Getting The Feel Of It

And learning what matters

SIX YEARS AGO, I was dropping off photographs for a community fundraiser at a gallery in Colorado Springs. Turning to leave, I was shocked to see Thomas Blackshear, a fellow Springs-area resident, a world-renowned fine-art painter, and a hero of mine. Thomas' work includes numerous U.S. Postage Stamp series, exhibitions at the Smithsonian and American Museum of American History, and the annual "Ebony Collection," a series of African American sculptures that for years was the number-one collected sculpture series in the U.S. I turned back to finish up with my "art" and to muster up enough courage to walk up and introduce myself, only to turn around and find myself face-to-face with Blackshear.

"Are these your photos?" he asked. Taken completely off guard, I said that they were. Flustered, I tried to change the subject, fanning out hard as I explained that I was familiar with his work. I asked about his latest exhibition at the Vatican and his projects for National Geographic. He humbly skirted my inquiries: his interest was directed to my photos, my background, my style.

"Style?" To say I was floored would be an understatement. I fumbled through the conversation, attempting to keep up. During this serendipitous encounter, Thomas said something to me that I never forgot: "In any artistic endeavor, if you can capture an identifiable emotion that connects the viewer with your work - and I don't care if it's anger, sadness, awe, love, hate, or happiness - the work is successful."

I left with a new mindset, realizing that so many of my memories are formed around photographs - my own and those of others - that I subconsciously connected with for emotional reasons rather than aesthetics. I revisited the photo books on my shelf and saw the most memorable images in a new light.

Steve McCurry's picture of a young Afghani woman with piercing green eyes communicated "fear." Alfred Eisenstaedt's photograph of a young American sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square the day that World War II ended screamed "celebration." Neil Leifer's photograph of Muhammad Ali towering over a knocked-out Sonny Liston shouted "triumph." And in the climbing world, Corey Rich's photograph of Chris Sharma upside down, eyes rolled back, and tongue out on Witness the Fitness communicated "very, very focused."

Back behind the camera, I asked myself what I was trying to capture. I started missing even more shots than usual, but that just makes you want the next one all the more. At the time, I was also shooting a lot of skateboarding; in fact, it was probably my specialty. Climbing presented a different set of challenges. The moment of anticipation was completely different, and getting the right angle meant a lot more work. I began looking at the overall scene and my subject in a new light, literally. If I couldn't find the right light, I would add strobes, which I used all the time for skate photography. But simply adding light to a climbing shot wasn't enough to create a memorable emotion.

One day, something finally clicked. It was the winter of 2005, and I was in southwest Utah with friends Andy Raether and Kyle Vassilopoulos. It was my first time shooting from a rope. "There's a great view of the cave up there, man," Andy said, pointing up a free-hanging rope to an anchor that seemed a terrifying mile away. I spent the next 30 minutes struggling with jumars on the swaying line.

The scene was an utter paradox, with me scared shitless dangling safely from my cord while Andy was run out, 80 feet off the deck, and throwing fearless all-points-off dynos. This was his Beta, and I was simply present, but the photos I timidly shot were a revelation. Andy's casual body position in the frame said, "fearless." There were no strobes, no posing, no card tricks - just an emotionally-charged moment frozen in a photograph.

That night at the campfire, we huddled around the glowing screen of the camera, staring at the pictures and excitedly talking about the photos and the day's adventure. It would become a common scene for me as I began traveling around with climbers, shooting and sharing images. It soon became clear that climbers by nature are more eccentric, fearless, and driven than your average human being. Capturing emotion at the crag is often as simple as showing up.

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