if I choose to just not do new stuff and only focus on the old stuff, then it's just that, I'm just catching up. Either outcome is kind of like, wow. Yeah, don't stay on that too long, go out and go and create. You've got to create, I find the creativity part of it is a huge part of it. I agree. But you know the whole thing that I do is kind of like this. I mean, the climber book was in a way going through the archives. Cause I did a lot of the photography, it was going back and putting this stuff together. Which I sort of feel like is a part of my archives is well I gotta get it while the getting's hot. You know, I take the pictures. I experience these stories, put these things together, but I can't do anything with them right now. So I'll keep accumulating. And then the other half of the equation is putting it together later. Does the inspiration for the project though sometimes comes later, I guess. And then once you're in the project, like the book, once you've got that started and you realize you want to get some other climbers, but sometimes you've got all this archive of work and the project doesn't come to you until you take this one photo and then realize, Oh, wait a minute, I've got all this, that, and the other, this could be a good book or presentation or whatever it might be does that happen? It's weird. I'm now officially an author. Who's done a book. But before that happened, which was only in 2017, I never had a book and to me, books were the, be all end all, I just really fetishize books, especially art photography, well-designed beautiful books. And I considered them better than a museum show. Like a really good book, is it? But you know, I was probably intimidated and knew that I wanted to do one, but could I do one, would it be good? And finally, I was able to do one, which I'm really happy about, and it was so much work. Does the project derive itself from the archive or an image? I guess it's kind of both. As the climbers, when it was the Sierra, I thought, well, maybe it's just a cool little magazine spread I can sell to somebody that's interested, look at the old Sierra climbers. I guess the way I go through life is just thinking this stuff's important. It's worth getting, I don't know what I'm going to do with it. But as I worked on the climbers, it was becoming apparent, okay, this could definitely be a book if I were only so lucky to get a publisher and money and blah, blah, blah. And now it's unbelievable that it came together. But it kind of morphs in importance and outcome as time goes on, it's kind of like a lava lamp in my brain of possibilities. You know, doing the stuff and then what the outcomes could be and how possible that is. Cause, if you're a, I don't like calling myself an artist, but I guess, people in this kind of world, you need some word for it, a person that does stuff like this, you're always doubting and wondering, and until you've actually done it, it takes a lot of shapes in your head of what it could be. Speaking of books, do you have any favorite books or books you give as gifts? Favorite books? I love Nightmare Alley by William Lindsey Gresham. I'm always terrible when people ask these questions, cause my mind goes blank. I love the writing of SJ Perelman. He was a neurotic Jew that really influenced Woody Allen. Actually I think Woody Allen's neurotic Jewish stick came very much from S J Perelman who was older and before him. He wrote for the New Yorker and things like that. But just these short, very funny, I think, stories that had an incredible vocabulary and he didn't become as big as Robert Benchley and some of those humorous of the same era. I actually thought he was better. Actually think I learned a lot from Perelman. I somehow found him when I was in high school. Jim Thompson, the pulped novel writer, Daniel, Farson Never a Normal Man, his tales of the postwar London art scene. Then there's a book that I recommend if I ever have a photography course with students, I think my textbook might be Photography Until Now by John Sarcowski, who was the great curator of photography at the museum of modern art. Do you have a favorite piece of outdoor gear you always take with you under a hundred dollars? Gadgets? Well, I go through periods of a favorite knife and especially since I've been finding these knives that I get in Spain, for some reason I keep coming back from Spain, Northern Spain, from the Pyrenees over to Bilbao. I just come back with knives. I'm not even one of those knife guys. They land in my possession somehow. I can be such a weirdo romantic. And I think of like some kind of old pictures, I saw people in the mountains high in the Swiss Alps, breaking for cheese and salami in the sunshine. And I think of the knife itself, as it cuts through it, just kind of a beautiful, simple knife, cutting out little chunks to put on a piece of Cracker or bread. So think of having a nice knife in the top of my pack. So when it's lunch break, slicing through a hard cheese cause there's nothing as good as that. If people want to follow up, how can they reach out to you? I'll link to your website, Jim herrington.com. Is that the best place? That's H-E-R-R, not the other spelling. Jim Herrington.com. And then Instagram is the same at Jim Herrington. Perfect. We'll put, we'll put links to those in the show notes. Please rate and review us HERE Thank you!