Lee Cohen has lived the life most of us, as skiers, only dream about. He came to Utah in the ‘80s as the consummate ski bum. Today, Lee and his Nikons are known for documenting the images of The Greatest Snow on Earth® in stunning photography. One of the most highly acclaimed ski photographers, Cohen knows every snow stash in the Wasatch and for nearly four decades has been bringing us iconic images of Utah powder.
Cohen grew up in the east, hopping around small New York ski hills like Stony Point and Silver Mine. His father took him on trips to Vermont, skiing Stratton, Stowe, Killington, Mt. Snow and more. On Mondays, he would often play hooky with his friend Kevin and head off to Hunter Mountain.
Along the way, he started thinking about skiing out west. A friend brought back a trail map from Aspen Highlands. Then in eighth grade, he went with a friend’s family to Austria, skiing from village to village in Kitzbühel and experiencing his first powder day at Kaprun. A few years later, it was off to the Rockies, poaching slopeside lodging in tents and snow caves as he and buddies traveled around the west, eventually visiting Utah. He was hooked.
Sam Cohen rips up the pow in Little Cottonwood (Lee Cohen)
In the early 1980s, Cohen got a camera and just started shooting his buddies. They traveled the west chasing powder. He still recalls vividly the record-setting winter of 1983-84. Photography was different then. There were no iPhones, digital cameras or autofocus lenses. It was all film, so you never really knew what you had until the film was processed. But he worked hard at it, figuring out his formulaic system. Soon, editors soon took notice.
Photography was fun. It was an art form. And he was getting good at it. In December 1985, he made his first commercial sale, an image of a local skier who played hooky from school to ski West Rustler after a 42" storm. Soon his images were adorning the covers of SKI, Powder, Freeze and more.
A quintessential Little Cottonwood powder shot on the cover of POWDER Magazine in 1998 (Lee Cohen)
The next decades saw his work burgeon. His 2012 book Alta Magic captures the real spirit of the Wasatch in a magical collection of images and essays. Today, he still enjoys returning to old haunts - both in-bounds and in the backcountry - with willing ski models, including son Sam, and always looking for that new combination of sun, sky and snow to produce exhilarating images.
While both photography and skiing have evolved greatly in his 40 years in the Wasatch, Cohen still has the touch. In the Alta marketing office, he proudly shows off his recent cover of SKI.
Big powder and blue skies on this 2022 SKI Magazine cover of Tyler Peterson skiing some luscious Alta pow. (Lee Cohen)
Here’s a sampling of our conversation with photographer Lee Cohen’s. Listen in to the full episode of Last Chair, the Ski Utah podcast, to learn more.
As you drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon, what are some of your landmarks?
I enjoy the whole ride. I like seeing the ridge of Monte Cristo and Superior when I first start getting above White Pine. That's unbelievable to me. Then it's Snowbird on the right and then there's Alta. High Rustler is one of the all-time runs to be looking at from the bottom of any ski area.
Do you recall your first trip to Utah?
I don't even remember how I first heard about Alta Ski Area, but I had this whole magical powder thing like it was fully in my head even before I'd seen the place. And then we got to ski here and I was sold by. We were here for about 10 days, and by the time we left, I knew I was coming back for good as soon as I could. “I always think I can get a better one, even in a spot that I've gone to before that. I'm always thinking I can get the best one ever today.”
A classic run by Dave McReynolds on Patsy Marley on his way down to Albion Basin. (Lee Cohen)
You really mapped out the perfect career for yourself, didn’t you?
I got into ski photography because I loved powder skiing. That was perfect since, here I am, at Alta - the bastion of powder skiing. But at some point along the way, I feel like I get pigeonholed as the deep powder photographer.
How do you make locations look different each time you shoot there?
I find that you can always make a place look different. You shoot it with a different millimeter lens or from a different spot. If you shift your location even just a few feet, you're making it look different. And change lenses - it's way different. Just try to change your approach and make the same old thing look different.
Any simple tips for recreational photographers?
Concentrate on following your subject. Try to set up your shots to make the odds be in your favor and have the light working in your favor, either being side lit, front lit, backlit. If you're shooting in the storm, go out when there's a lot of snowflakes falling. “Ski with style - form is everything.”
