Matt Barr talks to the photographer who captured the epicentre of snowboarding's youth. This article first appeared in the Whitelines 2015 Photo Issue.
If you think about it, we’re at a pretty unique point in snowboarding history right about now. Nope, I’m not talking about the freestyle production lines churning out ever-younger tech shredders like so many tweaking automatons. Instead, I’m talking about the direct line to shred history we have thanks to those veterans that can track first-hand the sport’s rise from the domain of solitary backyard tinkerers to the tectonic-plate-shifting Olympic super-sport it is today. Like venerable Tommies reminiscing about the Somme, we’d be wise to harvest their unparalleled insights while we still can.
For this select handful of shredding Zeligs, accepted snowboarding history has almost perfectly complemented their own riding careers. In the States, Jake Burton and Terry Kidwell obviously spring to mind. In Europe, Régis Rolland and Peter Bauer, among others. But on the other side of the lens? For my money, only American snowboarding photographer Trevor Graves can match this depth of experience and personal achievement. Sure, others have similarly well-stocked archives – Bud Fawcett and Pascal ‘Scalp’ Gombert among them – but only Graves has remained relevant every step of the way. Talk to Graves for 90 minutes, as I did last month, and the conversation is likely to take in personal reminisces that are, coincidentally, the milestones of our very sideways culture.
“That’s the part I enjoyed about snowboarding then; you met someone you might not be friends with, but because you had snowboarding as a bond you would connect and be friends with them"
Skateboarding was his initial gateway to the sideways arts. This was in 1978, when being one of three skaters in a New York state town like Chittenango could get you more than just funny looks. Still, despite the danger of the occasional beating from redneck locals, skateboarding offered a hitherto unknown sense of physical and mental freedom that the young Graves – previously a talented baseball player – relished. “The thing was you could do it and you didn’t have to wait for the team. Not that I’m not a team player, but if I had an hour I could go skate. I didn’t have to wait for anything. I could do it now. And then there was that first ollie. The sense of weightlessness that you get".
Like many first-generation snowboarders, the initial appeal was that it was an even more fun version of skateboarding. “We interpreted snowboarding as skateboarding. When I first saw it I thought, ‘Wow, I can catch air way bigger, and if I crash it won’t hurt because it’s snow.’ And where I lived in New York there were three or four months of snow, so you could go snowboarding when there wasn’t any dry pavement. It was a natural transition". This was the DIY era, when riders had to make their own boards, hike local hills and learn from other riders. “That’s the part I enjoyed about snowboarding then; you met someone you might not be friends with, but because you had snowboarding as a bond you would connect and be friends with them."
This approach extended to Trevor’s earliest experiments in snowboarding photography following a fortuitous meeting with a fellow rider called Scott Clum. A fellow skater-turned-snowboarder, Clum was a member of the Sims team and as such had one of only three Sims boards on the East Coast. Together the pair began to hike a makeshift quarterpipe at a local cow pasture in New York, documenting their skate-influenced progression in a series of timeless black and white images.
Meeting Scott was, as Trevor says, a “fork-in-the-road moment, as it led to meeting other people who set the trajectory for my career, and my life really." Anybody lucky enough to make their hobby their living can make the same claim. It’s just that in Trevor’s case these early acquaintances were a Who’s Who of the sport’s early trailblazers: Tom Sims, Jake Burton, Terry Kidwell, Shaun Palmer, Jeff Brushie. The latter was another important relationship. As Trevor says, “when Brush blew up I started getting phone calls from different publications in places like Japan and Europe, because I was the only one who had pictures of him. It started to feel more international."
"The original gangsters that built the sports are all literally bipolar - they've got issues"
All truly successful snowboarding photographers are a curious mixture of artist and entrepreneur, and Trevor was no exception, playing a long game that still reads like a lesson to any budding photographer. “My strategy as a young guy was to work a second shift at a photo lab, shoot snowboarding on all the good sunny days, then take the film to my lab to process. There was a lot of skill and craft in shooting good photos back in the day, but I would learn very quickly because I could see my results that day. I committed to it in 1990, moving to Oregon so snowboarding was easier to access, and I started getting calls from manufacturers to do photoshoots. Guys like Todd Richards would suggest that I be the photographer, and that’s when the money started rolling in."
It was the beginning of a period between 1992 and 1996 that saw Trevor shoot all of the period’s key snowboarders, work with every major brand, spend his summers in Chile and New Zealand and clock up an average of 180 days on snow. Does he have a favourite memory from this time? “Well, you always remember your first heli flight, and mine was with Craig Kelly and Dave Seaone in Riksgränsen, Sweden. As we took off, I dropped my light meter on the heli-pad – and if you’d seen the light there it’s golden sunlight for four hours – so I had to guess my exposure and I managed to shoot enough by instinct. I think I just about got away with it."
How about an individual shot?
