Behind the Lens
Single Moments From Snowboarding: For Me
It only takes a moment.
One trick or turn or smile, combined with one push of a button. It sounds simple enough. Arriving at that one perfectly timed, well-lit frame of a max-tweaked Method or deep powder slash or priceless expression of fulfillment, however, takes countless years to master. It’s the pinnacle of hundreds of thousands of previous moments – moments of experimentation, frustration and revelation.
Snowboarding: For Me brought together one of the most talented, versatile and influential groups of snowboarders ever assembled, each of whom have spent countless moments perfecting their craft. We sent them around the globe in search of opportunities to ride and shine, and tell their story. Lurking somewhere in the margins, we had a group of the most coveted photographers to document it all. Together they traveled in hopes of capturing more of those unique moments. They’re moments that speak volumes about the rider and photographer, and the unique relationship between the two.
On the Outskirts
- Jeff Curtes
- Revelstoke, British Columbia
After three days of dense cloud cover and gusty winds, the elements have finally come together. Terje Håkonsen, Nicolas Müller, Jake Blauvelt and Mark McMorris are atop the spindly peak, having just stepped off the helicopter.
Below them is a mountainside covered with a fresh layer of snow, untainted by man and board. A separate helicopter hovers above with a high-speed, state-of-the-art Shotover attached. There's little opportunity for practice runs or mulligans. When the cameras start rolling, execution is critical.
Jeff Curtes stands nearby. He's watched and listened as the four riders discuss and dissect the terrain; it's on him to analyze and interpret each rider; to anticipate where their line will take them on the mountain. Experience and instincts take over. He's seen the shot lists and spreadsheets, but they're really just fodder for the “mental trashcan."
- Birthday: January 22, 1969
- Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
- Years Shooting: 22
- Camera Set-up: Canon EOS and Leica M
- Favorite Terrain: Backcountry terrain in late-day light
- Favorite Subjects: Müller, White, Håkonsen, DeMarchi, Kalbermatten, Downing, Curtes
“Once we're on mountain, there's not a lot of set-up, there's not a lot of 'I'm going to do that over there' or 'we're going to go build this over here while you meander and find angles.' Shit is really improvisational," said Curtes, who's been shooting snowboarding since the early 1990s. “You've always got to be one step ahead."
Curtes has had time to measure those steps. Originally from Milwaukee, Wisc., he was able to grow as an athlete and artist as the then-subculture sport was in the process of etching its identity. He recognized early enough that his future wasn't in riding, but had discovered a passion for documenting the world in still images along the way. With a younger brother who was among the inner-circle of pros (a group which included Jim Rippey, Brian Iguchi and more), “I had amazing access to all these guys and I was just one of them; I was just a snowboarder going through the season as they would. I just happened to have a camera along," Curtes said of those early days. “I wasn't a pro [photographer], I was just figuring out how to use a camera and learning as I went. That's what's given me a strong career in the sense that I wasn't afraid to make mistakes. I just kept trying, kept trying, kept trying."
What's followed over the course of a 20-plus-year career has included a role as Burton's principal photographer, being published in every major snowboard magazine, the winning of countless awards, the filling of multiple passports and ultimately, the building of a reputation as one of the most respected and reliable photographers in the business.
“He's one of those guys who really works and works it," Håkonsen said of Curtes. “He's in that category of what they call in German, streben (meaning “to strive" or “to aspire").
“All photographers are really weird to work with, they all have their little things, but we all do," he continued, smiling. “The main difference between guys like Jeff and other photographers is how quick they are and how much they understand. Some guys, can't really read the rider or the mountain."
“Once we’re on mountain, there’s not a lot of set-up, there’s not a lot of ‘I’m going to do that over there’ or ‘we’re going to go build this over here while you meander and find angles.’ Shit is really improvisational.”
“One thing that makes [Jeff] so good to have around in the backcountry is, for one, he's a really good shredder. He always seems to be ready and has the best angle to shoot," McMorris said. “He's a silent killer."
Which is why for a 12-day heli trip to Revelstoke, Curtes was given the assignment. With three of the most backcountry-savvy riders snowboarding has ever known and one of the most acclaimed young riders joining them, magic was expected. Curtes' knack for capturing moments may have made him desirable, but his unique ability to execute in terrain, which, at any moment could turn treacherous is what really set him apart.