Utahn Julian Carr sampling Utah powder in this Lee Cohen image on the early Winter 2016 cover of MOUNTAIN. (Lee Cohen)
What are some secrets to great powder shots?
The biggest thing that I would say to my skiers skiing powder is, don't lay it over because you want to. In Utah, it's deep enough. You don't have to fake it. Just try to ski with form and style. Don't bring your hands too high. Don't make your hands too low, no higher than like a little below your shoulders and alternating pole plants in the powder. Ski with style - form is everything.
Nikon or Canon??
I think they're all great. I've been a Nikon person my whole life. I love my Nikon equipment. It's burly. It can take a beating. Like, I'm not like the most careful person, so I'm a little abusive of the equipment and it's done me well.
The Wasatch backcountry is showcased in this long contrail of snow from Dave McReynolds. (Lee Cohen)
Do you ever get nostalgic for the old days of film?
Some of the best times of my life as a ski photographer, and for my skiers, were the old days. We would be over the light table at my house, just foaming at the mouth, like we were crazed out of our minds. Oh, my God, I knew that one was going to be like that. Yeah, that was a very exciting time in photography for me.
Learn more about Lee Cohen’s career as Utah’s ski photographer in this episode of Last Chair, the Ski Utah podcast.
Lee Cohen’s stunning photography of Wasatch powder is showcased in his book, Alta Magic. It features a collection of words and images that provide an insider’s view into the unique world of Alta, one of the world’s most beloved ski areas. The collection of essays and photographs offers a unique perspective and is a great conversation starter when people see it on your coffee table or bar.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:00| It is a beautiful day up here in a Little Cottonwood Canyon. We are here today with beautiful blue skies and white powder snow outside with Lee Cohen, an extraordinary photographer who has kind of made Little Cottonwood his home for some years. And Lee, thanks for joining us on Last Chair from Ski Utah.
Lee Cohen: |00:00:18| Thanks, Tom. Great to be here.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:20| It is a magical place up here, isn't it?
Lee Cohen: |00:00:22| Alta Magic, it is.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:24| As the book says. But, but you've been photographing up here for many, many years and we're going to talk in more depth about your photography. But do you still get that special feeling as you drive the eight to 10 miles up the canyon?
Lee Cohen: |00:00:38| Absolutely. Especially if I have not if I've been away for a bit. If I come back, let's say I go on a trip somewhere. I haven't come up the canyon in a while to go up it again. I like to look upon it with fresh eyes. It's like never having seen it before practically. And it gives you a greater appreciation for what becomes what you take for granted after a while.
Tom Kelly: |00:01:01| Do you have any landmarks as you drive up that you kind of look at and are really special? I mean, for me, you know, I love Superior coming into view and then I always am anxious to get past Snowbird so I can see High Rustler. Are there some iconic points for you as you come up the canyon?
Lee Cohen: |00:01:17| Yeah, I enjoy the whole ride, like seeing Monte Cristo, the ridge of Monte Cristo and Superior when I first start getting above White Pine. That's unbelievable to me. And then it's just Snowbird on the right and then you pass Snowbird. And then there's Alta. And like you said, High Rustler, one of the all-time runs to be looking at from the bottom of any ski area.
Tom Kelly: |00:01:43| It is amazing. So how did you get into skiing and eventually find your way out here to Utah?
Lee Cohen: |00:01:51| Well, I started skiing when I was five. My dad was a skier in the 1940s, I would say, and his main stomping grounds was southern Vermont. So the old school Vermont area is Mount Snow,and Bromley mostly is where he took me as a kid and I'd go to Hunter from. I grew up in the suburbs of New York and I had a buddy whose dad owned a bakery that he would close on Mondays, much to the chagrin of the truant officer from our school. And every once in a while, my mom would let me go with him. My dad took me to little ski areas that are now defunct Silver Mine and Stony Point near Bear Mountain, just north of New York, if you're familiar with that area. And then I just started checking out other Vermont places a little bit. I had another friend whose dad had a place in Stratton. And my dad and I one time we went on a good road trip, driving all around pastoral Vermont, checking out some more of the ski areas besides Bromley and Mount Snow. We went to Stratton and Killington and Stowe, and Stowe was just a lot further. If you were coming from New York, like another couple of hours, at least if I remember correctly.
