Discussing the 'Premium Zone'

B/W vs. Color, Film vs. Digital, Goofy vs. Regular in the Land of the Rising Sun.

A collaborative project by Benjamin Littler & Joshua Poehlein.

Read on for the full interview with the two photographers responsible for the project, and visit www.premiumzone.us to experience it in full.

Interview: Theo Acworth

Premium Zone 1

This is a very ‘photographic’ series of images, as opposed to the more ‘classic’ snowboard shots that we’re used to seeing. Did you have a solid plan to document the trip in this way from the beginning?

Ben: Yes, we did. Neither of us are professional snowboarders so we had no plans of blowing people away with action shots and honestly the whole fly to Japan and hike just to the side of a run and make it look remote and spiritual had been beaten to death. I think we had planned to just show it for everything, the infrastructure and the people. We had no reason to sell something epic so we just tried to tell the truth.

Josh: I would say it was more of a loose plan than anything strict. I have an art photography background so I am naturally attracted to the photographic side of things as much as the action shots. The other factor here is that neither Ben or I are that good at snowboarding. We can hold our own, but nobody was ever going to do a 720 on this trip, haha.

It seems like you both have quite a similar eye, what was the work process like for you with this project?

Ben: I think our work outside of snowboarding tends to be very different but the way we both get excited to portray snowboarding is very similar. The process was really fun and loose without any expectations or pressure. Making images for this trip was very similar to how I work on a daily basis, carry a point and shoot everywhere you go and capture anything that piques your interest. The snowboarding was the hardest part. I wrote "Go faster, eat shit more." on my jacket cuffs as a reminder for better riding photos.

Josh: The process was just to always have our cameras on us. There are a bunch of instances in which Ben and I almost have identical photographs of the same thing, and we had to choose for the final edit. Sometimes Ben found the thing first and I made the final image, or vice versa. I think this is more a function of us just being right next to each other the whole trip, sort of influencing one another in real time.

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A lot of these images are quite funny, in a quiet and observational kind of way. How important is humour in your work?

Ben: I don't think I realized it as much during this project but now I find it to play a much larger role. I had always shot black and white but after coming back from Japan I, for some reason, started working almost exclusively on a Polaroid Sun 600 shooting color film and found it to be delightful in it's feeling of lightheartedness. Color felt comical and fun in a way, almost as if I had been playing piano in minor keys all these years and now I had discovered the majors. Josh had also turned me onto a photographer named Jason Fulford and his work kind of solidified my aim in square format color photography. In the late summer I bought a Hasselblad 500C/M and realized all this Polaroid shooting had been training for medium format. I love it.

Josh: I’m personally attracted to things that maybe you would call absurd, or incongruous? Japan is ripe for these sorts of images because you have on the one hand a really traditional, reserved, and conservative culture, but also this hyper-modernized existence, as well as “cute culture” or Kawaii its called (thanks Google). Plus neither of us had been to Japan before, so we were really attuned to how different everything was from what we were used to seeing in the states.

I don’t know if I really consciously think about humor that much. I definitely look for strange juxtapositions though, or maybe something akin to a visual irony. In terms of snowboarding content, I’ve always loved the Airblaster videos and the Robot Food stuff, and those manage to have really good visuals, amazing riding, and a sense of humor.

What did you think of Japan as a place to visit and photograph?

Ben: It's absolutely incredible. The food, the culture, the people, everything was very inviting and exciting. Being in Hokkaido for the majority of the trip actually reminded me a lot of where I grew up around Syracuse, New York. It's rural farmland and smaller towns with rolling hills and deciduous trees. It felt very comfortable. Obviously there are big mountains and we found them but a lot of that land is very mellow. As far as making photographs there, I can't wait to go back. Josh had the better end of the bargain shooting color because it's use is wonderful there. You would see a bunch of construction equipment in the middle of nowhere and for some reason they would be painted in the softest pastels. We kept saying you could spend years compiling images for a book there.

