PATIENCE AND POWDER DAYS: AN INTERVIEW WITH SNOWBOARD PHOTOGRAPHER ANDREW MILLER
There’s something almost otherworldly about snow sports photography: The minimal palette of snow and granite and evergreen, the dance of light and shadow, the mindbending scale of an airborne rider against a colossal backdrop, and the seeming impossibility of the maneuver. But behind the sublime moment captured by the photographer lie hours of preparation and exhausting labor. To get a better understanding of the elements that go into a beautiful image, we talked to Andrew Miller about how he made his way into the world of photography and the challenges that it holds.
How did you get into photography and snowboard photography specifically?
I grew up in Southern California, 45 minutes from the beach, 45 minutes from the mountains in the Inland Empire, nowhere special. I started surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding at a pretty young age. Snowboarding kind of just resonated a little bit more. My crew of friends would go to Bear Mountain all the time and film each other and as it progressed we started getting better. I moved to Mammoth right after high school and ended up blowing my knee out super bad in the first year. I had a pretty burly knee brace on but still wanted to be on the mountain for the remainder of the season. I did film class in high school and my mom was an art teacher, and I still wanted to be out there with my friends, so I'd take the chairlift out and slowly make my way down the park to a feature. I'd just shoot photos to be on the hill and a part of everything. I got surgery eventually and transitioned back into riding, but I just wasn't feeling right in my knee and it really messed with my head, so I started shooting more. A shop ended up using one of my photos for their catalog and paid me $50 and I was like, "That's really cool, I want to keep doing this." I ended up working for this website around 2007 or 2008 and they paid me to go shoot events and contests, so I really learned my skills by going to the X Games and US Open. I would see these different photographers that I looked up to shooting these events. I'd see where they were shooting from and see their photos later and it was really helpful to learn how to generate a story. Eventually I moved from Mammoth to Salt Lake and moved into powder and away from these contests.
Since you started shooting in the backcountry, how has your style developed?
I can look at a snowboard magazine and nine times out of ten I can tell who shot the image just because I know their style, I know how they shoot. A big thing for me was thinking about how I could develop my style. It was in my head for the longest time. I shoot pretty loose, I try to get a scenic image that would be great even without a rider in the shot. I really enjoy the storytelling aspect too, which is why I gravitate to these adventure stories, working with The North Face, looking for those in-between moments. A lot of people, when they go on heli trips, they just focus on the action. When I go on these trips, at the end of the day, I want to have a story that’s more photojournalism style. So my style is to tell a story with a couple of images.
What is some of the behind the scenes labor that goes into getting the shot?
You’ve got to have patience, that's the biggest thing I've learned. You've got to be ready to wait. Especially in Alaska. You can go up there and wait for days without getting anything, and then on one day you can score multiple magazine covers, whole ad campaigns. But it's very rare that it comes together, so patience is a huge thing. I really love being able to tell the story of that whole process in images.
Is it hard to maintain a unique style in the snowboard world?
In Utah there are a lot of photographers who just go to their same spots and 90% of the images look the same: Your standard pow shot with a blue sky, powder canvas and someone making a turn... It definitely pushes you to get creative. Especially these days with everyone shooting photos and everything online, it's really hard to get a unique photo. Communicating with who you're working with is really important too, having them trust your judgement.
Is that what drives you to keep progressing and exploring new ideas?
It's a topic I've talked about with my friends a lot this year. You've gotta keep fresh. I want to go out and explore new places. Maybe you get skunked and have shitty weather, but you're stoked because you're in a new place and it turns into an adventure that's more than just a snowboard trip. I went to Iceland this spring and had such a fun trip. We went some places that no one had ever been before, riding really fun corn snow. Not the gnarliest lines of our lives, but it was an adventure. I'm always going to remember that trip, stuff like that really excites me. The adventurous spirit is really important. You can tell such a rad story about those kinds of trips. Versus going to Revelstoke and flying in a heli with a bunch of people and staying in a hotel where you go out and snowboard and then everyone goes right back to their room to get on the internet. I hate that shit. My passion is in these adventure trips.