Tom Kelly: |00:03:02| And what were some of those things when you were a young boy growing up on the ski hills in New England? What were some of the things about the sport and being on skis and on snow in the wintertime that really resonated with you?
Lee Cohen: |00:03:14| Oh, it was. It was just like a cool sport like, you know, like, I didn't have any super-advanced, ethereal thoughts about it. It was just a fun thing to be doing outside. And I was a kid. And how could you not be having fun if you're a kid out there skiing? I mean, I remember one time I had a meltdown on this trail called Middlebrook in Vermont. My dad had taken me, and it was one of the first times I skied powder and I just couldn't get it. And I was probably like 11 years old and I was pretty much in tears having a little hissy fit. And he was just like a champ. Just handled it super smooth. No problem. And I rebounded and turned into a good day.
Tom Kelly: |00:03:55| So you eventually made your way out west. And what was it that first brought you out here?
Lee Cohen: |00:04:00| Well, as I got a little bit older, I had some knee problems when I was in high school and I didn't ski for a few years and then my sophomore year in college. I had to get knee surgery because I got tackled in a pickup football game. They took out the lateral meniscus of my left knee and then I went skiing like a month later at this place called Kissing Bridge, a bump resort out by Buffalo. And right then I said, I am like taking off from school after this year. It just reinflated me with skiing, and I just decided I have to go do this and spend a winter out west. At one point in sixth grade, my friend, his dad took him to Aspen and he came back with a trail map of Highlands. And I remember it was a bizarre looking ridgeline with the hill. It wasn't nearly the size that it is nowadays, so it was a much smaller resort and it looked really bizarre. But he said, Oh yeah, it snows every night, fresh powder, everyday and sunshine.
Lee Cohen: |00:05:00| And then in eighth grade, my friend whose family had the bakery. They took me to Europe and we went to Austria. It costs $346 bucks for the whole trip. I remember the exact amount and the plane was five hours late. Scandinavian Airlines taking off from Kennedy Airport. But we were skiing off piste runs at Kitzbühel and winding up in towns like 10-15 miles away and Kevin Kern, that's my buddy's name, his dad knew all these places intimately and he was European, and he just arranged for us to ski all this off piste stuff and we were skiing across cow pastures with our skis on. It was so cool. And that had a lot to do with me getting stoked on skiing. I had my first real powder experience at a place called Kaprun there, and I thought I remembered three cable cars to the top. But I recently saw two cable cars, so I don't know if it was different in 1972. Maybe it was three back then.
Tom Kelly: |00:05:57| And then at some point you put the skis in the car, you headed out west to the Rocky Mountains.
Lee Cohen: |00:06:04| I got a job working in Yellowstone for the summer and I hitchhiked here from North Carolina. And then after the summer was over, we moved to Denver. My buddy and I got ski passes at a base and we went into an old shop on Colfax and it was an old Austrian guy and he said you should get a pass at a base in Keystone. It is two passes, so we bought midweek passes for 100 bucks and then we camped out the entire winter for three, three and a half months. We camped out for a road trip to all these Colorado resorts. A good many of them, not all of them. Like, we didn't get to Aspen or Telluride that winter, but we got to Vail, we got to Copper. We liked Steamboat a lot. We went there. I remember we camped out in the parking lot at Steamboat one day and drove into town, and it was 38 below zero. And we were just hardy little suckers and we were having the best time of our lives camping. We had three different campsites around a base in a snow cave on the back lot, and we got tossed out of that by the area manager, a guy named John Reveal he had heard. We were back there one morning. I came walking out of the cave and there he was saying We heard you were back here. We were going to plow the lot. And then we had a couple of other campsites between Frisco and whatever the town is over there by Keystone Silverthorne. Yeah, the one. Just a bump south, Dillon. There's a back road. It's called Swan Mountain Road and we had a campsite off there and I think that area is kind of developed now. But it was the boonies back then. And then we had a campsite at a place called Blue River Campground, and that's a summer campground that we just dug a hole out for the car. Very enterprising. We were. We were real ski bums.
Tom Kelly: |00:07:51| I love the snow cave idea.