“Gnarly isn't necessarily how big a mountain you're riding down, gnarly is the snow," Curtes explained. “It's how stable the snow is and that's always a variable you're dealing with. You can be the smartest backcountry dude around, but if you don't really have a feeling of what the history has been as far as the weather and the snow-pack in the area, you're as good as clueless."
With Blauvelt having been in the region for almost a month, the “scavenger hunt" for good terrain was avoided. Instead, the crew could focus on riding.
Håkonsen to Müller to Blauvelt represent three generations of the finest backcountry riders the sport has seen. Each presents his own unique style, his own way of translating steep mountain faces into rideable lines; his own choice of tricks and grabs. But at the end, when their face and kits are painted with the remnants of their most recent line, the shared feelings of freedom and individuality are apparent. McMorris, meanwhile, playing the role of apprentice, didn't linger far behind, listening and learning, but then applying at a rate that speaks to his hyper-advanced level of skill and confidence.
Lights, More Lights and Action
- Pasi Salminen
- Rovaniemi, Finland
When he hears the laugh, Eero Ettala knows he’s onto something. On those nights in the north of Finland when the winch is on the brink of freezing, when he can’t keep his teeth from chattering and the rest of the country is sleeping, the laugh is critical.
It's the laugh that makes all the hours of driving and shoveling and numbness in his limbs worthwhile. It's a laugh that might mean a magazine spread or even a cover. It's a laugh that means success. It's the laugh that belongs to Pasi Salminen.
Ettala has been hearing the Salminen laugh for more than a decade. It's a relationship that was spawned almost by accident, but one that has proven mutually beneficial. Ettala gets a photographer who's always willing to shovel, quick to set up, creative, a willing collaborator, perpetually upbeat and, as Ettala calls him, “the MacGyver of Finland." In Ettala and Heikki Sorsa, Salminen gets ultra-capable and motivated subjects – and regular sources of a good giggle.
Arriving at that moment of glee, when the rider hits the kicker and photographer snaps the photo, is the easy part. It's the end of a very long, laborious process. A process that, in many instances, begins months prior – a process that “begins in Eero's head," according to Salminen.
- Birthday: July 13, 1979
- Hometown: Klaukkala, Finland
- Years Shooting: 20+
- Camera Set-up: Canon 1DX or 5D, MIII + Lenses from 8mm to 300mm
- Favorite Terrain: Urban
- Favorite Subjects: Eero Ettala, Heikki Sorsa
“I like to spend my summers driving around the city or making a road trip up north and scoping around, getting prepared for next season," Ettala explained. “I'm looking for something that's going to look good in videos and photos, so it has to be something more than a handrail or stairs, because visually that isn't enough. It has to be that right combination of the obstacle and the backdrop."
Ettala's imagination is how the crew arrived in Rovaniemi, a town just over 500 miles due north of Helsinki. As usual, Salminen made the trip driving his mobile studio – “when you go to a spot with Pasi, you just need to bring yourself and your snowboard because he has everything in his big van – winch, shovels, hoses, everything!" Ettala said.
Salminen's work is best known for his use of flash. Almost all of his shoots take place at night, when he can control, literally, every element of light that effects the image he's trying to create.
“If you shoot the natural light, it so much depends on the weather for whether you'll get a good photo," Salminen explained. “I like to do more with the photo than just what I can do with the angle, the lens or the film."
Every shoot includes a minimum of three flashes, up to as many as five. In the shot of Ettala's one-footed backside 180, above, at the schoolyard, for instance, three were used: one to light the rider, one behind the kicker (“so that I get the snow flying… for people to know where the rider came from"), and one behind the photographer to light the trees in the distance and also to create the branch shadows on the wall. As for the trick, that decision Salminen leaves up to the riders: “I don't want to be the guy saying get on that roof, jump off it and die. I might say here's a spot that might look good, but I don't ever say what they should do," he explained. “Nowadays, these freaking tricks are so big that you can get killed every time."
