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Souvenirs from High Places, a History of Mountain Photography

Souvenirs from High Places, A History of Mountain Photography. Joe Bensen. Mountaineers Books: Seattle. 151 color and black-and-white photos. 144 pages. $35.00.

Souvenirs from High Places: A History of Mountain Photography is a pleasing collection and celebration of photography from the world’s mountains, yet it ultimately raises tough questions. I was delighted to see familiar classics, like the Bisson work from the Mt. Blanc region in the late 1800s, Byron Harmon’s wanderings in the Canadian Rockies and the extraordinary archive produced by four generations of the Tairraz family. Bradford Washburn’s sensuous Doldenhom East Ridge is here, in an exquisite frame exposed as Washburn was flying toward the mountain, about to make his more familiar images of the ridge. We see Vitorrio Sella, too, though considering the author’s kudos for him as “the greatest mountain photographer of all time,” he is under-represented.

The real pleasure of this volume is in the surprises and arcana. Who cannot be seduced by the early 19th century etchings? Or by the German Alpine Club’s quaint hand-colored postcards from the early 1900s? My favorite of all is a remarkable 1967 image by Czech photographer Vilem Heckel. With all the formal richness of a classic modernist photograph by Edward Weston or Arnold Newman, Heckel gives an intimate sense of a climber’s fatigue on a broiling snow slog in Pakistan.

Once Heckel’s show-stopper grabbed me, I realized how much this book was missing images that reached a similarly high level of artistry. Re-reading the author’s introduction and musing on the title, it became clear that the book tries to cover too much terrain, that encompassing both “souvenir” and “history” leaves the book diluted and uneven. The book proposes to cover “… the highest state of the pictorial climbing art…[;] however, this is also the story of photographs taken over the years by the many thousands of ordinary citizen climbers ....” In the context of climbing photography, a souvenir is typically either a hero shot or a relatively casual snapshot of a person or place, like those seen here of a bivy hut on the Brouillard Pillar or a portrait of Reinhold Messner.

However much we may admire a place or person, the pictures themselves usually remain aesthetically inconsequential. On the other hand, “history” connotes a survey that intends to track creative change through time. In this vein, the book delivers fantastically artful images like Heckel’s and Washburn’s. But combining masterpieces with banal snapshots seems peculiar at best. This anthology would be much improved by focusing on one intention or the other: stay with snapshots and come up with a wry, wacky family album of the climbing fraternity, or focus entirely on the great art shots.

All of which raise a key question: how often has mountaineering photography actually entered the realm of fine art? This point could be argued ad nauseam by everyone from museum curators to the most museum-adverse climber. Since I have the remarkable privilege of writing this review and the opportunity to answer my own question, my response is: not terribly often. Most mountain photography, even by devoted, accomplished, and, in some cases, famous photographers, is fundamentally little more than hero shots or the by-product of being in the right place at the right time. It is usually not the result of the individual vision or soul. Photographers who can take us beyond passive description and into active visual creation, as Heckel and Washburn have, are exceedingly few and far between. The overall standard of climbing imagery has risen far in the past decade or so (witness the high quality of magazine covers and gallery displays in the climbing literature), yet too many images remain formulaic.

Those who take their photography seriously owe their art, their mountains, and their society much more. Transcendent images are floating around somewhere out in the ether, waiting to be born. I don’t pretend to know how to bring them into this world, but I do know that their discovery will only be possible if we ask tougher questions of our art than most of us are currently asking. Like climbing 5.19, doing the impossible will result from someone pushing beyond the inherited forms and predictable ideas—and it will, no doubt, someday be done.

James Balog