The Art of Snowboard Photography: Chris Brunkhart


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Each one silently speaks. Jamie Lynn cranks his classic method through the snowy, low Northwest sky.

Jamie Lynn

Jamie Lynn

Dan Peterka tailslides to Matt Donahue's riff, waiting for the train to Prague at 3 am — keeping the night alive.

Dan Peterka & Matt Donohue

Dan Peterka & Matt Donohue

Empty Alaskan peaks and faces expand to every degree of Craig Kelly's untracked horizon.

Craig Kelly

Craig Kelly

Nobody has visualized snowboarding quite like Chris Brunkhart. Few people have traveled and ridden the world with its legends, not just as photographer but also as friend. Even fewer possess the talent that charges Chris' photos with a hypnotizing potential to put us there, to feel snowboarding.

Because of his photos' success, Chris too is a legend in snowboarding. Today his camera is focused on other themes, but when documenting snowboarding in the 1990s his mission was to present what he saw as a snowboarding photojournalist — to tell a story about snowboarding, using its most talented riders as characters. His recently published book, How Many Dreams in the Dark?, is a visual collection of stories from the hardcore, underground days when ski resorts scowled at us, the Olympics left us alone and a punk kind of energy flowed through snowboarding on the mountain and off, on the road, wherever we were.

After a decade of silence, Chris has finally invited us to open our eyes again and revisit those moments of snowboarding's fermentation. Wander through Chris' book and you will see where snowboarding comes from. These images are universal, timeless, just pure moments of snowboarding that resonate within us, inspire us to round up the crew and go ride. What follows is a glimpse through the seasoned camera of Chris Brunkhart to see how and why he froze images that define snowboarding.

* * *

A first look at Chris suggests someone unordinary, artsy, yet understated. He dresses in dark clothes and wears a thin beard. Chris speaks quietly and humbly in a deep voice, until some topic of photography sparks his spirit and releases a hidden energy.

He appears his age — just over forty. On the final page of his book is a color photo of young Chris stylishly riding a skateboard in the 70's. His dad snapped this one, and it too has a certain grace to it. Chris grew up watching his father shoot photographs and gradually developed a liking for black and white, the work of Ansel Adams in particular. Using the technical books written by this master, Chris studied some on his own and took a few classes in photojournalism at university. He had no idea of what was to come.

On assignment to one of the first inner city big air contests, I couldn't help but stare at the faces in the crowd. Unknown rider, London, UK, 1996

On assignment to one of the first inner city big air contests, I couldn't help but stare at the faces in the crowd. Unknown rider, London, UK, 1996

In 1988 Chris moved to the Pacific Northwest, where snowboarding was simmering, about to boil. Portland, Oregon became home. He had already caught the stoke of snowboarding, especially admiring the neon tweaks of Craig Kelly. Chris answered an ad at the local snowboard shop —photographer needed — and began running photos in a local snowboard 'zine. This put him on the mountain, and by 1991 he was selling shots to Transworld and Snowboarder magazines, where he would one day serve as senior photographer. The first of Chris' photos to run was, coincidentally, one of Craig.

Momentum built as Chris fell in with the Mt. Hood crew, where he became blood-brothers with Oregon chief Matt Donahue and began to photograph the Northwest's other emerging riders, like Jamie Lynn. The Movement, a snowboard company dedicated to artistic expression, was eventually launched by Chris, Matt, and friends to give them a forum for further creative development and control.

Then one day the phone rang. Craig was on the other end with an invitation to go shoot and ride in Alaska. They made that trip, then more, across the planet, finally forging a close friendship. Chris' knowledge of snowboarding and photography expanded alongside the man who, Chris says, "made snowboarding what it is today."

Atop Mt. Villarrica, an active volcano in central Chile. Craig Kelly,Hiroyuki Yamada and I descended into the backcountry. Villarrica, Chile, 1998

Atop Mt. Villarrica, an active volcano in central Chile. Craig Kelly,Hiroyuki Yamada and I descended into the backcountry. Villarrica, Chile, 1998

Chris' photographic influences, however, were of an older generation that had already become classic. Ansel Adams, with his dramatic Western landscapes, is the most obvious. When this name comes up Chris responds with reverence: "He was always a step above, how he captured light, the mountains, scenery — I'm still learning that." And when someone recognizes elements of Ansel Adams in his own work, Chris considers this "the highest form of praise." Other heroes from the quintessential black and white school — Henri Cartier-Bresson and W. Eugene Smith — inspired Chris toward photojournalism. Combining these two genres provides the basis for Chris' unique approach to snowboard photography.

Remnants of posters and handbills on a wall in Berlin, circa 1997

Remnants of posters and handbills on a wall in Berlin, circa 1997

* * *

In photography the Brunkhart philosophy is to faithfully observe and record what is transpiring around him. "I always wanted to be a photojournalist," he says, "capturing the moment or the essence of someone." To achieve this requires not only an understanding of the basics of photography but a developed intuition as well. Chris possessed both by the time he opened the door of a backcountry hut in British Columbia and saw Craig Kelly untying his boots. Prepared like a professional Chris had his camera at the ready and shot immediately, without thinking. Then he walked in, and the lens fogged up. "If I had waited, if I had walked in and then shot, the lens would have fogged before I could get the photo."

