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Rocks Around the World

Rocks around the World. Stefan Glowacz and Uli Wiesmeier. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1988. 144 pages. $24.95.

There’s a commercial recipe behind Rocks Around the World: find a reigning rock-climbing star, send him with a personal photographer on a world tour of the standard watering places (Smith Rocks, Needles, Red Rocks, Arapiles in Australia, Ogowayama in Japan, and well-known locations in France, Germany and the U.K.) crank out another coffee-table book and count the money rolling in. Since my personal coffee table’s legs had buckled and collapsed long ago, I've been immune to this formula. Then I discovered, encaged in the mummified hand of this publishing convention, the photographs of Uli Wiesmeier, who accompanied the peripatetic West German ace Stephan Glowacz.

In a field where even gifted photographers can get sucked into cliché, Wiesmeier stands out as an original mind: bringing a personal vision to such standard shots as a chalked-up fist straining on a nubbin, a group of climbers at a bouldering wall. The true hero of this book is not the lantern-jawed Glowacz with his long locks and gymnast’s physique in colorful tights, it is the rock — its sculpture, its fantastical textures, its place in the landscape — observed by a genius eye. At his best Wiesmeier communicates a richness of vision and fine detail akin to a canvas by a grand master. His double-page spreads on Jogasaki, Red Rocks, Mount Arapiles and Verdon are breathtaking.

In the more familiar rock-climbing sequences Wiesmeier deftly gives us shots with something urgent to say, each frame dense with information, lyrical in its evocation of scenery. With a fine sense of perspective, he balances the claims of rock climbing action and of the surroundings. The picture of the sport that emerges is full of reverence and wonderment at the properties of rock. The climber belongs here, he is integral and necessary to the properties of the land, not the gaudy alien we’ve seen so often. And the crags themselves are just magical.

Glowacz’s short, four-part commentaries are uninformative and at times just silly. (If Rodin’s Thinker could speak, would he be worth listening to? Was Nijinsky?) But the text’s triviality hardly matters, such is the majesty of Wiesmeier’s work.

John Thackray