Jennifer Ridgeway, Patagonia’s first director of advertising and the company’s founding director of photography, died Tuesday in her Ojai, California, home after a yearlong fight with pancreatic cancer. She was 69. She is survived by her husband, Rick, 70; her two daughters, Carissa Tudor, 36, and Cameron Tambakis, 34; a son, Connor, 31; and four grandchildren.
Company employees credit Ridgeway with creating the aesthetic that would become emblematic of the Patagonia brand: her catalog images relied not on paid models but on photographs of “real people doing real things,” as Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard put it. The Patagonia catalog under Ridgeway’s direction emphasized the documentary image and underplayed the product. The photos told stories, inspired, and did what they were intended to do: sell clothing. But perhaps more than that, Ridgeway, through her selections, described a counternarrative to consumer culture that still managed to boost sales. “She had an eye for authenticity,” says Vincent Stanley, a member of Patagonia’s management team for five decades and currently the company’s director of philosophy, “a real eye for beauty, and a direct, wry sense of humor.”
Jennifer Dawn Fleming was born on December 30, 1949, in Jackson, Oklahoma, to J. Carl Fleming and Claudine Sneed, both schoolteachers. The family, which included her two brothers, lived for a time in Texas before settling in Portland, Oregon. Jennifer attended the University of Mississippi and graduated with an MA in psychology from the University of Oregon. In “Capture a Patagoniac,” an autobiographical essay she wrote for an early Patagonia catalog, she described working as a model from age 12 through college and then moving to New York City for a job with Calvin Klein, where she organized trunk shows for the company’s high-end accounts, such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.
Traveling in Thailand for business in 1981, she missed a connecting flight in Delhi, India, and “inspired by the Cat Stevens song,” she wrote, opted to detour to Kathmandu, Nepal. As she told it, she booked into the upscale Hotel Yak and Yeti and was soon being schmoozed in the bar by a climber slash writer with a contract from National Geographic who was suddenly inviting her to join him on a three-week walkabout in Sagarmatha National Park, which is home to Mount Everest.
“I’ve got wads of rupees in my expense account, and I’ll hire you an army of Sherpas. We’ll sip Rémy Martin in Namche Bazaar and dine on yak steak on the Khumbu Glacier,” the climber said.
She demurred, saying, “But the farthest I’ve ever walked ... is from a cab on Fifth Avenue into the front entrance of Bergdorf Goodman.”
The climber, Rick Ridgeway, asked her to visit when her business travels brought her to Southern California. Three months later, they did. The diminutive Ridgeway met her at the airport with his two equally diminutive cronies: a very soused Yvon Chouinard and the Japanese mountaineer Naoe Sakashita. “Great,” she later wrote, as she realized that the cost of her silk gown, pearls, and five-inch heels exceeded the cost of Chouinard’s 1969 Datsun, “I’m being hosted by three drunk dwarves.” The beach cottage just south of the Santa Barbara community of Montecito that Ridgeway had promised to put them up in turned out to be a shack in Ventura, but in the winter of 1982, the two were married. Jennifer was mustered into Patagonia, hired by Kris Tompkins, then the general manager, and assigned to marketing. “Those first few months, I was in charge of advertising, art, and PR,” Jennifer recalled. “They even had me writing catalog copy. As soon as I could spell polypropylene, I began scheduling ad campaigns for long underwear ... working with the media, running the pro-purchase program, managing catalog production, and creating a photography department.” That year the company produced its second lifestyle-based catalog.
By 1986, as the company grew, Ridgeway happily ceded some of those roles to specialists, but she kept the job that gave her the most pleasure: photo director, with the help of a couple of longtime employees, including Karen Bednorz (now the company’s historical photo archivist) and Jane Sievert (who would go on to assume Ridgeway’s role), managing a cadre of athlete-photographers—hundreds of them—most of whom were friends or friends of friends. Some were given clothing to put on their climbing, paddling, and fishing partners. They worked unapologetically on spec or didn’t work at all. Tens of thousands of photos rolled in the door every year, filed, as Bednorz recalls, within six boxes on a big cart the team rolled up from a vault every morning and locked up every night.
