Portrait : a painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders.
“Louis, you shoot portraits?” It was late October and I was looking for an assistant to help with an upcoming editorial portrait shoot. My prospective candidate – a talented portrait and wedding photographer – was serious when he asked me the above question. In fact, it’s not the first time someone has been surprised that I photograph things other than adventure/action sequences.
Barron’s Magazine, November 27, 2017. Photos.
After receiving the request to create an environmental portrait of Daniel Chace I paid a visit to his office. I scoped different spots then noted what lighting equipment would be necessary. Next I visited the Bonneville Shoreline Trail located only two blocks from the office and scouted the possibilities. The direction given was to focus on an outside look, but if weather forced us inside the office would be our back up. The day arrived with cloud covered skies, but no precipitation. Just to be safe we set up a lighting rig in a conference room before meeting Dan and heading up to the trail. Once outside we spoke about children, skiing, running, investing and how life has a way of unfolding. We shot on the trail and near the Museum of Natural History then returned to the office with time to spare. So we shot there too.
Backcountry Magazine, December 2017. Photos and Words.
McKenna Peterson had been in my thoughts frequently this past summer. She was in the middle of her first season skippering a fishing boat off the Alaska coast when I reached out. I was hoping she could share some insights on fishing, backcountry skiing, being an professional athlete, her family and the lose of her father to an avalanche. Luckily, she said yes and the result is a piece titled, “Eyes Wide Open.”
Backcountry Magazine, November 2017. Photos.
Local writer Erme Catino reached out last ski season to see if I could help create photos for his piece on Luke Hinz’s attempt to ski all the lines listed in the Wasatch’s steep skiing guide, “The Chuting Gallery”. Luke was trying to tick all of them in one season while raising funds and awareness for local nonprofits. We caught up to Luke one cloudy morning in April as he hiked and skied the runs on Mount Baldy.
Outside, December 18, 2017. Photos.
In response to the question, “Louis, you shoot portraits?”, I chuckled then shared the details of the shoot.
We met Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski at a nature park that set the city skyline as the background. For forty minutes we chatted with the mayor and snapped away… You can see the article by Jimmy Tobias here.
“Truth is a point of view, but authenticity can’t be faked.” Peter Guber.
I have always wanted to share stories. In school I chose journalism as my focus, but the idea of becoming a copy editor at the local paper was unappealing so I embraced blue-collar work and played as hard as I could.
For ten years I bumped along occasionally having a story or essay published, but mainly just struggled to find my voice. During this time I would consume periodicals and throw them to the recycling bin in disappointment. While there were a few writers and magazines that totally blew me away the majority of what was read felt disingenuous. I craved and still crave things that are genuine. Anything that resonates or connects with me is a winner. We could all use more honesty in our lives.
I totally agree with the quote above. Although my work fluctuates at times in its truth the pursuit of the authentic is what motivates me to continually improve my writing and photography.
On November 13, 2011 I was involved in a backcountry skiing avalanche. Correction, I was actually avalanched. Throttled, beaten, damaged and at one point completely buried, I somehow managed to limp away. On that same morning 12 other avalanches were reported within the central Wasatch resulting in several close calls, a broken femur and one life lost.
I once heard avalanche specialist Jill Fredston say, ‘snow innately wanted to stay put… but the fact that it was constantly changing made it difficult to predict.’
After taking that 400-foot ride, receiving a broken finger, bruised pelvis, hips, elbows and knees along with some lacerations, her words constantly ran through my head. I knew the danger on that stormy day was on the rise. I’d received snow education and had years of experience, but still went out. Alone at the trailhead I followed a fresh skin track that ascended into steep terrain figuring there would be safety in numbers. At the point of catching the two creators of the track I decided against descending with them and exited from the lee side of the ridge into the wind exposed slopes to carry on and out alone.
Shuffling along my skin-covered skis clattered along snow-dusted talus before coming to a shallow pillow of wind deposited snow, perhaps twelve inches deep. Beneath the new winter deposits the gully held the rotting skeleton of October snows. Fifteen feet wide it terminated into rock rubble thirty feet below. Experience told me that it would slide, but the amount of running snow wouldn’t be much; maybe enough to knock me off my feet, not much more. Unknown at the time was how high the pillow ran above. Its top, obscured by the storm, tipped closer to 40 degrees and twisted to face north. All that was needed to release the wound up spring was me. After three steps onto the surface the snow beneath my skis settled. The echoing whoomph was felt in my chest. One beat of silence followed allowing me to reflect on my mistakes before being tackled by a wall of snow.
