Placing her carry-on through the airport scanner at JFK, Hooey Wilks (aka Hooey Mountain) is prepared to answer TSA’s questioning gaze as he looks at the x-ray monitor. She explains that she’s a professional photographer and that inside the carry-on bag are her subjects, vintage toy skiers. Toys! Despite their diminutive size, the pointed metal planks and toothpick-sized poles look menacing to the agent, but it’s the sheer number of them, an entire company of them tucked securely in the case, that makes him pause before letting her through.
Hooey is on her way to her next shoot at…well, she doesn’t disclose where she is taking photographs that will eventually grace the walls of luxury homes and modest home offices. However, when she arrives, she’ll carefully remove each skier—sorry, there are no vintage snowboarders—and position them atop the snow to depict motion and emotion from these otherwise inanimate objects. They might be readying themselves on a cornice or making fresh tracks. As was the style in the mid-20th Century, their poles are tucked under their arms, their knees are almost touching but slightly bent. The scene resembles an oversized and overpriced poster found in a resale shop, but as Hooey moves her lens closer and closer still, these three-dimensional skiers become animated like the Rankin/Bass television characters Gen Xers and Boomers grew up with.
By zooming in on still figures, antique skiers of another era, and releasing the shutter, Hooey unleashes the magic of skiing or what she frequently refers to as ‘The Dawn of Skiing.’ Luxury resorts and spas, lift lines, and terrain parks are pushed out of the frame leaving only miniature skiers and oversized snowflakes in view. Hooey’s macro approach to inanimate objects puts a Klieg light on the art of skiing; the light, the temperature, the subject, the hue , accompanied by the arc and rhythm of each turn. In doing so, she also recaptures its soul.
As you scroll through Instagram, ski photos, not always but typically can be divided into two categories: the snorkelers and the toy soldiers. The former are popular on resort accounts, a spray of snow with ski tips and goggles barely visible but are largely indistinguishable. The latter are ubiquitous and the result of asking a bystander to “Please, take a photo of my family,” quickly aligning the troops, shoulder to shoulder, goggles on, buffs up and taking them and their smiling faces entirely out of the moment they wished to capture.
Such “toy soldier” shots are my single pet peeve. My ski friends roll their eyes when I bark at them to “Strike a pose,” “Throw your hands (or skis) in the air,“ or “Lay on the ground!” However, they typically agree (and repost) these active, grinning and even goofy pictures showing (accurately!) how much joy we experienced that day skiing on the mountain.
But there has to be more to taking great ski photography. So, I asked Hooey to join me at Alta Ski Area and share her top tips.
First off, Hooey is a heckuva skier! Growing up and raising her family in Connecticut, Hooey has skied Mad River Glen, another skier’s only resort, since she was a child. Now with an Ikon Pass in hand and a business centered around skiing, she and her bag filled with toys travel all winter chasing not only deep powder but dramatic light, the overall secret to great photography. So, on a bright February morning, she and I met at Goldminer's Daughter Lodge before heading out and seeing Alta…in a completely different light. If I thought this would be a leisurely chat on a few lifts, I was quickly disabused chasing her down runs, past gates, over moguls (damn, she’s a great mogul skier) and through the trees.
Without announcement, she stopped on a dime. I followed her gaze and saw the sun rising over Devils Castle. I turned toward Hooey and saw a tiny red skier emerge from her fanny pack. Like stalking prey on a safari, I slid out my iPhone from my jacket pocket. Hooey kicked off her skis, knelt and posed the toy atop one ski. I raised my camera…before Hooey halted me.
Hooey often hauls her favorite cameras and lenses with her skiing, but she has taken countless photographs on her mobile phone as well. In fact, she even prefers some of the features found in older iPhone cameras. However, every mobile phone builds the camera lens into the upper corner regardless of the make or model (likely to keep fingers away from the lens). Because much of the action and interest in skiing occurs close to the ground, Hooey instructed me to flip my camera upside down so that the lens would be on the bottom. Doing so places the lens closer to the action elements – the ski, the snow and her figurine.
This would be Hooey’s universal rule of mobile phone ski photography. From shooting vintage toy skiers to groups of family members, turn the phone upside down. Don’t worry about cutting off the heads of your subjects. You’ll still capture their expressive faces, and you’ll get them (and the trees and mountain behind) from a more interesting and, often, more dramatic angle. Suppose you drop the inverted camera closer to the ground. In that case, the perspective will be even more dramatic, making the subject look like a looming yeti, which is terrific for photos of children (but not so good of their mothers).
