As Published in Urban Climber Magazine #05
Words by David Rosenstein - Photos courtesy of Gamma Sport, Jean-Michel Casanova and Philippe Poulet.
Long before climbing found its way into the public eye through Sylvester Stallone's bolt-gun in Cliff Hanger and Tom Cruise's Iron cross in Mission Impossible, Jean-Michel Casanova stood out as a lone figure introducing the Sport of Rock Climbing into the mainstream media. In the early 90's, he was at the cutting edge of sport climbing, free-soloing 5-12, onsighting 5-13, and red-pointing 5-14. He was part of the elite - the French way; they were pro climbers, they were the best in the world and they competed fiercely - not just for ranking, but for the only way they could get paid . . . media exposure by any means necessary. On a warm yet windy spring day in 1989, Casanova pulled out his trump card and did the unimaginable - an on-sight free solo Ascent of the 900-foot icon of Paris, the Eiffel Tower.
Jean-Michel started as a rock climber and martial artist at the age of five. In his twenties, he went on to pioneer some of the most difficult routes in Europe, made countless ascents in the Alps, was a world-class competitor, and also helped to improve safety products and gear for the climbing and mountaineering industry from climbing shoes to belay devices.
Self-managed during his explosive five-year sports career from 1989 to 1994, Jean-Michel was sponsored by Oakley, Suzuki, Asolo, Beal, Petzl, Nikon and Nike. He went on to study architecture and design at Les Beaux Arts of Toulon, in France, and with his "partner in crime" Philippe Poulet, created a revolutionary technique for rock climbing photography that became immensely popular, and subsequently designed new advertising campaigns with climbing as a focus.
Although early assents of the great rock faces such El Cap and Eiger received media attention, his Eiffel Tower exploit was one of the first times that the world's eye would be captured on such a large scale by a climbing spectacle. The event was a milestone for climbing in the media because never before had one climber, along with the products he endorsed, found his way in to such diverse mainstream publications around the world.
A year later, after climbing the Brooklyn Bridge while being dressed like Spider-Man, "JM" reached a turning point in his life. It marked the end of his pro-climbing career and the beginning of his life as a Producer and Stuntman. He went on to become a stunt coordinator / 2nd Unit Director for major TV shows in France. During that time he was often offered climbing-related gigs, but would pass them on to his friends. "The constant pressure from sponsors ended up taking the fun out of it" he said, "then I saw myself accidentally getting caught up with overwhelming duties leading to become a better businessman than a climber." Some ten years past and Jean-Michel would not touch a rock, expanding instead his career to photography and publishing as such countless exposes in the sport, action and fashion world.
His inspiration for climbing returned when he moved to the United States and started writing Pajama Man, an action/comedy feature film, which involves a "natural-born climber" who gets caught in his bright, red underwear above New York City, when his skills wind up saving lives and he is mistaken for a super-hero. "Everything is a stepping stone," says JM, "and going back to my roots and connecting with climbing again has been my wings." The youth that he now coaches have also been a tremendous source of energy for him. He has combined his renewed love for climbing with the stylistic eye of a fashion photographer, creating powerful images and using the "magic light" to illuminate not only his subjects but also his own soul.