Interview by Jain Lemos. Photos ©2020 Andrew Kornylak.
Ryan Hanscom, an intern for The Nature Conservancy with a snapping turtle at Nags Head, NC. © Andrew Kornylak.
In looking at his photos of gutsy turtle hunters and dangling rock climbers, I get a sense that Andrew Kornylak is something of a swami of angles. It’s not a coincidence that he is also a mathematician. Andrew devotes his efforts to what’s happening in those distant places most people only give a glancing pass to while driving along lonely miles of highway. His work amounts to satisfying and uncommon stories that bring viewers a special look at his subjects and their intrepid activities.
Born and raised in Ohio, Andrew traveled the country in pursuit of a photography career after earning a degree in math and working as a software developer. He’s been rock climbing for more than a quarter century and his photography exemplifies his passion for beautiful places and adventurous people. His environmental portraiture is widely published among the top outdoor magazines and his many editorial clients (Garden & Gun, GEO, Outside, National Geographic Adventure, The Nature Conservancy, Climbing, NPR, and The Wall Street Journal). He also shoots commercial work (Apple, Square, Hanes, Red Bull), directs documentary films, and is the Photo Director for Outdoor Retailer. As a storyteller and conservationist, Andrew brings us tales from the field and pointers for working in the wilderness.
I can’t help thinking about your position in taking some of these shots. Does this come naturally or are you putting a lot of thought into exactly where you need to be?
As a young climber and photographer, I was really taken by the work of Galen Rowell, who was probably the first “adventure photographer.” Rowell was interested in the personalities and human drama of outdoor adventure and felt it could best be captured by being a participant, rather than a mere observer, attempting K2 and traversing the Karakoram in winter for example. He had a rare skill set, but I think that approach can guide the way you photograph any subject. If you prepare yourself — physically, mentally — as a “participant,” you are more fully invested in the outcome. You earn trust. This is a more privileged angle, physically and metaphorically. This approach means I’m not photographing or filming subjects that don’t resonate with me, and that’s just fine with me personally, because half my life is consumed by it.
Climbers at the Triple Crown Bouldering Competition in the Southeast US. © Andrew Kornylak.
Your portrait project, “The Triple Crown Bouldering Series” brought together all aspects of the climbing community. How did this idea come about?
I’d been competing in the “Triple Crown” climbing competitions since they started in the mid-90s in the Southeast US, and over the years I’d shot some magazine features and directed short films about them. I had in the back of my mind a more focused photographic project for years, but I didn’t quite know what it would be. It was Danny Clinch’s location portraits of musicians that inspired me to take a more intentional, like-minded approach, making portraits over the course of a single season — which, in 2014, was four competitions over fall and winter.
To develop the approach and the lighting, I worked with my friend Erik Danielson who is a fantastic gaffer. It was liberating to work that way at the competitions. Rather than running all over the place, I mostly stayed in one place and dragged people away from the action for a few quiet moments. The years spent embedded in the action definitely gave me a perspective — that privileged angle I mentioned before — but I met a lot more people and connected with them on a different level through this project. It all felt very natural. Climbers in their environment are good subjects. Afterwards, a few magazines picked up and featured the work but for the most part these portraits are unpublished. Given that and nearly 25 years of supporting material, it might make a good book some day…
Bouldering World Cup champion climber Lisa Rands climbing in Tennessee. © Andrew Kornylak.
What are your own safety considerations as a climber and photographer?
Safety is always the highest concern while shooting climbing, but the idea is to be comfortable enough to focus on the photography rather than the risks. This comes from years of training and preparation until the safety measures become second nature, which is another reason why it’s hard to really photograph climbing as a casual observer. That said, sometimes other climbers, at the high end, will do things that seem dangerous even to me. That’s when I have to trust their skill and preparation. I never ask a climber to do something more dangerous, but it’s not for me to decide what level of risk is appropriate for them. Exploring the edges of control and risk is part of the game.
I know that many editorial photographers have seen their assignments dwindle since the pandemic has restricted most travel. How has your work been impacted?
