On The Road Again

Adventure photographer Kerrick James, who travels nearly 200 days a year, takes a pit stop to share stories from the road

Hikers above the Colorado River at Nankoweap, Arizona.

The life of an adventure photographer isn’t easy: There’s seemingly endless travel to awe-inspiring destinations around the world; the physical demands of spending your days outside hiking, backpacking, climbing, kayaking and running rapids with all of your expensive gear in tow; seeking out sunrises, sunsets, rainbows, waterfalls and hidden caves; dragging your friends along on your adventures or meeting incredible new people along the way; and wildlife encounters most people will only dream of. Well, I guess it’s not all bad. And for travel journalist Kerrick James, whose 25-year career has spanned film and digital, darkrooms and Lightroom, word of mouth and social sharing, it’s just another day at the office.

When you grow up in a house that was “filled with cameras,” as James says he did, it’s not unusual for the photography bug to bite. And when you live in some of the most well-known states for landscape photography, it’s hard not to be inspired by the scenes surrounding you. Born in “the prairies of Kansas,” James’ family moved to San Diego when he was young, and then settled in the San Francisco Bay area. James’ sense of adventure often led him out of the city and to places such as the Sierra and Death Valley, and, he says, “as far away as I could get, and sometimes to places I wasn’t supposed to go, and often by myself. I survived a few hair-raising experiences, and I got a little smarter along the way. And then I started to meet people who liked to do the same things.”

During his college years, James explored the Southwest—first New Mexico and then Arizona, where he graduated with a BFA in Photography from Arizona State. James still hangs his hat in Arizona, that is, when he’s not living out of a suitcase close to 200 days a year, traveling the world on assignment and teaching photography workshops.

Starry night over Havasu Falls, Arizona.

James’ work has appeared on over 200 book and magazine covers. He has photographed for hundreds of feature stories and has contributed to many books, guidebooks and Insight Guides, and has compiled an extensive stock photo library throughout his career. But it was the advice of a blunt magazine editor that helped shape James’ photography early on in his career.

“I had an editor at a San Francisco-based magazine look at some of my earlier shots from the late ’80s,” James recalls, “and he said, ‘These are great images, to a point.’ I asked what point, and he said, ‘It looks like a bleeping neutron bomb went off in all your pictures.’ There were several ‘bleeps’ in it, actually. He was very colorful. But he was telling the truth. There were no people. I had always edited people out in my landscapes, even my cityscapes. He told me that people make things interesting if they’re interesting people. I took his advice to heart and began to photograph the friends and guides that traveled with me to these great places, from Alaska to New Zealand or Australia, wherever it was, and I think those images are a lot more interesting because the viewer can imagine themselves as that person kayaking below a double arch in Lake Powell or going up a rickety ladder in a slot canyon. It becomes more experiential, more tangible.”

Another factor that sets James and his work apart is his ability to write, which he feels is a skill that would benefit many photographers working today due to how the business has changed over the years. “The job is about communication,” he explains. “There came a time when editors found out I wrote a bit, and they’d say, ‘Hey, we need a story,’ say, ‘on river rafting in the Grand Canyon, and we’re not going to send a writer, so we need you to do both.’ So, over the years, I’ve done at least a couple stories a year for travel magazines. It’s essential, sometimes, to even getting the chance to shoot the story—you have to be able to write.”

Arcing rainbow over The Mittens, Monument Valley, Arizona.


Sunrise beams over Butch Cassidy’s bathtub, Utah.

James has had the opportunity to photograph, and write about, many incredible places over the years, but one of the most memorable is his image of a kayaker in a cave floating on emerald-green water. “That was taken in the desert,” James explains, “that’s in Black Canyon, the canyon that Hoover Dam is located in. In the mid-’90s, the Bureau of Reclamation, which has responsibility for Hoover Dam and controls that area, had it closed to recreation. Well, they opened it up to the public, and I discovered it around that time with a group of kayakers from down the river, and ended up doing a story on it for Arizona Highways Magazine, which became a cover story that I think ran in 1997—it’s been awhile—and in the course of shooting the canyon, we discovered this little sea cave. For a short period in the afternoon, in midsummer to early autumn, the sun shines into the cave at an angle that just carries it over the cliff to the west. Because the sun is angled into the cave and reflects off of this light-colored lava rock, which is at the bottom of the cave, and the fact that the water is clear, it’s like a reflecting panel, the light bounces off up to the top of the cave so you have these dancing light patterns on the ceiling of the cave, and the water, it’s like you’re floating on an emerald. That cave was unnamed when I shot it, and I captioned it ‘Emerald Cave,’ and that’s the name that now applies to it. The name has stuck. It’s little discoveries like that, that keep me going out there, besides the fact that you get to meet the greatest people who love the planet just like you do. And if they know you love the planet and respect it, they’ll show you their favorite locations.”

