Corey Rich: A Career in Photography, and On Mentors

All Images By Corey Rich. Used With Permission, Courtesy of Red Bull Illume.

Corey Rich is one of the biggest names in the action and adventure photography genres, and as a participant in this years’ Red Bull Illume contest, we had the opportunity to speak with Corey to learn about what gets his creative juices flowing, his mind inspired, and his camera snapping.

Phoblographer: How did you get into photography in general?

Corey: You know, I was a gymnast as a kid and I won a pull-up contest on our jr. high school campus. I did 35 pull-ups and one of the PE teachers on campus invited me to go rock climbing that weekend. My father being a school teacher thought that was a good idea, so I went rock climbing. I ended up falling in love with every aspect of rock climbing, the kind of mental and physical challenge, the hanging out with adults and storytelling aspect.

The sort of natural inclination of these adventures was to try and capture pictures of them. So I borrowed my father’s SLR film camera that next weekend and tried to make compelling photographs of those weekend adventures. I learned almost immediately that it was hard, it turns out just owning a nice camera is not what makes great photographs, it’s what you do in your head.

But that was it, I was hooked on climbing and I was hooked on photography at 13 years old.

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Phoblographer: You are known for your action/adventure/outdoor images. When did you know that was what you wanted to do? How did you go about making that dream a reality?

Corey: I never really set out to make photography a career. I don’t know if it was something that my parents instilled in me, but I have always been a pretty passionate person in whatever it is that I am dong. I can’t multitask and I don’t have a lot of skill sets – in fact, I always joke that I only have a few skills and one of them is photography or storytelling. I always just focused on what I loved and put as much of my time and energy into that as I could.

Early in my life that was photography and the outdoors., being in an adventure or part of an adventure and taking pictures of them. Now I look back, and I am 40 years old, so 27 years after I first picked up a camera at 13 and I think it is incredible that I managed to get both photography and storytelling on that limited list of skills that I have, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

The way that you make it a reality, or at least the way that I made it a reality, was that I started early and I never had a business plan. I never intended to make this my career, I just focused on doing what I love, as often and at the highest level that I could.

Phoblographer: Who or what inspires you? How do you draw on that in your work?

Corey: I had a few mentors that really had an enormous impact on me. Some were photographers, some were climbers, some were just role models in life. If I had to pick someone it would be Tom Frost, an extraordinary human being, a pioneer in the climbing and adventure photography world, and an incredible photographer.

But honestly, I get more inspiration from just looking at the work of hundreds of other photographers, reading backstories, and getting to know these people in person or online. I also find a lot of inspiration from listening to podcasts and audiobooks, profiles, biographies of people who are just good at what they do – that are committed to what they do. It doesn’t need to be a photographer, it could be a musician, a business leader, a teacher, or a scientist. It’s just about getting inside the brains of people that are really committed to what they do.

I find lots of inspiration in realizing and learning from people who have committed their lives to what they are passionate about. I think it helps me continue to commit my life to what I am passionate about.

Photographer: Corey Rich Red Bull Illume 2016 Category: Lifestyle Athlete: Tommy Caldwell Location: Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Phoblographer: What is your primary kit? Why did/do you choose this kit over other possible options?

Corey: I am a Nikon Ambassador in the United States, but that is by choice. I’ve chosen to use Nikon equipment because it’s best in class. I am in really remote and rugged situations and I need the most durable equipment on the planet – and that is Nikon.

I like super lightweight bodies that are durable, and razor sharp Nikkor glass. I am a bit of a minimalist when I am out taking pictures. I don’t have a giant camera bag; I try to carry the smallest bag possible with the least amount of gear that I need. My ‘go to’ kit changes a lot, but right now I am choosing the Nikon D750 and usually three lenses; the 16-35mm F/4, 50mm F/1.4, and 70-200mm F/2.8. Sometimes I will swap out the 70-200mm F/2.8 for the 70-200mm F/4, and sometimes the 16-35mm F/4 for the 17-35mm F/2.8. If I have the luxury I will take more gear, but for the majority of my shoots, this is my basic kit.

Phoblographer: What is your favorite aspect of shooting what you do?

Corey: My favorite aspect of doing what I do is that I get to be a participant in the activities. Being an adventure photographer requires that I am not just standing on the sidelines taking pictures of people with numbers on their backs or musicians on a stage – I am a participant, I am there. If I am with David Llama, or Tommy Caldwell, or any athlete, I am hanging on the ropes with them, I am on the side of El Capitan, I’m hiking across a glacier. I love the entire experience of the adventure, keeping up with the athlete – There is a feeling of creative accomplishment and there is a feeling of physical accomplishment at the end of any shoot.

On top of that feeling of that accomplishment, I get to bring home images of the adventure that hopefully tell a story: images that can remind me and the athlete of the adventure, and inspire others to do the same.

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Phoblographer: You have traveled the world, shot in amazing locations for some of the world’s biggest brands. What have been some of your favorite places to shoot?

Corey: My go-to answer for this one, and I get asked it a lot, but I really do believe it, is that it is wherever I shot last. I am just a guy that loves to travel and see new places. The more that I travel the more I realize that I have not seen anything yet. But if you forced me to give you a list, it would have to include the Patagonia of Argentina, The Alps in Europe are some of the most incredible mountains, the Karakoram mountains in Pakistan, these are all incredible – the top of my list may actually be my home in Lake Tahoe California.

It is my favorite place on the planet, possibly. It is an adventure right out of the back door: incredible landscape and incredible weather.

Phoblographer: Does any of your work stand out to you in your own mind? If you had to pick a single defining image, which would it be?

Corey: This also changes a lot, but if you asked me today, I would probably point at one of the photographs that I shot on the dawn wall. This was the longest, hardest, free climb in the world done by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen just over a year ago. There is one photo of Tommy going through the portal edge as the sun was setting, and we are 1500 feet off the ground. This image really encapsulates friendship, these are two very close friends, in a stunning location and I feel like it is a pretty nice frame that tells the story well. It will certainly hold a special place in my heart for the rest of my life

That is what photography is all about; can it encapsulate all of these things in 1/1000th of a second, and I think that this picture really does.

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Phoblographer: What prompted you to enter for Red Bull Illume?

Corey: I have been blown away by what the team at Red Bull have done since their inception. I think that no one company has helped advance action and adventure sports photography than Red Bull. I feel like I am not really a contest person, mostly because I never win anything and I am just not really a competitive person. But I think that the spirit of Illume is a good one, I think that what is being done here to advance these genres of photography is admirable.
I felt like I needed to walk the walk, and talk the talk. If I am going to celebrate and encourage others to enter the contest, I should enter it myself. Though I will say that I have no expectation of winning, I think that in my entire career I have only won a handful of contests, though I will admit that I don’t enter them very often.

Phoblographer: What would it mean for you to win or be recognized?

Corey: I would be honored, I think it’s great; it would just feel wonderful to be a part of that bigger celebration of great photography, and the craft of action and adventure photography. It would be an honor.

Anthony Thurston

Anthony is a Portland, Oregon based Boudoir Photographer specializing in a dark, moody style that promotes female body positivity, empowerment, and sexuality. Besides The Phoblographer, he also reviews gear and produces his own educational content on his website.