Taken from Issue 95 February 2011
Words: Chris Moran
Photos: Matt Georges
When Whitelines’ staff photographer Matt Georges sent us some new shots taken on an old school Polaroid camera, it got us thinking. From the way we travel, to the pictures we take home, snowboarding has changed a lot over the past decade or so. Can we even remember what life in the mountains was like before the internet? Chris Moran delves the virtual memory banks.
It’s the beginning of 2011, and we’re some way along the change from an analogue world to the digital age. I am not - by any means - the first person to have noticed this. The US president Bill Clinton claimed that when he first took office, “only high-energy physicists had ever heard of the World Wide Web". By the end of his two terms, he quipped, "even my cat had its own website."
The internet has changed everything - snowboarding included - forever. And much like a marriage, we are now linked to it for better or worse. Our sport is perhaps more closely bound to the net than most, having risen to prominence during the same era as the integration of the world’s biggest network of computing power. It’s still a wonder that surfing the net didn’t become known as ‘snowboarding the net’.
“The closest we got to UK television in the Alps was when a friend’s mum sent out a video cassette of the 1999 Lakeside World Championship Darts Final"
And because the two were counterculture symbols of youthful exuberance, there are lots of early net pioneers who wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Chamonix or Whistler nightclub circa 1997. It was The Doors frontman Jim Morrison who once said that “each generation wants new symbols, new people, new names. They want to divorce themselves from their predecessors." So, as snowboarding was the new ‘cool’, many a self-made web millionaire’s cash went on sliding downhill, wearing hoodies and living the hedonistic, wintry lifestyle. Is it a co-incidence that Alaska’s heli ski industry simply didn’t exist before 1996? Just where did all those rich people suddenly emerge from in the mid 90s, and why did they all want to get face shots in the fabled super-marine powder?
Not everyone made money from new technologies, however, and to be a snowboarder means travelling. After a particularly deep recession in the very early 1990s, the new youth set off around the world looking to get their kicks, whether they could afford it or not. Generation X author Douglas Coupland called them “the poverty jet set" and his 1991 classic had them as “a group of people given to chronic traveling at the expense of long-term job stability or a permanent residence". He even wrote that they had a tendency to engage in “doomed and extremely expensive phone-call relationships with people named Serge or Ilyana". This was - it has to be pointed out - before Skype.
It was this generation that first realised the enormous potential of the web. And over a few short years, the changes came thick and fast. Working for a snowboard mag through much of this period, we were fortunate to see the good and bad side of the digital changeover. When I started at Whitelines, we used to handwrite articles on scrap bits of paper, then fax them in to our office near Oxford. It took ages to get anything done. One interview with a UK pro involved twenty or so postcards sent back and forth to France, and if there was a postal strike on (not an uncommon occurrence across the Channel) sometimes we’d have to phone the articles in. We published one piece with ‘Tignes’ spelt as ‘Teens’ because the intern secretary recorded it phonetically. “Why don’t you get a spell check?" asked one reader in the letters page in 1997. A witty response was drafted, but it was lost in a pager incident. Don’t ask.
Of course the flipside was that doing a season meant something different. In the early 1990s it was inconceivable that any ski bum or seasonaire could afford a mobile phone. Any contact with the UK would mean a freezing trip to a resort payphone with a 100-Franc phonecard. Most parents of seasonaires would recognise the French operator asking if they’d accept reverse charges. Ski resorts were essentially a self-contained bubble, and for five months at a time, the only scraps of information you’d pick up from the outside world came from the chalet guests’ discarded newspapers on transfer day. For entertainment, it was card games, drinking games or a trip to the pub. The idea that the snowboard community was a drunken rabble was rooted firmly in reputable hearsay. Apart from the snowboarding, the clubbing and the chatting up of chalet girls, there wasn’t actually much to do. I don’t know of anyone in the early 90’s who had a working TV in the resort. Why bother when it’d only pick up a foreign-speaking station, filled with microphone wielding chat show hosts mining a rich vein of 1970s-style entertainment? The idea of on-demand entertainment, of iPlayer, satellite TV or YouTube was the stuff of fantasy sci-fi.
