SpearTalks: Corey Rich

Posted on October 31, 2008 Under Art

When Corey Rich was 13, a teacher noticed that he had very capable biceps. This happened during a pull-up contest – one of those middle school battles to trick kids into fitness over fatness- and Corey had knocked out 35 to win first place by a stretch. The teacher was a rock climber, and he thought the kid might enjoy tagging along. He did.

There's a feeling that comes with experiences of psychological and physical significance, and it's best understood as a crazy mix of endorphins, wonder, and an honest appreciation of your insignificance in the grand scheme of things. It doesn't have an official name "“ just call it "the feeling that feels like exclamation points," "” but it's addictive as hell. When Corey was 13, he experienced that feeling, and he decided to try to capture it on camera.

It's been 20 years since Corey Rich first made friends with nature, and nearly the same amount of time since he began capturing it on film. Now one of the most sought after adventure sports photographers in the world, Corey's remarkable shots have landed in the pages of most publications worth mentioning, and in the advertisements for the world's most famous brands. We caught up with a freshly de-planed Corey to chat life, lenses, and what it takes to make them work so well together.


JoshSpear.com: I'm going to be extra lame and start off by mentioning that you have the word "CORE" in your name. And by the looks of your pictures"¦ geez you're core. Tell us about yourself.

Corey Rich: Interesting observation!!! No one has mentioned that before! Good stuff!

I started taking pictures when I was 13, after being exposed to climbing by one of my teachers. I loved being pushed mentally and physically, and I was really interested by the challenge of communicating that visually.

By the time I was 16 I was shooting for my local paper"“ classic things like real estate, pet of the week, but eventually everything. Then, when it was time for college, I headed to San Jose State for their incredible photojournalism program. I had a great internship close to Yosemite, and had this epiphany that I wanted to be shooting stuff with meaning. This is obviously subjective, but for me it was shooting the outdoors, specifically rock climbing at the time.

Not long after that I took a semester off to travel the west and take pictures. By the last month my traveling buddy and I were out of money and almost out of film, so we decided to spend the last month freight hopping. The trip ended when we almost got caught (and because I busted my knee trying to run away).

I edited the pictures from that trip down to 40 and sent them to Patagonia, really not expecting anything to come from it "“ but then I got a phone call, and it was someone from Patagonia, and they said, "Who are you? We never get 40 pictures this strong in one submission." That felt amazing. I had made it.

It still feels amazing "“ I have to wake up every day and pinch myself because I love what I do so much.


JS: You call Tahoe your home, but in order to get you for this interview I had to wait for you to return from "a remote area of Mexico shooting underwater." What were you shooting, and how did it go?

CR: I was shooting a top-secret magazine assignment. This is often the issue with the editorial work that I do "” the magazine wants it to be a total surprise when the issue of the magazine hits the news stands. That said, I could tell you about some other very cool editorial shoots that I have done recently that would have made me just as difficult to get in contact with (sort of the story of my life): rafting and rock climbing in the Grand Canyon for 20 days (only way to communicate was via satellite phone) and this story has already published so I can talk freely about it.

JS: It seems like you're up for working everywhere, but that flexibility definitely restricts the amount of camera equipment you can pack along "“ what do you consider completely necessary on these remote trips?

CR: I am all about being light and fast when I am in the field. I think less is always more. I typically carry only one camera and two lenses: Nikon D700, a 17-35mm f/2.8, a 70-200mm f/2.8, and occasionally a strobe. With this kit I can do almost everything, yet it is a light enough selection of camera equipment that I can still be very mobile and flexible in the field. You have to remember that most of the time the nature of my shoots tend to be very physically demanding (and often times dangerous) so I need to be able to move quickly and not burn all of my energy just hauling my equipment around. I need to be able to focus my energy on making creative story telling images. And I almost never have an assistant in the most extreme shooting situations so I have to carry everything on my back- this includes climbing gear, camping gear, food, water, etc., in addition to the camera gear that I need. So maintaining top-level fitness is certainly a part of my job.


JS: You followed Dean Karnazes as he ran the 50 marathons in 50 days. I'm so amazed by his endurance "“ what was that experience like?

CR: First of all, Dean is a stud! This was a super fun assignment; certainly on my top ten list of good ones. Good friends, fantastic physical and mental challenge.

