words :: Feet Banks
photography :: Blake Jorgenson
By his own admission, Blake Jorgenson – one of the most prolific and celebrated outdoor photographers in the world – can be a bit of a slug.
“When I’m in loner mode and by myself, I am barely in first gear,” he explains. “And my friends all make fun of me… ”
Like the time he lost a snowmobile off the back of his truck somewhere between Whistler and Bralorne … and didn’t notice until he reached his destination. Or the other time, when his car got stolen and he spent days driving the Whistler subdivisions searching for it … except it was parked at the base of Blackcomb, right where he’d left it.
“It’s definitely a thing,” Blake says, “but as soon as the lightbulb ignites, I instantly jump into fifth gear. Once I have a vision or a concept and can see how to make it happen, then I can’t wait, it’s as if nothing else exists for me. And I’ve been that way since I was young. It’s not only the great idea that powers me up, but also the connection of communication– I can’t wait to show it to someone and see what they think.”
More often than not, it seems that people are impressed. In 2001, Blake, a 25-year-old mountain bike/ski bum, won the Pro Photographer Search at Whistler’s World Ski & Snowboard Festival. That earned him a chance to show his ten-minute, best-photos-of-my-life slideshow at the showdown alongside top industry pros like Mark Gallup, J. Grant Brittain, and Jeff Divine. He won that too. Ten years later, he came back and won it again with all new photos.
These days, with an enviable commercial client list, 300-plus magazine covers, a Powder Magazine “Photo of the Year” award and nearly ever other metric of outdoor photography success, Blake’s impact is immeasurable.
“Few, if any, ski photographers are able to match the work of Blake Jorgenson,” says photography legend Paul Morrison. “His creativity and unique view on the world continues to inspire me without fail. Over the years, Blake has helped, either directly or indirectly, all Whistler photographers to learn more, push their limits and be better at our craft.”
After a decade-plus on top of the game, Blake admits that lately he’s spending a lot more time trying to downshift and relax. Last October, he travelled to Utah (without a mountain bike) and shot his first narrative movie, a hard-riding, gun-slinging Western directed by friend/artist Chili Thom. A week later, he premiered a passion project at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. The Alchemists, a short film, follows Blake on an introspective dirt bike ride into the mountains behind Bralorne, a nearly abandoned mining town where time itself even seems to slow down and take an extra minute to enjoy the scenery.
“I’m trying to slow down and learn to say ‘no,’” Blake says. “For so long it felt like everything could all fall apart any second, so I have always said ‘yes.’ My programming is to always be working, creating and learning. For sure, I’ll forget to shut the door to the house sometimes, but I am OCD once I get cooking on a new idea. In that state of mind, I will stay up all night chasing that creative energy. It’s like 50 cups of coffee… Ride it like it’s stolen.”
Feet Banks: It all started with a girl, didn’t it?
Blake Jorgenson: I was in high school, going to art class, and there was a girl I was madly in love with. I was pretty introverted as a kid and didn’t like to talk, but this girl was super artsy and edgy, so I knew I needed to create some kick-ass art to get her to like me. I bet that if she was in my math class I’d be a mathematician right now, but she was into art and it worked. I got creative, got her attention and that was my first lesson, that art is a great gateway for communicating with people and reaching people.
Feet: What was her name?
Blake: I’m not going to say, but that empowered me for the rest of high school to create art and reach out to people and see what they thought. I spent a lot of time drawing or painting in my room, I was going to be a painter. In those days, there was an advertising trend of painting giant murals on the sides of buildings. Now they just print them digitally, but back then someone actually hung from the building and painted them by hand, then six months later a new ad would be painted over it. The combo of hanging off the side of a building and creating a painting appealed to me. It was that mix of excitement and art I was looking for, that I ultimately found in Whistler.
Feet: How did you end up here, when did you get into photography?
Blake: I came to Whistler on a ski trip with my mom at age 16 and I was instantly connected. I was back living here within 16 months — I think my first winter was 1993/94. I’d used a camera before to help me with my paintings, but as soon as I moved here I stopped painting and switched to photography. It allowed me to be creative outside, not trapped indoors all day.
Feet: Talk about those early years in Whistler. The late 90s was a wild time here: snowboarding was blowing up and freeskiing was just creeping in. It was a bit of a golden era.
Blake: It felt like a kid from Kansas going to Hollywood or something. I’ve always believed that everyone who ends up here is either running from something or searching to find something. And I could instantly feel a connection with all the people who’d made that pilgrimage. There was this strong vibe of community, and helping each other, and especially a feeling of freedom. After being pretty introverted most of my life, living with a bunch of roommates and the heavy social scene was really good for me. I remember working in a ski shop, skiing every day and then I’d get a paycheque for $800 and be stoked: “What am I gonna do with all this money?!”
Feet: Buy camera gear! How did you go about breaking into things as a photographer?
Blake: When I started, there wasn’t much of an industry and getting a photo published was huge. This was pre-digital and pre-Internet. I would sit with my buddies and we’d look at slides from two weeks ago, that was the only way skiers could see what they had done. Then I’d label it and FedEx the original slide to a magazine, never knowing if it would ever even come back. I remember living in an A-frame and one of my many roommates was a cab driver. He came home from 7-Eleven with a Bike Magazine Photo Annual that contained photos of every person living in our house. Those were the days when I photographed my friends for no reason other than to celebrate our time together. Seeing your photo in print was very powerful. That particular morning kicked off a real party, it was like we had won the lottery.