“I have a safe in the basement with a full-on steel door, and it’s full of archives, but out of all those hours on the hill chasing the snow I probably have twenty pictures I like. The one called ‘Cheese Wedge Shot’ in 1999 featuring Natasha Zurek in Vallee Nevado in Chile – shot with a Triax 25A red filter and a Hasselbad, and through this apparatus I called the Misticam – is my most memorable. It came to me in a dream – I literally thought about translating the word 'cheese wedge,' because that’s what we make when we go out to shoot these big jumps. I put holes in the side of the jump so it looked three-dimensional when the shadows hit it. I had these Mickey Mouse ears, so I said to Natasha, ‘Hey put these ears on and stand on top on this piece of cheese.’ I don’t know if she got what I was trying to illustrate, but she played along with me and I took the photo. It’s timeless to me – it transcends time and feels forever young to me."
This is a telling reply for one obvious reason: it isn’t a riding shot. It also confirms the impression that Trevor’s career has always been as much about communicating playful ideas about snowboarding as it has been about documenting great riding – although there’s been plenty of that along the way. It’s something that you can track all the way through his career – from his early days, when he says he was motivated by “showing the world how much fun snowboarding was," to his current work. So does he think there’s a real link between action sports and creativity?
"It’s the same passion as when I started, which is to shoot and share pictures to show people how much fun it is"
“Absolutely, and the other thing is the ADD nature of the sport. All the original gangsters that built the sport are all literally bipolar, they’ve got issues. Mike Ranquet, Shaun Palmer, Kidwell: they all had a little tweak to them where they have to be doing new things all the time. Today riders are more conscious of what they’re doing; a little less creative. I think some of the pros end up in the creative industries because I think there’s real art and creativity to snowboarding. Outside of snowboarding, I think Spike Jonze is the epitome of that; starting with skate films and now directing Hollywood blockbuster movies."
All of which leads us nicely to Nemo Design, the Portland-based company that Graves founded in 1998 with two friends. As he tells it, the desire for a change in career came about for a few reasons: a creative desire to tell better stories by collaborating with designers and copywriters; a natural personal evolution, and a simple realisation that the snowboard world, and his position in it, had changed.
“The industry used to be about friends. You did things as favours and you wanted to help people along. Then people saw me as a mechanism or tool to help them grow. Some were insincere and just wanted to use me to further their career, rather than get to know me as a person and be my friend. And that hurt; I didn’t like that transition the industry went through. Like with high school, once you graduate you give up your locker for the next person to come along. In photo it felt like I wasn’t contributing at the level I wanted to anymore, and I needed to get out the way for the next guy who wanted to be the senior photographer who saw it as their only mission in life. So I retired."
Nemo was the result. Today, the company has 36 full time employees and owns a 20,000 square feet building in Portland. Graves describes it as a “brand design agency that specialises in the active lifestyle." Over the years Graves has done “every job at Nemo, but my skill is problem-solving, so that’s what I’m tasked with day-to-day." Still, it’s his name above the board. Being in charge of accounts like Nike 6.0 (Nemo carried out 3000 projects with them over eight years, taking them to a $350 million brand within Nike) sounds pretty busy. So how often does he get to shoot snowboarding these days?
“The ‘Angry Midget’ doesn’t go riding with me as much as it used to, so when I do shoot it’s for personal fun, as it always was. It’s the same passion as when I started, which is to shoot and share pictures to show people how much fun it is. So it’s fun to shoot, but it’s more fun when you’re not getting paid."
The Stories Behind The Shots - Trevor talks in-depth about three of his favourite photos
"Craig Kelly was the ultimate professional. He would always intuitively know where to go; it was like he saw the terrain through my eyes and would know where to turn and air in order to get everything lined up, so that it was seamless for all of us. He was way ahead of his time; the early phase was all about rabble-rousers who had no vision of what snowboarding could be - they were just having so much damn fun doing it, they didn't care. But Craig kind of knew there was a new world being born and he wanted to be part of that."
"This is Scott Clum, the year is 1985 and the location is Utica, New York, at the edge of a farmer's pasture. He was a member of the Sims team, and as such had one of only three Sims boards on the East Coast."
"How did Dave Downing get on this cable? That's a good story. It was around 1999 or 2000 on a Burton shoot in Chile. Alpha shooters like Jeff Curtes were there, so there was a friendly competition to get the best shots. I was with Dave and Marcus Egge, and we saw that the ski lift had been taken out by an avalanche. We took hours and hours building a 40-foot in-run, trying to get a low incline so that Dave could get on the cable and ride it. To his credit he said he didn't want the shot published unless he landed it - but he did. At the time I was leading the way on the digital front and doing a lot of Photoshop, so I got a lot of hate letters from the industry saying I shouldn't fake this stuff, as it ruins the credibility of the sport. But I'm happy to report that this is an analog shot. Wide angle lens, Fuji film, no tricks."