Believing is Seeing ~ the divide between perception and reality


When Madison photographer Eric Baillies asked me to sit for a portrait I was immediately flattered. A talented artist who has dedicated his craft to the creation of tintype prints he graciously offered to capture my picture on an emulsified metal plate.

“I’d like to make an image with some of your climbing gear,” he said. “Glasses come to mind.”

When I arrived in his production space at Winnebago Studio I also had with me my favorite ice ax. Last used to summit Mount Baker in 2012 along with my classic Julbo glacier glasses these tools represented for Eric icons of his perception of me as a mountaineer and an adventure writer, a belief I aim to see in myself.

Truthfully, as I sat for my picture I felt a bit like a poser. Sidelined by surgeries to replace both of my hips it has been two years since my last mountain climb. But now fully recovered I am making plans to get back to this sport I love. And just days before heading to the Canadian Rockies for a three-week residential fellowship at the Banff Mountain & Wilderness Writing Program at the Banff Centre in Alberta I resolved myself to become the embodiment of the image that Eric created.

Using an intricate process first introduced in the 19th century, it took more than an hour to produce this single picture. It was gratifying to see Eric work so diligently with darkroom chemicals and the precise application of light and shadow to get this one-of-a-kind portrait just right. I’ve missed this kind of artistic expression in photography. Through our modern age of digital imagery pictures can be snapped instantly dozens of frames at a time and shared round the world in the blink of an eye. It’s easy to take for granted the mastery and skill required to make an inspired photograph. The subject notwithstanding an artist like Eric composes an array of themes, connotations and emotions that the viewer can hopefully appreciate in a shared belief of what the image was meant to represent. But as the film maker Errol Morris wrote in his book of the same title believing is seeing.

As it happens when this picture was posted for the first time on Facebook a few of my friends believed they saw not a mountaineer but a musician. The image with my dark glasses and equally deep skin tones seemed to evoke instead of Charlie Crenchaw or Tenzing Norgay thoughts of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. “So Motown!” a friend commented.

Much like the divide between perception and reality that I tried to illustrate in my new book “The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors”, when it comes to mountaineering there is still an apparent disconnect between what we see and what we believe. And it would seem that in this image where some might see a climber others believe they see a singer.

I believe much of who we become in life is derived from who we perceive ourselves to be. That perception is reinforced by the things we do every day. As a professional writer and outdoorsman I spend my time trying to tell the story of life outside. Where it comes to people of color I also try to share the long narrative of the role we continue to play in the world of adventure. And over time I can only hope that images like this one can evoke thoughts of high mountain summits, vast alpine glaciers and steely eyed determination in the face of impossible odds. But then again… it would be cool to rock star.

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I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

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