Coffee tables around the world strain under the weight of gorgeous hardcover photography books splayed across their surface in endless stacks that serve as delectable eye candy while also broadcasting one’s likes, loves, and lusts to anyone who happens to thumb through. You won’t find adventure filmmaker and photographer Corey Rich’s new book, Stories Behind the Images, on any coffee tables, however—and that’s exactly how he prefers it.
“Look, I’m a connoisseur of photo books; we have piles in our house, and they’re inspiring. I love flipping through them, but I don’t know if I’ve ever read a word in any of them,” says Rich, who purposefully chose to release Stories as a softcover with a photo-to-word ratio that tilts heavily toward the latter. “I want this book to get read. I want to see people in the backcountry tearing it in half because they’re going to carry part of it into the woods for a backpacking trip. I want to see it on the back of toilets. I can’t wait to board a plane and someone’s left it behind to pay it forward.”
I want this book to get read. I want to see people in the backcountry tearing it in half because they’re going to carry part of it into the woods for a backpacking trip.
This is to say, Stories Behind the Images isn’t about Rich impressing the reader with the fantastic visual fruits of a career that’s spanned a quarter-century and spawned countless iconic images, both moving and still, of equally acclaimed places, people, and events, including Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s groundbreaking first free ascent of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. Instead, it’s Rich paying homage to the power of storytelling as both a tool and an art form that can inspire and motivate and illuminate, and maybe most of all, summon a wellspring of emotions for those on either end of any given tale.
Drawn from a series of essays initially crafted for his website in creative partnership with writer Andrew Bisharat, Stories traces Rich’s memories and motivations beginning with him as a 13-year-old neophyte, clumsy with a camera, but flush with excitement to communicate the stoke of his newfound climbing hobby with buddies back at school. From there, the book unfolds in a series of engaging, sometimes emotional, often laugh-out-loud vignettes (getting left in the dust by pro cyclist Rebecca Rusch; cheating death on El Cap; losing $15,000 worth of camera equipment to a rogue wave) that illustrate both the lessons he’s learned along the way and the special soup of hard work, lucky breaks, and amazing people that have shaped his career.
Just like its showy coffee table cousins, Stories provides ample fodder for the imagination, but because its narratives are crafted with heart and humility, it goes deeper to allow for moments of reflection and to serve as a fount of inspiration for anyone—photographer, filmmaker, climber, or otherwise—who seeks to carve out a creative life.
We talked with Rich about the magic of storytelling, the medium that made him feel like a kid again, and the reason he’ll stay psyched for another twenty-five years of creating indelible images.
What “storytelling” means to him
My favorite thing in the world to do is sit around the campfire, or an island in the kitchen, or in a hot tub, or in a car with friends or family or people I’ve just met and start weaving yarns. And it’s safe to say that I enjoy listening to stories more than even telling them, but I realized early on that you have to grease the wheel a little bit to get the stories going. It’s the oldest human tradition—I think every culture has sat around the fire and either passed on traditions and history or told wild stories. I love that. I’m just constantly blown away by what you hear when you get into a storytelling session; so often I’m laughing or crying or in awe. It’s hard to be moved by ‘entertainment’ in the same way—I mean, oftentimes I’m more moved listening to people tell stories than I am watching a $20 million budget feature film in the theater.
I have a six-year-old girl and when we’re in the car, her favorite thing to do is say “Papai, can you tell me a story?” And it’s paying off, because now sometimes she’ll get in the car and say, “Can I tell you a story?” At the end of the day, whether it’s my daughter telling a story to me, whether it’s me telling a story to a group of guys around the campfire, me telling a story for a magazine or for a Fortune 500 company, the spirit of storytelling is that you have to move people. They have to feel something at the end of the day.
He still can’t believe this is “work”
I’ve grown up in this industry of storytelling and some of my best friends are both mentors and heroes of mine, and legends of photography—not just in the outdoor adventure space. I can’t tell you how often I’m sitting with the Joe McNallys of the world or the Ami Vitales of the world—the greats of their genre—looking at each other and saying things like, “I can’t believe no one’s figured it out yet that we haven’t worked a day in our lives!”
