Archive for March, 1999

Eric Berger

March 22, 1999

Last spring, on a crisp sunny day in Alaska’s Chugach mountains, five Gore-Tex-clad snowboarders and their guide stood atop an Alaskan peak outside Valdez and gazed at the landscape below. As the thwapping blades of their A-Star chopper retreated skyward, the crew, on a photo shoot for the world’s preeminent snowboarding publication, began to scurry about. The guide dug a pit to check the snow’s consistency for avalanche danger-high. Three professional riders fastened goggles, zippers, and hats. Eric Berger, the photographer on the scene, readied his arsenal of bodies and lenses.

Berger and the writer on assignment negotiated a ridge from which to shoot. The snowboarders and guide began by making a ski cut across a 2000 vertical foot-chute – backcountry speaking for creating a ‘safety’ avalanche. The slide settled as planned and the first two snowboarders floated flawless S-turns from top to bottom. Snapping a few frames on his Nikon F-5, Berger was in his high-alpine element. The guide, a veteran alpinist named Ed Jaramillo, was less fortunate. Unexpectedly, the remainder of the volatile mountain – a 20 by 40 foot snow slab – broke loose, snowballed to proverbial effect, and swallowed him up like a cement mixer. “We lost sight of Ed for an instant,” recalls Berger. “By the time the slide stopped, the debris was easily the size of five football fields. He had totally disappeared.”

Camera gear were quickly jettisoned and, with avalanche transceivers switched to ‘receive’ mode, a series of grid-search patterns was quickly executed. For the first two minutes, there was no trace. Berger radioed the chopper for help. Then, to everyone’s surprise, came a faint peep from one of the hand-held beacons. Berger and his writer partner homed in, narrowing their search. Then, discovering a boot near the snow’s surface, they did what any alpinist would do – they started digging furiously.

Make no mistake: Swashbuckling drama is inevitable in the burgeoning world of back-country snowboarding and skiing. Fortunately for Eric Berger, arguably these sports’ most celebrated photographer for nearly a decade, such intense moments aren’t too common. But, if they were, he wouldn’t despair. “I’ve managed to make a living out of doing the two things I really love – snowboarding and photography,” explains the 35-year-old. “And I’m confident enough with my skills in both to know how to analyze a situation and deal with it.”

Proof of Berger’s expertise with camera and terrain is a 60-plus international client list that includes virtually every snow sport publication in the world: TransWorld Snowboarding, Snowboarder, Couloir, Snowboard Canada, Snow Country Rider, Snowboarder Italy, et al. His work has graced most of their covers. And his brag sheet of manufacturer/catalog clients, including K2, Vaurnet Optical, Rossignol and Marmot Mountain Ltd., outnumbers that of his magazine credentials.

It is an enviable resume that has sent him shooting and snowboarding throughout the globe’s most exotic mountain ranges: The Dolomites, the French Alps, the Andes, the Sierra, the Rockies – even Iran’s Elbrus range. And the photo editors and marketing directors who readily finance his adventures are getting what they pay for. Berger’s portfolio speaks loudly for the stamps on his passport.

While most snowboard photographers satisfy their Ramen and beer quotas by capturing surly grommets in mid-flight, Berger’s approach is mature. He photographs jaw-dropping terrain, and puts it into context – that is, he conveys its magnitude and respectability by subtly placing a snowboarder in the scene. Hence, with a 300-millimeter lens on his F-5, he’ll shoot a rider from a vantage point some two-plus miles and 100 vertical feet away. The apparent effect is to make the subject look minute against a larger-than-life backdrop. “My goal as an alpine photographer isn’t just to capture riders in action,” he explains in the friendly inflection of his native Quebec. “I want all my viewers to look at an image and say one of two things: “Wow that’s beautiful, I wish I could be on that mountain.” Or, more simply, “Wow.” Berger considers his work successful if you are in utter disbelief.

But by contrasting the smallness of his athletes to the massive scale of the mountain terrain, Berger also makes giants of those objects. His work illustrates that good sports photography doesn’t require Jordanesque athletes bee-lining toward a wide angle lens. Instead, the bold excursions into nature’s full-bleed landscapes are, in their own right, a testament to an athletes’ ability. Flip through his book a high-ticket snowboarder like Victoria Jealouse is a mere blip beneath an ice and granite escarpment. But a second look reveals the skill it takes to ride such terrain and the fitness level required to slog through snow at 11,000 feet. “Shooting close up doesn’t give justice to what the athletes are doing,” he explains. “If I back off and show more of the environment that they are in, I’m more likely to awe the viewer.”

