SE3:EP11 - Lee Cohen: Utah's Ski Photographer

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Cohen grew up in the east, hopping around small New York ski hills like Stony Point and Silver Mine. His father took him on trips to Vermont, skiing Stratton, Stowe, Killington, Mt. Snow and more. Mondays were a day off for his father, who owned a bakery, so it wasn’t unusual for young Lee to play hooky and head off to Hunter Mountain or other day destinations.

Along the way, he started thinking about skiing out west. A friend brought back a trail map from Aspen Highlands. Then in eighth grade, he went with a friend’s family to Austria, skiing from village to village in Kitzbühel and experiencing his first powder day at Kaprun. A few years later, it was off to the Rockies, poaching slopeside lodging in tents and snow caves as he and buddies traveled around the west, eventually visiting Utah. He was hooked.

In the early 1980s, Cohen got a camera and just started shooting his buddies. They traveled the west chasing powder. He still recalls vividly the record-setting winter of 1983-84. Photography was different then. There were no iPhones, digital cameras or autofocus lenses. It was all film, so you never really knew what you had until the film was processed. But he worked hard at it, figuring out his formulaic system. Soon, editors soon took notice.

Photography was fun. It was an art form. And he was getting good at it. In December 1985, he made his first commercial sale, an image of a local skier who played hooky from school to ski High Rustler after a 42-inch storm. Soon his images were adorning the covers of SKI, Powder, Freeze and more.

The next decades saw his work burgeon. His 2012 book Alta Magic captures the real spirit of the Wasatch in a magical collection of images and essays. Today, he still enjoys returning to old haunts - both in-bounds and in the backcountry - with willing ski models, including son Sam, and always looking for that new combination of sun, sky and snow to produce exhilarating images.

While both photography and skiing have evolved greatly in his 40 years in the Wasatch, Cohen still has the touch. In the Alta marketing office, he proudly shows off his recent cover of SKI.

Here’s a sampling of our conversation with photographer Lee Cohen’s. Listen in to the full episode of Last Chair, the Ski Utah podcast, to learn more.

As you drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon, what are some of your landmarks?

I enjoy the whole ride. I like seeing the ridge of Monte Cristo and Superior when I first start getting above White Pine. That's unbelievable to me. Then it's Snowbird on the right and then there's Alta. High Rustler is one of the all time runs to be looking at from the bottom of any ski area.

Do you recall your first trip to Utah?

I don't even remember how I first heard about Alta, but I had this whole magical powder thing like it was fully in my head even before I'd seen the place. And then we got to ski here and I was sold by. We were here for about 10 days, and by the time we left, I knew I was coming back for good as soon as I could.

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“I always think I can get a better one, even in a spot that I've gone to before that. I'm always thinking I can get the best one ever today.”

You really mapped out the perfect career for yourself, didn’t you?

I got into ski photography because I loved powder skiing. That was perfect since, here I am, at Alta - the bastion of powder skiing. But at some point along the way, I feel like I get pigeonholed as the deep powder photographer.

How do you make locations look different each time you shoot there?

I find that you can always make a place look different. You shoot it with a different millimeter lens or from a different spot. If you shift your location even just a few feet, you're making it look different. And change lenses - it's way different. Just try to change your approach and make the same old thing look different.

Any simple tips for recreational photographers?

Concentrate on following your subject. Try to set up your shots to make the odds be in your favor and and have the light working in your favor, either being side lit, front lit, backlit. If you're shooting in the storm, go out when there's a lot of snowflakes falling.

“Ski with style - form is everything.”

What are some secrets to great powder shots?

The biggest thing that I would say to my skiers skiing powder is, don't lay it over because you want to. In Utah, it's deep enough. You don't have to fake it. Just try to ski with form and style. Don't bring your hands too high. Don't make your hands too low, no higher than like a little below your shoulders and alternating pole plants in the powder. Ski with style - form is everything.

Nikon or Canon??

I think they're all great. I've been a Nikon person my whole life. I love my Nikon equipment. It's burly. It can take a beating. Like, I'm not like the most careful person, so I'm a little abusive of the equipment and it's done me well.

Do you ever get nostalgic for the old days of film?

Some of the best times of my life as a ski photographer, and for my skiers, were the old days. We would be over the light table at my house, just foaming at the mouth, like we crazed out of our minds. Oh, my God, I knew that one was going to be like that. Yeah, that was a very exciting time in photography for me.

Learn more about Lee Cohen's career as Utah's ski photographer in this episode of Last Chair, the Ski Utah podcast.

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