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Capture a Patagoniac

Jennifer Ridgeway  /  Sep 9, 2020  /  7 Min Read  /  Community

How we found our photographic style.

Jennifer in her element: posted up behind her tall desk (there may have been a kid or two beneath) sifting through slides. She'd select the ones she wanted to use, send the rest back, and store the keepers on a rolling cart (wheeled into a fireproof vault each night). Photo: Patagonia Archives

One year ago this week, Jennifer Ridgeway died of cancer shortly before her 70th birthday. She was a first-generation Patagonia pioneer and an abiding presence in our community for 35 years, and we miss her. Her husband, Rick, who recently retired, led our global outreach. Two of her three children have worked here, too. Jennifer was a wise counselor to Yvon and Malinda Chouinard, auntie to their children, and what Jane Sievert, her successor, called “a spiritual mother and Zen master” to many Patagonia employees.

 As our first art director and photo editor, Jennifer worked with Yvon to invent the “Patagonia image” by stripping away all that was inauthentic in our first awkward attempts at portraying clothes in catalogs. Rather than ask established photographers to capture the right moment in sports they knew nothing about in places they had never been, she cultivated a guild of dirtbags, many of whom, armed with a camera and Jennifer’s short list of “Dos and Don’ts,” developed impressive careers. She had a precise and rigorous eye for the unforeseen and unexpectedly compelling shot, not just of climbers and surfers at play but the farmer, the musician, the birdbander.

On the anniversary of her passing, we decided it was time we finally bring her classic essay “Capture a Patagoniac” online. It first appeared in the Patagonia Catalog in 1986, and later in Unexpected: 30 Years of Patagonia Catalog Photography. We have posted it here essentially unchanged. It’s every bit as charming as we remembered. — the Editors

The best place to begin, I guess, is at the beginning of this chapter of my life. In the spring of 1981, I had been in Bangkok looking at silks for Calvin Klein. En route back to New York, I missed my flight out of Delhi. Knowing that I did not want to hang out in Delhi for three days alone waiting for the next available flight, inspired by the Cat Stevens song, I decided to pop up to Katmandu and check it out. It was April Fools’ Day, and I was in the lobby of the and Yeti Hotel quite pleased with my escape and sipping a gin and tonic, when this guy sits down next to me, hands me another gin and tonic, and introduces himself.

“My name is Rick Ridgeway, and I’m here doing a story on Mount Everest National Park for National Geographic.”

I told him I was in Katmandu on a three-day lark, and to my surprise, he immediately invited me to join him on his three-week “trek.”

“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.”

“But the farthest I’ve ever walked,” I protested, “is from a cab on Fifth Avenue into the front entrance of Bergdorf Goodman.”

Since the flattest shoes I had with me were three-inch kidskin boots, I’m certain that had I accepted, Carissa (age 3) and Cameron (age 3 months) Ridgeway would not at this moment be with us in this world. In fact, looking back on it, it still amazes me that events unfolded as they did. After all, Rick had climbed K2, which is considered the most technically difficult mountain to climb in the world.

“Well, if you don’t want to trek up to Everest with me,” Rick persisted, “why don’t you come and visit me when we’re back in the States.”

“Where do you live?”

“I’ve got a quaint little beach cottage just south of Montecito.”

Clever way to describe Ventura, I discovered when I showed up three months later. I had been doing a show at the Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, and my plane from Santa Monica was two hours late into the Ventura/Oxnard airport. By the time I arrived, it was the tail end of happy hour at the Red Baron airport bar, and my welcoming committee—Yvon Chouinard, Naoe Sakashita and Rick—each had four jumbo margaritas under their belts.

I hadn’t had time to change out of my Calvin Klein ballerina-length silk dress, pearls and five-inch heels, and my first thought as they greeted me was, “Great, I’m being hosted by three drunk dwarfs.”

My second thought, as I got into the hole-laden, rusting 1969 Datsun Chouinard Equipment “gofer-mobile” with a greasy interior and only one working door, was a shallow one: “My dress is probably worth at least four times as much as this car.”

