In this Featured Photographer, we get to know John Vallejo —an avid climber, photographer, and father living in Mammoth, California. Hear what made him pick up a camera for the first time, and why he hasn’t stopped taking breath-taking photos since:
How did you become interested in photography?
My earliest memory of anything photography related is looking through photos my mom took while on an around-the-world trip during her college years. Something about the sense of adventure in those snapshots kept me looking through them for years.
But it wasn’t until I was 14 when I first picked up a camera—asking a friend if I could take a shot while she was walking about for a class assignment. I ended up shooting her entire roll of film. I followed up by enrolling in a high school photography class … but for some reason the interest then went dormant until I started pulling out my hair in law school.
All of those high-intensity hours in class and studying pushed me to a place where I needed a creative outlet to maintain a sense of sanity—so I used my loan money to buy a camera and started shooting, learning how to process digital photos along the way (still learning).
Did climbing or photography come first?
In terms of a serious pursuit—the camera followed the climbing addiction and then grew into its own. Now I sometimes struggle with which comes second, since the kid comes first.
What do you hope to convey through your photos?
I remember climbing a long route early on in my climbing life, pretty ambitious for my ability at the time (probably still is), and getting worked from the hours of effort. Somewhere well up the route, my attention wandered beyond the ten foot circle around me and I turned for the first time to take in the surrounding view.
There was this moment where an inner perspective zoomed out from the surrounding details, above to Fairview Dome, up to the sea of Tuolumne domes, and out into space floating above Earth. I felt that happen and it changed me. I want to convey a taste of all that well enough to hang in a frame on a wall. I haven’t reached that level yet.
Describe one of your proudest moments in photography.
I think back to the first photo someone thought was good enough to publish, being flown to Africa to shoot a wedding, selfies on the Hulk, learning how to use layers in Photoshop, having Claude Fiddler spend more than a few moments contemplating a shot I took before deciding the approach needed work, and waiting out a hail storm hoping to get a cool shot only to get lost and hypothermic in the back country for hours wearing shorts and a t-shirt …
Okay, what really stands out to me was when a friend asked me to shoot a dance rehearsal for her Ascendance Project marketing. I was on the spot, the lighting was low and constantly changing, and everyone was in motion. Wasn’t sure the shots would turn out well. She cried when I showed her the prints. It was an athletic art project and I nailed it on the fly. That was rad.
What do you think sets you apart from other outdoor photographers?
Crushing student loan debt for a wholly unrelated career I slave away at full-time? But that’s probably common for hobbyists like me. I’ve got nothing on a lot of folks that devote to photography—I just hope my shots don’t look like they’re taken a few steps off of a road with a phone #nofilter.
What about photography do you love most?
Connecting. It’s a great vehicle to connect with the creativity and inspiration of an incredibly diverse group of people even if you’ve never met.