Getting stoked with Grant Gunderson

Getting stoked with Grant Gunderson

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Grant Gunderson, a Bellingham-based ski photographer, has been published in every major ski publication worldwide, including Ski, Skiing, Powder, Outside and many foreign titles. Powder Magazine describes Grant “as one of the world’s top action sports photographers.”  

MBE: Tell us a little about yourself.
Grant Gunderson: I’m 32, grew up in Yakima, Washington and went to school at Western.

MBE: How long have you been skiing?
GG: Since I could walk, actually before I could walk. Growing up, my parents got me on cross-country skis before they would let me on a chairlift. I had lots of backcountry experience before I even got onto a lift.

MBE: How did you get into the business of ski and sports photography?
GG: I kind of fell into it. I started shooting photos of friends in high school and once I entered college I got into it a whole lot more. I was lucky because the guys I was skiing with at the time were really good skiers and magazines wanted to buy photos of them.

MBE: How did it turn from you taking pictures of friends to magazines buying from you?
GG: It pretty much happened overnight. One day we were hanging out and a film crew that was there started filming the guys I was photographing. They put me in contact with a couple of magazines that were doing a story, and it just happened. I got really lucky, I guess.

MBE: What other sports do you photograph?
GG: I do some hiking and mountain biking photography but skiing is definitely my passion.

MBE: What did you study at Western, and what did your parents think about you becoming a ski photographer?
GG: I took plastics engineering, and I’ve never used it. My dad was less than happy about it at the time. In fact, if it wasn’t every day, it was at least once a week he would call and ask me when I was going to get a job and quit being a bum. Then when he actually retired, he called up and said, “OK, now I get it. You went straight from going to school to being retired without the working part in the middle.” I think he’s actually jealous now.

MBE: You’re photo editor of Ski Journal, you’ve been published in Powder, Skiing Magazine, Ski Magazine, Patagonia catalogs and Canadian ski magazines. Where else can your work be found?
GG: I do a lot of stuff for foreign magazines. In fact, I probably have more work published in Japan and Europe than I do in North America. I think skiing is a lot more popular in Europe and each country has its own magazine in its own language.

MBE: You’ve taken photos of skiers in pretty damn near unskiable terrain. You have to be positioned up there to take the shot. That seems even more difficult than what the skier has to do.
GG: I think it goes both ways. It doesn’t seem that difficult because I came to it from a real strong ski background. Sure, some of it is steep but that’s one of the nice things about skiing in the Pacific Northwest, you can ski steeper stuff here than anywhere else.

MBE: How come?
GG: The snow sticks to stuff here that it wouldn’t elsewhere. That’s why I love Baker crud. I’ll take it over Utah snow any day.

MBE: How do you pick your shots?
GG: Instead of looking at one big mountain face I try to concentrate on details of the terrain that I think would showcase the peak action. Occasionally I’ll shoot a line to show the fluidity of the skiing, but mostly, it’s about the action.

MBE: What’s involved with setting up a shot?
GG: Throwing lots of snowballs. Often when I shoot, it’s more like stunt work than what people would expect ski photography to be. The big air and the shots that look dangerous usually are. Both the skier and I have to be precise in knowing where the skier is going to go, making sure he or she isn’t going to land on rocks or hit me. It’s just like anything else, you don’t jump into shooting gnarly stuff, you definitely build up to it.

MBE: Had any close calls?
GG: The closest call I’ve had was on Mt. Baker going out to an area called Old Man, which is usually a safe place to ski when there’s a high avalanche danger. There’s an area before you get to it called The Horseshoe, and on that particular day we were all kind of scared of it, more so than usual. None of us wanted to break it, and finally I said, “What the hell,” even though in the back of my mind I thought it was a horrible idea. I took four steps forward and the snow broke about three feet deep. Luckily, I stayed on top of it. But I turned and looked back past what was considered a safe place to stand when someone’s breaking it. It broke behind the guys and they got buried up to their waists. Definitely a good wake-up call – now any time I get a gut feeling that it’s a bad idea, I don’t do it.

MBE: Not only do you have to be a skilled photographer, you also need people to shoot. Is there a bar like the test pilot bar in “The Right Stuff ” where you find these daredevils?
GG: I wish. The Taproom’s (the bar upstairs at the Heather Lodge) pretty close, I guess. Most of the guys I shoot are people who are friends of other people that I’ve shot before. The last thing I want to do is to shoot some unknown kid with Kodak courage who is going to go do something stupid and get hurt. There’s a really good group of skiers at Mt. Baker and in the Northwest.

MBE: What do you look for in skiers?
GG: Rule No. 1 is we’ve got to have fun. It has to be someone I want to hang with. Being a good skier is a given. It has to be someone who has a lot of knowledge and enough respect for the mountain to be somewhat cautious. It’s nice to work with athletes who know when to say no. The last thing I want to do is work with someone who gets hurt. Being levelheaded is pretty key.

MBE: Anything else?
GG: The biggest thing I want people to understand is my firm belief that in everything I do it’s at least 50 percent the athlete if not more. The truth is, you should be interviewing the athletes, not me. If it weren’t for the skiers I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.

MBE: What exercise regime keeps you in shape?
GG: I mountain bike in the summer. That’s pretty much it. About five years ago, I decided to completely quit eating fast food. When I’m at home I never eat prepared foods – I cook it all myself. It’s made me feel amazing. I guess I could quit drinking, but that’s not going to happen.