Despite it all, Rick won my heart (didn’t I say he is persistent?), and five months later we announced our engagement. We married on Valentine’s Day 1982. Part of the plan was that I move from my Upper East Side Manhattan apartment to that quaint cottage—read “shack”—on the outskirts of Montecito. That was okay, but I wanted to work—not just stick around the “cottage” watering houseplants. I wanted a job, and there didn’t seem to be anything obvious for me to do in Ventura.

“We’ll have my buddy Yvon set you up,” Rick said.

“Doing what, making pitons or whatever you call those metal things you climb with?”

“No, no. We’ll get you in at Patagonia.”

An interview was arranged for me with Kris McDivitt, Patagonia’s general manager, who had worked at the company since she was a teenager taking wholesale orders over the phone. If too many orders came in in one day, she’d throw them in the trash.

“I started modeling at age 12,” I said, “and modeled through high school and college. I moved to New York City after college and got a job with Calvin Klein designing preview line shows at Saks, Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys, Neiman Marcus. Shows in New York, Paris, Milan and Tokyo.”

“Perfect. We’ll put you in advertising.”


“Yeah, we need somebody to put together an advertising department.”

“But I don’t know anything about advertising.”

“Neither does anyone else around here.”

I started that year in what was referred to as “the box,” the upstairs 10′ × 5′ torture chamber in the old building that I shared with four other people, one of whom was a cash-strapped climber who used a piton to spread Miracle Whip on his Wonder Bread sandwiches to keep his calorie count up, perhaps 10 times a day. A curiosity for someone accustomed to living on celery and tomato juice. That summer it topped out in the room at 113 degrees, and with each degree rise on the thermometer, it seemed Montecito receded that much farther north. That fall, Rick started working on Seven Summits—you can guess how much time away from home that entailed.

Despite the fact I couldn’t figure out just what to wear to work, the job was great. Those first few months, I was in charge of advertising, art and PR. They even had me writing catalog copy. As soon as I could spell “polypropylene,” I began scheduling ad campaigns for long underwear (not exactly high fashion), working with the media, running the pro-purchase program, managing catalog production and creating a photography department. That fall, we came out with the second Patagonia catalog to feature “image” photographs—and the first catalog ever that was on schedule.

Over the next three years, as the company grew tenfold and the Ridgeway family grew twofold—with the arrival first of Carissa, then of Cameron—I cut back on my duties, and now I handle the part I’ve always enjoyed the most: working with photographers and editing and collecting photos for the catalogs, ads and posters. We do not send photographers out on paid assignments to do shoots for us. We work completely on spec with photographers, many of whom are friends or friends of friends. We find out what expeditions they are going on or what surf trips or what exotic parts of the world they are going to be in, and we give them Patagonia clothes to take along. This is how we get such diverse photographs. It isn’t just the vision of one photographer or a few photographers. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of photographers are involved. 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.

I put together a team of handsome and dashing world-class climbers, surfers, skiers, kayakers, fishermen, mountain bikers and sailors to help me edit and solicit their sport-specific shots. Rick, since he did all the sports above but fishing, helped edit and solicit too. Yvon reviewed all final edits. None of the team wore shoes. I stopped wearing five-inch heels and pearls and slowly gave away the silk dresses.

I work with both amateur and professional photographers, and since we started placing a notice in the catalog soliciting shots from the general public to “Capture a Patagoniac,” I’ve been in charge of reviewing all the photographs that come in. And believe me, there are some weird ones.

The most common shots we get are successful conquests of this or that mountain—set-jawed, one hand on the hip, the other hand shading eyes that gaze across their conquered domains. But we also get a good “gonzo” selection (a term I didn’t know before working for Patagonia), too. Last week I got one of a cow dressed in bunting and another of a deer wearing a pile balaclava. The dog we published several years ago (the one wearing a bunting jacket and goggles) started some kind of craze, and now I get at least one Patagonia-clad dog a week.

But we’re still waiting for someone to send in our dream shot. We’ll pay triple, maybe even quadruple. What we really want (well, what Yvon really wants) is Dr. Hunter S. Thompson dressed in a Pataloha Fish and Tits shirt, cigarette holder in mouth and visor down over his eyes, shooting pool with Ted Kennedy.

Now that’s an image shot.

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