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Before I became a photographer, I was a rock climber. It was my life. I traveled around the country in search of the ultimate climbs and even to France where I lived for a few months. To this day I never feel as home as I do in the mountains. Although I don’t do much climbing anymore, it still defines who I am.

My photographic career actually began with me photographing my friends as they attempted some of the best and hardest climbs in the world. Often I lived in a tent or in a house with a dozen other climbers. Looking back, those moments were some of the most blissful in my life. Today, when I show up in Camp 4 in Yosemite or traipse through the oddly rounded boulders of Joshua Tree, I may not know a soul, but I still feel as though feel surrounded by long-lost friends.

In years past, when I’d aim my camera towards climbers, I’d focus on the steep rock and physical beauty of the scene. These days, I’m more interested in the people. It’s what I call the other side of climbing. Even though I don’t climb much anymore, I’m still a climber through-and-through. It’s part of my essence and my language. This album of images tries to capture that.

The following images are presented in the context of the printed book in which they appear.

The guy on the left is John Bachar. The impact he’s had on my life is indescribable. He was at one time the undisputed best rock climber in the world. In college, I had posters of him climbing - without rope - vertical granite walls that I only dreamed of. Awhile back, the sport changed and John went in his own direction. Still he remains an icon.

Which is why it’s fitting that I placed his portrait next John Long’s, another giant in the world of climbing. (The first one day ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan ranks as one of his great achievements.) I first ran into him when I was just starting to climb. My partner had taken a long fall to the ground - screaming the entire way down. Fortunately he was mostly ok, though shaking and babbling.

Largo - as John Long is known - came over to see if he was okay. Jeff, my climbing partner, still scared from his experience quickly perked up at the sight of this climbing legend. Jeff mumbledĀ  something about this being the end of his climbing career. Largo responded in his trademark booming voice, ” Ho man! Don’t give up the sport!”

Those words still ring in my ears whenever giving up begins to feel like an option.

These two fellows are brothers, Alex and Thomas Huber. Understanding what great climbers do is difficult for nonclimbers to even comprehend. These two climbed the 4,000 feet of vertical to overhanging rock of El Capitan in Yosemite in two hours and 45 minutes. To put this in perspective, it takes most people about four hours just to hike that distance. Imagine climbing a 4,000 foot ladder with most of the rungs missing (and death the certain consequence of screwing up) and you’ll have an idea of the stamina and fearlessness required for the feat.

For those interested in the technical details, the portraits were all shot with my 4×5 view camera using a 150mm lens. The film I used was Polaroid Type 55 - now discontinued. The borders you see are inherent in the film - they’re not some digital effect. With a 4×5, there’s no ability to focus when shooting. I instruct he subject, who’s about two feet from the camera, to stay absolutely still while I load film, close the lens and snap the shutter. The focus is so shallow that any slight move will ruin the image.

Still, there’s a look to the images that can’t be duplicated with anything else. The Polaroid produces a negative which I scan and then print from the digital file. The other images were either shot with my 1d MII or my 5D.

John Mireles

15 Responses to “Climbers”

  1. Tim Halberg Says:

    dude… I LOVE that shot of Yosemite Falls with the powerlines in the foreground.

    It was great to meet you at WPPI.

    LOVE this project!!!

  2. Anne Wayman Says:

    John, I’ve never climbed, but I’ve spent, in the distant past, decent time in the back country… thanks for these exciting pix.

  3. Nate Says:

    Fantastic work, brother. The portraits are timeless and the spreads are killer. I’ve never participated in the sport, but have often thought about it.

  4. Diane Perry Says:

    John, that has me inspired to pull out the climbing shoes and get out there again this year…It was 70 today here in Denver, I should have been out there. Beautiful images..great book! Thanks for the inspiration.

  5. Joe Photo Says:

    Sweet images bro! It’s amazing what can accomplish when we are passionate about the subject! I can’t wait to do Burning man again, John Photon. You rock! (pun intended).

  6. paige elizabeth Says:

    Stunning. Absolutely stunning.

  7. Eddie Bojorquez (Studio 512) Says:

    I love this, John. Thank you for always giving us a real look into your world.

  8. jen olsen Says:

    Fantastic portraits!! So timeless…love them!

  9. Melissa Shelby Says:

    Wow! Beautiful images. I can relate to the idea of shifting your focus from the beauty of the scene to the people in it. I often wonder when or how that shift comes along. Thanks for the inspiration!

  10. laureen Says:

    Great images John…awesome!

    Have you ever been climbing in British Columbia? We go to Squamish sometimes…the Chief is quite a famous mountain here in BC…


  11. Leslie Says:

    Wow you photography is amazing! I met you out in the desert…Saline, soaked and talked for a bit…I was a blond ski bum from Mammoth. Possibly will you be sharing your photos from that? My camera had broke just before I got there so I am without the concrete visual memories, which I would love to have because it was such an indescribable experience for me. Or you could email them to me? Just thought I’d ask :) Hope you are well and enjoy the new life in Portland (whenever that may be…)

  12. Cindy Says:

    Awesome images, John! My husband is a climber and brings home lots of what I call “butt shots” (shot from the viewpoint of the belayer). I’ll have to show him your images to encourage him to branch out more. :)

  13. Tony Bisson Says:

    Great body of work as always.

  14. James Wittwer Says:

    Love the photos, definitely inspiring, and like Diane I think I am going to have to dust the shoes off and head up to Boulder.

  15. Samo Rovan Says:

    I was a climber to. Not a good one, but I was trying hard. :)
    Here in Slovenia we also have a lot of good climbers and walls.
    Remember, Tomaz Humar was the first non american that climbed Yosemite Reticent Wall solo in 1998.


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