Unexpected: Thirty Years of Patagonia Catalog Photography

Publication Year: 2011.

Unexpected: Thirty Years Of Patagonia Catalog Photography. Jane Sievert and Jennifer Ridgeway, eds. Patagonia Books, 2010. 213 pages. Hardcover. $49.00.

The photographs collected here are beautiful and inspiring.We all know in our cynical little hearts that these photographs have some dark connection to advertising, branding, marketing, and all that stuff about which I know nothing and will not address further, except to say that the Patagonia catalogs have long been portraying a lifestyle, and the stuff they sell by association would be, in their view, good stuff to acquire in pursuit of that lifestyle. Everyone gets it.

What the book makes clear, in its essays and in the photos themselves, is that the best criterion for getting into the catalog is that the editors will know it when they see it. Founding photo editor Jennifer Ridgeway's essay, “Capture a Patagoniac,” ends with the famous dictum, “What we really want (well, what Yvon really wants) is Dr. Hunter S. Thompson dressed in a Pataloha Fish and Tits shirt, cigarette holder in mouth, and a visor down over his eyes, shooting pool with Ted Kennedy’’ (This essay is described as “classic” in the book itself; I concur.) The statement, of course, is just a stance; none of the photos really aspire to this. They do aspire to Yvon’s other dictum, “real people doing real things.” The only false step here for me is when that “law” appears to be broken, which isn’t often: for instance, the photo of a glamorous blonde woman leaning against a 1957 Beaver, applying lipstick Please.

There are occasions when, if you think about it too much, the photograph feels posed (posing, as we all know, is evil). But usually the photograph is so good you either aren’t conscious of the probability of its having been posed, or you just don’t care. Take the famous cover shot of Lynn Hill hanging off the jug on Insomnia. Okay, it's a fine photograph … but wait a minute, Ridgeway happened to be right there to take it, and how many times had Hill done the route? That’s one in which my cynical brain interferes with my aesthetic appreciation. I would much rather see Steve House’s summit photo of Vince Anderson after doing the Rupal Face—you know that sucker wasn’t rehearsed. And that was a Patagonia catalog photo that’s not in the book. Perhaps my appreciation of it depends too much on its outside-the-frame context—something I just happen to know.

To repeat: The photographs are beautiful and inspiring. Many have acquired iconic stature and exist in my memory apart from the occasion of my first seeing them in a catalog. With the book not in front of me, I wondered how many of the hundred I could describe. I named five off the top of my head that I love:

• The opening overleaf of the dusty car in the pampas on the way to the Fitz Roy massif (although I was wrong in remembering it as a Funhog photo; it’s a Barbara Rowell shot).

• Roman Dial’s shot of a smiling Carl Tobin, nose bloodied, ferrying his bike across some raging current.

• John Sherman’s beer-swilling free-solo in flip-flops, which I’ve always been a fool for, though everyone knows he was clipped in. That’s not, and never was, the point.

• Meredith Wiltsie, head in hands, car broke down, child playing with a hammer. Been there, done that.

• Chouinard himself on ice in full Sco’ish conditions. (My memory was wrong again: it’s a Chouinard photo of Doug Tompkins.)

See what I mean? You probably don’t have the book in front of you now, either, but you know you’ve seen several of those shots before.

In addition to Jennifer Ridgeway's classic essay, all the writing is up to speed. I liked the interview with John Russell, whose images had registered with me in the past but not his name (probably because he’s not a climber). And it's always good to hear from John Sherman, though one doesn’t know whether to be happy or sad that he seems to still be living in his van. Cory Richards’ short essay, “Perspective,” is an absolutely first-rate rendering of the artist's long road.

Looking at the photos, I discovered surprising aspects of my own tastes: liked a lot of the kid photos, didn’t care too much for animal shots, liked the ocean and surfing shots, (though I almost never go there and don’t surf). Despite a longstanding admiration for the work of Greg Epperson and Cory Richards, the climbing shots didn’t do as much for me as I thought they might.

Everyone with a pulse will have their favorites; if at least two big handfuls of these photos don’t work for you, there’s probably not much hope: try a blood transfusion or at least get up off that couch.

David Stevenson