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The Compelling Storyteller

Well known for his spellbinding portrait photography, this man from New York City loves to tell stories through his images. The Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton are some of the biggest stars from the showbiz Jim Herrington has captured in his lens. An avid climber, he has also been photographing legendary climbers for years now. And this brings the veteran lensman to Nepal with a project focused on the Himalayas.

Excerpts from a conversation with Jim Herrington:jim-herrington

Can you tell us about your project?
Since the past 18 years, I have been working on photography series of climbers from 1920s-1960s called ‘golden age’ which is now being turned into a book. It first started out as my obsession with such personalities, and wanting to take their pictures. I climb myself and Sierra Nevada Mountains in California is my favourite place to be. I headed over there as soon as I found out about some old guys who climbed in 1920s whom I really wanted to meet. My camera is like my passport to adventure. I say – “Hey I want to photograph you.” But what I really mean by that is, “I really want to talk to you.” So, I started photographing these climbers there and then, another one in the East Coast of America. Next thing I knew, I was in Italy to click 100-year-old climber Ricardo Cassin. And that, suddenly, made it international. So, this project is all about climbers from that era.

I am here in Nepal primarily to photograph Kancha Sherpa who is the last survivor of 1953 Everest expedition with Edmund Hillary. Then, I’m going on a trek to the Everest Base Camp.

jim-herrngtonYour inspiration…
My dad used to collect old copies of Life magazine which was quite big back then. The magazine had all sorts of pictures with news which fascinated me as a little boy. At first, it was the stories that interested me and then it struck me that somebody has a job that requires them to go and take pictures of things and other people. How fantastic it sounded to just go satisfy your curiosity… travelling, meeting people, and getting paid for it!

How do you describe your style of photography?
I hope it’s empathetic in a way. I shoot people’s portraits, lot of them are famous people who have done things. So, you know I have worked hard on my craft for years printing in a dark room. But at the same time, I don’t want to show-off. I kind of want stuff in front of the camera to do the work. So, I am very conscious about how I shoot, my craft. I like being honest with these things. Even though I love taking creative license, I don’t like to mess it up too much. I like taking a documentarian approach like in this climber series and the portraits of musicians I took for years.

What do you aim for while shooting?
It is capturing the moment of everything you have seen or heard of. From paintings to photographs to history of photography to your favourite photographers to things that I liked or a song or a story I’ve read. You’ve got all that experience and influence. You’re actually working with all your past experiences and knowledge.

How do you prepare for a shoot?
Stay out late drinking. If I sit around, I start thinking too much and then I get nervous. Best thing is to pretend like you’re not going to do it. I used to, and sometimes still do for certain jobs, stay up at night and make sketches on a piece of a paper and draw lights but never referred to them the next day. Nevertheless, that was definitely good for me as it made me think clear. But then I never know what situation I’m getting into. It’s not like I have a studio where I can know who is coming and how the lights are being set up. I hardly worked that way. Even for the climbers’ series, I had to go to a hospital to see a climber who was dying in Colorado. So, there’s no way you can prepare. However, I would suggest: make sure to have enough film, wash your underwear and brush your teeth.

How do you define good photography?
That’s a hard question because I have strong opinions about it. A good photo should talk to you. It’s got to tell you something you’ve never heard of before. There is a story-telling aspect of photography and there’s also a craft. Both involve the art of making prints and having your style like painters and musicians who tend to have their own. So, when I look at someone else’s photography, I look for that sort of consistent style. I mean it’s easy to get lucky and get one good picture, anybody can do it. But to do it continuously for 40 years, to keep getting such snaps and have personality shown through over and over again with a particular style, that’s important. You could have a bad style but that doesn’t count. If you could show me a print, I could tell you why it’s bad. Maybe, I could tell you why it’s good. But just to sit here and define good photography would be impossible. It’s like what is good music? I mean can you define it? Hence, I personally can’t answer to this easily.

What are your goals for now?
Come back alive from the base camp (chuckles). This is my first book so I am excited about it. I have lot of work to do; finish doing photography, write, find a good designer and then put out a book that I’m really proud of. Not just the photography, I have to handle the way it looks, smells and feels. To me, having a book is almost more important or satisfying than a big museum show because I love books as they last forever whereas exhibitions end in a month. It’s good to see prints on the wall but I plan to do more books. My current project is big and expensive but I would want to do something small, probably self-publish. I recently happened to see some beautiful self-published photography books in Japan and I was like, “Oh man, that’s what I want to do after this giant project, to do something to make a living as an artist or whatever I am.”

Your best work …
I think this climbers series because I have stayed with it for a long time and it’s a cohesive body of work. Other than that, it has some of my favourite single shots.