Since the avalanche I’ve found that snow, although complex, is not the hard thing to forecast, it’s the people who play on it that are difficult to predict.
A few months ago I had a great conversation with a friend of mine who happened to be a photo editor. I was looking for feedback and he was willing to help. One nugget of wisdom he gave regarding climbing photography was not to shoot the easy stuff. It was something about not sending him images from Indian Creek. He said, “People shoot it because it’s easy,” or close to that. I believe the editor was implying that he sees tons of shots from the Creek and that if an image of a single pitch route from the area had a chance at being used it had better stand out otherwise it would be swimming is a sea of similar photos.
This is kind of a subjective. I have peers who believe fixing a line and jugging it at any crag is too much work. Whether it’s up the talus cone in the Creek or at your local roadside crag they would consider it more effort than it’s worth. I take the stance that it doesn’t take too much energy to set up a fixed line for single pitch routes, but do believe if you don’t practice shooting “easy” climbing shots now you’ll be unprepared when you go out to get the harder ones.
The first images I took from a fixed rope didn’t turn out. In fact they are totally forgettable. In the beginning I was so excited to be shooting from above and so focused on the mechanics of ascending and descending that I let composition and peak action fly out the window. I quickly realized that if I were going to be any good at this I would have to put some thought into it.
I started by asking questions before I left the ground. Has this route been photographed before? (As a rule I try not to shoot routes that I have seen photos of, but make exceptions from time to time.) Are there interesting angles to shoot from the ground? Does the route favor one side of the climber or the other? How’s the light? Where’s it coming from? How’s the background? Will it be distracting or will it add something? What color is the rock in relation to the climber? Will they stand out enough? The next lesson learned was that shooting from a line fixed to the anchors of the route you are shooting doesn’t (most of the time) really work. There’s a lot of talk about the dreaded butt shoot, but have you heard about the crown-of-the-head shot? There’s nothing more disappointing after you have set up your line and jugged repeatedly to only come home with countless images of faceless climbers. Yes, one of these shots might be interesting, but a whole day of shooting these will bum you out. Getting to the side, clipping a bolt, placing gear and using the anchors of the route next to it or even further seem to do the trick.
Practice, practice, practice on the easy shots translated well when the shots became harder. I recall shooting a route in Death Canyon. Our party of three climbed up five or six pitches before I set up my line. As I weighted the equalized anchor of cams and lowered out over a 1000 feet of air I was happy to have spent so much time shooting the “easy” stuff. It may not be the best shot, but I am certain I have never seen this image before…
What do you think the difference between an easy and hard image is?
Did I ever tell you I studied journalism in school? Yeah, and somehow I ended up taking more photography classes than writing classes. It was something I’d always been interested in and during school it became the fun easy class I looked forward to each semester.
Out of school instead of finding a job at a newspaper or magazine to refine the writing and photo skills I chose to keep my job as a deliveryman and play hard. Climbing, skiing, backpacking and traveling became the main focus of life for over a decade. During this time I’d browse through magazines then say to myself, “I can do better than that.” It was complete arrogance and ignorance.
It wasn’t until my thirties that I decided to walk the walk. I blew the dust off my film camera then after much resistance, purchased a digital one and began writing regularly. I was going to do better. Guess what? I fell flat on my face.
Turns out making better photographs in the outdoor realm was not as easy as understanding iso, shutter speeds and f-stops. And writing… what can I say? Nobody wanted another trip report to Indian Creek and leads, nut graphs, body, structure, they all felt so impossible. I should have quit, but somehow didn’t. One photo eventually turned out and one editor took pity on me so I slowly limped by.
It feels like yesterday, but somehow years have passed. All the lessons from school make more sense. That whole shooting a white egg on a white sheet is brilliant. The mantra of one of my writing professors, “Focus! Focus! Focus!” is louder today than it was in the classroom. And the current lessons, the ones they couldn’t teach in a classroom are a daily occurrence. The difference now, even though I still regularly stumble, is that sometimes I don’t, but mostly I still do.
Yeah, so I studied journalism in school and now I’m learning how to make better stories one face plant at a time.