One morning early on in my tenure as editor of Outside magazine, I boarded a flight for New York and eased into my aisle seat. As we settled in for takeoff, the man seated next to me reached into his backpack and pulled out a copy of our latest issue. I froze. My neighbor’s chosen leisure activity might seem mundane, but for me it offered something of a job fantasy. As Outside’s editor, I spend weeks reading multiple drafts of 5,000 word stories, editing myriad headlines and captions, and constantly rebooting coverlines. Then we ship everything to the printer and move on to the next issue. We always receive a few kind—and not so kind—letters regarding an article and, if I’m lucky, I might hear from a family member who liked the new issue. But it’s an unsatisfying feedback loop. Until that moment on the plane, I’d never actually witnessed subscribers consume the magazine after pulling it of their mailbox. In fact, I’ve often dreamed of what it would be like to work at some giant manufacturing conglomerate, say Kraft, where I could watch from behind a one-way mirror as a consumer testing panel weighs in with blunt opinions about our latest powdered-cheese recipe. The man sitting next to me was as close as I’d ever get.
I took out my computer and pretended to work. Watching out the corner of my eye, I was a relentless voyeur for the better part of an hour, though I don’t recall every page the guy read. I don’t even remember the specific issue he held in his hands. One detail has stuck with me, however. After reading the table of contents, he flipped to the Exposure section, where we showcase our favorite images from the world of adventure. There, he encountered a two-page spread of a scuba diver suspended in the water looking straight at a massive humpback whale sleeping some 15 feet away.
I remember when this photograph was first presented to me and that I instantly selected it for the magazine. The diver and whale mirror one another at perfectly opposing angles, making it appear as though the two are locked in conversation. No other photograph I’ve seen so viscerally conveys the difference in scale between a human and a whale—or how insignificant a person might feel during such an encounter. The image begs you to linger.
Which is exactly what my personal consumer test case did. I watched him stare at the photo for a few minutes before finally turning the page. He went on to read the rest of the magazine for more than an hour, but he returned to the image at least three more times. It was as if he still couldn’t believe what he’d seen and needed to check again to make sure he wasn’t crazy or the victim of Photoshop trickery. (He was neither.) If there had been a cartoon text bubble over his head, it would have read: Wait, how did they do that?
If this encounter actually took place on the other side a one-way mirror, I would have high fived my fellow editors. That is the exact reaction we aim to evoke in our Exposure section, the source of the vast majority of the photos that you’ll find in this book. (A handful of others, such as Jimmy Chin’s shot of climber Renan Ozturk looking over the side of a portaledge in the Indian Himalayas, seen above, came from specific feature story assignments). Each month, our photo team looks at dozens of images submitted for consideration and weeds out nearly all of them. Those that make the cut are the ones that have the power to stop you in your tracks. In this book, we’ve gathered the very best of these photos, and looking at our selections, I’m amazed that so many of them still have that power over me even after repeat viewings.
What is also remarkable is how well these printed photographs hold up despite the rapid expansion of digital media. Today, a sponsored athlete’s every feat is captured by multiple POV GoPros and a team of videographers armed with $50,000 RED cameras. Some of this footage is indeed incredible, but even as HD video and filtered Instagram images clog our daily news feeds, large-format still photography remains the gold standard. As these images prove, a single, expertly-composed photo, printed at a scale that allows careful investigation of the details, has the ability to convey the thrill and danger of adventure in a way that moving images and square-cropped shots the size of a business card often can’t. By weeding out all but the most remarkable captured moments, we've curated a selection of images with the unique power to give you the chills.
When that happens, your immediate reaction may be to look at the subject—a skier frozen just beyond a cliff face or a slackliner balancing thousands of feet above the earth—and ask, How did they do that? It’s a reasonable question, but a better way to digest this book is to follow a different line of inquiry. After ten years of looking at hundreds of our Exposure selections and reading the narratives behind each shot, I’ve found the most compelling stories are more often taking place on the other side of the camera. So as you linger on an incredible image, take a moment to ignore the specific action in front of you and imagine the photographer. Where are they? And how the hell did they get there? A good example can be found below, where you’ll see a Minke whale (I have a thing for whales) in the foreground and a sea kayaker perilously close behind.
Perilously close, that is, until you consider the position of the photographer, who is virtually on top of the mammoth beast. You’ll want to know how someone could not only survive such an encounter but have the presence of mind to capture it with their camera.
The good news is that you’ll find the answers to these questions throughout this book. When making an issue of Outside, we select photos that will stop you in your tracks, but we also want to place you in the action. Each image has a story behind it that explains exactly how it was captured. These narratives are brief, but filled with surprising and sometimes frightening details, and they’re all told through the point of view of the photographer rather than the subject.
Finally, we created this book to commemorate Outside’s 40th anniversary. The media landscape has evolved considerably since we first began publishing in 1977, but our mission has always stayed the same: to inspire active participation in the world Outside. And we’ve long understood that photos, often more than words, are the best way to accomplish that. It’s the reason that we moved the Exposure section to the beginning of the magazine ten years ago. The photographs you’re about to encounter have the power to set a mood, forcing you to recalibrate any assumptions of what is possible for humans to accomplish in the world outside. You might never get to see some of the remote places we take you to with your own eyes. You’ll probably never want to experience some of the harrowing action you see depicted. But I guarantee that something in here will inspire you to get out the door.