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High Rocks and Ice: The Classic Mountain Photographs of Bob and Ira Spring

High Rocks and Ice: The Classic Mountain Photographs of Bob and Ira Spring. Ira Spring. Foreword by John Harlin III. Guilford CT/Helena MT: Falcon, 2004. Numerous black & white photographs. 107 pages. $18.95.

In his introduction to this most essential volume in Northwest climbing history, Ira Spring acknowledges that “My twin brother, Bob, and I did not deliberately set out to chronicle the ‘Classic Age’ of Mountaineering.” Nevertheless, that’s exactly what happened—and everyone who loves those glistening peaks is in their debt.

High Rocks and Ice provides a retrospective catalog of the work of this pair of legendary alpine photojournalists, whose passion for taking pictures was first lit in 1930 when Eastman Kodak celebrated its 50th anniversary by offering every 12-year old in the United States a free Box Brownie camera. The brothers took the company up on its offer and headed off to the mountains. Over the long course of their professional partnership, the Springs moved on to bigger and better (not to mention heavier) camera gear, publishing their superb black-and-white photographs in a wide variety of places, including the Seattle Times, National Geographic, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, and more than 50 books. Completed just before its author’s death in 2003, High Rocks and Ice includes photos taken on Mt. Rainier (the most frequently depicted location in this book), Glacier Peak, Mt. Shuksan, Mt. Challenger, as well as a few assorted sites in the Olympics, Canadian Rockies, and Alaska. As John Harlin III observes in his Foreword: “So ubiquitous were the camera lenses of Bob and Ira Spring... that most of us who loved the Northwest’s mountains in the second half of the twentieth century have trouble separating our personal memories from the images we’ve savored on the printed page.”

Surpassing the historical value of the photographs, however, is a powerful emotional charge that comes off these pages, which some may mistake for nostalgia but is in fact memento mori, a reminder of the inevitability that all things pass. In the section titled “My Teenagers,” we find a picture taken on Mt. Rainier in 1951, when the Springs hosted a group of four teens who were eager to assist the photographers in the arduous work of setting up shoots in the difficult glacier landscape. There they are, sitting joyful around the cook stove in a camp perched somewhere near the clouds. In the foreground, we are given the very picture of youth fair and carefree; in the background, the lambent ranges of eternity. If we climbed to this same spot today, we should expect to discover these young people still lounging among the boulders, still happy, still vibrant, still there—or so the photo seems to suggest. But of course this response is based upon a dark and delectable deception, one inherent in the very nature of photography, especially in the documentary style black-and-whites that were the Springs’ forte. As Susan Sontag expresses it: “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” To reflect upon an artful documentary photograph only intensifies the effect. Nowhere is this more poignantly felt than in contemplating Ira’s 1973 shot of Devi Unsoeld smiling in the immortal sunshine beside her father, Willi, on the slopes of Mt. Eldorado.

Near the end of the book is a 1950 image of the Quien Sabe Glacier in Boston Basin, North Cascades. In his commentary, Ira provides a sentence that could serve as the epitaph for what he calls the Classic Age of Mountaineering: “The last time I was in Boston Basin, the glacier was hardly there at all, reduced to a late-summer snowpatch, a vanishing memory of the Little Ice Age that began in the fourteenth century and pretty well petered out in the early twentieth.” All things flow. Though the glaciers and climbers depicted in these pages may have vanished, something of them may yet be evoked by immersing oneself in the photos and vignettes found in High Rocks and Ice.

John P. O’Grady