Lee Cohen: |00:07:53| The snow cave was warm. A candle keeps it warm.
Tom Kelly: |00:07:56| Totally. People don't realize that, you know we used to it, Wisconsin. We would build these little igloos as kids and we'd do it here too, you know, but it's amazingly warm inside those things.
Lee Cohen: |00:08:06| Yeah, a little bit of heat and light and the heat strapped, I guess it is.
Tom Kelly: |00:08:11| So eventually you started heading a little bit further west. And what brought you across the border to Utah?
Lee Cohen: |00:08:16| Well, OK. During that winter, I had one of my roommates from college come out and we came out to Utah. And camped next to the creek at entry one at Snowbird, I dug a hole in the creek and pitched the tent. And again, it was like super subzero temperatures. Go check the Forest Service stats for January, early January of 79. We went to see the Dead at the closing of Winterland, first for New Year's Eve. And then we came back to Utah and we skied Brighton on the way out and then we came back to ski Alta and Snowbird. And I don't even remember how I first heard about Alta, but I had this whole magical powder thing like it was fully in my head even before I'd seen the place. And then we got to ski here and I was sold by. We were here about 10 days, and by the time we left, I knew I was coming back for good as soon as I could.
Tom Kelly: |00:09:06| How did you make the full time trip back?
Lee Cohen: |00:09:09| Well, I actually went back and finished school. I wasn't smart enough to transfer my credits to the University of Utah. It was easier to go back to New York and finish school. And then the day I graduated, I drove right to Salt Lake. I had to find a place to live. That first day I had a buddy come in. The next day I found a place in a trailer park that's no longer there, just on the west side of I-15 and 90th South, and I had my ski pass.
Tom Kelly: |00:09:37| So you were ready to go.
Lee Cohen: |00:09:38| I was ready. And this would have been around 1980, early 80s.
Lee Cohen: |00:09:43| This was 1981 when I moved here full time.
Tom Kelly: |00:09:48| Yeah. And where did you have passes back then? Where did you ski here? Alta Alta? Just Alta. Right from the start.
Lee Cohen: |00:09:56| Yeah, I got a Snowbird pass also. Pretty quick. Yeah, but Alta, you used to have to enter a drawing to get the season pass. So I entered the drawing. I had hitchhiked out there in the summer to enter the drawing because you had to do it in person. I got accepted as an alternate. The letter went to my dad's house. My dad asked my mom if he should give it to me. My mom said, Of course you should give it to him, Harold. And he gave me the letter and I got the pass, and I don't know how it went.
Tom Kelly: |00:10:26| That is an amazing story. So you were like an alternate to get a season pass.
Lee Cohen: |00:10:30| Is that how that works? Yeah. Yeah, that's what I got accepted as an alternate.
Tom Kelly: |00:10:34| God, that's pretty crazy. You know, we're here to talk photography, and we are going to get into this in just a minute. But I got to ask you, you seem to be the ultimate ski bum, the techniques of being a ski bum back in the late 70s and the early 80s. Do they still work today, do you think?
Lee Cohen: |00:10:48| You know, I think that they could, but the world is just so different. Like, Oh, when we first put the first house I rented downtown, not that first time I came out, but the first house I rented with some buddies. It was $55 a month for four of us. It's one $137.50 apiece a month to live there. A season pass costs like $250 or like my first pass set out. That was, I think, 175. But it was you could save a few thousand bucks working in the summer and be a ski bum the whole winter. No problem. It was not that big of an extravaganza, but you know, like there are places where day tickets cost over two hundred bucks now. But people are very enterprising and they seem to be still doing it. And you know, a lot of people work ski area jobs so they can ski.
Tom Kelly: |00:11:34| Yeah, it is really cool to see. So your passion became photography eventually. How did you first get involved in photography and creating images of this beautiful landscape?