The nighttime settings do present unique challenges beyond the lack of light – sleep deprivation, weather and the occasional cop thinking the crew is up to no good (“usually, the cops see the set-up and realize we're legit or they might recognize me or Heikki… they might actually hang around, watch and take a few photos on their phone," Ettala said). But most of all, it's the weather that can be the most daunting factor.
“If you shoot the natural light, it so much depends on the weather for whether you’ll get a good photo. I like to do more with the photo than just what I can do with the angle, the lens or the film.”
“On that first night [in Rovaniemi] we were trying to shoot, but it got so freaking cold that our winch wouldn't work," Salminen said. “It was minus 33 Celsius. I don't know what that is in Fahrenheit, but that's freaking cold!" (It's -27.4 degrees in Fahrenheit – very much “freaking cold!")
They returned to the schoolyard and got the shot, but one night was sacrificed. Instead of shooting four different spots in four nights, they had to settle for three: the schoolyard, a business complex where Ettala did a Miller Flip over a lamp post, and a massive stadium staircase gap, where Sorsa opted for a Backside 360. “Always, if you get a shot, it's so rewarding," Sorsa said. “When you land a trick for film and photos, it's almost better than winning a contest."
- Frode Sandbech
- Hemsedal, Norway
The place has history. It’s the home mountain of Mads Jonsson and Mikkel Bang. It has been the site of many legendary Burton sessions over the years, but for whatever reason, it’s been left to family freeriding as of late. However, that history remains.
To speak to that history, another relic of snowboarding was re-introduced: transition riding. And hence, a two-sided, 20-foot hip with a backdrop that could be on a postcard.
A legendary crew was brought together: contest beasts Mark McMorris, Ståle Sandbech, Sven Thorgren and Torstein Horgmo; stylists Eero Ettala and Heikki Sorsa; hip masters Kazu Kokubo, Charles Reid and Bang; and the man who set the bar so high for everyone who followed, Terje Håkonsen.
“To have a huge hip that we knew we were going to be riding for 10 days, you'd start planning things you'd like to do and what would be a dream trick or ideal height," McMorris said. “Day after day the sessions progressed and by the end, everybody was killing it."
- Birthday: May 4, 1977
- Hometown: Oslo, Norway
- Years Shooting: 15
- Camera Set-up: 5D Mark 3 with 15mm, 16-35mm, 50mm, 70-200mm, etc.
- Favorite Terrain: Fresh snowy mountain peaks
- Favorite Subjects: Ståle Sandbech, Nicolas Müller, Terje
While the setting was an official shoot, the cameras and cameramen seemed to seep further and further into the background. It almost became a 12-man jam session, with each rider feeding off one another, watching what the rest were doing and seeing where they could apply and improve. A fully tweaked method by McMorris, followed up by the man who put the trick on the map, Terje himself. Effortless switch Methods and switch backside 270s from Bang. Sven's double chuck flip and Craig McMorris' double crippler. Fast and furious slashes from Kokubo and Reid.
“You can really see who's adaptable and creative," Reid said of hip riding. “Snowboarding is about a vision you have, right? I think you got to see many different approaches and visions of snowboarding out here."
Frode Sandbech has a vision for snowboarding. He communicates it through his photos, and that message has been on display in snowboard publications around the world. He traded in his electric guitar for his first camera in 1994, but didn't dive seriously into photography until 2000. He immersed himself, reading books and magazines, trying different cameras and testing techniques, so much so that when he arrived at university in Australia, he realized he knew more than students in their second year. He decided to drop out, and “I used those next three years as school and just got to work. I gathered contacts and shot and learned, never worrying about losing money, because I just thought of that time as my schooling."
“Frode's one of the best photographers in the world," McMorris said. “I'd say he's in his prime right now. He's like an older Ståle and Ståle is a good pal of mine, so it's cool to work with him."
“Snowboarding is about a vision you have, right? I think you got to see many different approaches and visions of snowboarding out here.”
In Norway, due to the nature of the shoot – a free-for-all session – Frode keeps quietly to himself. Over the course of the trip, he slowly carves a trail around the giant hip, assessing angles and light, experimenting with foregrounds and framing. Between riders dropping, his eyes are constantly scanning.
“Of course I'm looking for progressive and great action and style from the riders," he said, “but I'm also paying attention to light, nature and composition. All those elements are key. It's when all of those elements come together that you get a great picture."
