More Problems of Authenticity

I have a problem with the way outdoor photography is used to sell stuff.  It is an inevitably aspirational medium, and insofar as this is the case all too often falls short.

I’ll use a few photos from the latest Patagonia catalogue to illustrate this, both because Patagonia has consistently had the most actively artistic approach to photography of any gear company, and because it’s the only such catalogue we regularly receive.  [It used to come twice a year, now it’s about monthly.  That is another matter.]

Photos are intentionally bad, if you want one order a copy yourself.

This is the cover photo, by Christian Pondella.  Quick googling reveals that this is exactly what it looks like: a gnarly ski descent with at least one rap to get in.  As best as I can tell without having been there, the photo represents reality well.

This is the inside cover.  Lifestyle outdoor photography as rather disingenuous.  The shot is evocative, but isn’t telling us anything in particular.  Worse still, all the skis pictured have pure alpine bindings.  Yes Patagonia sells to folks who only ride lifts, and yes you can hike to some gnarly stuff in Europe (photo is from France), but neither of these are what Patagonia should be selling, in the aspirational realm.

The final shot in this winters catalogue.  Sex sells, and the only thing better than a woman with shoulders in a bikini top is one with a steezy belt hauling dynafitted fat skis.  I’m prepared to believe this phallocentric fantasy actually exists in Colorado (photo was taken near Ophiristan), but if these ladies are out touring on a hot day, where are their packs?  Maybe they’re doing truck shuttle runs on a June snowfield, but more likely this photo was directed and staged.  Sad.

It’s not realistic for all outdoor photography to be spontaneous.  The weather which is good for sending a hard problem in Horse Pens is not necessarily the best for photos, you’ll be more likely to get the shot if your friend rides that rock drop again, and it’s helpful to ask folks to ski right past you on a certain side if at all possible.  What I want photographers and photo editors to respect is the zeitgeist in which the photos were taken and in which the activity took place.  It’s pretty easy for someone like me to thumb through a magazine, identify where the majority of the photos were taken (please get away from the road in SoUt and make it more of a challenge!), and quantify with reasonable accuracy the amount of posing and general inauthenticity involved.  Aside from giving me something else to whing about, no harm and no foul.

The problem here is with the uninitiated masses, out of which we all must (and hopefully will) spring.  Outdoor media is driven by gear sales, but it’s larger end should be to inspire greatness in those starting out.  I recall hiking up to Long Wall in the Red almost 15 years ago, and seeing some of the huge, arching big lines for the first time.  I wanted to climb harder not to climb harder, but to be able to make it up those proud and striking lines.  Now I’m essentially retired, and while I never did El Cap I climbed harder than I ever thought I would when I started, and it’s pretty cool to see modestly difficult routes and problems in magazines and be able to recall the beta from personal experience.  The view down from the crux of Anaconda in the Garden of the Gods is best when you’re clipping the decades old pins and greasing out of the flared locks yourself, on the sharp end.

When magazines cheapen reality by needlessly enhancing it, they do everyone a disservice, but no one more than the teenaged gumby just starting out.  People in that position need to know that the level of radness portrayed in media in not only attainable by normal humans, it can be exceeded with little more than half a decades dedicated work at your activity of choice.  When a skiing shot is tilted, or a sidecountry line tamed by practice and proximity to rescue passed off as a backcountry line, the experience is cheapened.  When a shot of a famous climber holding a pose on a non-route runs in a major magazine, the status of climbing as one of the ultimately democratic sports is degraded.  (Want to be the best climber on earth?  Get good, travel, and climb the hardest routes.  On your own terms.  Beautiful, simple.)  When a backpacking photo contest is won by a shot taken 1/4 mile from a paved road, the fact that the best landscape photography is taken days from the car is called into question.

You, the newbie, can do great things in the backcountry which will shock, amaze and enlighten you in ways never before conceived.  It should be the moral duty of those already privy to this fact to uphold it.  Run photos which hold true to both the spirit and the fact of the endeavor.  It’s not a coincidence that the first photo above was taken by a very accomplished skier.  Photo editors should refrain from running photos taken by people who are pro photographers only, turn back photos which look good but at base lie, and the heads of outdoor media should not hire editors who don’t intimately know the subject in which they’re working.  If they don’t know a lie when is comes across their monitor they should go work for Outside.

This is one way in which digital media is killing off the print world.  With broad access to platforms and technology, the authenticity bar is being raised rapidly, and hopefully standards with it (and the frequency and vociferation of public excoriation).  The only trick left is how to monitize new outdoor media, such that integrity and talent find a way to get together as often as possible.


  1. I actually disagree with you on this one. Since when is authenticity expected in advertising? Advertising is all about evoking emotions and action, not establishing truth. People want to see croaking frogs sell Budweiser and they want to see ripped shoulders on sexy women that aren’t hidden by packs . (The photo of the women is obviously staged. It doesn’t take a ski expert to realize that. Also, Beat pointed out that it evokes a famous beach photo of women walking toward the ocean with their surfboards. In that context it’s actually a brilliant photo, and pro-photographers provide a level of artistry that others can not.) A substantial majority of people don’t care about the context of images and don’t even think about it. They just react: “wow, awesome, I want.” SInce advertising is still what dominates revenue in all media, even digital, asking advertisers to limit their message to specific values (such as implicitly promoting backcountry recreation) isn’t just unrealistic, it’s dangerous. Because if the new outdoor media (or any media) can’t raise money through successful advertisers, they can’t survive.