Indeed, most of Berger’s work reflects that seldom seen combination of big, snowy mountains and audacious little people. Without his trademark fly-in-the-buttermilk, however, the alpine images would still be worthy of display. As a lifelong outdoorsman, he’s logged countless hours in the backcountry, gaining an extensive knowledge of the relationship between the earth and the sun, which means he has a keen eye for light and composition. “Eric is recognized for his great work with light, regardless of what he’s shooting,” says Jon Foster, director of photography at TransWorld Snowboarding magazine, where Berger is a senior photographer. “He puts effort, patience, and sometimes great risk into shooting beautiful scenery – not just guys doing tricks. Eric delivers the clean shots that I like.” To wit: While so many trick of the week snowboard photographs are riddled with stray people, other photographers and equipment in the background, Berger’s images are tight and free of clutter.

None of Berger’s photographs are taken with the aid of filters or manipulation in the darkroom to enhance contrast or color. For example, to define the contrast between sky and snow, Berger might shoot when the sun is high. This emphasizes the bone whiteness of the snow, freshly tracked by a snowboarder. Overhead, he captures an uncommonly deep blue. To get a softer image, he might frame a cragless, snowy field just after sunset and catch its purple hue created by the earth’s own shadow on the atmosphere. With or without action, he shows us landscapes doused in inconceivable colors.

But clean alpine photography doesn’t come easily. It’s heavily reliant on preparation and patience. First, there is a cost-benefit issue of transportation: snowmobile, plane drop, snowshoes and a helicopter (up to $1500 per air hour.) Even when using the latter, Berger will often trudge for two hours across a glacial ridge or cirque to set up shop, tiptoeing the likes of avalanche and crevasse along the way. A typical shot might take three hours in the making, waiting for the right light before giving his riders the long-awaited go ahead via walkie-talkie. Logistics wise, he is the Cecil B. DeMille of alpine photography.Then, of course, there’s the menacing matter of equipment, a touchy subject when you are humping over mountain passes at timberline. In Berger’s custom-made internal frame backpack is a mobile Nikon showroom. There’s his trusty F-5, F-4 for backup and occasionally an FM-2, should he choose to revert to manual. “All my bodies and lenses are from Nikon,” he says, as if another brand even existed. “The F-5’s autofocus is super reliable, the motor’s fast, and the light meter is incredibly accurate. Plus, I can really customize that body to get the shots I need.” He also praises the fully electronic F-5’s and F-4’s penchants for operating at freezing temperatures, despite the fact he has shoved his own cryogenized, numb fingers through at least one rear curtain.
Berger’s remaining repertory consists of four Nikon lenses (16mm, 28-70mm, 80-200mm, 300mm), a Nikon SB-25 flash, a Minolta IV F light meter, extra batteries, and heaps of Fuji Provia 100 ASA. “The best slide film I’ve come across, especially for shooting at high shutter speeds,” he says. Add to that crampons, ice ax, snowshoes, snowboard, avalanche probe, collapsible trekking poles, climbing harness (“…in case I fall into a crevasse
and a guide needs to throw me a rope.”), avalanche transceiver, shovel, walkie- talkies, food, and water. It’s a monstrous load of about 30 pounds, but a fair enough price to pay for a job that most people only dream of.

Even for Berger, realizing that dream took time. Late in his teenage years, seeking an escape from a more mundane future in science or technology, he enrolled in a beginning photography course. A high school counselor had suggested it in passing, and in no time he was snapping roles of Tri-X and learning the rules of the darkroom. College season arrived, and while most of his friends prepared for desk jobs, Berger opted for CEGEP du Vieux Montreal’s photography program. The curriculum, which included portrait, industrial and architectural workshops, formed the basis for a yet-to-be-defined career. The industrial and architectural classes, he says, helped to train his eye for composition.

“Shooting architecture means you have to work with what’s there,” he continues, comparing buildings to natural formations. “And my early schooling helped me develop an eye for composition that makes those (preexisting) objects look good. At the time I knew that stuff would help with what I did in the future,” he recalls. “But I was confused and didn’t yet know what I wanted.”

Summers off were another story. Clinging to his upbringing as a skier and mountain-jock, Berger became enchanted with white water rafting and took a job as a guide. Using rafting trips as an entry into action shooting, he concocted slide shows and entertained friends at post-paddling soirees. He did the same in winter, toting his FM-2 to ski resorts, shooting friends and family, and recounting each day on a slide projector while kicking back by the fire. However, despite the fun involved, his future was far from certain. “People who did those sports gave me positive feedback,” he says. “But students and teachers at photography school weren’t quite impressed; I guess that wasn’t their thing.”