After a hard day's snowmobiling and riding, Craig Kelly relaxes in a warm up hut. Revelstoke, BC, Canada, 1998

After a hard day's snowmobiling and riding, Craig Kelly relaxes in a warm up hut. Revelstoke, BC, Canada, 1998

Time, steam, and Craig's feeling stand still. Looking at this shot our minds drift back to the lodge, so many times have we untied our boots exhausted after a good session. This is part of the heart of snowboarding, and Chris has frozen it for a reason. He explains that when publishing photos, making prints, or assembling the book his goal was "to remind people of something they experienced and make them say 'Ohhh, I had a day just like that!'" Referring to this same photo he says, "it kind of speaks about snowboarding, about the roots of snowboarding, like we've all been there, we've all done that. A day in the life."

Chris also follows his subject off the mountain, even after the lifts stop or the snow melts. "You see a lot of awesome photos of those guys riding, but not of their life, and I always thought of that as my little niche. I can shoot action photos too, but no one's telling the story of why and what we're doing besides the gigantic cliff drop or the powder slash." In other words, he was also documenting the lifestyle that is common to us all.

Jamie Lynn and one of his many guitars (and many cats)

Jamie Lynn and one of his many guitars (and many cats)

If we as riders can easily relate to the essence of snowboarding, most of us will never get to know the pros. This is why Chris offers glances of legendary riders in the lodge, at home resting, or out on the road. As a trusted friend, Chris was never considered intrusive, so Craig, Jamie, and the rest went naturally about their business, and Chris knew what to look for. "I would learn more about them as I traveled with them, as I grew up with them," he says.

But he adds that "snowboarding shots are also portraits. I'm trying to capture that individual". Even when shooting on the hill, Chris pursued character. "They're all different. They ride differently, they act differently, they speak differently. You try to put a little of their personality — or I did — into the photo, and show how this is Craig. If Jamie or whoever had been with me on that exact same day, somehow I would have shot totally differently. I don't know how it would have been different, but it would've been. It's not like you can replace the rider. They kind of spoke to the landscape and to me."

* * *

The riders, the scene, the moment — Chris wanted to record these in his journal and share them with us later. Naturally, however, he could only give a subjective interpretation, hence his signature in the lower right hand corner. Ultimately a balance is struck between what the external world suggests, and how Chris perceives it. "My personality also came through in those photos, based on how my mindset was that day, that trip, those years," he says.

Hiking Shuksan Arm at Mt.Baker, circa 1995

Hiking Shuksan Arm at Mt.Baker, circa 1995

Mood is a part of this, and Chris sees a relationship between the mood of his work and the environment he lives in. The Pacific Northwest speaks in Chris' photos, even when taken in Chile or the Alps. Yet that damp, dark, storm-ridden region is also one of snowboarding's original proving grounds, so this reminder of gloomy mountain days is appropriate. "It's gray here a lot, sometimes it gets pretty dismal," he says. With a rider's experience and perspective, Chris knew where to find the essence of snowboarding and how to authentically render it.

Yet Chris' mind was consciously at play as a professional photographer who rationally selects equipment and avoids undesired accessories. Typically he rode and traveled with two cameras, three lenses, "and a pocket full of film." Such simplicity, however, was often imposed on Chris by the facts of bulk and weight — he had no assistant, only a backpack.

Craig Kelly unpacking and getting ready to go on a evening hike. We traveled in this van for more than 6 weeks. Termas de Chillan, Chile, 1998

Craig Kelly unpacking and getting ready to go on a evening hike. We traveled in this van for more than 6 weeks. Termas de Chillan, Chile, 1998

The mountains set other limitations on Chris: "You see a ridge below, or get up there when you're hiking, but until someone starts jumping off, or you start getting into the mountains, there's no way to prepare for how the shot's going to look, 98% of it just happens. The thing I planned was taking the camera, the lens, and having the right film for the day." In a way, this 98% also extended to how he composed and captured the image. Chris set his camera by intuition, knowing how to combine aperture and exposure to achieve the image he had in mind.

Mike Ranquet about to point it down Gunsight, a chute at Mt. Baker, 1997

Mike Ranquet about to point it down Gunsight, a chute at Mt. Baker, 1997

In Chris' photography these personal and technical elements, governed by the influence and limits of Nature, culminate in character. Their interplay is revealing. Take his preferred camera, the Leica M6, which was too small for much of what Chris shot — "you can't do justice to a landscape with a 35mm." Or film — "yeah, sometimes I had the wrong film."

Faithful to photojournalism, Chris preferred natural light over flash. But mountain ranges in winter are rarely well-lit, and all of these factors contributed to those blurry, shadowy, grainy photos that howl of winter storms — the days we ride in more frequently than under bluebird skies.