Even a mere twelve years ago, the closest we got to UK television was when a friend’s mum sent out a video cassette of the 1999 Lakeside World Championship Darts Final (and a dart board). We organised a darts day, borrowed a neighbour’s video player and TV, invited all the local seasonaires, and got the plastic wine barrels out. For the local Frenchies, it was a bizarre scene, only topped the following year when someone made them watch a box set of ‘Allo ‘Allo.
But in a few short years everything had changed. When Hotmail came out, the humble postcard - with all its quirky, cute charm - was doomed. And it wasn’t just topless ski model photographers who saw the new technology as a threat to the status quo. President Bush’s sidekick Donald Rumsfeld became the posterboy for conservatism when he said, ‘Oh my goodness gracious, what you can buy off the internet in terms of overhead photography. A trained ape can know an awful lot of what is going on in this world, just by punching on his mouse." Others took the opposite view, and saw technology such as Google Maps as a way of expressing themselves. Witness the schoolboy who drew an enormous penis in weedkiller on his school field so it would show up on satellite images. “God dammit, there’s a huge Johnson in a field near Marlborough" one likes to image Rumsfeld spitting across the Pentagon offices.
But we at Whitelines saw Hotmail - and the ability to send well crafted (ahem) words over the internet - as a liberating experience. Email meant we could work wherever we were. As the 90s came to a close, we headed out to the Alps with laptops, clunky mobile phones and a skip in our step, expecting the following year’s mags to be much, much better.
Of course this did leave us with the problem of trying to establish a web connection out in France, which involved installing an ISDN and phone line into a rented apartment for six months. Dealing with France Telecom is like trying to read and understand Catch 22 on acid. Were schools to scrap French A-levels and simply task students with setting up an internet account in the Alps, everyone who succeeded in getting online should be given an A-star immediately.
If we thought that being online was to make our lives run seamlessly, we were in for a shock. One of the biggest problems the internet threw up was that we were never offline. Prior to the net, no one would ever have given up a powder day to finish off some work, but as we all moved out to the snow, deadlines seemed to become less fluid, emails continually prodded us into action, and we somehow created a rod with which to break our own backs.
“Dealing with France Telecom is like trying to read and understand Catch 22 on acid"
But if us mere journalists felt in some way conned by the digital revolution, it was nothing compared to the world inhabited by snowboard photographers. At the turn of the millenium, the first real, magazine-quality digital cameras came out. It was mind-blowing stuff for the snappers: instead of constantly changing films, of blowing roll after roll on aborted sequences in the finger-numbing cold, they were offered a digital lifeline. In a world where film processing could involve a two-week turn around (more if the French post was on strike - did we mention they often do that?), here was a chance for pictures to be seen instantly, for endless sequencing, for immediate gratification. It was the promised land, and snappers the world over went gooey-eyed at the prospect of getting a top-of-the-line Canon or Nikon digital body.
“Some say photographers are a cross between scientists, artists and mathematicians; others (mostly people who work with them) think they’re lovable nobheads"
To understand how excited many photographers were by the rise of the internet, one must understand their psyche. Some say photographers are a cross between scientists, artists and mathematicians; others (mostly people who work with them) think they’re lovable nobheads. One war photographer, for example, was once asked about the philosophical dilemmas his job raised. “What would you do if presented with a young girl burning to death?" asked an interviewer. “Probably 1/60 at f5.6," came the reply.
There had - of course - been instant image capture prior to the invention of the digital camera. The first camera with a built-in dark room was invented in 1923, and Polaroid came out with its first instant film in 1948. But the newer, digital cameras were something different. Instant, viewable images meant a photographer could snap the shot, upload it to a computer, use some digital trickery to enhance the raw image, and email it to a magazine that very same day. Riders could see the shots they were getting, while the photographer would know whether they had a banger in the bag, or if the flash hadn’t fired at the right time. It was an end to the luck element that had been inherent in the art, and for control freaks, it was a dream come true. Or at least that was the theory.
The truth is that all hell broke loose. Photographers used to shoot an image, a developer would process that image, and a magazine designer would then photoshop stray hairs out, colour balance it and make it all sharp and lovely. With the advent of digital cameras, those roles were merged: the photographer’s job, in one stroke, now encompassed three-people’s work. Then there were image rights. It used to be that a unique slide would be posted to a mag to be scanned. Now digital images could be replicated with the touch of a button and digital images flew around the net. No photographer could keep track of their shots. Meanwhile, the huge size of the files meant very expensive computers had to be constantly upgraded and new data storage devices would have to be bought, and emailing one of these full-res images required a broadband-quality connection, and a terrifying trip back to the France Telecom shop.
