Our Members: Climbing Photographer Andrew Burr
By Laura Case Larson
If you’ve flipped through a climbing magazine, Patagonia catalog, or American Alpine Club publication within the last 10 years, you’ve come across Andrew Burr’s stunning climbing photography. That artfully composed shot covering this year’s Accidents in North American Mountaineering? Burr. The big-wall images and late-night campfire shots you’ve seen from last year’s International Climbers’ Meet? Also Burr. That colorful sandstone photo splashed across the forty-second issue of Alpinist? Yep, Burr. The pattern is as obvious as the guy’s talent.
Burr, 35, is as modest and generous as they come. Every year he donates dozens of photos to the AAC because he believes that the “revamped AAC is a great organization to be a part of. An amazing place for the fragmented climbing community to come together. Stewardship for the future. Supporting climbers and their dreams. It’s a great thing.”
Burr, who lives in Salt Lake City with his wife and their two young daughters, recently took the time to speak with the AAC about his life and career—from his photography philosophy and crazy misadventures (“billy goating” is officially our new favorite term) to what he finds most challenging about his profession.
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The AAC: Which came first, climbing or photography?
Andrew Burr: Technically, photography did. I’ve been into photography ever since high school, but it was just a hobby. I never had any sort of idea or inclination or inkling that it was going to become a profession down the road. I moved to Phoenix, Arizona, and kind of discovered rock climbing by chance. Somebody ended up taking me out, and I was hooked immediately, I started climbing a bunch, and the camera would come along.
I came up to Salt Lake for college, became a geological engineer, and I was a hydrologist for a number of years for the USGS, and all the while I was climbing a bunch, and I was getting more into photography.
Then about 10 years ago I quit my job and gave full-time photography a go, because it was my passion, and I realized that’s what I wanted to do. I just jumped headlong into it not knowing much. Miraculously it worked out somehow.
The AAC: Did you have any formal training?
Burr: Not from beyond a high-school photography class.
The AAC: What’s the wildest thing you’ve done for a shot?
Burr: Generally I end up climbing a lot of stupid stuff and soloing a lot of easy stuff within my ability. It generally ends up being through bushes and up through not-your-standard climbing terrain to get into position. I call it “billy goating.” Generally I’m attracted to photographing climbs in areas that are a pain in the ass to photograph—big walls in the backcountry, stuff off the beaten path.
The AAC: Have you ever been scared for the climber you’re photographing?
Burr: I don’t mind shooting people soloing or doing dangerous things in the climbing world as long as they are solid, like a professional. I never want to put someone in or be involved with something where a climber is in way over their head and the likely outcome is someone getting hurt. And as a professional myself, I focus on my job and trust that they’re going to be okay.
The AAC: What’s your favorite place you’ve been to?
Burr: My favorite place is anywhere new that I have not been before. But if you were to actually nail me down to say something, and I’ve kind of been thinking about this a lot, I’d say the sandstone towers of the American Southwest. I’ve never been a super good rock climber. I can climb 5.11, and that’s about it. I’ve never been into projecting or redpointing, so the 5.10s and 5.11s that you commonly find in the desert—sometimes good climbing, sometimes garbage climbing, sometimes wide climbing—allow me to climb something once and then move onto the next thing.
The AAC: What’s the most recent trip you’ve been on?
Burr: I just got back from Scotland where we were climbing sea stacks: the desert towers of the ocean. Swimming in the ocean can be intimidating, but it’s necessary in order to rig up Tyroleans Tyroleans are set-up to access sea stacks for the rest of the climbing team/members. It’s normally the easiest way to get everything dry, people warm, and the stoke high. As Mike Pennings once said, you can’t put a price on morale.
The AAC: You joined us for the International Climbers’ Meet last year in Yosemite. What was your favorite part of that experience?
Burr: The ICM is great for meeting climbers from around the world, making connections and friends for future travels to far flung places. The location isn’t half bad either.
The AAC: What’s the most challenging aspect of being a climbing photographer? Do you have a personal photography philosophy?
Burr: The most challenging thing for me is keeping up. A lot of climbers who I photograph are professional athletes who are super fit, and I have to keep up with those guys. I don’t want my photography to impinge on people’s day, so I try to be fast, and I don’t want people to wait for me to get in position. I want to be in position by the time that they’re ready to start climbing, whether that’s hiking up and around and dropping a rope or hiking over a hill or doing whatever it has to be. I don’t like the word “photo shoot.” I’d rather just try to document in a natural way so that I end up with real moments instead of completely posed down, manufactured photographs.
The AAC: What’s your advice to aspiring climbing photographers?
Burr: It’s a bit of luck, it’s a bit of fortune, and it’s definitely hard work. You have to be able to take a picture and be good behind the camera, but after that it just comes down to a bunch of things just lining up correctly. Go at it full-steam, with all of your heart. Even though I’ve been doing it for 10 years, I’m still amazed that it does work. You pull from a bunch of different resources, and do the best you can, and it can work out. I feel fortunate and very lucky that it did work out for me, and that it continues to.
The AAC: Are there any photographers or filmmakers you admire?
Burr: There are the old guys that we’ve been seeing photographs from for years—you know, beautiful climbing imagery for decades upon decades, which is really amazing—guys like Greg Epperson and Jim Thornburg. They’ve been setting the bar for a really long time.
More in the modern sense, I’ve always looked up to Tim Kemple Jr. I approached him years and years and years ago about how to get my shit together. I’m not a business person; he is a very good business person. I don’t really like that aspect of the job.
For filmmaking, Renan Ozturk and the other guys who started Camp 4 Collective. They make amazing, inspiring films.
The AAC: What about photography do you find most rewarding?
Burr: I really enjoy capturing the moment and trying to capture the feel of a general climb or a general day or a general trip, and for the most part I take pictures to remember. I feel like I forget a lot of things, and if I photograph them, then it allows me to remember them.
The AAC: What do you do when you’re not taking pictures or climbing?
Burr: Then it’s family time, which is a lot a fun. It’s pretty awesome, actually.
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View more of Burr’s photography by downloading the 2013 Guidebook to Membership. Many of Burr’s photographs can be seen throughout the publication. Also, visit Explore and flip through photos from the 2012 International Climbers’ Meet. Burr will be photographing this year’s ICM in October. Many thanks to Andrew Burr for his continued support of the Club!
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