Lee Cohen: |00:11:48| I started shooting photos of my buddies. I got a camera and I was kind of into taking pictures, but I wasn't really very serious about it. I just liked shooting pictures. And then the winter of 83/84 and 82/83, I started shooting a lot more pictures in the winter of 83. I had a pass, my pass, said Alta. But I convinced my best buddy from growing up to come out west and we were going to show him around. And another buddy of mine and I got in on a house at Squaw Valley, just south of Tahoe City, with a bunch of engineers. It costs 300 bucks for us for the whole winter, and none of them ever even showed up. So we were like hanging out and Squaw Alpine out the snowbird and then we road trip with my buddy Duff. We took him to 22 different ski areas, the winter of '82 or '83. It was a huge road trip in winter and that was the winter I started shooting. We went to Taos. We went everywhere. We went to Sun Valley. We went to all the places in California. We went to a lot of places in Colorado. We took them to Jackson, got the grand tour and I started taking pictures and then the next winter. '83/84 which is still my all time winter December '83 record-breaking snow month for Alta 244.5" still the record I was just shooting pictures of powder. I love skiing powder and I was trying to capture that experience with my friends.
Tom Kelly: |00:13:17| Were you using good camera gear? I mean, good lenses, good bodies.
Lee Cohen: |00:13:21| It was a Nikon F3 film camera. I started with that. That was the best there was then from Nikon. It was really solid. I bought a motor drive, an MD4 motor drive and I had a short zoom of 43 to 86 f3.5 zoom. It probably wasn't the greatest, but it was probably what there was available then. And then I had an 80 to 200 zoom.
Tom Kelly: |00:13:41| Yeah, for the younger listeners, there were no iPhones back then, right?
Lee Cohen: |00:13:45| No iPhones. It was only film, people.
Tom Kelly: |00:13:48| And only film
Lee Cohen: |00:13:49| And autofocus did not yet exist.
Tom Kelly: |00:13:52| You know, I was a newspaper photographer back in the 70s, so I shot all Nikons. I had the old Nikon F and I had all of these manual focused lenses and I did sports. And you know, I think back to that today and I'm thinking, how in the world did I shoot action back then without autofocus? I mean, you, I'm sure you go through the same thing like, Oh,
Lee Cohen: |00:14:14| I'm flabbergasted by it, actually, that I could even get a photo and focus before autofocus. And I Nikon lagged on autofocus behind Canon. And I'm thinking, I'm trying to remember when I first had an autofocus Nikon camera, would it probably been the F4? But it wasn't as good as the F5, which I got shortly after, and my ski photography leapfrogged incredibly once I got autofocus.
Tom Kelly: |00:14:40| Yeah? Let's talk about photography and the beauty of mountain photography and also the challenges. You make amazing images. And I think sometimes we look at these images made by great mountain photographers such as yourself, and we're in awe of them. But we don't really think about the challenges that it can take to get to those places and be there when the light is just right. You know, as you got into this a little bit more and graduated, maybe from taking action pictures of your buddies to scenic landscapes, what were some of the challenges that you face to be in that right place at the right time with the right gear?
Lee Cohen: |00:15:16| Well, as everything evolved in photography, the autofocus then came digital. With digital, you cannot, you know, with film, you shoot the picture once. That's it. If you miss a shot up, sorry, bud, that's it. You know, nowadays with digital, you can shoot it infinite amounts of time. You go home and you reshoot it. You're basically you re shooting it when you work on it in Lightroom or Photoshop on your computer. And as long as you didn't like blow it completely, which is actually probably hard to do, you can. You can rescue a photo that is not that great and it's incredible what you can do with it and also as ski photography evolved. It became necessary to get better and better shots and like we used to shoot during the day in crud. But you're not seeing too many shots of crud in the magazines anymore. It's not anything anybody's writing home about. It has to be on track. It has to be perfect. It has to be maybe even better than perfect because there's so many people out there killing it, getting incredible photos that in order to have something that makes the cut, it has to stand out. You know, if they know you're super reliable and have been doing it for years, that doesn't hurt. Undoubtedly. But you really have to get the light right. You got to have great skiers. You've got to be shooting something worth shooting in the first place. The terrain has to be good for me in Utah. Like for me, it's powder photography, and as I've gotten older, I've gotten more formulaic and it's more powder photography than big airs and stuff that I used to shoot when I was younger. But I still like wanting to do that kind of stuff, but I just don't do it as often.
