Rock climbing photographer teaches SF State students how to take pictures 80 ft. above the ground


Rock climber and photographer Jim Thornburg shows his audience pictures in his photo book “Bay Area Rock” at a Rosa Parks conference room at SF State on Feb 24, 2016. Thornburg was invited to campus by the SF State rock-climbers organization Climb to speak about his passion for his multifaceted career. (Gabriela Rodriguez / Xpress)

When critically acclaimed photographer Jim Thornburg takes rock climbing pictures, he explained that he has developed a special technique. He hangs in the climbing harness on the rock wall, and with his legs kicks away from the cliff and out in the open air. If he kicks really hard he can bounce almost 30 feet away from the cliff. In the split second where he is about to hover back again, he hangs still in the air and has the chance to capture the image.

Thornburg said this requires a certain amount of courage, but has resulted in a large catalogue of detailed climbing photographs published in magazines around the world and in his books “Bay Area Rock: Bouldering and climbing San Francisco Bay Area” and “Stone Mountains: North America’s Best Crags.”

The 51-year-old professional climbing photographer brought some of these images to the first official event hosted by Climbing at San Francisco State University in the Cesar Chavez Student Center Wednesday night. He showcased his pictures, told the stories behind them and gave tips about climbing locations and how to photograph when you are dangling 80 feet above the ground.

Rock climber and photographer Jim Thornburg reminisces on a photo taken of him, published in his book “Stone Mountains: North America's Best Crags,” after giving a presentation on his multifaceted career at the Rosa Parks area at SF State on Feb 24th, 2016. (Gabriela Rodriguez / Xpress)
Rock climber and photographer Jim Thornburg reminisces on a photo taken of him, published in his book “Stone Mountains: North America’s Best Crags,” after giving a presentation on his multifaceted career at the Rosa Parks area at SF State on Feb 24th, 2016. (Gabriela Rodriguez / Xpress)

Thornburg said what he likes most about his profession is that it combines three of his biggest passions.

”I am passionate about climbing, I am passionate about photography and I am passionate about communicating to other climbers places you can go,” Thornburg said. “So climbing photography is a good way to do that. And then just as a career, I love the freedom.”

Thornburg started taking climbing pictures professionally 25 years ago, when a friend encouraged him to send some of his pictures to a climbing company.

“And they liked one of them and used it in a catalogue and paid me some money and I thought – I want to do more of that,” Thornburg said.

Samuel Crossley, president of Climb at SFSU, said Thornburg’s love for both climbing and photography is reflected in his images and presentations. He said he hoped the event appealed to photographers, experienced climbers and those who are new to climbing, because he said the photographs talk in a language that everybody can understand.

”You get a visual response from seeing the exposure of someone climbing in such a height or it looks like they are about to fall off, and your hands will start to get a little bit sweaty,” Crossley said.

Crossley said he especially hoped the presentation would give people who are not engaged in climbing an eye-opening experience and become excited about going outdoors.

”A lot of his images are just really beautiful images because of how beautiful the outdoors is,” Crossley said. “So it could be as simple as getting someone keen on going outside and taking a walk, even though it is not climbing.”

Also present at the event was 40-year-old Adam Richman, who recently moved to the Bay Area.

I know Jim’s photography from different magazines, and having the opportunity to come and listen and look at his work is just amazing,” Richman said.

As an experienced climber himself, Richman said he liked that Thornburg has the understanding for photography, climbing and the passion behind it.  

“He understands what we do, and why we do it,” Richman said.

Eric Dyer, a 22-year-old astrophysics major at SF State, also attended the event. Dyer has climbed for three years and had previously seen some of Thornburg’s pictures online.

“He is obviously an amazing photographer,” Dyer said. “And I just wanted to come and listen to some of his experiences and the sketchy moments and some of the cooler places he has been to.”

Dyer said he liked the diversity in the sceneries and was impressed with both Thornburg’s photo techniques and guts.

“Just the sheerness of these photos he is taking, and the angles he is taking them from – I can’t even begin to think off how you get those photos, but he is out there getting them,” Dyer said. “Half of the climbs he is taking photos from, I probably could not climb myself. But he has climbed them and then started taking photos, so that is pretty incredible.“