Rock Prints: A Collection of Rock Climbing Photographs. Greg Epperson. Rock Prints Publishing: Bishop, CA. 1998. 81 black-and-white photographs. 96 pages. $35.00.
Greg Epperson, best known for his striking color shots of climbers in action, has produced a small but handsome volume containing black-and-white photographs of—you guessed it—climbers in action. Exquisitely printed on pricey paper, each of the 81 images contains much of interest, yet, oddly, the climbers themselves are often not the chief attraction. Rather, Epperson’s composition skills and his infatuation with rock texture have combined to produce photos that sometimes reach that fabled realm called art.
It’s not all photos here. Three mini-essays—by Peter Croft, John Long, and Pete Takeda—are thrown in for good measure, but these nice prose poems seem an unnecessary afterthought in such a book. Far more satisfying are the informative and witty captions (by Bob Van Belle) tucked into the back of the book so as not to interfere with the purity of the photograph—a nice decision, even though it makes for a lot of flipping back and forth.
We’ll all choose favorite images, and here are four of mine. Page 7 shows a Joshua Tree climber on a dicey crossover move; dominating the left side of the photo is a colossal egg. The egg is a magically smooth boulder, the kind you want to lay hands on to see if it’s real. Page 41 shows a spread-eagled climber on a route with cracks dropping toward the vanishing point. You don’t need to flip to the caption to know there’s only one possible locale for this one: Devils Tower. Page 60 has interest in every square inch: water streaks interlaced with rounded sills create a textured checkerboard. Finally, because it’s so different, the Joshua Tree shot on page 70 appeals greatly to me. This is one of the very few images that puts the climb itself into the context of the climbing area. A tiny figure struggles up a classic-looking crack in a soulful landscape.
Although such images compelled me to return often to them, a certain sameness pervades the majority of the photos. To avoid the “butt shots” or “hair shots” we snapshoters are all too familiar with, Epperson took great pains to rig his ropes and scaffolding in just the right place. But too often he chooses the same point of view: 20 feet distant from his subject, looking downward at a 45° angle. Far too many images in this book follow this pattern, and far too many shots have climbers obviously coached by Epperson to grimace or to stretch unconvincingly for a hold. Another problem, perhaps unsolvable if one is to capture the feeling of exposure, is his overuse of wide-angle lenses. Thirty-foot routes, like Pinched Rib at Joshua Tree, appear to be three times as long and thus seem unnatural (after all, your eyes don’t see it like this). Similarly, the legs of the climber in many photos look like withered appendages.
These are mild criticisms, and the book, like all works of art, is not meant to be looked at casually, or at one sitting. As mentioned, it’s the texture and pattern of the rock that give these photographs their appeal. Give each image careful study and you’ll discover yet again why we so much love to set fingers to stone.