There are a lucky few that have the opportunity to permanently explore, to live and work in that beautiful open space that the rest of us, mostly weekend warriors day dream about on our 9-5. When we want to escape the city, even if it’s just vicariously in the pictures and videos of others, we’re sometimes lucky enough to be exposed to images that do something more, whether it’s that combination of composition and exposure, or stark and powerful contrasts, an image can sometimes make the days long wait to the weekend feel shorter, or perhaps maybe just a little longer.
Regardless of your perspective, the photography series ‘Arête’ by freelance photographer and climber Megan Joan Mack does exactly that: the audience is taken from their viewpoint and into the elements. Mack’s skill with both capturing near perfect light and contrasting the subtle movements of a climber’s body with the vast openness and greatness of their surroundings, make her work both beautiful and powerful. It may speed or shorten our wait to the weekend to set foot in these places ourselves, but in the moment we’re provided an opportunity to briefly escape and imagine ourselves in the place of the subjects she’s captured.
A graduate of the Academy of Art San Francisco with an MFA in Photography, Mack’s series of diptychs capturing California’s climbing areas is the combination of two great loves for the photographer. Mack who has been shooting since before the age of the digital camera was inspired to combine her passion with another love, rock climbing. Each photo of her series provides an equal share of both these loves: the vertical image of the diptych captures a climber, a process that also includes rigging and climbing herself; while the second image provides a beautiful landscape that her subject is immersed in, with both shots ultimately requiring a powerful knowhow of the lens.
The images remind us that when actually undertaking the action of climbing we sometimes forget just not just how small or minimal we are, but simply how beautiful and vast our surroundings are and will hopefully always be. Mack’s photos will be on display this Sunday for Planet Granite’s Member Appreciation night and the photographer will also be there to discuss her work and sell prints.
We sat down with Mack to discuss her work and her background.
PG: So first question, what do you shoot with?
Meg Mack: I shoot with a Nikon D800.
PG: How long have you been shooting?
Meg Mack: Oh my goodness, I’ve been shooting since 5th grade. I was in a dark room in 5th grade, I was so lucky to have a school that, that’s where the whole obsession with photography came in. Because I do a lot of other art in general, I draw and I paint, that kind of stuff, but I’ve always been drawn to photography.
PG: What drew you to climbing photography?
Meg Mack: Well I’ve been climbing for 15 years so honestly I’d taken a few photos climbing before, but you know casually and when I was working on my MFA I was kind of struggling with which direction I wanted to go with my thesis and my professors, more than one, always overheard me talking about climbing and what I was doing when I wasn’t shooting for assignments. And one of my professors was like you know I want to see that, you’re super passionate about rock climbing, I want to see what that looks like, but I want you to apply your approach to your other work with that and let’s see what happens.
So I did that and when I brought in my first kind of shoot, not where I was like oh let me take a few pictures when on the trip, let me set up some shots and conceptualize where I wanted to put the climber, what I wanted them to be doing, what was the purpose or what was the emphasis of the photo, so when I really took a different approach to it and I wasn’t there to climb, I was there to photograph that changed my work and I loved it. I felt like I got to do both at the same time.
PG: Talk about your series Arête, we see a contrast of climbers and their environments. What are you trying to show or express with the photos?
Meg Mack: They’re all diptychs and they’re all locations in California. And I wanted to show kind of like the marriage between a climber and their environment. And so sometimes I would focus more on the environment and give a detail of a climber, different medium, close, up-close and really wide shots mixed in there, so you get a sense of not just like what you see in a lot of climbing photography you know like a detail of the hands or chalk and those details and you have no idea where they are and they could be anywhere. They could be not that far off the ground.
So sometimes these climbers would be in these super epic locations and I wanted to make sure that you got a sense of that of the scale of the place and the feeling. And I wanted it to be something that a non-climber could appreciate as well so kind of mixing it up with the diptych style would emphasize that and bringing together those two ideas. I spent a lot of time studying Sacred Geometry and used this influence within the series with each shot being a square root of 5:1 ratio and all of the prints 53.66” x24”. Some sample size prints are also shot in 8.2 x 3.67’, but using the same ratio. I was really trying to bring home this connection between nature and someone’s passion which for me just happened to be rock climbing. The numbers involved in the ratio and scale of the image is very important to that theory.
PG: Lastly what’s your favorite thing about shooting climbing photography?
Meg Mack: I’ve been a climber for years and I’ve been shooting pictures informally for years and I was a school teacher and I love teaching, but it gave me the time to be able to go and travel the world and climb and kind of keep all my passions, like even the energy of all my passions. Now it’s like I wanted to spend this part of my life focusing more on my work and putting/creating in the foreground. I’m obsessed with climbing it’s scary so that was the best way to fuse the two. I’ll go on a climbing trip and I’ll take certain days to shoot and certain days to climb. I have a really hard time successfully doing both at the same time and I really like to come up with a concept and really know and be really clear about what I’m shooting. But I am starting to integrate more of that lifestyle where I can shoot and hang out at the same time and just be more casual with my shots.
I just take it so seriously with the shooting and the climbing that’s why I just have to kind of pick which days I’m focusing on shooting. I’ve also been shooting more climbing lately because of injury. I can’t climb very hard right now so it’s been great time to focus on my photography. It’s hard to be injured and climb as you probably know, it’s a very demanding sport on your body, so when you’re injured it’s really tough. I’ve never really let that slow me down in the past. I remember when I had my foot broken and I was living on the East Coast, in New York, and I’d go out on crutches in the Gunks. And in the very beginning when I was still in a lot of pain I would just hike up to the top with crutches and rappel off a cliff just to be out and be around climbers. And when my foot started to feel more stable I would wear one approach shoe and find a friend who was willing to lead a couple pitches and then follow them up and clean the route with one foot. That’s when I knew I was passionate for the sport.
Megan Joan Mack’s series ‘Arête’ will be on display at Planet Granite San Francisco and she’ll also be around on member appreciation night this Sunday September 13 from 6-9 pm to discuss her work! For more of Megan Joan Mack’s photography check out her website portfolio at www.meganjoanmack.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Reinhard Cate is a Planet Granite Instructor, graduate student, and a freelance multimedia journalist. His work has appeared in Alpinist Magazine, BBC World News, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, New York Post, New York Daily News, and Santa Clara Magazine. He currently is pursuing a M.S. in International and Development Economics at the University of San Francisco.