I can vividly remember many, many projects with Beth Rodden and Tommy Caldwell, where we’d be hiking at midnight up the backside of El Capitan or on some expedition, where you’re grinding it out in the middle of the night by headlamp and the wind is blowing in your face, and then it would dawn on everyone—We’re getting paid to do this. We dream about doing this stuff. This is our job. We’re pushing really hard and we’re digging deep and we’re not accepting failure, but we’re having a hell of a good time all the while.
Why it was worth it for him to “pivot to video”
I remember that feeling of taking my first picture as a kid, no matter how awful it was, and then the total obsession with photography; that same thing happened a decade ago when I pressed record for the first time and I saw cinematic video being captured in the same camera that I’d shot still photographs. It was as though it rekindled that same feeling—I was totally obsessed with video.
With still photography, most of the time it was me alone with the subjects I was photographing; when shooting video, it’s usually me with a team of people. I love that camaraderie. When the chemistry is right with that team, you raise the creative bar, the project gets better, the storytelling becomes more powerful. And there’s something about the combination of visuals and voice and music and sound design—it’s the best of photography; you’re still creating an image. But on top of that, you get to layer these other mediums and that can be really powerful. It’s not to say that video is always more powerful, it’s just that when video or motion is done well, there’s the potential to really move people in a different way. You can captivate someone for a few minutes or for 90 minutes and steer them down a path where you touch more of their senses.
He’s adapted to changing technology, but isn’t ruled by it
I’m not a big technology guy. The reason I’ll pay 10,000 bucks or 5,000 bucks for a new camera is because it’s going to do more of the technical work for me so that I can focus creatively on what’s happening in front of the camera—on the story. I see technology as just a tool. It’s no different than the hammer on a carpenter’s belt.
The technology, frankly, has just raised the bar. The incredible tech that we have access to—from the phones in our pocket to the super-sophisticated high-resolution cameras that we shoot on to the audio systems that are small to the drones—they just empower us to tell more compelling stories. The challenge now is to remember that content is king, that technology is not king. It’s not about how snazzy we can make everything look, it’s about when you use the right tool to better communicate what you’re trying to communicate.
Writing Stories was cause for reflection
It was really hard to accept that in putting this book together, I’ve lost a lot of friends in the mountains. Even in the process of this book printing in China, one of my very close friends, David Lama, died in Canada. That was a reality check. I haven’t done the math, but there’s a number of people in this book that are no longer with us. And for my entire life, when people say, “Boy, what you do is dangerous,” I’d say, “No—I mean, come on. Commuting on the highway to your office is more dangerous than what we do in the mountains; we’re calculated and safe.” Well, it turns out now 30 years into saying that, I don’t know anyone that’s died on the highway commuting to work, but I can’t count all of the people that I’ve spent time with and consider friends who have died in the mountains.
It just reminds me that life is short. I mean, I still think I’m 18 in my head, but it turns out I’m 43. I don’t know how all this time went by. You know, you’ve just gotta make it count—never waste a day, and try to put a smile on your face as often as possible. The way you do that is by putting yourself in situations that are engaging and fulfilling, and put yourself with people that inspire you, that are smarter, taller, funnier, faster, and that make you a better person. I’m thankful and deeply appreciative to have had a lot these experiences. And I hope that by sharing some of these stories, I nudge folks to kind of fill their days with satisfying experiences.
Why he’ll stay psyched for another 25 years
Diverse experiences—that’s what I realized I really crave. I’m the least creative when it’s Groundhog Day, when I’m kind of doing the same thing over and over again. You know, sometimes that’s important and that’s how you get better, but one of my favorite things is picking up a phone call from an unknown number or reading an email when it’s kind of an unexpected opportunity. What really keeps me going is the unknown; that I don’t know what the next cool project will be. But I’ve learned over the last 30 years that if I stay the course, cool projects emerge.
Tom Frost was a mentor of mine, and a really dear friend. He had a great quote that really stuck with me, which was: “Adventure is where the outcome is uncertain.” And I guess I feel that way about my career. I kind of want every assignment to feel like I’m right on the edge—like, Oh man, I hope I can pull this off. That’s my special place, when it’s kind of new, but I can lean on what I’ve learned and I’m surrounded by people that I trust and who are equally as engaged. When we pull it off and had a good time in the process and then we moved people? That’s what it’s all about.