Josh: I thought it was amazing, and I realize that we only ever so slightly scratched the surface of exploring there. It’s funny because I think 2020 was the worst winter they’ve had in 20 years or something. It made it so we had to work really hard to find good snow, so I definitely want to go back and get that cliche Japan powder experience. But maybe that would have resulted in less interesting photographs? The color there is so wild, and that’s something I wasn’t expecting based on other images/films I’ve seen in the past. I do have a bit of guilt about going. I truly love travel and feel like it expands your understanding of the world, but it’s a privileged activity, and one that I think needs to be viewed in the context of climate change. Not sure how to square all this in my head. I want to continue traveling, I want to make responsible choices as well. Still chewing on that one.

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Do you have a favourite image from the trip?

Ben: At this moment looking back on it I think my favorite image is the one Josh made in Furano on our first day of the military men hiking uphill away from the gondola line. It reminds me a lot of another one of his images he made years before this project of people hiking up a sand dune so when I see the one in Furano it truly feels like it has his stamp upon it. That image also being made on the first day I remember gave me a spark like "We can make something really good here and it's up to us on how hard we work for it.”.

Josh: Ooh tough one. I’m going to pick 4. Favorite riding related photo that I took is the one of Ben’s track through the bamboo next to the groomed run. This place was special, as everything off a groomer was totally off limits, and it was all untouched pow. It pretty much didn’t snow our whole trip so we spent that day breaking rules and feeling sort of bad about it, but not bad enough to stop.

Favorite boarding photo that Ben took is of me at Furano dropping a little cliff next to a lift. I love the framing on that one, and also the in-run and speed on it were a total guess and I laced it, so that feels good haha.

Another favorite is an image I made of some men on a smoke break in Tokyo. It’s like this drama playing out on the street. Each person has their own little world going on, but they’re connected. And there’s a bit of humor there too with the rainbow coming from the seated man reaching out to the guy looking at his phone. I ran across the street to take this and no one paid attention to me.

Non-boarding photo for Ben. There are so many, but I like the one of the taxi driver asleep in his backseat. It’s super complicated and you can see Ben in the reflection in a Yankees hat taking the photo. It sums up the whole trip in a nice way. It’s a self-portrait and a portrait, it shows us on the outside looking in, and it identifies Ben as like this “American Tourist” archetype.

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What was the most Japanese thing you saw or did?

Ben: I can't really speak to what is the most true to Japan since it was all so new to me but one thing that really stood out and spoke volumes to me about the Japanese culture was something I saw while in Tokyo. We had three or four days at the end of the trip just exploring the city with very little aim so we covered a ton of ground and everywhere we went I saw the same thing, bicycles standing unlocked against houses, apartments or businesses. I'd say eighty five to ninety percent of the bikes I saw were unlocked. That would never happen in the United States. Even leaving your bike locked by the frame doesn't guarantee your front wheel won't be gone. That level of respect in Japan for individuals' property brought me a lot of joy.

Josh: We went to an izakaya/bar in this town really far north on Hokkaido. No one spoke any english, we don’t speak any Japanese, and we couldn’t figure out our translator apps. So we just pointed at things on the menu and drank lots of beer. The portions were massive and we couldn’t finish anything. But it just really felt like a place that was authentic Japanese, not catered to westerners at all. It was on one of these tiny streets with tons of bars/restaurants and who know what else. Also we rode a rollercoaster in downtown Tokyo at like 10am with a bunch of Japanese schoolchildren. That was a highlight of the trip for me for sure.

What cameras are you guys shooting with?

Ben: I shot the entire trip with a Nikon L35AF on Kodak Tri-X 400. It's small enough to keep in your coat pocket and it's tough as nails. My favorite point and shoot for snowboarding I've found so far.

Josh: I shot everything digitally on a Fuji X-Pro 2 with a 23mm lens (35mm equivalent). Ben I think shot Tri-x on a Nikon L35 AF. So we both shot the same aspect ratio and lens length essentially, this might be one reason why the images lend themselves to pairing so well.