Most of them understood that, as Ridgeway wrote in 1986, “The goal of the photos is to sweep people away, to inspire them—to let them visualize what it’s like to be ‘out there,’ not stuck sitting at a desk or in front of a TV. The message is to get off your bum and get out there and do stuff.”
And as more and more of them got off their bums and did stuff, so did the photographers, who learned quickly that to gain entry into the book, their images required a certain kind of brutal honesty and an unscripted je ne sais quoi.
They gleaned images now considered iconic, like the one of the mom tossing her bundled newborn across a small canyon to the waiting arms of the dad. But by employing a system that had both freelancers and any photographically inclined customer submitting photos willy-nilly, they knowingly amplified their workload. “I’m never going to work as hard for anyone for the rest of my life,” says Sievert, who has referred to her friend as “part spiritual mother and part Zen master.” Ridgeway hired Sievert for her climbing background—the better to understand a real climbing shot from a simulacrum of one—and not for her photography chops, because she had none. “I was so green, and Jennifer was so generous,” Sievert says. In the early years, Sievert remembers Ridgeway encouraging her to spend time outdoors, climbing and skiing, not only to cultivate relationships with photographers, but to hone her own athletic talents, because “you can’t do it if you’re not in it.” Bednorz recalls how Ridgeway helped her sort out her personal life. “I had a couple of relationships under my belt,” says Bednorz. “She taught me that a healthy one was possible.”
With time, Ridgeway tended to her own family and other projects, often working unseen and unheralded in the background (there are few photos of Ridgeway herself), with the same attention to detail and single-minded focus that she used to vet photo submissions. In 1985, with Malinda Chouinard, Ridgeway cofounded Patagonia’s on-site day-care center (a concept the two had begun rolling out two years prior), eventually enrolling all three of her children as proof of concept (her four grandchildren currently attend), and then in 2016, again with Malinda Chouinard, she wrote Family Business: Innovative On-Site Child Care Since 1983 to inspire other companies to do the same. In 2011, Sievert and Ridgeway coauthored Unexpected: 30 Years of Patagonia Catalog Photography, a book that the Banff Centre honored with its Best Book–Mountain Image award.
Ridgeway’s gift, says Stanley, was cultivating a portfolio of photographs in every catalog that allowed people to see themselves in the activity. “And it changed the way the industry viewed sports,” he says. Even more than the depictions of extreme athletes engaged in activities that many might be unable to relate to, Stanley says that Ridgeway sought to steep its customers in the wild landscapes those photos celebrated.
Ever the apprentice, Sievert sees herself as the protector of Ridgeway’s vision and her ken for finding the ultimate, authentic image. “You can’t script life,” Sievert says, inferring that a Patagonia photograph isn’t scripted either. And for that matter, neither is death.
In a 2009 piece for National Geographic Traveler, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” Rick Ridgeway writes of a trip to Patagonia—his first with with Jennifer and their three children. One scene takes place at Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park.
“From the parking lot, we descend through a forest of stunted beech trees to a series of viewing platforms that bring us eye to eye with a wall of ice 200 feet high and three miles long. Jennifer stands transfixed, then looks at me and forms her mouth into a silent ‘wow!’ as though saying anything aloud would be as disrespectful in this natural shrine as it would be in a man-made cathedral. But noise is something all visitors to Moreno Glacier hope to hear: The huge blocks of ice occasionally break with a gunfire crack followed by a giant splash into the lake.
“‘I’m going to will one into breaking off,’ Jennifer says with a kind of New Age determinism counter to her usual cause-and-effect way of looking at the world. I keep my camera ready while she faces the glacier. An hour passes, then two. The sun sets and the air cools.
“‘I guess it doesn’t want to break now. Maybe it’s better this way,’ Jennifer says. ‘Now we have more reason to return.’”