Tom Kelly: |00:17:00| You know, you bring up an interesting point, and I think in ski photography, there have been these different eras. You know, there's eras where you see a lot of these great powder shots and then there's other areas where you see somebody just hugging it off a cliff or a big jump. How have you seen it evolve over the years since you started shooting commercially?
Lee Cohen: |00:17:17| Well, I would say that skiing is not even the same sport that I did as a skier in my prime, in my 20s, like I might have been a really good skier at one point. And I'm still a pretty good skier, but it's just a completely different sport now. What the kids are doing, like you have kids who are like five years old, like doing seven twenties and stuff like it, like my son is, he's 29. It's a completely different sport. They're out there crushing insane lines in Alaska, doing all kinds of tricks and stuff. It's just not even the same sport that I still do. I mean, I have my version of skiing that is still embedded in my bones. But for the younger generations, you know, each generation just steps, steps it up. Another steps the bar up.
Tom Kelly: |00:18:04| Yeah. Back in the early days when you're shooting in the 80s, were you shooting mostly in resorts or were you starting to venture out in the backcountry to get a little bit more solitude in the shots that you were doing?
Lee Cohen: |00:18:14| You know, I started skiing in the backcountry a little bit in the 80s, but it was more for just the skiing. It wasn't like it's driven by the photography. I wasn't really a photographer full time yet. And in the nineties, we started going out of bounds out of Alta because Alta has always allowed you to go out of bounds from certain spots. And we started to go to Rocky Point and Dry Fork a little bit and started exploring Wolverine Cirque and just started getting more and more driven to backcountry skiing. And now they call it side country. If you go, if it's adjacent to a ski area, it's called side country instead of backcountry. It's a relatively new term, really. But once ski resorts started opening their boundaries, they decided that they needed to separate like backcountry and stuff. You hike to that you don't start at the ski area, side country, you leave the ski area and it's adjacent to the ski area and you might more than likely come back to the ski area bottom.
Tom Kelly: |00:19:13| How much was I know that today there's a high level of avalanche awareness and safety is a really important element. When you think back to the 80s and some of the things that you were doing was there are a lot of knowledge and understanding of the danger of avalanches back then. And did that factor into how you would do your shoots back then?
Lee Cohen: |00:19:30| Absolutely. Like, I mean, you know, the skating was the first avalanche beacon that I remember that I had, but I'm trying to remember what the next one was. But we all like if we were going in the backcountry, if it wasn't corn, you're bringing a shovel and a beacon, at least. And I can remember in the winter of '83, '84 a kid up here that we knew got killed. Going to do superior, yeah, and he did a shortcut on the ridge and, you know, he just kind of like didn't go stay on the ridge and just kind of short cut it a little bit and got swept down Little Superior. And the gal was with them, survived and he died.
Tom Kelly: |00:20:14| Yeah. Let's get back to top gear and some of the challenges when you are shooting out there, it's easy to take an iPhone along. And I know that for me, I don't carry a lot of gear with me anymore. I love to reach my pocket and get the iPhone. But for what you've been doing, Lee over the years, you need to have those lenses and those bodies up with you. How do you manage all of that gear up in the mountain, not just from the sheer weight and volume, but also using that gear that electronic gear out in the elements?
Lee Cohen: |00:20:44| Well, you know, shooting on a sunny day, it's not much of a problem. Like the batteries are pretty strong. I bring an extra battery. It's way better. Bring in little like, you know, 32 gig cards. And if you're shooting VIDEO They're way huge. But I don't do much video or any, really, but you don't have to carry a bunch of film with you. But I mean, I used to carry a bigger kit than I carry now, and I've stopped carrying a 300 millimeter, two eight lens, and I pretty much try to keep it. As I get older, I get weaker and my pack is getting smaller.
Tom Kelly: |00:21:16| How much did that? 300 f2.8 weigh?
Lee Cohen: |00:21:19| Probably about eight pounds. Oh man. Yeah, and it's just on top of having a 70-200. Like my kit now that I usually bring is 70-200, a 24-70 and either a 17-35 or my 14. But I try to keep it down to three lenses
Tom Kelly: |00:21:38| Going back into the 80s again. What was your first commercial gig? The first images you were actually paid for?
