Alta Magic: An Interview With Lee Cohen, Legendary Ski Photographer
I grew up within the tight-knit community of Alta, Utah, and the walls of my bedroom and most of my surroundings were covered with photographs taken by Lee Cohen—everything from the iconic white-room powder turn somewhere in the Cottonwood Canyons to a triple-rigged raft engulfed in the powerful rapids of the Cataract Canyon River. If you’ve ever taken a moment to look through an outdoor magazine, or a Patagonia or Columbia clothing catalog, chances are you’ve seen one of Lee’s photographic visions.
Name: Lee Cohen
Nickname: Roy, Leeroy
Location: Sandy, Utah
Profession: Photographer / Writer
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New York. I skied a bunch as a kid, not as much as families that had ski houses. My dad had skied during the ’40s, so he took me to the old school places—this little place Silvermine that doesn’t exist any more, Bromley, Mt. Snow. I had some friends who had ski houses near Hunter and Stratton. I got to go with them sometimes.
How did you get your start in photography? Were there any specific motivations or influences?
I liked shooting pictures, so I started shooting my friends skiing. There wasn’t really anybody around Alta doing that, and ski photography was in a considerably earlier stage. There were a few ski photographers then, but it wasn’t as big of a deal as it is now. There wasn’t any kind of scene like there is now, and there wasn’t even such a thing as a pro skier in the sense that there is now.
Dave McReynolds demonstrating why so many pics of him skiing pow show up in mags. Location: Alta.
Where do you currently reside?
I live in Sandy, near the bottom of Little Cottonwood Canyon.
I understand you’ve been floating around this area for some time now. What keeps you around?
It’s still Little Cottonwood; it gets so much snow. My favorite way to put it is that in a business with no guarantees, Alta is the closest thing. Snowbird is right there, too. They’re kinda hand in hand.
What brought you to Salt Lake City? How long have you been here?
The skiing is what brought me. I took a year off of college after two years and spent it in Colorado at Arapahoe Basin. My buddy and I did some traveling around during that winter checking out other ski areas. Utah was on the list, in particular Alta and Snowbird. I came here and got a taste. After the winter I ended up going back to school in N.Y. The day I got done with college, I graduated, got in my car, and drove to Salt Lake. Pretty much been here ever since.
Who were some of the athletes you first had success with?
At first I just started shooting my buddies. As I said, pro freeskiers didn’t really exist. Gordy Peifer comes to mind for me as the first real pro skier I had success with. The first time I shot him was 1991 or 1992. It was hard—Gordo was struggling trying to make it as a pro skier, and he was incredibly good. Companies weren’t as responsive to athletes as they are now, even though he did get some support.
Gordy Peifer was sending it bigger than anyone in LCC in the early ’90s.
Gordy Peifer styling into High Greeley at Alta.
With so many years spent taking ski photos, you have to have seen your fair share of deep days. I know this is a hard question to answer, but can you recall the deepest conditions you’ve ever seen? Where were you? When was it? Who were you with?
No, there have been so many really deep days. It’s easier to recall the ones early on when they stood out more, when they were more unusual and extraordinary. After a while they all kind of roll into one. There have been a ton of them! I remember one super deep day, with your dad, as a matter of fact. This was probably the winter of ‘84/’85. The [Alta] backside was open, and it started snowing super hard. They never closed it, and it snowed about 20 inches in several hours. It was practically eyeball deep, blower, ya know, two- or three-percent snow, the lightest stuff on earth. Alta is known for having great quantities of light powder, but its more great quantities of good snow. It’ll start a little bit damp and then it just gets lighter and lighter as the storm gets heavier and heavier until finally it’s just dust on top. Snow that falls right-side-up is the key to great powder skiing.
Any new young athletes you’re excited to work with? Do you notice a stronger drive in the next generation of athletes?
There’s a ton of them out there. The young guys and girls are pushing the bar so hard compared to previous generations that they just keep moving beyond what the people did before them. I suppose you could say I specialize in pow shots; it’s what I’m enamored with. I need to reach out and work with more modern skiers. I know some of them, but I don’t shoot with them as often as I would like. One of my goals this year is to get with some new blood.