Likewise, a post-photo school career in commercial photography wasn’t his thing. Two years of formal training had landed him a gig as a photographer’s assistant at a Quebec studio. After about 18 months of rigging lights and loading film, he was given his big break-a modeling shoot for a Canadian catalog company. Instead, the then 21-year-old floundered helplessly in what he refers to as “…the worst professional experience of my life,” and vowed never to shoot studio models again. “I was nervous about everything-light, exposure, framing and how I was conducting myself,” he remembers. “I was no help to the models either, and I knew that type of work was not for me. I hated it.” He was drawn to outdoor action photographers and filmmakers like Scott Markewitz and Warren Miller, whose work was more in sync with his lifestyle. And it was only a matter of time until a revelatory lunch break set his mind straight. On a bright spring afternoon, recalls Berger, “I stopped, looked around, and asked myself, ‘What the hell am I doing? I’m becoming a vampire in that studio and I’m not happy about it.'” A year later, he was all but fully settled in Whistler, British Columbia, where he still lives today.Snowboarding truly came of age in the mid-to-late 1980’s, when Berger was staying afloat as a ski resort shutterbug at BC’s Whistler/Blackcomb. Embracing the new sport only in his spare time, his workdays were spent on skis, making custom videos of tourists on the slopes for Whistler Mountain. Based on their ability, he made virtually every skier “look like God” by using his knowledge of terrain to choose the best run. (Now, he admits, his great athletes and landscapes help make him look good.)
Berger supplemented his wages by shooting souvenir ski photos as well, bringing his own evolving style of scenic action photography to the table. But he lacked the confidence needed to submit his work for publication. “It seemed totally unattainable to me,” he says of his earlier days. Still, at his friends’ and employers’ behest, he simultaneously submitted to two young magazines: TransWorld Snowboarding and Snowboarder. “It was the greatest feeling,” says Berger of the phone calls he received from both magazines’ photo editors. “They told me to keep doing what I was doing, not to change a thing, and to keep submitting.” His earlier lunch break epiphany had proven fruitful and his career as an alpine photographer had officially begun. That was in 1988. Since then, Berger has pawned his skis, became an adept, if not expert, snowboarder and developed a photography style that is none but his own. By 1992, TransWorld Snowboarding made the wise decision to put him on retainer as a senior photographer. Says Jon Foster, “We really wanted to have first dibs on his shots.”
Berger visits Alaska, usually the Chugach range near Valdez, annually. And at least once a year, TWS sends him on what he gratefully calls “…some wild, exotic trip that most people will never get to do.” But those trips often involve more than just snowboarding. In fact, they range from idyllic to surreal to downright scary. Take for example a 1995 jaunt to the highest snow fields in Bolivia, which entailed a bizarre cab ride to the inconceivable elevation of 17,000 feet, another 1,000 vertical feet of hiking, and a friend’s subsequent case of pulmonary edema. While his cohort convalesced, Berger was able to photograph the people and markets of La Paz-those non-action, cultural shots are among his personal favorites. In 1996, as one of the few sports photographers allowed in post-Ayatollah Iran, he was shaken down by MPs for pointing his camera at a Teheran government complex. Last year in northeastern China, he watched zealous, would-be Western adolescents shovel snow from woods onto makeshift ski and snowboard slopes. He’s ridden his snowboard to safety in an avalanche, nearly fallen into a crevasse, and saved a friend who did.
As one might expect, Berger is also known for his uncanny knack to jibe with the people he works with. His easygoing personality makes him a shoe-in for difficult assignments. Usually that means delegating to a small army of hyperactive, unconventional, twenty-somethings – pro snowboarding’s majority. But Berger knows what it means to do your own thing, so fitting with his riders is rarely a problem. Foster calls it ‘his ability to hang worth snowboarders.’ “It’s not easy to get a 24-year-old kid to wait two hours for the right light, especially when that kid wants to jump off a cliff,” he says. But Berger handpicks his athletes and keeps his crew out of harm’s way, even when things run seemingly amok, as they did in Alaska last spring.Had the A-Star responded any sooner to the mayday cry of Berger’s crew, their Alaska guide would likely have perished. The mechanical bluster of the chopper blades could have drowned out the initial peep of the beacons, or further buried the victim’s boot. With their plastic shovels, Berger and crew frantically uncovered the guide, who was buried upside down beneath seven feet of snow. All told, less than ten minutes had lapsed from the avalanche time to the rescue flight back to Valdez. After a precedent-setting brush with death, Ed Jaramillo walked out of the hospital that night, owing his life, at least in part, to friend and photographer Eric Berger.
“That was by far the worst disaster I have ever seen,” says Berger. But harrowing incidents won’t scare him into shooting honeymooners on the beach. Berger uses his photographic experience-both thrilling and easy- to make the next one better. And with the exception of dabbling in mountain bike photography, he’ll continue to spend his working hours in the snow. “Right now I am in good shape and I have the survival skills and creativity to keep this up for a while,” he insists. “Shooting couples on the beach-I can do that when I’m older, or when I’m less fit.” From the looks of it, that won’t be happening anytime soon.