I wouldn’t suggest comparing Austin Siadak to a monk. He drinks beer, likes to party, has vices. Most notably, he binges hard on mountains–you might even call it an addiction. And yet, he brings a zenlike attitude to the table when it comes to his profession, his passion, and his play–the confluence of which is photography. As we all know from the sacred Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching, “The naming of things focuses on the manifestations of Infinity, and too much distinguishing can result in one becoming confused in the manifestations and oblivious to the oneness of all things.” Siadak knows as well as Lao Tze that there is no distinguishing between work, play, climbing, and shooting photos. It’s all the same; and for Siadak, it’s all good.
Follow him: @austin_siadak
Would you consider yourself a climber or a photographer?
I’m not sure there is a non-cliche way to answer that. Haha. But let me try.
I make a living mostly from taking photos of climbing and the climbing lifestyle. I spend a lot of time with a camera in my hand, and envisioning and executing a particular shot gets me more excited than just about anything else in the world. I don’t get paid at all to climb, but I was a climber first, long before I ever picked up a camera, and my love for the mountains is rooted deeper inside of me than my love for taking photos. For me the two are inextricably linked, and so I am both, not really one or the other.
How long ago did you know you wanted to be a photographer?
The first time I ever had an inkling was probably in 2009. I watched a few of the first climbing films I’d ever seen and was super inspired by them–both the climbing but also just the storytelling, that whole aspect. I thought to myself “Oh, that would be really cool!”
Taking photos in some ways came second to the notion of making video.
That’s right, you have more of a background in shooting and editing video–what inspired the transition to photography?
I wish I had some starry-eyed story for you about how I’ve always been in love with photography and capturing the world around me, but in many ways my experience shooting stills was born out of a desire to spend more time doing the activities that I love outside.
After spending much of 2011 living on the road, driving and climbing around the American West and slowly drying up my savings at the time, I worked for a few years editing, shooting, and directing video for Duct Tape Then Beer, a small creative media firm in Seattle. Although it was in many ways a complete dream job — I’m very grateful to have worked for such an incredible company, and through the projects we worked on built up the skills and experience there that have allowed me to be successful since then–I found that filmmaking required more time in front of the computer (and less time climbing, hiking, and running around outside) than I desired. I’ve always found that I’m happiest when I am in the woods and mountains as much as possible, so I wanted to figure out a way to make more of my work happen outside. I knew that shooting and editing photos takes a lot less time in front of the computer, so I gravitated toward that.
At the beginning of 2014 I quit my job with Duct Tape Then Beer and spent nearly three months climbing in South America, shooting a bunch of photos the whole time. When I got back I sent off a small selection of my photos to Patagonia, and to my surprise they were psyched on what I’d shot and ended up buying 3 or 4 photos for their next catalog. I realized it might be possible to make a living from photography at that point, and have focused most of my time the last few years on stills as a result.
Would you recommend having some technical expertise and backing before setting out to become a photographer?
No–quite the opposite. I don’t think you really need a lot of technical know-how, you just need to have a passion for something–anything–and start with that. Let’s say, for example, that you love fly fishing. Start with that as your subject. You will already know it intimately well, you’ll know what the special and unique moments are in that sport or lifestyle or activity, and so you’ll be able to better capture those moments, anticipate them better, and see them better with a more nuanced eye than if you’re going out there trying to capture something you don’t have much experience with, or that you don’t have much love for in its own right.
Most of the top photographers and filmmakers in climbing, for example, like Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk, Corey Rich, Mikey Schaefer–those guys started as climbers first.
So originally, you shot photos in order to climb more. Have the tables turned now? Do you find yourself climbing now so you can shoot photos more?
I would say at this point, I’m probably a little more interested in capturing the moments more than actually going out and doing them. Take El Capitan for example (Yosemite National Park’s famous 3,000 foot tall cliff). I’ve climbed it seven or eight times and had some incredible and memorable moments up there, but right now I’d rather go up and shoot people climbing El Cap than climb it again myself. Of course, I love climbing up there and there’s a lot of routes I want to climb and experiences that I want to have up there. And I hope to go do it, and I’ll set aside time to go do a lot of them at some point. But if I had a choice, and somebody said “Hey, do you want to go shoot on El Cap today or do you want to climb it,” I would hands down go shoot it–even if I didn’t think I could sell the photos.
I would say it’s probably 50-50 now. My desire to document this stuff at this point is probably a little bit greater than my desire to do it myself–but it really depends on the objective.
