Q & A With Lee Cohen

Posted: February 8th, 2013 | Author:

Photographer, Lee Cohen, has had more photographs published than you can shake a stick at. His talent behind the lens has allowed him to shoot all over the world. Yet when it comes down to it, there’s only one place that he preferes to be – Alta. With his much anticipated book, Alta Magic, recently released, we managed to pull Lee from behind the camera and sit him down for a little Q & A. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be one of the best in the biz, read on to find out.

1. For those poor souls out there who don’t know you or your work quite yet, give us the Lee Cohen lowdown.

Lee Cohen, photographer and writer, I guess that’s a photo-journalist, eh? I’ve been shooting photos at Alta since the early ’80’s.

2. You call Salt Lake City, and more specifically Alta, your home. But where did you get your start and what led you to Alta?

I don’t remember how I first heard about Alta, but I do remember the first time I came here. After my second year of college I decided to take a year off—I hitchhiked from North Carolina and got a job in Yellowstone during the summer. In the winter a few of us moved to Denver. My buddy George and I got passes to A-Basin and camped out for a good part of that winter, 1978-79. My first trip to Alta was in January 1979. We camped out just off Entry 1 at Snowbird, digging a hole in the snow next to the creek where we pitched a tent. I remember it was really, really cold. During that trip Alta took hold of me.

3. It’s safe to say that you’ve achieved legend status in the ski industry as a photographer. That being said, you could have your pick of living, and shooting, wherever you want. What is it about Alta that keeps you here?

The snow is the ultimate. The coziness of such a little place is endearing, and that it skis so fine, like a much bigger hill. Most of all the people that choose to hang out here.

4. Getting your first shot published is something photographers never forget. Who was the athlete you were shooting and who published your first shot from Alta?

I remember it well. I was standing on Greeley Hill with a couple of my friends, we were out shooting. I looked up the hill and saw this girl Emily, a local ripper coming down. I had my 300 mil lens on and swung it up to shoot her, and boom, she cart-wheeled. Powder ran it in the back of the book as an example of the word ignominy. I didn’t really know her and she was pretty burly. Her name was Emily Gladstone at the time. She later became Emily Coombs when she married Doug Coombs. I’m still waiting for her to kick my ass for getting that shot. I usually don’t even turn in pics of wipeouts, but I hadn’t developed that ethic yet, I was just a wannabe dreaming of getting a shot published.

5. Your latest project is a book called Alta Magic. While the title describes it perfectly, what is the idea behind the book and what are you hoping people get from it?

The idea behind Alta Magic is to give people a sense of the special feeling we all get from Alta, through a collection of essays by me, locals and a handful of others I asked to contribute, all supported by photos I’ve shot here since the early 80’s. Where possible I’ve run an image of the essay writer on the opposite page of their words.

6. Creating a book is no small task. Writing, editing, shooting, layout and printing. It all takes time. From start to finish, how long did it take to complete Alta Magic?

I’ve had the format in my head for five or seven years. Collecting the essays was a slow process but eventually almost everyone came through for me. Once we started putting it together it took about six or seven months from start to finish.

7. With a project like Alta Magic, you’re bound to learn something new or have a favorite story and/or photo. What was yours?

I learned about four color CMYK and seeing nuances in the press checks. My buddy Chris who helped me design and lay out the book taught me how to look at images more closely than I ever have before. It’s a completely different side of what goes on with photos—what happens once they come out of the camera and have to be put on paper.

8. You no doubt received some help along the way with Alta Magic. Is there anyone you’d like to give a shout out to for their efforts?

My good friend Chris Pearson. He is a gifted designer and a stickler—he worked on the entire project with me. And of course, all my contributors who are the essence and flavor of Alta Magic. Thank you everyone!

9. Everyone knows you as a photographer, but you also love to write. Was your love of writing part of what helped shape how Alta Magic was going to look?

For sure. I’ve had all this Alta stuff in my head forever that I felt was very Alta and I have always wanted to share it. This gave me a perfect chance to do that.

10. It’s been said that you have the “powder turn” down pat when it comes to photography. What’s your trick?

It’s all pretty basic but if I told you I’d have to kill you. Just kidding. You really want to catch the energy in the turn. The way the light mixes with the action is probably most important. Skier form is equally important. On pow shots I want the explosion to show enough body parts to give context, to give the pic some unique identity. The randomness of the snow blowing up is a spectacular demonstration of physics in action.

11. You’ve been shooting skiing so long that your son, Sam Cohen, is now of age and making quite the name for himself as a skier. What’s it like being a dad, a photographer, and watching your son grow and develop into a rad skier?

I don’t get to shoot him as much any more since he’s traveling a lot and heading out into the big ski world. I think he does understand how special Alta is, and growing up here skiing almost nowhere else you know nothing else— it takes some getting out to other places to get a perspective on how unique and rare Alta is. I love that his passion for skiing is so huge and heartfelt—sometimes I’m jealous that I don’t have the hunger at my age that he has at his. He truly loves his life as a skier, and he tries to be true to his beliefs.

12. It’s been over thirty years since you started snapping skiing photos. What has been the biggest change during that time and where do you see things going in the future?

Things have changed dramatically in the last seven or eight years. The computer and digital ages. There are also many more photographers, and so much is able to be done in post production on the computer after shooting. The importance of nailing the shot has been decreased. Photography has just become a devalued currency because there are so many incredible images out there. I still love it in the field when I’m shooting, but there I times I could say adios to the rat race. I think there are still tons of opportunities with the creative side of photography but I’ve been happy with how it works for me. It’s what I do and I’m not sure what else is out there for me.

Final question: Alta Magic is now for sale. Where can people go to pick up this one-of-a-kind book?

At leecohen.com, at shops around Alta and more places as I get the books out there.

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