Jeff Johnson grew up skateboarding in California, before he moved to the North Shore of Oahu, juggling jobs as a lifeguard and an international flight attendant. His passion for sports and adventure were there from the start. A self-taught writer and photographer, he has used these talents to chronicle his adventures since, including trips to the some of the most remote places on the planet. Jeff now resides in Santa Barbara, California where he works as a freelance creative director, photographer and writer. Having made the step from analog to digital photography, the following series of photos tell the story of his latest climbing trips to Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Mountains.
After graduating high school in Danville, California you moved to the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. How did this move and the 15 years you lived in Hawaii end up influencing your chosen path in life?
The Hawaiian Islands are a great melting pot of diverse cultures and also a perfect point of departure, both literally and figuratively, from the United States. I grew up in a small town that was predominately white. I wanted to travel and be exposed to new cultures and ideas on a day-to-day basis and Hawaii is the perfect place for that. In Hawaii, Caucasians or “haoles” like me are the minorities and it is humbling to be in that position. Plus I wanted to surf my brains out. The North Shore is the epicenter of the surf world, so what better place could there be for me?
You have worked an array of jobs including as a lifeguard, flight attendant, writer and for several years now, photographer. How did you first get into photography? And who inspired you along the way?
I was a terrible student and barely graduated high school. I tried collage and just couldn’t do it. My high school English teacher started sending me books to read and my first journal. She encouraged me to read and write, which I never really did while in school. So I became an avid reader. When I travelled I always kept a journal and brought along a little point-and-shoot camera. My first written stories were published in magazines in the late 90s. Then in 1999 got my first DSLR camera. It seemed like telling stories with photos was the next natural step for me and a nice addition to my writing. There wasn’t a particular photographer that inspired me at first; it was mostly the books I’d been reading, writers like Paul Bowles, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Bukowski, Hermann Hesse, William S. Burroughs. I knew a lot of photographers, friends of mine, who were always open to giving me pointers; what film to buy, lenses, etc. Living on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, I was surrounded by the world’s best surf, surf photography, surf magazines etc. But I was looking at National Geographic and the Patagonia catalogs. I loved that photojournalistic aesthetic and approach so that really influenced the way I shoot.
How did you manage to get the gig as a staff photographer for Patagonia? And how did it come about that you have had such a defining influence on the creation of their brand image?
Well, it was Patagonia that had influenced me. It just so happened that the work I did there had influence on the brand in some aspects. It all came about pretty organically. Founder/owner of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, called me out of the blue one day and asked if I’d like to go on a surf trip with him and some friends. During that trip he explained to me how Patagonia was going to launch a new surf program. They had done this already 3-4 times and failed. I felt I knew how they should go about it and I had some ideas how it could become successful. Long story short: In 2004 myself and 3 of my best friends, the Malloy brothers, were hired to develop that strategy for the surf program and also product. Patagonia had already been publishing my photos and some writing so my pitch to them was that my photographs alone would justify my salary. Little did I know I had created the first Patagonia staff photographer position.
When did you first get into climbing? And what aspect of the sport do you savor the most?
I had tried climbing before moving to Hawaii but once I got to Hawaii it fell to the wayside because of surfing. I always thought about it, read books on it and fantasized about climbing big walls in Yosemite one day. Around 2001, when I was in my early 30s, I decided it was about time. I heard about a small climbing spot on the North Shore and started hanging out there and meeting other climbers. I would also go bouldering down on the beach at Waimea Bay. Eventually I started doing trips to Yosemite. I loved learning and being new at something. When you’re a kid all you want to do is get good at it, so you don’t really appreciate the process of learning. Learning how to climb as an adult I really appreciated the process, the progression. I still love that.
This series of images covers a couple of trips you have made over the last few years. Could you tell us a bit about each of them?
Tommy had been working on this monumental climb every season for about 5 years. We always talked about hooking up and shooting but our schedules would never match up. Finally in December 2014 I went up there with him and his partner. They were working on this traversing section, which was basically the crux of the climb. They would only climb when it was in shadow, or dark out. You want it to be cold so you don’t sweat as much, your grip is better and the rubber on your shoes it tackier. So there are only a couple hours of shooting before it goes dark. I shot a wide angle lens because the best moves were really close to where I was hanging; the Tri-Elmar 16-18-21mm lens on an M240 body. Tommy and his partner completed the climb about a month later in early 2015. It ended up being one of the most famous ascents in Yosemite’s long climbing history.
English climbers Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker were on a rampage in the fall season of 2014 completing many ascents of El Capitan. They asked me if I could come up and shoot them reenacting the climbs they had done. For this we rappelled in from the top of El Capitan, which is one of the scariest, stomach in your throat, ways of shooting. When you climb El Capitan your upward progression is slow, over multiple days, and little by little you just get used to the height and exposure. But when you rappel in from the top it is overwhelming. One minute you’re standing on flat ground the next minute you’re dropping into this wild, bizarre world, 3000 feet off the ground. Tom and Pete were so exhausted from all the climbing they had been doing, and here they are, high up on El Capitan again, exhausted, so much that they passed out on a ledge for a few hours in the middle of the day. I shot my Summilux 35mm and 16-18-21mm lenses with the M240.