MBE: Where are some of the great places you’ve skied?
GG: Outside of North America, I’ve skied in Iceland, Norway, Japan, Chile and Argentina. Mt. Baker’s my favorite, I really like the interior of B.C. and Japan is pretty good. In fact, Japan might be the one place that gets more snow than us. Japan doesn’t do any avalanche control. Technically, you’re not allowed to ski out of bounds, but you can do what you want as long as you’re faster than the ski patrol. That’s usually not a problem.

MBE: How long is your ski season?
GG: I typically ski 200 days a year. I generally ski a month in South America every summer.

MBE: What kind of camera equipment do you use?
GG: I use Canon. I carry two Canon EOS-1D Mark IV bodies and Canon lenses – 15mm f/2.8, 16-35mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8 and 400mm f/4. I also have two Nikon SB-28 flashes and assorted PocketWizard transceivers. My pack weighs around 65 pounds. I make the athletes carry the flash packs, which weigh another 60 pounds apiece.

MBE: Are you hard on your camera gear?
GG: I’m pretty tough. Last season I went through four camera bodies.

MBE: How about skis?
GG: I’ve got 30-plus pairs of skis in my garage, so I’m good at having the right arrow from the quiver for the day. I don’t wear them out that often.

MBE: You’re single. With all this travelling it must be hard to sustain a relationship.
GG: It’s difficult. It’s probably not the travel so much as it is that people don’t understand it’s a job. Sure, it’s fun and I wouldn’t want to do anything else, but I still have to work. They also don’t understand I have to be out every day. My goal is to get one photo a day, which I figure is a good average. But probably 99.9 percent of my income comes from two to three days. But I never know when things are going to come together perfectly for those days. It’s like working in an office job and your boss tells you he’s going to pay you $10 a day, but for three random days he’s going to pay you your year’s salary. He’s not going to tell you which three days it will be and they might be on a weekend. I don’t think most people would go for that.

MBE: How does the business of ski photography work?
GG: I’m still figuring that out. Everything I do all winter long, the trips I go on, I pay out of my own pocket. I don’t get paid until the photo is published, hopefully the following winter but sometimes it’s two years out. You’ve got to be willing to finance the entire year, which is scary.

MBE: Have you ever tried filming?
GG: When I first began, I started a production company named Theory 3 Media with a couple of buddies. I sold my share for a case of beer to my buddy Jeff so I could concentrate on photography. I’d rather be 100 percent at something than do two things half-assed. Jeff did a couple of other productions and eventually moved on to Salomon. Every time he’s gone somewhere, he’s brought me along with him. That case of beer was the best investment I’ve ever made.

With film, it’s all about the flow. If a skier makes a small mistake, probably no one other than the skier will notice it. With stills, it’s about that one-thousandth of a second peak action. It’s got to be spot-on. I’ll go out and shoot all day long; on the average day I’ll shoot 600 to 700 photos. My goal is to get one shot that’s guaranteed to get in a magazine. Every day.

MBE: How much time is spent taking photos versus back in the studio?
GG: I’d estimate that for every hour shooting I spend eight hours on the computer. That’s not the fun part. I’m pretty much doing that 24/7 all summer long.

MBE: How do you improve?
GG: I’m probably my own worst critic. No matter how much someone likes a photo, I can see something wrong with it that I can improve. I think what helps me most is that I always want to do something new, something that I haven’t seen in ski photography. I’m pretty driven.

MBE: Have you taken the perfect shot yet?
GG: I wish. I’ve taken a couple that have come pretty damn close but they’re not perfect. There’s a project I’ve wanted to do for a while, it’s something that no one has ever done before. I know it’s possible, but I’ve been waiting four years for the right combination of weather, snowfall, location, athletes and camera equipment to all work properly.

MBE: Want to tell us what it is?
GG: I’ll let you know when I get it.

MBE: How many photographers like you are out there?
GG: There’s a ton of people taking shots but as far as guys who are consistently getting published worldwide, there’s probably 10 or so of us who are really competitive. Every year there’s a get-together at Red Mountain in B.C., called The Gathering. I got invited there last year for the first time. It includes everyone from the guys who first started photographing skiers as well as everyone else in the industry. It’s not about shooting photos, it’s about hanging around with guys you wouldn’t ordinarily see because everyone is working. It’s pretty cool.

MBE: Any ski photographers you look up to?
GG: For me, it’s the old-timers who got the whole thing started back in the day. There’s a guy in Europe named Mark Shapiro who got it started in the 60s and 70s and two guys in Utah named Leo Cohen and Scott Markewitz. It’s kind of cool to follow in their footsteps.

MBE: The big question is, “Why do you do it?” There are easier ways to make money.
GG: I’m sure there is no other surefire way to make less money than in ski photography. I feel I’ve struck the lottery because I’ve been somewhat successful at it. It’s extremely difficult. For me, it’s never been about making money, it’s about my passion for the sport. If I can get someone stoked to go skiing or to get out and try the sport – if I can do that then I’ve been successful with the shot, and I will be successful in my career.

MBE: How long will you do this for?
GG: Until the day I die. A friend of mine asked me the other day when was I going to give it up and retire. Man, I’m already retired. I absolutely love doing what I do. X