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Miller captures Atkeson's photos in phrase


The golden years of skiing illustrated in new book

Ski & Snow Country

By Ray Atkeson & Warren Miller

Graphic Arts Centre Publishing

Review by Paul Andrew

To truly understand how far the ski industry has come since the late 1920s, you may have to go back to that time, when men were men because they had climbed four hours to ski five minutes.

Then they would do it again, wracking up two runs a day in a time when powder was all that covered the hills and everyone was an "extreme skier." Moguls were not invented yet, and guys like Warren Miller were staying in garages in Ketchum near Sun Valley, where owners sub-let their floor to skiers for 50 cents a night.

But there were already sports and nature photographers snooping around the hills, following movie stars such as Errol Flynn and Blanche Hauserman on seven foot skis in areas like Mount Hood, Squaw Valley and even Mount Washington.

In the 120-page coffee table book Ski & Snow Country, The Golden Years of Skiing in the West, 1930s-1950s, Miller does an outstanding job as your "guide" though the ski industry’s formative years in North America. And it is the sharp eye of Ray Atkeson that captures images that some of Whistler’s world-class photographers would love to have in their stock.

Although Atkeson started shooting photos of skiers and ski and snow country in the late 1920s, he and Miller did not cross paths until 1949 in Squaw Valley, shortly before Miller finished his first feature film. Atkeson passed away in 1990 at the age of 83 after working for years as a sports and nature photographer and stocking tens of thousands of images, mostly black and white. Miller, who learned to ski in the late 1930s and 40s, could relate to the photos Atkeson took because Miller knew most of the ski hills and who owned them or who operated them – and how long you had to climb to get in a run or two.

Using a Speed Graphic camera that produced a 4 x 5 inch negative that was exposed by a focal plane shutter made of cloth, Atkeson had to focus with a knob attached to a parallax rangefinder. Once the camera was focussed, then you had to divide the flashbulb number by the distance to your subject to get the right F-stop. With all the numerous cumbersome procedures, your subject could be 400 metres down the hill by the time you were ready. Most of Atkeson’s human subjects volunteered to climb at least an hour, sometimes two or three hours, to get the right shot.

It seemed to be worth the trouble. Mixed with Atkeson’s photos of a perfect powder day in the Sugar Bowl on Donner Summit or snowghosts in the pre-dawn light in some un-named eerie powder field in the Snowqualmie Pass, is the history of the ski industry in California and the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Most of these photos were shot long before Whistler Mountain opened in 1966.

Vignettes of information include the fact most skis were at least seven-feet long, for men and women; the creation of Sun Valley in 1936 after a seven thousand acre ranch was purchased for $4 an acre; and the corresponding creation of the first chairlift, built by Sun Valley owner Avril Harriman’s engineers in a railway yard in Nebraska by modifying the same type of overhead machinery used to haul bananas from fields in Central America to the processing plant. Atkeson may not have known how significant his photos would be today, providing ski buffs and historians with a dramatic photographic history of the progress of the young ski industry.

Miller, now 79 and living in the San Juan Islands, is still making films, with this year’s Ride being his 51 st feature. But he continues to ski "100 days a year" as the director of skiing at the new Yellow Stone Club in Montana.

It’s almost uncanny how Miller is able to transcend his talent as narrator of his own films to essayist and author in the pages of Ski & Snow Country. While reading the book and marvelling at the photos I developed a sense of how strong and outgoing one had to be in order to ski just two runs in one day, and then recover to ski another day.

However, it was much harder to imagine Atkeson’s dogged determination to wake way before dawn, hike hours in waist-deep powder, uphill in the dark, with a 25-pound pack on his back strapped together with seven-foot skis and an archaic tripod.

Some 40,000 photos and 40 years of work went into this book and it shows, for the most part. Miller made a few odd choices for the book, because it is the quality, not the content of the photos that draws you in. But rather than this being an opportunity for Miller to gain more fame, it is a humble and sincere story of a photographer who would probably be forgotten if not for this book.

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