Jeff Anderson in the backcountry of his home mountain. Mammoth, CA, 1997

Jeff Anderson in the backcountry of his home mountain. Mammoth, CA, 1997

The spirit of snowstorms and frozen mountains finds a strong voice in black and white. In his photos perhaps no other of Chris' stylistic choices carries as much significance, or better enhances his photojournalistic cause. He explains his preference for black and white by contrasting this format with color photography: "Color kind of confuses the moment. Because you're looking at the blue sky or the beautiful leaves of fall, you're almost so absorbed by the color that you're forgetting the moment you're looking at. That's why I like black and white — its purity reminds you of the moment."

Color photos do exist in the Brunkhart repertoire — the blue sky does break through in his book. What, then, inspires Chris to shoot in color? "The colors themselves." He sees the benefits of color photography, and cites his photo of Dan Peterka overwhelmed in the subway: "Black and white wouldn't have told that same photo like color told that photo. But I don't know why I had color film in my camera that day, or if I put in a roll just for that shot — I don't remember. So much of life and photography and everything else is luck!"

Peterka in Prague

Peterka in Prague

There is a peculiar kind of luck when working with film — until development, the photographer never knows exactly how a shot turned out. Once again, before the final photo is achieved, Chris must apply skill and intuition. In the darkroom, Chris says, "it's not just about putting in paper, shining light on it, putting in chemicals, and you're done. It's totally about playing with light again, yet one more time, bringing out what you saw that day. It's this whole art."

* * *

As we stare, jittery, at one of Chris' snowboard photos, we feel as though we are floating through the sky or through bottomless powder. Why? One reason is because Craig Kelly, for example, is stylishly riding through mountains of indescribable beauty. Another is because an experienced photographer/snowboarder has documented this. And a third comes down to art — the aesthetic eye, the poet's diction in black and white vision, the blood of an artist. Without this third part, Chris' photos would fail to move us.

Although Chris shoots in a way that finishes beautifully in the final print, his objective is not to create art but to document snowboarding. He does recognize the sublimity of the mountains — "they're like my church". But when snowboard photography is suggested as a form of two-dimensional sculpture, he admits that he had never seen it that way — "when I think of art I think of more creative work," he says.

After shooting one afternoon, on our way back, Tony asked me for a shot of him. Turned out epic. Tony Welch, Mt. Baker, WA, 1996

After shooting one afternoon, on our way back, Tony asked me for a shot of him. Turned out epic. Tony Welch, Mt. Baker, WA, 1996

Yet Chris points out that his photos display "line, movement, and form" — elements of composition in the visual arts. Combine these with the stark contrasts and moodiness of black and white photography and we have the foundation of an aesthetic power with the potential to strike our senses and emotions. This is something Chris' influences knew how to exploit, artfully executing their black and white skills far beyond the simple act of documenting a moment. Chris is following their lead.

The work of those masters is in museums today. When traveling, Chris is careful to make time for viewing fine art. Most of what hangs is painting, the precursor of photography, and Chris not only enjoys but also studies what he sees. "I'm not a painter," he says, "but maybe I am with light." Instead of brush and canvas, Chris uses camera and film. If snowboarding had a museum, his work would already be in it.

* * *

All of the photos in Chris' book were shot in the days before digital. His career bridges the two technologies. Can he get the same results with digital cameras? "Yeah, for the most part. But film is analog." Thus begins a photographer's manifesto in defense of tradition, of the original nature and art of photography that is unique to film, not memory cards.

Legendary surf photographer Doc Ball outside his home in Arcadia, CA, 1998

Legendary surf photographer Doc Ball outside his home in Arcadia, CA, 1998

Digital? "It's New Age, 1's and 0's." Film? "Natural silver halides reacting with light on emulsion, and boom — there's your picture. There's this whole natural thing occurring instead of the 1's and 0's." "A piece of film is like a sandbox and all the grains of sand are like those light sensitive silver halides. How light bounces off of them — it's three-dimensional, organic, analog. And if you think of that same photo on, like, a tiled floor, you know, perfect squares, one butting up next to the other, everything is perfect, 90 degrees all the way across — life is never like that! It's never 90 degrees, perfect little squares next to each other. And as many millions and millions and millions of perfect little squares you put together, it's never gonna be like the sandbox!"

Flying high, as always, Terje Haakonsen grabbing a backside 540 in the Utah backcountry, 1997

Flying high, as always, Terje Haakonsen grabbing a backside 540 in the Utah backcountry, 1997

After selecting some 200 photos from filing cabinets containing over 40,000 slides; after designing the layout, writing captions, draining his savings, and overseeing the publication of his book; after more than a year of wringing himself into this project, Chris moved from Matt Donahue's cabin in Idaho back home to Portland. There he has rented a house — with a basement, where he has built himself a place to play and paint with sand and light.

by Daniel O'Neil

(How Many Dreams in the Dark?, by Chris Brunkhart, 2010. 208 pages, hardback, printed in USA, $65 USD. Book and custom prints available internationally at www.gamafunction.com/dreams)

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