    1. The problem with unauthentic pictures in outdoor advertises is this: When I want to buy a specific product I expect the producer to know about the circumstances in which I’m going to use it. But when they show me a picture with a faked outdoor scenario I question myself if they ever done this outdoor sport in real!
      I’m not talking about exaggerrated pictures where everyone realizes on the first sight that this picture is not real. I’m talking about pictures which try to look real but are just setuped!
      I wouldn’t buy from a salesperson which is lying to me about his own experiences with a certain product. And I won’t buy something out of a catalogue where the pictures don’t talk about true experiences!

  2. Smart article! And there’s another “problem” involved. Are the photographed people actual mountaineers, skiers, hikers? Or are they just some hired models which try to look as they know what they are doing?
    There are a whole bunch of sport magazines featuring “well trained” people on their cover. But do they really perform the sport they are representing? E.g. there was a male Runners World cover model. His hairs were well coiffed, he had shiny white teeth and of course he had a six pack of muscles.
    The cover showed him “running”. Well, kind of. Anyone who knows anything about proper running realises that the way this guy was moving he’ll never would make it to the finish line. (He might brake his ankles instead) His legs? Not a single muscle or tendon. Not the legs you would expect to see on a runner! This guy was never into running. This was just some fitness studio trained smart looking model.
    These things do make me sad! It’s the same with the models in the outdoor cataloges. Even their clothes look freshly washed and ironed after a “long distance trip into the wilderness”. Why? Because they never ever sleeped in the tent in presented in the background. Because they never had to carry this backpack (well, they might have. But not with gear inside. Just with something to make it look stuffed).
    Please. PLEASE! Bring back authentic pictures of outdoorsmen and woman that know what they are doing!

    1. Agreed! This is more prone with women than men, I think. A not classically attractive male adventurer will make the cover (obviously better without a shirt), but too often accomplished female athletes only get press if they’re hot, with talent and accomplishments optional (compare the mag spreads of Liz Hatch v. Katie Compton, for example).

  3. I was thinking of this same problem the other day when I came across this Salomon video . For the most part the series works as a kind of documentary of ultrarunner Killian Jornet, but this video features Killian ripping up sand dunes and doing all kinds of acrobatics that have nothing to do with real trail running. While I agree with the first commenter that advertisements like this are an obvious appeal to the emotions, I wonder how effective they really are if the people who do these activities and buy the products can recognize them as fake? As for the people who are actually fooled by this stuff…what we have is the perfect recipe for a serious injury.

  4. I tend to agree with Jill. It’s advertising. Also, I would be willing to bet that most of their sales are not only *not* to people riding lifts but to people in cities who do virtually no skiing or adventuring at all. They are selling an image.

    1. Of course it’s advertising, and of course they’re selling an image. But it’s not merely advertising (nothing is) and the image being sold has a huge array of cultural baggage behind it, which has an inexorable moral content (e.g. it influences how people live their lives). If outdoor companies construct there wares in a way that at once holds out a dream and reminds the viewer that they can never actually have it, they’re encouraging a Walter Mittyism which if universalized would make the world a very poor place to live.

      If a company can’t sell stuff without committing that kind of moral violence, they should have the decency to change their business model or die.

  5. Well of course you’d never wear a pack with a string bikini… the pack would make the knot tie dig into your back…

    I bet they have miniature avi shovels, beacons, and some food tucked into the pockets of their cargo pants! That’s why they need those cute belts to help hold them up. Duh.

  6. The term “moral violence” seems extreme. It arguable in the thousands of fashion magazines depicting an image of essentially unattainable bodies wearing unaffordable clothing, but outdoor industry marketing? Fairly benign in the scheme of things. I know I’ll never be able to drop into a steep couloir wearing skis, but this doesn’t prevent me from appreciating artfully constructed images of this exact thing. And most viewers will never see anything in these shots but awesomeness; they don’t have the same understanding and thus outrage as you.

    I have two good friends who are professional outdoor photographers. I’ve signed model releases for shots they obtained in the “honest” manner you describe (we were out hiking or on a bikepacking trip, and we were really out there doing the things those images claimed we were doing, so to speak.) I’ve also observed their process of setting up a shot by hiring people to act as models and waiting for the perfect light at the perfect angle to capture their shot. Guess which shots actually sell more in the stock image and advertising market? (Hint, I have yet to see myself in a major magazine.) I was just suggesting that the standard you’re proposing is unrealistic, and not conducive to the art of photography, which is a completely different practice and standard than photojournalism.

    1. And I’m not objecting to setting up a good photo, just (to use the example above) hire a real runner to go back and forth on that same 50 meters of trail.

      Those who have insight, for whatever reason, carry an automatic burden along with it. Plenty of other folks are watching out for the fashion industry in this respect. Too much of the adventure industry sees no problem with ignorance as bliss.

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