I was told by my editor Scott Willson at The North Face to choose three blocks of travel that I wanted to do with Dean that in the end would really summarize Dean's adventure. I choose the Midwest, Northeast and a block on the West Coast including Alaska, California, Hawaii and Arizona. What amazed me most about Dean is that he was completely unfazed by the actual running. Knocking out 26 miles a day was a walk in the park for Dean. The real stress for all of us (Dean and the rest of the production and journalism team) was the sheer volume of travel that we did. We spent on average 6 to 8 hours a day in planes, buses or cars, and that amount of travel mixed with restaurant food and hotel rooms was brutal. But it was super inspiring to document Dean running the marathons, dealing with hotels, restaurant food, travel, press and public appearances and still seem like a rock. In order to maintain some level of fitness I decided to run 6 miles a day with Dean and my camera and think this made me more exhausted than Dean"¦ in the end I felt like I was running and shooting my own E50. Sort of pathetic!


JS: Good photography seems to depend on a few things, one of which is having useable fingers. So many of your shots seem to have taken place in freezing climates "“ what's unique to those trips by way of getting great pictures?

CR: That is a funny question! Exercise and good circulation is key. Hand warmers, layers of gloves, lots of cocktails following each shoot and I recently installed a hot tub for the deep tissue warming after shoots.

JS: This is what I think is so amazing about your photography: It's really hard to show or explain what it's like to BE outside, just away from everything and part of it all, to someone who's never experienced it. Your pictures manage to communicate that. So"¦ this isn't as much of a question as it is a high five, I guess. High five.

CR: What I learned early on in my photographic career is that I needed to shoot the subjects that I am most passionate about. When I do this I tend to make the most creative story telling images that evoke emotion. I always use my mother (and she is not an outdoors person) as the measuring stick"“ if I show her a photo and she reacts to the images then I know it was a success in communicating to the general public. If she says nothing then I need to work harder and dig deeper into my soul. I have learned that I love to be outside and I love to be active and I love to be a part of the adventures that I am photographing. The best projects have three key elements: 1. Great people; 2. Interesting project; 3. Pays well! And when all three elements are present in a project I feel like I am the happiest guy on earth. And I know it is very cliché to say this but my life is my work and my work is my life"“ and that is just the way that I like it!


JS: Does Mini know about that shot you have with the kayakers strapped to the roof?

CR: I don't think so"“ do you know the AE at the agency representing Mini?! Lets do a deal!

The funny part about this image/situation (or twisted part, depending on how you look at it) is that Eric Jackson (one of the best whitewater kayakers of all time) has always had a love for fast cars. I have worked with EJ and his family several times, and just before I flew to Tennessee for this shoot he had rolled another sports car and the mini was the replacement. As it turns out EJ's two kids are now two of the greatest white water kayakers in the world. And yes, they do own a larger car for longer trips and the kids are allowed to sit in the back seat.

JS: Commercial photography was something that came after you'd established yourself as an action photographer. What do you appreciate about each experience individually?

CR: I love people and creative challenges. I feel like problem solving is 90% of my job as a photographer, whether on a commercial/ad shoot or on an editorial shoot. I just love making cool images that people respond to and making clients happy. And most importantly, having a wonderful experience in the process.

JS: With so much cliffhanging and peakbagging under your belt, you've got to have some exciting life-or-death stories. Share one?

CR: OK. It's the last day of a surf trip in Panama for Patagonia. The sun's setting, me and three other people are walking down a dusty road after a day in the ocean. Then, over the horizon, I see this gigantic red bull and a cowboy coming down the road from the other direction. So I whip out my camera to try and capture these tan surfers and this bull and this cowboy all in one frame. I'm rummaging in my camera bag and then suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I see a surfboard up in the air. Then there are more surfboards in the air, and the people around me are diving into the bushes. I look ahead, and the bull is maybe 12 feet away, charging. I think, "I'm going to die," and then my primal instincts kick in and I'm on the ground in fetal position with my eyes closed, just feeling myself getting trampled. Then I'm doing this backflip and a half, getting thrown across the road, but when I land I think, "I'm not dead." I open my eyes and there's a bull hoof in front of me, so I think, "I'm going to die." I feel this baseball bat hitting my ribcage, then I start seeing stars and wake up "“ and this is some weird humor in the situation "“ lying in a pile of poop. Camera gear everywhere, blood, flip-flops perfectly in stride where I'd been standing pre-trampling. I had some broken ribs, but I made it out ok. Not dead.