In my previous post, I suggested that Adam Ondra's recent run of 9b ascents and 8c+ onsights marked a kind of watershed moment in climbing. But I don't think that Ondra is the only one transforming climbing. There is also a collective transformation that has been underway in the sport for several decades, a transformation that has been accelerated by the power of the Internet. This transformation has to do with the transmission and distribution of images of climbers and climbs and is present in both a quantitative and qualitative sense.
In a previous post about Master of Rock, Pat Ament's groundbreaking book on John Gill, I suggested that "the sheer mundane quality of much of the photography in the book anticipates a new aesthetic for climbing that refused the consciously heroic and crafted images of an earlier age..." However there is another aspect to these photos that I did not develop further which was their documentary specificity. The book acted as both guide and inspiration to more than one generation of climbers because it showed specific moves on problems in a way that few if any books had done before.
Today, in a media-saturated climbing environment, it's hard to recall even back to the 1990s when climbing video was first available for viewing. This was the first time that climbers could replay live action footage of a particular climb. Among the pioneers in this genre was the series Masters of Stone. Looking at the videos now, I am struck primarily by the efforts to make climbing something spectacular and mediagenic, that could be packaged according to a showbiz aesthetic. The first one even had a ridiculous contest to "win" the arm of some woman with a torch. Staged falls, big but easy lunges, free solos; these videos had just about everything except ascents of routes from which we could learn how to climb well. There were indications however of other directions such as a video called State of the Art, made by Metolius Climbing in 1989, that was intended to show sequences of specific routes at Smith Rock.
I think that the problem was financial in nature. There was no market for "straight" video of boulder problems or climbs at the time and producers were still thinking in terms of cable or broadcast media and its production values. The filming equipment was expensive as was production and editing so the spectacular was emphasized rather than the mundane.
This consensus first started to fracture in earnest with the low-budget amateur-looking videos made by Mike Call such as Yank on This and Fast Twitch. These videos were quickly produced and based on the skateboard and surfing models of ephemeral promotional videos made by companies to promote products for a season or two at most.
With the development of broadband internet, attempts were made with sites such as ClimbX Media and Momentum Video Magazine to market video on a subscription model. These efforts ultimately failed for a variety of reasons not exclusive to climbing but applying more generally across the media landscape. Video increasingly became a free commodity, boosted by the presence of sites such as Vimeo and Youtube and readily available low-tech digital cameras and free editing software.
In the midst of this explosion of video, a transformation in how we think about climbing has been in progress. Gone are the efforts to present climbing as a heroic or spectacular activity. The average teenage climber may be more interested in footage of a local boulder problem than a professionally produced segment on Alex Honnold soloing Half Dome. But more compelling is the idea that this widespread distribution of free information about climbing and how to do it well is contributing to a rapid evolution of the sport. By viewing what works and imprinting its lessons in our own climbing, we collectively change the way we climb to degree unseen in the past, a process that is occuring globally across large populations of climbers in much shorter periods of time.
It may be the case that the feature climbing film will persist into the future, that marquee names such as Chris Sharma will be presented in spectacular locales. But the actual redefining of the norms of the sport will increasingly be done on the fly, in DIY video clips of increasing sophistication and for free. Climbers will view them, learn from them, and then rapidly move on, advancing both their knowledge of the sport and the boundaries of film-making. The film as physical artifact is certainly gone.
As a postscript, I searched for clips of the Masters of Stone videos on Youtube, etc to link to this post. A few turned up, mostly trailers, and not really worth watching. The producer is still selling them via the old-school method of shipping DVDs.