A photograph is the result of a mechanical process. Well, to be pedantic, a photograph is technically only a photograph in printed form. Check out Stephen Shore’s ?The Nature of Photography? for the full spiel if, like me, you?re into all that arty sh*t.
Anyway? Photography allows us to freeze moments in time and inspect them in greater depth and detail. In a modern context, photography is how we communicate. It’s a universal language. It’s how we see and understand the world. It’s how we sell. It’s why we buy. But what sets a great photograph aside from the mire that floods the internet every second of every day?
The power of an image is in its construction ? how the mechanical process is initiated at the release of the shutter and with what intention. Making, not just taking. Few people have the ability to make a great image, fewer still sustain a living from doing so.
Pally Learmond is one of those select few, a British professional photographer, who now calls Innsbruck and the surrounding mountains in Austria home. He’s had a strong interest in photography since his teenage years, but it wasn?t until a badly broken leg stopped his rather improbable (by his own admission) attempts to become a professional freeskier, that he decided to finally give up that dream and study photography properly.
Returning to the mountains and living in an old Land Rover military ambulance, he began shooting with friends who had since picked up sponsors. The rest, as they say, is history, and he’s been shooting professionally since 2006.
These days he almost exclusively concentrates on shooting freeski action, the surrounding lifestyle and environment. This keeps him on the road for at least six months of the year, working with the biggest brands, athletes and film production companies in the sport. Even after 10 years, the prospect of new locations and the ever-evolving nature of the sport still keeps it fresh and exciting for him.
Your journey ? how did your relationship with the camera begin?
I suppose it really began when I left school at 18. I went off to Central and South America for 10 months and wanted to document all the amazing places and things that I saw and did. I remember taking a ridiculous amount of film with me (we are talking about a time very much before digital cameras here) and every couple of months I would send the used film back to the UK in the mail or with friends.
I never really had aspirations to do it as a job at that stage and went on to study some useless degree at university. It wasn?t until snapping my leg in a ski accident that I found the time to actually study photography in detail and that got me hooked. I was damaged goods in terms of skiing, but photography was how I could maybe justify still living in the mountains.
What was your first published shot and how did it make you feel?
The first photo I actually got paid for was in 2004. It was for a ski clothing catalogue and I got paid the princely sum of £55. I don’t remember being too stoked, or ever seeing the image in all its glory for that matter. I suppose the first Image I had published that really meant anything to me was of Swiss snowboarder Andre Sommer for Nidecker Snowboards. It was for a big poster advert and I still have it framed and hanging on my wall!
Describe your process ? what makes you pick up your camera and make an image? Can you describe the variables and what you look for?
The big deciding factor is if I actually have my camera with me! I?m not one of those photographers who constantly likes to have a camera in front of my face or in someone else’s face for that matter. That’s not to say that there aren?t times when an internal voice is saying ?you idiot ? why didn?t you bring your camera!??. Sometimes though, you’ve just got to enjoy the moment.
When it comes to shooting action and snowsports, I?m definitely not a huge fan of the ?setup? photo. Okay, so sometimes it’s necessary if you want to capture a really nice pow slash, or some particularly inspiring light or landscape, and if the rider is stoked on the idea too then we’ll go for it.
But the more natural approach is why I really like to work a lot with film production companies ? because 90 percent of what you?re shooting is real action. The athlete is riding the line or hitting the jump because they really want to and, in this situation, they?re doing their own thing and I?m doing mine.
It can be high pressure, because often you only get one shot at something per day, and you don?t want to screw up capturing someone’s moment of glory. But when everything comes together, it’s totally worth it, and one real shot like that is worth a hundred mediocre powder turns.
Aside from snowsports, down what other avenues does your work take you?
Actually, 99.9 percent of what I do and shoot professionally revolves around the snowsports industry in some shape or form. The fun thing is that, even within a pretty niche industry, you get to shoot a lot of different stuff other than action. You’ve got the lifestyle, the landscapes, and then all the different non-snowsports brands like car companies, who are supporting projects and athletes, that require a whole different range and style of images.
In a busy year you may find yourself shooting back-to-back northern and southern hemisphere winters, so there’s definitely not much time for anything else. But in an ideal year, I’ll be shooting and editing for six months and hopefully earning what I need to go and do totally different stuff for 4-5 months. I still like to be out there doing stuff myself and not just taking photos of other people having all the fun! What’s the saying? Work to live, don?t live to work.
Is there anyone that really inspires you, photographically or otherwise?
Sure, there are photographs that really excite me, and photographers who I admire and respect. I know what I like when I see it, but I don?t really have a fixation on anyone in particular. In the snowsports genre, however, I have a healthy admiration for Christian Pondella. His combination of skills as a ski mountaineer and photographer enables him to capture some pretty unique and sometimes scary situations!
What are your plans for the season?
Good question! The season has started late this year in Europe and I just got back from a climbing trip in the Arabian Peninsula so am only just getting back into full winter mode? even though it really started for me over two months ago as staff photographer at the Prime Park Sessions in Stubai.
Apart from some product shooting, I hope to join the Legs of Steel crew on some shoots for their new feature production. As usual, they’ve got some pretty special projects lined up for their new movie, and I hope also to get back up to Alaska for the second time in Spring.
Overall, I’ll be keeping it flexible (which is pretty much key when you?re relying on snow conditions) and hopefully maintain good relations with the brands that I’ve been working with!
What’s in your camera bag ? your essential pieces of kit for a day shooting on the hill?
I’ve shot with Nikon cameras pretty much from the start and using them has become second nature. It takes me an age to figure out another brand’s operating functions, so you’ll find a bunch of Nikon stuff in there. I often like to use two cameras to get different angles, so that’s why I carry a tripod and remote trigger setup. If you want a list of the main stuff?
Cameras: Nikon D5 and Nikon D810
Lenses: 70-200mm, 35-70mm, 14-24mm, 300mm, 50mm, 1.4x teleconverter
Accessories: Tripod, remote trigger setup, dust blower
Safety: Shovel, Beacon, Probe
Then you’ve got hot tea and scroggin ? basically the Kiwi term for trail mix. Amongst most skiers I know, ski touring has now become termed as ?going for a scrogg?, and ski tourers are affectionately known as ?scrogg munchers?? but yeah, don?t go anywhere without scroggin!
Words by Lewis McLean, Images courtesy of Pally Learmond.