Lee Cohen: |00:21:44| The first commercial shot I sold was to a company called Life Link and the photo was shot. I remember because I was looking at it this morning for something else on December 11, 1985, and it was at the end of the day on West Rustler after a 42-inch storm the day before, and it was of a kid who played hooky from school got his mother to let him play hooky. He was 15 at the time. His name was Mark Chilcott, and we called the shot Chills Thrills.
Tom Kelly: |00:22:12| Nice. And was he a model for you that day? Where did you go out to shoot?
Lee Cohen: |00:22:15| Yeah. Well, it's always been working with skiers. And you know, skiing is kind of weird because it's not always a paid gig for the skiers. Sometimes companies hire skiers or have their ambassadors or, you know, their athletes doing a photoshoot and they're paying them. But a lot of the photography and skiing has always been you go out and you shoot with your brothers and sisters, kind of, and you're just trying to get cool shots. And I think deep down, for most ski photographers, that's what drives them. They're just like wanting to get the cool shot and they love it. And like, for me, I always think I can get a better one, even in a spot that I've gone to before that. I mean, I go to the same spots all the time as part of my circuit or whatever, and I'm always thinking I can get the best one ever today.
Tom Kelly: |00:23:01| Maybe, yeah, when you're out doing that and you're shooting with these, these young skiers. How do you set up a shot? How do you get them to understand this is the light I want. This is the hit and the line that I want.
Lee Cohen: |00:23:16| Well, it used to be I would really like have about three skiers I work with almost the whole winter, but it's not like that so much anymore. So, you know, I work with the same people all the time. Once in a while, I bring new people into the fold just because I think it's necessary. And you know, there's always new talent coming, and I've blown it a lot of times on the new talent, but sometimes I can be very, very nitpicky about I want a left footer coming here. I want a right footer after that and don't make another turn after that finish right next to me. Or I might say, ski this line like this, but other times, and it's way more fun if you can just let them do what they want. But if I'm operating in a smaller area, I have like specifics that I'm usually looking for, like it's backlit or it's front lit, and I want them to be facing the sun this way or have the sun behind him that way.
Tom Kelly: |00:24:10| Do you ever use Flash or any other form of artificial or reflective light on your shots?
Lee Cohen: |00:24:16| Hardly ever.
Tom Kelly: |00:24:16| It's hard to do, isn't it out there?
Lee Cohen: |00:24:18| You know, like I used to try to use a flash once in a while to have like a kind of weird pan blur kind of shot in a storm. But then I came up with some other techniques I like way better. It's just I'm kind of simple at heart. I want to keep it as simple as possible
Tom Kelly: |00:24:32| For your locations. You know the mountains really well. Do you have those secret spots that you're going to go up and do a shoot and you have an understanding of how the light's going to hit it on this particular day?
Lee Cohen: |00:24:44| Absolutely down to the minute. In some places, and, you know, the Sun is always changing, but I mean, there's this place that’s called Lee's Trees at Alta or Cullen's Corner, it's the same spot, really. I think I don't even know because I didn't name it.
Tom Kelly: |00:24:59| But is there a sign up there?
Lee Cohen: |00:25:01| No, I hadn't. Yeah, maybe one day. But I have another, you know, a couple of other spots that I really know the light well and I know what I'm looking for. But it's still a lot of fun to venture out and find stuff because you always find something new and it just makes you look good. And I like it when skiers suggest stuff because it makes me look like I'm smarter than I am if I can take one of their ideas and put it to fruition. But if they're always suggesting something, I kind of might get tired of it if they're like, relentless.
Tom Kelly: |00:25:33| We're with Lee Cohen extraordinary photographer. We're up in Little Cottonwood Canyon today on Last Chair. We'll be right back after this break.
Tom Kelly: |00:25:56| And we are back in a Little Cottonwood Canyon today, a beautiful bluebird day out here in Utah. We're with photographer Lee Cohen live. We've had some great stories so far about your days as a ski bum and moving up to become a great mountain photographer. I want to talk a little bit about style, and every photographer has their characteristic style. I think back to my days as a newspaper photographer and then kind of a fun landscape photographer, and there were certain things that were always that I kind of, you know, saw things in a particular way. When you look at your work and think about what you do. Are there some particular styles that you feel are emblematic of the work that you do?
