A successful outdoor sports and adventure photographer currently based in Nevada, Irene Yee has broken the mold of traditional rock-climbing photography. She illustrates the more collegiate and enjoyable aspects of a sport that’s historically dominated by the attainment of feats – presenting an inclusive hobby where people enjoy each other’s company in the great outdoors.
Irene is an enthusiastic speaker and educator whose work focuses on uplifting women, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA2+ communities, making all people feel welcome and engaged. She also teaches climbing photography in hands-on seminars.
With a catalog of rebellious images showcasing unique angles and creative framing, she’s garnered an impressive client list, including The North Face, Marmot, Outdoor Research, Mountain Hardware, and the Honnold Foundation. With a keen eye for outdoor storytelling, Irene has been widely published in titles including Climbing magazine, Alpinist, and Outside, as well as being granted the coveted position of contributing to @natgeoadventure.
Irene Yee’s soaring excursions champion the impassioned escapades of midlife adventure
Dangling by nylon ropes, a far-off body contorts and twists, rising and falling across expansive rock formations. Shadows zigzag in uneven silhouettes, jaggedly cast amidst crooked columns of ragged sandstone, dry and torrid to the touch.
Hanging in mid-air, Irene Yee twists the pop-out LCD of her X-H2, recording the heady exploits of budding hikers, climbers, and mountaineers. United by a shared quest, it’s here they scale the peaks, surmount the summits – and maybe somewhere, find themselves.
Dubbed ‘Ladylockoff’ on Instagram, Irene’s audience is a vast and zealous selection of fellow aficionados. With over 60,000 followers, cliffhangers range from ardent professionals, casual hobbyists, and all that exists in-between. They’re individuals you might not necessarily associate with the activity. Those who’ve braved the rocks after working in an associated field. In essence, they’re everything Irene is, has been, and much more.
Following the completion of her BFA in theatre design & technology from Emerson College, Massachusetts, the spirited Chinese American uprooted a Boston-based nine-to-five for the brisk prospects of America’s entertainment capital.
Vegas was expectedly tough, but opportunities were rife and far-reaching. For years, Irene toiled and slogged, scouring high and low for the ideal showbiz gig. It would take a while, but eventually that persistence paid off.
In 2015, she landed an enviable opportunity with the renowned Cirque du Soleil – a dream role that introduced the prop technician to the importance of precision on a prominent scale.
“I love problem solving, and working with my hands. Cirque was that combination personified,” she explains. “Monetarily, that job changed a lot. I held the position until the pandemic hit.
“It was massively conducive to being an adventure photographer. My wage allowed me to delve into that in my spare time, as did the flexibility.”
While employed by the esteemed circus outfit, Irene accrued hours with a local rock-climbing group. Operating out of a nearby gymnasium, the pursuit began as a solely recreational interest, but grew to be something far more persuasive.
“Everyone was awesome, and so welcoming,” she says. “After some practice indoors, I was asked if I wanted to try climbing outside. Once I topped my first peak, I was totally hooked. I learned a lot about myself – and grew massively as a person.”
Borne out of leisure, Irene speaks to the true value of hobbies and their gateway effect: entry points to more all-encompassing passions, concealed in plain sight. Once bitten by the bug, a passing interest can quickly become a nagging itch, not properly acknowledged until it becomes routine occurrence.
In a perceptive reflection, Irene notes how satisfaction gained from an ‘unimportant’ endeavor has no inherent demands or expectations. For this reason, pleasure isn’t clouded by stresses or responsibilities, and as a result, a lack of pressure ultimately inspires a more frequent level of engagement.
“The best way to start anything is like that,” she corroborates. “You advance quickly because you do it a lot, and the drive always comes from a place of love. The more you open yourself up to being bad or wrong, the more you’re exposed to exciting new experiences. I learned that coming down was OK. Not finishing was fine. All that matters is that you’re making decisions with comfort and confidence. That means a lot in rock climbing.”
As well as inspiring a consistent level of involvement, hobbyists often approach their chosen fields with an unconventional mindset, unaware of the prescribed rubric and traditional principles. This was especially true for Irene’s photographic ventures, and how she initially chose to engage with the medium.
“As it became more serious, I wanted to record what I was doing, and obviously, photography went hand in hand with that desire. I didn’t pick up a camera until I was 27, and when I did, it was completely cold,” she explains. “I had a co-worker selling a load of used camera bodies, so I bought one and went from there.
“I sat down, Googled the manual, and read it from cover to cover. When you get into taking pictures from that perspective, you’re not thinking about how it ‘should’ be done. I just did what spoke to me, and I think that really shaped my voice. It was very instinctive. It produced unique work that most weren’t used to – very non-traditional.”
Following the onset of lockdowns, the entertainment industry effectively shut up shop, resulting in the termination of Irene’s contract. Navigating the fallout was a challenge, but it also represented a catalyst – precipitating a leap of faith that was ultimately successful.
