When he was a child, Jimmy Chin longed for adventure and experiences beyond those near his home in rural Mankato, Minnesota. One of his early influences was “The Hobbit,” a book that gave him wanderlust. His parents—librarians who immigrated from China—pressured him to follow a traditional career path.
“I always thought there were only three things I could be when I grew up,” said Chin. “A doctor, a lawyer or a businessman.”
After he graduated from Carleton College, Chin asked his father for a reprieve from finding a job. He wanted one year to ski and climb so he could “get them out of his system.” His father was skeptical and wanted his son to find a standard profession.
“That didn’t work for me,” Chin said. “I felt that I needed to find something that gave my life meaning and purpose. Climbing played that role for me.”
One year led to seven years, during which Chin lived out of the back of his 1989 Subaru Loyale. He was a “dirtbag” climber and ski bum who embraced both passions around the country. His parents did not approve; they spent their savings paying for private boarding school and a pricey liberal arts college.
“As far as they were concerned, I was a homeless person.”
Chin’s fortunes changed for the better when he sold an image he had taken with his climbing partner’s camera for $500. The transaction ultimately launched his career as a professional lensman.
“Photography was a way to facilitate the lifestyle that I wanted.”
To learn his new craft, Chin followed an approach he learned as an alpinist: find someone with experience and follow their lead. His mentor was the award-winning landscape and adventure photographer Galen Rowell. A college dropout with no formal training, Rowell pioneered a new method. When he photographed, Rowell saw himself as part of the scene being photographed—and not just an observer on the other side of the camera clicking a button. He accomplished this by relying on his skills as a mountaineer and climber; he was able to position himself on high peaks and ragged cliffs to capture stunning imagery from unique vantage points.
In his book “Mountain Light,” Rowell elaborates: “Balancing human subjects in action against their surroundings came naturally because I was part of the experience. I entered a world with no firm boundaries between working, playing and living.”
Chin appreciated Rowell’s philosophy and art and drove his Subaru from Yosemite Valley to Rowell’s office and gallery in Berkeley, California, so he could meet the man. He arrived without an introduction or an appointment.
“I just sort of showed up,” Chin explained. “When the receptionist asked who I was, I said, ‘I’m Jimmy, and I’m here to see Galen.’”
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