This rule works exceptionally well in landscape (wide) mode, too. Turning your camera sideways keeping the lens on the bottom allows you to include more of the snow-covered runs in the foreground while preserving the outline of the mountaintops in the background.
By any measure, Alta is a beautiful ski resort. With peaks and bowls and trees scattered throughout, the temptation is to ski, stop and quickly snap what’s in front of you. However, Hooey instead encourages photographers to stop and stroll, taking a 360 degree walk around your human subject to “see what you don’t see.” The shadow emphasizing a slope, sunlight highlighting a smile, a random element. She shared the story of creating one of her favorite photos. Hooey had stopped to compose a shot of a solo male skier from one angle. She walked around and discovered an occlusion in the otherwise pristine powder, an s-shaped line. Someone had dragged a pole during an earlier run. Instead of erasing it, she embraced it to tell the story skiers live for – making first tracks.
When it comes to shooting landscapes, do a quick pirouette. What do you see? From the top of Alta’s Sugarloaf lift, it’s tempting to take a panorama of Baldy to Patsey Marley but turn around. From there, Snowbird’s Mineral Basin and Mount Timpanogos and everything in between will awe the most jaded observer. So, take a moment, walk or spin…the worst thing that can happen is a few more moments enjoying beautiful views.
In Utah, we are admittedly a bit biased about the quality of the snow. This arid climate renders “The Greatest Snow on Earth®" so light that skiers feel like they are floating upon it. It is also fascinating to photograph and should be featured, not cropped or relegated to the periphery in your photographs. Sunlight will reflect against the dry flakes giving them what Hooey describes as a sugar-like appearance. The snow also provides perspective. Thigh-deep powder, corduroy groomers and moguls the size of Volkswagons can only be appreciated by including the snow in your photo, even if your “subject” is your teenager maneuvering over them.
Don’t just include the snow in your next snapshot; get close to it. Get on the ground if necessary! First, it sets the scene – you are skiing. Second and ironically, Hooey’s work shows how putting the snow in the foreground can highlight other elements or actions in the background. For example, it can put you into the boots of the skiers hiking a steep slope ahead of you through the trees toward a summit. Contrast this, however, with the popular but indistinguishable “face shot,” social media clickbait featuring a wall of snow with poles and goggles peaking through. Here, the snow provides all of the action, but the actual skiing and how it makes skiers feel are lost. It’s the difference between surfing on a giant wave and crashing under it.
Photography, in any form, relies upon good lighting, and today’s mobile phones and editing apps can repair most flaws and foibles, but Hooey often incorporates the often-maligned shadow into her works. While a dark streak across a skier’s face may not be flattering, taking Hooey’s approach of walking around her subject, she’s able to envision and transform a simple shadow into a line of action for the skier or contour for the slope. Trees, mountain tops and other natural elements cast dramatic shadows in the depths of winter sunlight. They create a mood and movement in photos. So, try to include them whenever possible.
Skiing is about moving through nature, and that movement stirs skiers’ souls. You don’t have to be an Olympic downhill racer to feel it. Traversing a groomer, gliding through a copse of aspens or returning on a cat track at the end of the day…feeling the chilled air whip by can both cocoon you in its rime blanket or strip you bare exposing you to a kind of kinetic magic. Hooey describes skiing as moments of “inner peace, healing…mindful exercise.”
This is what a good ski photograph should capture, and it’s a far cry from “toy soldiers” lined up on the summit.
Hooey explained this in terms of a much bigger canvas. Indeed, the big picture. She again described “The Dawn of Skiing” memorialized through the decades of photos hanging on the walls of the Goldminer’s Daughter, often black and white shots of relaxed smiling men and women in fitted pants with their hair blowing behind them with no one else in sight. You can see and feel the joy. She compared these scenes with today’s bulkier (and absolutely better, safer) gear, bigger crowds, more luxurious amenities, pricier…everything. There is a lot getting in the way of that joy visually and metaphorically. Skiing is different and faces challenges, from economic to existential, but those magical moments of fluid movement from lift to lift to lift remain. This is what Hooey is striving to capture. So, don’t just stand there. Make everyone see, hear, feel your joy from the mountaintop and in that photograph.
Vintage toy skiers…inanimate objects capturing the action, emotion and soul of skiing through the eyes of Hooey Mountain. “My love for skiing comes through ,” she muses, and by sharing them as well as tips for others, she hopes to pass that passion – and the love of the outdoors – on to future generations. You don’t have to be a professional photographer or even a professional skier to understand, and while the TSA agent staring at the screen back East may have paused, Hooey chuckled that, not surprisingly, when she passes through Salt Lake City, they all just smile and wave.