With the crew on hand, the action component is dialed. The hip backdrop is as picturesque as they come: miles of snow-covered mountains in one direction and flat lands in the other. As the sun slides across the sky, the whites shift to yellows and pinks and as the sun sets – at 10 p.m.! – the sky is painted with every pastel shade of pink and orange and red. All of the elements are coming together…
Ståle Sandbech & Mark McMorris
Terje Håkonsen & Mark McMorris
Figuring It Out
- Olav Stubberud
- Hokkaido, Japan
The south-facing mountains are baked. After a great winter, with plenty of storms and all the snow Hokkaido is known for, the weather finally turned. Warm days had transitioned much of the snow from pow to crust.
For Danny Kass and Ståle Sandbech, it was never intended to be easy in Japan. That's just not the nature of a pow trip, especially this late in the season. “So," Sandbech said, “we had to go hiking around in the shadows."
Discovery is typically the theme of any backcountry pow trip. The snow is soft and forgiving, but navigating the tree-lined mountains requires cat-like reflexes and some general terrain know-how.
“You really have to use your creative side; visualize and see where you can ride," Sandbech said. “Even if you find or create a feature, you still need to find your way through the woods just to hit it. It was super challenging."
While Sandbech is a bit of a newcomer to pow trips, Kass has devoted most of his past couple seasons to exploration.
- Birthday: April 25, 1992
- Hometown: Rykkinn, Norway
- Years Shooting: 9
- Camera Set-up: "No comment."
- Favorite Terrain: Summer Snow
- Favorite Subjects: Ståle Sandbech, Alek Østreng, Len Jorgensen, #RK1
“I've already done a lot of trips in the backcountry, but for Ståle this was one of his first; it was cool to see him go through the learning process and pay his dues," Kass said. “Just rag-dolling and flailing and figuring it all out; it comes with the territory. He took the worst scorpion I'd seen in years, man. I mean, the kid almost bent in half. But he kept charging."
The trip was a welcomed respite for Sandbech, after a long, fruitful contest season. It may have been a last-minute decision, but it was one he welcomed because he'd be traveling with a guy he'd known since the day he first strapped into a snowboard.
“We've been close for a long time; I can't remember a time before I knew him," Sandbech said of the young, talented photographer on the trip. “He was coming up in the hills with us with a camera and then all of a sudden he's a big-time filmer and photographer. It's pretty crazy."
Olav Stubberud was drawn to the camera early. “I just started bringing a camera around and for some reason it just felt so natural to me," the 22-year-old with the male-model-looks explained. “I can't remember once ever thinking this was something that I could actually do or have a future in."
He began shooting at 12 and was published by 13. It was a photo of one of his close friends, Alek Østreng, one of the original “RK1" crew (including Ståle), as the group from Rykkinn call themselves. (“It was a name we came up with so that no matter where we were in the world, we'd remember where we came from," Stubberud explained.)
As Sandbech and Østreng's snowboarding careers began to take off, Stubberud recognized an opportunity, even if it wasn't a strategic move: “I just wanted to travel and hang with them as much as possible, so I started skipping school and just documenting everything."
“You really have to use your creative side; visualize and see where you can ride. Even if you find or create a feature, you still need to find your way through the woods just to hit it."
Stubberud looked to Ståle's older brother, Frode (see Park chapter), for inspiration and limited guidance.
“I was actually really afraid of Frode for a long time," Stubberud said, laughing. “I always had a huge amount of respect for that guy; then and now. He was just so far out there and accomplished – that's probably one of the things that was driving me."
It was actually a single simple comment of advice from the elder Sandbech that reinforced Stubberud's aspirations and confidence. The pair were on a shoot together. Stubberud was 16 and Frode inquired as to how things were going with his photography. Olav explained that he wasn't stoked on school and was considering taking a job at a photo store to save money. Frode responded with, “Why? Just shoot more photos." It was instant validation in Stubberud's mind. “I've always remembered that," he recalled. “After that I quit school (laughs), didn't take the job at the store and went for it. I've been travelling ever since."
Danny Kass & Ståle Sandbech
Ståle Sandbech & Danny Kass