I spend a lot of time in my 2005 Sprinter van. It’s my home away from home. I usually work really early in the morning getting up at 5 am. I love to park some place that has a great view when the sun rises. In this photo I’m doing a little photo processing and editing overlooking lower Yosemite Valley.
I just got hold of the Leica SL and was chomping at the bit to shoot with it. I drove out to Joshua Tree and sort of wandered around and did a little bouldering. I ran into a great friend and beautiful photographer Yuri Shibuya climbing a classic.
Last summer my buddies Clark Brogger and Ted Reckas went into the Sierras to do some climbing. We wanted to combine a few summits in one long day. We started out on an easy climb up Temple Crag with hopes of also climbing Mount Gayley and Mount Sill. Storm clouds surrounded us, thunder boomed all around, electricity crackled in our ears, our hair standing on end. We had to bail and rappelled in the rain back to camp. When we finally warmed up and the storm cleared Ted, who had been practicing Wim Hof breathing techniques decided to go for a swim á la natural in Temple Crag’s cold glacier-fed lake. I shot my Elmarit 24mm lens and Summilux 35mm lens with the new M10 body.
I have read about your love of the Sierra Mountains. What is it that makes them so special to you?
John Muir nicknamed the Sierras “The Range of Light”. They produce some of the most beautiful light in the world, always changing and always dramatic. Spending time over there I am constantly in awe. It is also one of the most accessible mountain ranges on the world. Within a five to ten mile hike you can be amongst some of the biggest mountains in North America. There are hot springs everywhere, incredible climbing and lots of open space with not too many people around.
Of all the places you have been, which of them has made the deepest impression on you? And why?
That’s a really tough question. It’s like asking someone what his or her favorite song is. I almost can’t really answer it. If I had to pick something it would be my love affair with the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii and Yosemite Valley. I visited both these places when I was a kid and they both have played a huge part in my life.
Which cameras did you shoot this series with? And what influences your decision of what camera and equipment to take on each expedition?
With the exception of the SL in Joshua Tree, all these images were created with a Leica M rangefinder, either the M240 or the M10. They’re my favorite cameras because they are simple and don’t have a bunch of bells and whistles. They’re small, easy to pack, and unobtrusive. I find myself usually shooting with wide lenses, 35mm and 21mm, because I like to be close to my subjects, and they are also good for landscapes. My favorite lens is a 50mm Summicron and I do take it climbing occasionally.
When did you first start shooting with Leica? And what is it about Leica cameras, which you appreciate the most?
My buddies and I made a film and book that released back in 2010 called “180 South”. Before the project began in 2007 I had just switched over from film to digital photography and hated it. It sort of let the wind out of my sails having to be on the computer so often. So my good friend and director of the film suggested I also shoot film for the project and suggested a Leica. So I got an M7 and a bunch of black and white Kodak tri-x film. Not only did it reinvigorate my love for photography but also it changed the way I shot. I was forced to slow down and shoot less and shoot better.
In addition to your personal and editorial work you also shoot commercial jobs for brands. How does your approach to each of these different types of job differ?
After “180 South” I always shot Leicas for my personal stuff. I got hold of the first Leica Monochrom and was hooked, shooting it all the time. But I wasn’t confident enough to use it commercially. One day the creative director at Patagonia asked me to shoot a campaign on my Monochrom. This was music to my ears (when your personal work influences your commercial work). So now I always mix in my Leica stuff for brands and it seems those shots tend to be some of my best because they have a little different look to them.
You are an accomplished surfer, climber and adventurer, while you have also been described as an environmentalist. When did you realize your passion for environmental issues? And are you directly involved in any projects at the moment?
I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist, although I do my best. I would avoid that title because there are people out there who have made it their life’s work and have put everything they have into it. I do what I can and believe the way things are going in our country right now there has never been a time in my life when environmental issues are as important. The most recent project I have done was a campaign for Fair Trade. I had always known about Fair Trade and have always tried to buy Fair Trade products but really didn’t know how it all worked until I shot the campaign. You can check it out here.
In terms of your photography, what are you working on at the moment and what can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
I’m actually on a job in Hawaii right now shooting for Yeti, one of my main clients. I’ve been shooting a lot of commercial work lately, for a totally diverse mix of clients. I have a couple of personal projects I’ve been thinking a lot about but I don’t really want to say what they are. I don’t want to jinx it.
Finally, if you could offer one piece of advice to someone looking to improve their photography, what would it be?
Look around at what other photographers are doing and don’t do it. Do your own thing, develop your own eye.