Feet: Obviously, there’s no such thing as overnight success in any art form, but in 2001 you came from relative obscurity and won the Pro Photographer Search and the Showdown. The photography was incredible, but I’ve always felt that how you matched the images to the music to create something bigger was a real game changer.
Blake: That was back when we still had to show slides on a carousel, so I had to manually advance the slides and the show had to be memorized to the music. It took a lot of practice, but I was really interested in matching and transmitting the emotion of the photos and the music together.
Feet: That’s how everyone does it now – timed to the beat, sound effects dropped in — it feels like elements of editing and narrative filmmaking are almost as important as the photography.
Blake: Sometimes it comes across almost like a music video rather than a slideshow. But video is about telling a linear story–it has these A to B elements. Photography is about including all the elements into one image. And the better you can do that, the more powerfully the image affects the viewer.
Feet: How do you do it? How do you make a good photo?
Blake: The most important is pre-visualizing things and inspiring yourself to come up with new ways of looking at the world. That is what other people will find interest in. I am constantly trying to re-invent the wheel and sometimes when it doesn’t happen, you gotta take a step back and figure it out rather than copy or regurgitate. Finding a new perspective on things has been successful for me creatively and commercially, but it has also killed me.
Feet: How so?
Blake: Art is a rollercoaster with huge peaks and valleys, you reach a place of creativity and you ride that wave feeling confident and then you start to exhaust those ideas and hit a downslope. Then you get to a point where you feel washed-out and useless. But then, somehow an upslope comes again and you get back up on a new wave. That has happened to me over and over, about once a year, for the past 20 years. I go through times of reinvention and then back into the same funk of self-doubt where I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. Something else always comes, a creative spark that sends me on a new journey. It doesn’t always work, but it’s something new.
Feet: One of your newest journeys is filmmaking. What is the story behind your movie The Alchemists?
Blake: It might be the first, purely personal project I have ever done. The past few years, every time I’ve taken a photo, it’s been on a job or for someone else. This came from me wanting to create something with no commercial value or purpose. Something that was just for the hell of it, a piece of art. And for some reason I decided to do a video.
Feet: How does making a video compare to a photo project?
Blake: The cool thing about video is that you can create a concept, build it, and display it to the world. It’s really easy to show people the full scope of your idea and what you’ve made. At the same time, I think it’s also really easy to get lost. Digital allows you to try so many things without thinking – both with shooting and editing – that if you don’t have a strong vision and ground yourself, you can fall into a big ocean of “what do I do?” For video or photos, I think the key is to train your brain. Your brain is the most important piece of gear.
Feet: In The Alchemists you explain that Bralorne is somewhere you can go to decompress, a sanctuary. Some of the photos we’re printing in this issue are from a trip you did to the Tantalus Range last winter. Is that another one of those special zones for you?
Blake: It’s incredible that we can have a place like that, literally something you drive by each day. To be up on that ridge, you can see the lights of Whistler, Squamish, Horseshoe Bay, the lights on Cypress [Mountain], the Sunshine Coast… it’s mind blowing.
This trip was a return – I had gone in there with Kye [Petersen] and Matty [Richard] almost ten years ago, when those guys were super young. We did a stealth shoot in there, I think the Jim Haberl Hut was really new and we were the only entry in the logbook for the whole winter. Nowadays, well that book shows how things have changed.
Feet: A lot has changed in action sport photography, too. How does it feel to be one of the veterans now?
Blake: I’m almost on my third generation of pro athletes. The guys I started with have all retired and the young kids on the scene back then are getting ready to retire now. I think us older guys that spent a lot of time shooting film still visualize and process our stuff as if it is film, the look of actual chemical developing is still in our brain. But if you started off digitally, there really are no rules for what is good or bad or real or fake. It’s up to the viewer and the integrity of the photographer.
One ethic I have always believed in is that the power of a photo is that you are documenting something real, something that happened – a defining moment in time. And the viewer shares that moment. If you cross that line, it becomes more of a digital painting than a photograph.
The good news is that everyone has access to technology and that’s breaking down all of the barriers to creating and sharing images. The general public is more interested and educated in photography and the bullshit meter is honed. I think connection and communication are the most important parts of the modern equation, the empowerment of people to self-publish their own images and voice. It gets the whole world into photography.
Feet: But we will always need magazines, right? For those kids living in an A-frame somewhere getting their first shots printed? They need something they can run into the house with and wave around to get everyone stoked.
Blake: There is an old school feel and appeal to having something physical you can hold in your hand or put on your coffee table. There’s something romantic about the way people connect to a magazine, it’s so glossy and your name is down in the corner. There are certain human elements even the best technology can’t wash out.
This interview was published in Mountain Life Magazine in February 2017. Be sure to check out Blake’s website for more photos, displayed better. His favourite pie is, “pussy, but pumpkin is a distant second.” Hahaha. Someone had to say it.