You’re widely known as having some of the best powder shots in the industry (and I couldn’t agree more). However there are only a few months in the year when you can make shots like that happen. What keeps you busy in the off season when you’re not snapping ski shots?
Photography is a full time job. Outdoor sports photography is a genre of photography that I’ve kind of become associated with. So, in the off season I’ll be shooting anything from hiking, backpacking, running, rafting, fishing, a little bit of climbing. Just outdoor stuff in general.
Paul Huber on the oar of a triple rig, at the top of one of the Big Drops, Cataract Canyon, Colorado River. The heavenly white light downriver says it all.
Have you ever had a hard time capturing the image you saw in your mind? What were some of the steps you had to take to get what you wanted out of a photograph? Do you face this problem often?
If you have the shot in your mind, it gives you a goal to work toward, and that’s often when you get your best shots. Sometimes you’ll work toward a shot, and if you keep working at it, the idea perfects itself as you go and then finally presents itself on the best take you’ve had yet. Other times you only have one chance to get it, and you either get it or you don’t.
Craig DiPietro at Alta. We have come to call this shot “The Plume.”
Hauling your camera gear through the backcountry can be a bit of a hassle. Are there any equipment changes that you make for this effort?
As I’ve gotten older I definitely carry lighter gear. I won’t haul big lenses as often as I used to. I try to make sure that I can move a little quicker, since I’m moving slower in general. That’s basically the biggest adaptation I have made over the years.
Does this factor into your ski set up as well?
Absolutely! I’ve been exclusively skiing AT gear for a long time, in bounds and out of bounds.
Lee Cohen shooting at Alta. Photo Credit: Andrew Marshall.
Is there a specific style of pack you prefer to use over another?
I have a bunch of camera packs. My favorite is a Wave Products pack that is made right here in Salt Lake City.
Did you take any trips this summer?
I had a few trips. The biggest trip I took was one up to Alberta. A job for 10 days. It was awesome. We did some mountain biking. I don’t mountain bike that much any more, but we had a few days of it, a little bit of river running, and a hike to a backcountry hut with a couple nights there. It was awesome, I hadn’t been to the Canadian Rockies before.
Any new inspirations in the outdoor world? New subjects, locations, photography styles?
You have to keep reinventing yourself. There are always new subjects as far as living subjects. Especially in skiing, because people just keep moving through. Locations, there’s always new places to go to. Photographic styles evolve—even if my style is a little bit fixed I’m still always looking for new ways to shoot a picture.
Out of all the images you’ve taken, out of all the shoots you’ve been on, can you recall any one particular image that really moved you? What about the photo did you like?
Well, maybe the ones that stand out the most are the ones you mess up or the one you didn’t take at all. Maybe you didn’t even have your camera with you and something really cool passed you by. When it comes to an image that I have taken? Real tough, but one that comes to mind is when I was at Wiamea in 2004, I just went down to shoot Pipeline. I had always wanted to shoot it—I’m not a surf photographer. My buddy Richard was living on the North Shore and I had a great opportunity to visit so I just went down and shot Pipe. I got an incredible shot of Waimea breaking in the bay with no athletes. I got another shot of four locals on Waimea the day of The Eddie at sunrise before the pros took the field. Since it’s something I don’t usually shoot, it really stands out for me.
Locals hit Waimea at sunrise on the morning of The Eddie, December 15, 2004.
I understand you just recently wrote a book. Could you tell us a little about that?
Alta Magic is a collection of essays by Alta locals and myself, along with photos I’ve shot over the last 30 years. It’s an attempt to document the magic of Alta and portray it the best we can by combining the thoughts, experiences, and feelings of a bunch of people. The idea was that the sum would be greater than the parts.
Sam Cohen getting into some Alta Magic.
Where can someone pick up a copy?
Right here at backcountry.com, www.leecohen.com and a few shops up at Alta.
Looking for more photog-friendly content? Check out these tips on choosing a winter camera bag.
Want to up your ski or snowboard photography game? Check out Scott Markewitz’s workshop at Snowbird, Michael DeYoung’s workshop in Taos, Raynor Czerwinkski’s workshop at Crested Butte, or Andy Wright’s workshop at Mt. Hood.