What other photographers do you draw inspiration from?
I would say if I had to model my life off of one person–Galen Rowell would be the one. Not only was he incredibly skilled behind a camera, but he lived a lifestyle that allowed him to capture incredible moments in a way that connected with people and made them feel the beauty and power of being in mountains. And until his death he remained an active climber–picking out new climbs and doing first ascents in the High Sierra and all over the world. And more than that, he eventually used his skills as a photographer to move beyond climbing and capture stories of more worldly and universal importance, as a conservationist and a humanitarian. That’s something I would definitely aspire to one day, because as much as I love climbing and the climbing community and lifestyle, there’s a whole lot more going on in the world than that. People and places are dying, fighting, being subjugated all over the world due to ego, greed, ignorance, and the desire for power. I would eventually like to find a way for my work as a photographer and storyteller to draw attention to those issues instead.
Other climbing photographers/filmmakers whose work I aspire to, in no particular order, are Ken Etzel, Andrew Burr, Jim Thornburg, Greg Epperson, Corey Rich, Mikey Schaefer, Cory Richards, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk, Jeremiah Watt, that’s a pretty good short list. Outside of the climbing world there’s probably too many people to count, though Forest Woodward and Anson Fogel are huge visual and storytelling inspirations for me.
How about more broadly – what kinds of compositional elements, light, and landscapes inspire your work?
The funny thing is–a lot of the things I find inspirational are things that I don’t think I do very well. I don’t know if that’s surprising or not. There’s certain moments you just can’t fake. And I don’t know if I do a very good job of capturing those. I’d like to do a better job.
I love shooting stormy conditions–I’d rather have that than perfect light. I prefer to have some subpar conditions to work around, because it forces you to be creative. And I love contrast. I think beauty is very much found in contrast. Jagged skylines I find extremely inspiring and captivating both as a climber and a photographer.
Beyond just capturing epic action moments deep in the mountains or high on a wall, I try to capture a lot of the climbing lifestyle, to show the moments and parts of this way of being that make it so special and so much more than just a sport. I’m always psyched to find and shoot a moment that just puts a smile on your face when you see it, that captures the spirit of climbing and being free outside.
One other thing I’ll say is that to me what I love about climbing more than anything else is the places it’ll take you: wild stance and exposed positions you almost can’t image possibly being in. That is both what inspires me as a climber, and as someone trying to document climbing. Ideally, probably everyone wants this, but I for one would love someone to look at my photos and say “holy shit–what is that? Where is that? I didn’t even know that existed.” I mean, that’s what I’m hoping people will get from a lot of my photos.
What is the most awe-inspiring landscape you’ve encountered?
For sure the rugged wild granite spires of Southern Patagonia are probably the most fantastic landscape I’ve ever seen. Just because, going back to contrast, they erupt out of the landscape around them. Covered in ice and rime, they just look completely otherworldly. Storms around them, incredible sunrise and sunset light, I remember the first time I saw Cerro Torre back in 2008 before I was even a climber, looking at it and thinking it was completely alien–like from another planet. I’ve spent nearly a year of my life down in that part of the world and am sure I’ll keep going back until I die.
The Sierra Nevada in California is also continually surprising and impressing me every time I go out to visit. It’s a place I keep coming back to again and again and again. The climbing is really good of course, some of the best granite in the world, but beyond the climbing it’s just such a special, wild, beautiful place. Wide open landscapes of jagged granite, spindly pine, mountain lakes, it doesn’t get much better. It’s easy to think of it now as a fairly popular place, not that wild, but it’s a different range if you walk just a couple miles off the beaten path. Like a couple days ago when I was in the Minarets, outside of Mammoth Lakes, just feeling like a Hobbit hopping around these wild towers and spires like you’re in Mordor. I hardly saw a single other person the entire time, and that’s such an incredible experience.
And of course, the desert of the American Southwest has got to be up there too. It’s probably the most serene place I’ve ever been. There’s something about desert sunsets you just can’t get anywhere else–vibrant, fiery light reflecting off large sandstone cliffs all around you. You can see for miles and miles, the outline of towers off in the distance. It will never fail to put a smile on my face and bring a calmness to my soul (god that sounds super cliche, but it’s true!). To be a bit more realistic and reflective, there’s probably something about my affinity for the desert that has a lot to do with the mythology of the West and the American Cowboy in our culture. Who doesn’t want to see a little bit of John Wayne or Cormac McCarthy in themselves?