I was halfway through a series of stories for New Mexico magazine in March when all hell broke loose, and I had to cut it short to return to my family in North Carolina. That kind of travel-intensive assignment work has dried up completely, but my summer has still been busy. In the outdoor and travel space, publications have leaned heavily on existing work in lieu of assignment, and that strategy favors photographers who have a well-organized library of published and unpublished work ready for licensing. Many companies still have content needs and money to spend, but are at a loss about how to do a production.
Bowhunters in the Valles Caldera National Preserve, NM. For New Mexico Magazine, "The Elk Hunting Mecca." © Andrew Kornylak.
Michael Twitty tends to a pit fire at Stagville Plantation in Durham, NC. For Garden & Gun Magazine’s “The Antebellum Chef.” © Andrew Kornylak.
Your uniquely southern stories, like “The Antebellum Chef” and “The Plantation Broker” seem to honor traditions while also being mindful of the changing times. They are beautifully shot, too.
There is definitely a nostalgic element to these stories but I actually see them as radically forward-looking. These are both stories of emerging phenomena. “The Plantation Broker” is about how a real estate broker became an unlikely conservation advocate for 300,000 acres of forested land in Southern Georgia, full of ecological treasures and dotted with over a hundred post-civil war plantations, at the expense of investment yield.
“The Antebellum Chef” is about Michael Twitty, who reconstructs and revives traditional African American foodways in order to correct cultural memory and expand contemporary cuisine, all in the service of what he calls “culinary justice.” These, and many of the stories I’ve photographed for Garden & Gun, nominally a “Southern lifestyle publication,” have been not only mindful of changing times but are actually leading that change. This dichotomy of Southern culture — nostalgia and radical thought — is what keeps me excited to work in this space.
Are you pitching stories to editors or finding other ways to turn personal projects into paid jobs?
I’ve made many pitches to editors and buyers for landscape-heavy, local stories, and projects that can be done remotely or at least safely, and several of them have been green-lit with healthy budgets.
I am the Photo Director for the Outdoor Retailer Show, which quickly transitioned their print media and in-person operations (which are massive) to digital platforms in order to keep things humming. All that has not only kept me working, but allowed me to keep many other freelancers working, which is even better.
Climber and artist Joey Henson in Linville Gorge, NC. For Our State Magazine, "The Godfather of Linville Gorge Climbing." © Andrew Kornylak.
And your documentary film projects? The subjects are so unusual and interesting.
The Mapmaker started as an editorial print piece for Our State magazine in North Carolina about Joey Henson, a legendary climber I had met a few times before. He lives an ascetic life below the radar, in a barn in the woods outside Boone, NC, and has never been interviewed for anything, but he trusted me to photograph him for the magazine. I took it a step further and asked him if we could do a little filming of his life while we were at it, and he was into it.
I teamed up with my good climbing friend and like-minded filmmaker Carlo Nasisse and we spent a week living and climbing with Joey. It took a full summer to edit the footage down to a length that suited the U.S. National Whitewater Center. We knew Joey’s trust was on the line, which was important to us, and I think it lived up to that. Joey’s mom even liked it! We have a nearly hour-long “director’s cut” which was put on hold this summer, but we plan to have it done soon.
Uncarved Block references the Taoist concept of “pu” which translates roughly as “wood as it came from the tree before man had dressed it,” and as the doctrine of “returning to our original nature.” These ideas permeate this story about two climbers: Tony, a robotics engineer who constructs artificial climbing holds that precisely mimic real rock, and Ronnie, an above-the-knee amputee who is famous for his revolutionary approach to creating and using prosthetics. Tony and Ronnie are working together to design robotic platform that can help Ronnie fabricate the next generation of artificial limbs. This was a personal project funded by Outdoor Retailer.
What you are working on now and what ideas are simmering?
I’m working on a series of commissioned films centered around the space we find ourselves in during this pandemic: The back yard versus the back country. Some of these dovetail nicely with personal and long term projects I’ve been working on in the South. I also have a full calendar of photo and video work through the winter which I’m thankful for.
A graduate student collects soil samples in a barley field in northern Arizona. For The Nature Conservancy Magazine, "Barley Dreams." © Andrew Kornylak.
Andrew also serves as Treasurer on the APA National Board of Directors.