In addition, riders themselves would email ‘their’ shots to sponsors and magazines - a situation which resulted in more than one covershot being accidentally replicated by two mags at the same time. For many photographers, dealing with the problems digital photography threw up was horrific. Their accounting systems melted, their back-up disks failed, shots were everywhere, and everybody wanted to use them for free. What promised to be a liberating system bound many snowboard photographers to desk jobs they’d spent years trying to avoid.
“Digital photography brought an end to the luck element that had been inherent in the art, and for control freaks, it was a dream come true. Or at least that was the theory. The truth is that all hell broke loose"
That said, there is nothing quite like watching a photographer have a proper toys-out-of-the-pram strop, so it wasn’t all bad.
Of course we’re not finished with this digital revolution. Not even half way through. In fact lord knows where we are with it. And while the roles of photographers and journalists have changed, the very structure of the magazine and newspaper industry is being shaken. People want instant access to news, videos, articles (you may be reading this online) and very rarely do they wish to pay for it. On the one hand, this is unsustainable. On the other, why buy a newspaper when it’s out of date, and the up-to-the-minute news from the same outlet is free online?
So, were Blur totally on the money when they said Modern Life Is Rubbish? Perhaps, but then also, perhaps not. “Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson," it was once said. “You'll find the present tense and the past perfect." For every great thing that happened prior to the digital world, there’s a great thing happening because of it.
There is, however, the beginnings of a backlash to the march of progression. Witness the use of Polaroid shots like the ones you see on this page, of real dark-room techniques over Photoshop airbrushing. Photographers will tell you this is all about honesty, integrity, rawness, of getting back to their roots. That may be the case, but it could also be because they’ve seen the future, and the future means more work hunched over a laptop.
The internet did undoubtedly shrink the world, and while we remember the days fondly when French towns sold things like Croque Monsieurs rather than Pukka Pies, and the local bars advertised bands and not the Premier League fixtures, those days are long, long gone. There are those who don’t like this uniformity. Talking Heads frontman David Byrne always said that his biggest fear was “that everything will get homogenized and be the same." One could argue that it’s not the Internet’s fault that this happened, but the examples just keep stacking up. The wider the web’s reach, the more similar the world becomes.
It’s for this reason that some think the internet has created as many problems as it has solved. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on your viewpoint. The Swiss entrepreneur Esther Dyson likens it to the effects of alcohol. “It accentuates what you would do anyway. If you want to be a loner, you can be more alone. If you want to connect, it makes it easier to connect." While it’s certainly true that many people out in the mountains are now permanently glued to their laptops as they network with their friends back home (which naturally means there’s less time to socialise with those around us), the internet has also enabled millions to meet like-minded friends – such as fellow riders – and to create meetings that simply wouldn’t have happened prior to Facebook, Twitter or MSN. And the power-to-the-people ethos of the net can’t be sniffed at either. Thanks to sites like YouTube and Vimeo, everyone has the means to distribute their own snowboard films across the planet, free of charge, while a quick browse of the posts on Whitelines.com shows how passionate people are about defending snowboarding’s image, or strengthening its core beliefs. The recent online chat about snowboarding’s role in the Olympics made me wonder just how different things might have been had the collective voice of our sport been heard through the loudspeakers of forums and web comments back before Nagano in 1998. Would the International Snowboarding Federation have survived? Who knows, but as the WikiLeaks case has proved, we seem to be getting savvier at forming pressure groups, and rounding up online armies for moral crusades. This can only be a good thing.
Some things - the isolation of being in the mountains, the fact that few knew where the best powder spots were, the idea that you had to make your own entertainment, the luck of being in a place where it dumped - were better before the internet came along. Other things - the ability to chase the best weather, to scope out lines on Google Earth, to video call your friends from the other side of the world, to book flights and check whether the airport is open - are all better today. And the point is, this is an opt-in world. If you don’t want to be part of the digital age, it’s easy to avoid. Why not take a leaf out of the novelist C.S. Lewis’s book. “We all want progress," he once wrote. “But if you're on the wrong road that means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road: in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive."
Damn. Don't tell us those bloody photographers are on to something after all. We'll never hear the end of it.