“I felt it was the right moment to properly try it out – to dedicate my full time and attention to this new obsession. It was a shot in the dark, but I leant into it. I worked hard, and thankfully, it’s paying off.”
Irene often features depictions of marginalized identities, irrepressibly framed as they scale towering natural structures. Exploring the narratives of ‘unusual’ rock climbers has long been a staple of her catalog, and it’s this unquenchable nature that forms the basis of I, Too Will be Wise – her contribution to our X-H2 launch.
Questioning why vitality and boldness are so often associated with youth, the project studies the discoveries of three middle-aged women as they outline their own sense of adventure. Each photo embodies a wholesome sense of wonder, combining a subjectively appreciated action with extreme close-ups of reciprocal joy, mirrored in wide-eyed expressions, mouths agape.
“I’ve recently been playing with ideas of women over 40 – who they should be, and what they do. When I look at what young women are accomplishing, it’s amazing. With that said, a lot simply aren’t in a place where they can achieve these mean physical feats anymore. That includes me.
“I’ve met lots of fantastic women through rock climbing, and their lives are so different to the lazy, complacent stereotypes we’re often fed. They’re mothers, but still choose to embark on these journeys. They’re career-driven, but have made exploration of the outdoors their core – figuring out ways where they can still contribute. I never fathomed that for myself. I admired them greatly, and wanted to demonstrate that in these photographs.”
In Irene’s mind, the marvels of life extend far beyond the media’s preoccupation with fresh-faced twenty-somethings. Conditioned to accept this energy as a youthful enterprise, her pictures contest these prevailing notions of one’s ‘prime’ – demonstrating the appetites of awe-inspired middle years, impeccably embodied in rich strokes.
“I think images are incredibly powerful. If we can disseminate art that confronts existing notions of what certain identities can be, we have the possibility to dream, change, and think outside the box. I’m all about opening minds to existence beyond those celebrated periods. There’s so much more out there.”
For her more extensive photographs, Irene swings and dangles from a self-made chair, hanging adjacent to her subjects as they clamber up and around the bumpy incline. Operating in the Rainbow Canyons of Nevada, Irene also embarked across the Colorado River, documenting the antics of women contentedly operating in their element. More than anything, her lively climbing snaps presented the most taxing test.
“Most photographers are used to looking up, down, and straight at their feet. Here, you’re faced with what’s pretty far below you, or apart from your field of vision. The challenging part is making gravity look right,” she explains. “Use the wrong focal length and your photos are liable to be wonky, or worse.
“You also have to pay very close attention to the direction of light. It’s frustrating because it often gets in the way. Pose accordingly. That’s the key. Stabilizing images during moments of action – that was another huge consideration. It’s all very tricky, but X-H2 was really practical in every context, particularly with the IBIS. I used three amazing zooms – XF8-16mmF2.8 R LM WR, XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR, and XF50-140mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR – to aid manipulability in the moment. All in all, the equipment was excellent.”
Down on the ground, Irene’s accompanying portraits are a complementary delight. Focus on the eyes and you’ll notice astounding details – technical achievements, and wonderfully symbolic reflections of her intentions. Shimmering deep in the pupils of each person sits a mirror-image: each woman’s idea of a personal nirvana.
“It’s about inspiration, but it’s also about portraiture we don’t normally see in these spaces. The happiness is reflected in their expressions, and deeper than that, in their eyes too.
“I wanted to convey joy and excitement. Being able to showcase what those women do, but also what they look up to. For Mardi, it was swimming. Selena finds her peace in outdoor yoga. Tracy’s like me – she loves being out on the rocks.
“I don’t think you can ever truly depict that feeling of reverence, but as photographers, we can certainly approximate.”
Thinking conceptually for her more magnified segments, Irene paired X-H2 with XF80mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR Macro for exceptional results. Isolating her subjects in the creamy bokeh of low aperture, detail and intimacy were vital factors in a shallow depth-of-field – focusing on the eye itself required a painstaking level of OIS, and steady hand to boot.
“I’d never tried this before. Focusing on an eyeball is incredibly hard,” she laughs. “It’s smooth and watery, and AF usually has a very difficult time trying to center on it. Instead, it’ll gravitate towards something nearby – like the skin between your eyelashes, or underneath your eyebrow. Thankfully, X-H2 was super helpful in alleviating those problems.
“Everything you see here was done wholly in-camera. No edits, no multiple exposures. That’s testament to how remarkable this kit is.”
Far from the norm, Irene Yee’s route into rock climbing was avid and distinctive – her channel to photography perhaps even more so. In the reflections and landscapes of these so-called ‘happy places’, a collective bliss exists for each and every one of these women, and no matter their age, a rare perspective passionately advocates that feeling.