James is well aware that some of the amazing locations he visits have already been well photographed, so he has to be prepared to get creative, like he did when he captured the shot of kayakers below Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon: “A couple years ago, I took some friends down there. This wasn’t a working trip, this was for fun. I carried down an inflatable kayak and paddles, and then filled it up. My friends kayaking in Havasu—I’ve never seen pictures of that before or since, and it made for some hilarious questions from some bewildered backpackers. ‘Did you kayak up from the river?’ If you’ve ever been to Havasupai, you’d know that’s impossible. I finally told people that I was kayaking to Yuma, and that pretty much silenced them,” he recalls with a laugh. “To redefine or do new images of a place that has been photographed so much is a challenge I take to heart, and I think everybody should—what can you do different that’s safe and visual and pretty darn cool? Since I live in the desert, any chance to get in the water with a kayak and a camera I’ll take. Water means a lot more when there’s a lot less of it.”

Lower Antelope Canyon, Page, Arizona.

These experiences also involved James lugging an assortment of gear, sometimes weighing upwards of 50 pounds. A Pentax shooter, James’ “big-camera experience” includes a 645Z medium-format DSLR with the 25mm lens and a number of 6×7 lenses he uses with an adapter. “That’s the great landscape camera,” he says. “But I’ll also carry a K-3 and a really wide zoom, probably a mid-range, and then a longer zoom for people along the trail, expressions, that kind of thing.”

James’ gear has come a long way from the days of shooting Kodachrome and TRI-X like he did in the ’70s for personal work, but there are always pros and cons of each format. As he explains, “It’s a double-edged sword. I spend a tremendous amount of time editing the digital images and choosing which ones to really invest time in. But you can make them precisely fit your vision, and then it’s easier to market them.

Cascade Falls, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand.

“Just this morning, I processed an image of a coyote in the predawn gloom that I took at Death Valley when I was teaching a photo workshop,” he continues. “The coyote was scooting across the dunes at about 100 yards’ distance. I pointed it out to people; they could barely see it. I had a long telephoto zoom on, and I said, let me see if I can shoot this, so I had to raise the ISO to 25,600, and it made a recordable image, which is something you could never even dream of shooting in the days of film. So the array of circumstances in which you can record something is so much different with digital, and I love that. I mean, who doesn’t?”

Rainbow Bridge, Utah.

James doesn’t specialize in wildlife photography, but it’s something that comes with the territory, so he likes to be prepared for any encounters. “I can’t do [wildlife photography] with my business model, and I’m probably not patient enough to do it. But I always gear up for wildlife when I know they can be part of the story, part of the experience. When the conditions are right and you’re close enough and you’ve got the optic, there’s nothing better than watching a wild creature do what they do.”

James’ wildlife encounters have included swimming with sea lions in the Sea of Cortez and desert bighorn sheep crossing his path in the Grand Canyon, but it was on one of his photo tours that an encounter became a little too close for comfort. “On a trail in Glacier National Park, one of my workshop participants got ahead of me, which they’re not supposed to. We rounded the bend and there he was, this guy from Brooklyn who had never been in the West, photographing two three-year-old male grizzlies feeding, pulling up roots from the ground, from about a 40-yard distance. He completely forgot everything I had told him and got away from me. I finally got him back to where he was a little safer, but, yeah, your heart can be in your throat. It’s pretty intense going places where the wildlife can eat you.”

2015 is as busy as ever for James, whose calendar is filling up with more travel, workshops and adventures. “I just finished my Death Valley photo workshop for Arizona Highways, and I’m planning other photo workshops for later this year. I just confirmed a workshop called ‘High in the Alps’ that’s going to be this summer in Switzerland, and it will involve hiking from mountain town to mountain town and hut to hut, but it’s easy hiking, and you just carry your cameras, stop at mountain huts and have sausages and beer for lunch. It’s a nice, easy, 30 to 40 miles in nine days, and the scenery is out of this world.”

The Mittens, Monument Valley, Arizona.

A natural-born teacher, James is incredibly approachable and encourages people to ask him questions, whether it’s while on a workshop, at a trade show or even online, where people often reach out to him from around the globe. “I’m always happy to share,” he says, “and I really encourage people to ask questions. During my workshops, I’m always listening, trying to find out what someone needs to learn, and if I can share it, then I’m absolutely thrilled to do that.”

James says the best part of the workshops is the opportunity to return to the places that he loves because, he notes, “I don’t think you should take people to a place you don’t know really well. I love sharing prime locations, and hopefully in great light, and just watching people react to that light and the experience, and seeing their photography grow in the time of that workshop. People can really make a big jump in that time. If people have the skill and the dedication, they’re going to improve and get closer to what they’re after. So I love that. That’s my reason for doing it.”

See more of Kerrick James‘ photography at www.kerrickjames.com, and learn more about his upcoming workshops at www.kjphotosafaris.com.