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When and why did you start shooting photographs?

Ben: I started shooting photographs when I was a really little kid because my grandfather was a photographer. He was also a writer and school teacher but he practiced photography in his spare time. He would take me out and show me how to better compose images and just how to be smarter using a camera. My mother had a K-1000 that I often used as well but from middle school through to about twenty one I was far more focused on filmmaking than still photography. In my early twenties I got really tired of how big of a production trying to create any type of movie was so I went back to the simpler and generally more solo endeavor that is making photographs.

Josh: A long long time ago in rural Virginia. 15 minutes from where I learned to snowboard, Massanutten mountain, which I would love to go back to some day and photograph. As far as why, I’m not sure. It felt like an activity that could be “my thing” if that makes any sense. That was 20 years ago now and I’m still really into it.

Who or what inspires your work?

Ben: Honestly Josh inspires my work a lot. I trust him so I ask him questions all the time and bounce my ideas off of him. He's a lot smarter and more knowledgeable when it comes to the technical aspects of photography, I generally run off of feeling so he's able to help steer me a little better and avoid some of the failures I generally run into. Other than that I get a lot of inspiration from any of my friends that are getting after it no matter what the medium. If you have any skill most of these artistic endeavors just require hard work so I get really motivated when my friends are creating in high frequency. Sitting still gives me the bad brains.

Josh: The act of snowboarding definitely inspires me, and trying to communicate what that actually feels like as much as what it looks like. There are a number of snowboard photographers that I really like right now; Silvano Zeiter, Aaron Schwartz, Matt Georges, Carlos Blanchard, etc. Old Vincent Skoglund work as well has always been inspirational. David Benedek’s films with Blank Paper Studio were and are hugely important to me. Lots of fine art photographic influences as well are burned into my brain from school and years in/adjacent to that world.

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How do you guys fit photography into your day-to-day lives?

Ben: For me it's just a part of it everyday, I absolutely love doing this and I don't really get paid but I work at it as if it is a job. In the winter I'm very focused on snowboarding but that's a much smaller percentage of the total work I make. I work as a bartender to help with bills so that job affords me the flexibility of hardly working and having the freedom to leave for periods of time without losing employment. I'm shooting everyday and drawing up projects constantly. I have a lot of friends that are talented and successful musicians so I enjoy going on tour with them and shooting everything that happens behind the scenes around that type of work. I don't ever find it difficult to make time for photography but honestly I would love to leave bartending behind and work solely on creating images. I'm always scared I won't have enough time to work on all the projects I dream of.

Josh: First of all I’m trying to fit more of it in. So if anyone sees this and is interested in my work please do hit me up. I am open for business, commercial, travel, editorial, etc. In the past I’ve managed in various ways. I’ve been to school for photography. I’ve taught photography. I’ve worked in a photo museum, and as an art handler in Seattle for a number of years. I’m currently taking the winter off from regular employment to concentrate on photo, so right now I’ve got lots of time for it.

What’s coming up for you that we should keep our eyes open for?

Ben: Hopefully a lot of the snowboarding I've been shooting this winter will find its way onto the pages of print magazines because that's always a great feeling. I've got a few projects in the works outside of snowboarding that I'm excited to turn into physical pieces for the public to consume. Other than that just working really hard and trying to enjoy this life as much as possible. If you like it, call me.

Josh: I’m currently in the process of printing a zine of some non-snowboarding images I made during the initial phases of lockdown called Walks, as well as making new Walks images whenever I can (we just got a dog so opportunities are plentiful). I went to Trollhaugen with Arbor snowboards in December of 2020 and those images are going to start trickling out soon. There will possibly be a Premium Zone(ish) sort of experience with those, but that remains to be seen. This season I’ve been riding and shooting a bunch with Austen Sweetin at Mt. Baker. I’m excited about what we’ve got so far, and I’m hyped to keep shooting with him. The NW has been having a really good season thus far, so hoping to keep that momentum going.

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