Do you set up photo shoots in the mountains or at the crag, or do you just go shoot whatever you happen to be personally climbing that day?
It differs from day to day. Some days I’ll have a shot envisioned that I want to get, and I’ll recruit some friends to go out and help me make it happen. I definitely have a lot of wacky ideas for photos running around in my head all the time, and a lot of the lifestyle shots I make reflect this. But the majority of the time I prefer to actually go climbing myself and capture the moments that unfold around me. There’s something about the authenticity of that that I love. I know that it might mean that I don’t get as “perfect” of shots at the end of the day, but I’m OK with that.
Climbing and shooting at the same time can’t be easy to pull off. How do you decide when to pull out the camera on climbing trips, and when to just focus on climbing?
I struggle with this all the time. A lot. My general rule of thumb is that if I am ever feeling anything other than completely normal and relaxed, it’s a good indication that something interesting is going on and I should pull out the camera and capture the moment. It’s easy to pull out the camera when everything is going great, but those moments usually aren’t that compelling. To be able to do the same thing when you’re exhausted after 18 hours on the move, or freezing cold at a belay, that’s a lot harder to do, and it’s something I’m always trying to get better at. But the emotion and power of those moments comes through in the image.
At the same time, if your partner is sketched-out on lead and looking at a terrible fall, it’s probably a better idea to focus on belaying than messing around with the camera. Especially on climbs that are difficult for me or my partner, I put most of my focus into climbing and consider any photos I get to be a cherry on top.
A lot of people might look at your life and think, “He is living the dream.” What are some difficulties you face that others might not see at first glance?
First I have to say that I don’t like this idea of “living the dream.” There are many dreams to live out there, not just one. I’m merely trying to live my own dream as much as I can. And I certainly don’t always succeed. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to live the life that I do, and I have very little to complain about in life.
That said, one thing that is a bit of a constant struggle is that, because my passion and profession are so closely linked, I often feel that I never have any “days off.” It’s like the old saying, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life,” except that it can sometimes feel like, “Do what you love, and you’ll work every day for the rest of your life.” It is hard for me to go climbing without also thinking about shooting and documenting. It is impossible, in my opinion, to fully experience a moment and also document that moment. Some days I just want to fully experience climbing or being in the mountains, to be present in those moments, and so I won’t bring my camera along. But my brain is always seeing images and moments unfold around me, so I will inevitably see the opportunity for an incredible shot and kick myself for not bringing my camera. Or I’ll see a shot that I could have gotten if only I had my camera and think, “Damn, I just lost a thousand dollars.” On the flipside, there are other times when I do bring my camera along and wonder if I would appreciate the experience more if I weren’t constantly pulling the camera out and taking photos.
And in a related way, I worry sometimes that climbing is holding back my photography, or that photography is holding back my climbing. If I didn’t want to climb as much, I’d probably be a much better photographer. And if I didn’t shoot as much, I’m sure I could be a much better climber. It’s hard to know whether I’d be happier with either of those options than with my current situation. But it’s even harder to imagine largely going without climbing or photography. I always want to try to do both as much as I can.
So, you’ve gotten prestigious climbing grants, you’ve put up first ascents all over the world, you’ve won major awards for filmmaking and editing, you’ve had your work immortalized on the sides of buildings in major cities, what’s next for Austin Siadak?
On a broad level, I’m not really sure where everything is headed, and I’m kind of glad about that. If I knew how it was all going to unfold then it wouldn’t be very interesting, would it?
I could look back on the last five years now since I picked up a camera for the first time, and every year has continued to bring new surprises that I couldn’t have imagined at the beginning of the year, or even the beginning of the month. So I’m excited for that sort of unpredictable series of surprises to continue.
But more specifically, I’m going to spend the rest of the summer in the Cascades trying to do a bunch of big climbs I’ve been meaning to do for a long time. And then I’m going to Alaska in late August, both for work and for play (for climbing). Going to the Ruth Gorge for the first time which I’m very excited about – that’s been on a list of places I’ve wanted to go for a long time.
Then doing a bunch of video work this fall, supposed to go on a trip to Iran. You never know if some of this stuff is going to happen. And then hopefully going back down to Patagonia this year to shoot and climb.
For 2017…? I literally have no idea what’s going to happen. I just hope I have the ability to spend most of my time outside, and continue enjoying the mountains all over the world.
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