Lee Cohen: |00:26:36| Well, I have to say, you know, first and foremost, I got it to shoot and ski photography because I loved powder skiing, so I focused on shooting powder skiing and you know, that was perfect since here I am at Alta. Like, you know, a bastion of powder skiing. But at some point along the way, like, I feel like I get pigeonholed as the deep powder photographer. And sometimes it pisses me off because I feel like I have a lot more to offer. But I've kind of done it to myself by shooting a lot of tight shots and like one of my friends who's a photo editor, said to me to shoot more horizontals because he in his idea, I was always shooting for the cover, but in my idea, I was always shooting for a full pager because if it's a horizontal if they don't run it as a spread, it's not. It's only going to be a half a page. And that's an economic thing. As a photographer in the ski world making diddly squat,
Tom Kelly: |00:27:32| I imagine you're a clever guy. You probably learned that early on. Hmm. I'm going to do better with this full page vertical than I am this half page horizontal.
Lee Cohen: |00:27:40| Absolutely. Yeah, it's just like it's pretty simple, like to figure out. So but I've also found like a great variety in, you know, what has become my specialty powder photography. Like, I love scenic photography and I have, you know, I have a lot of other kinds of shots like that I pursue when I'm out. But in the end, I'm usually looking for the shot and you can do them in so many different ways. Like to some people, oh, it's just another POW shot. But to other people who are usually powder skiers themselves, they can see the differences and they are like. As infatuated with it, as I might be like looking at a photo and seeing how the snow breaks up and explodes and how this time it looks like this and this other time it looks like that like it's chunky or it's a ton of little pebbles that are all the same time or it's wispy or there's a gigantic like. There's some chunky stuff from the explosion close to the skier, but in back of him, it's just blow or POW in the sky, like three times the height of the person. And you know, it wasn't a one turn wonder shot because the one turned wonder might get him deep. But the snow blowing up is not that huge. Yeah, so you can always tell that.
Tom Kelly: |00:28:57| How do you from a technical perspective when you're throwing all of that white snow up into the image itself? How does that impact your exposure values? And you know, how do you keep the detail still with all of that reflective light from the powder snow?
Lee Cohen: |00:29:15| Well, in the old days with film like, you know, I used to just memorize my exposures and set my camera manually, but cameras are so good nowadays like I just kind of were plus or minus the exposure compensation for a particular situation. And some situations it just worked great on straight auto. Once in a while, I'll still go back to my old manual method. But for shooting POW on a sunny day, I'd like to. I like to try to shoot at f seven one or higher on the f stop because that gives you your depth of field. And with digital cameras, I have found that you want to shoot one eight hundredth of a second or faster because at one five hundredth of a second, I found sometimes it doesn't. Does it not tack sharp? It's not as sharp as it could be.
Tom Kelly: |00:30:00| Do you when you're using the automatic exposure meter in the camera, are you using it on spot or are you trying to average across the image?
Lee Cohen: |00:30:09| I'm using the I forget what they call it on my Nikon camera, but it's an average. And I mean, the great thing about digital is you can like you can shoot the picture before you have the guy ski and look at it and see how it's you know, you can look at the histogram, you could look at it and see if it's overexposed or not. And if you don't like it, you can fix it.
Tom Kelly: |00:30:29| Do you think back to the film days when you had 36 shots in that camera and you aren't going to know anything until it comes back from the lab?
Lee Cohen: |00:30:36| Well, some of the best times of my life as a ski photographer and for my skiers with the old days, with the light table down in my office and I would run down to Borge Andersen in downtown Salt Lake and get my film developed and my friends, my skier, bros and, you know, ski or guys, we would be over the light table at my house, just like foaming at the mouth, like we would be crazed out of our minds. Oh my God, I knew that one was going to be like that. And yeah, that was one of a very exciting time in photography for me. And you're
Tom Kelly: |00:31:10| Using a little magnifier to look at the slides
Lee Cohen: |00:31:12| And yeah, well, we had a fancy loupe - a 4x. I forget the name now. It's been so long, but it was fancy. Like, maybe it was a Schneider or something and then a little eight power loupe to get in there closer to see if it was actually really sharp. And amazingly, they were. I was actually looking at some old photos today because they have a little project I'm working on where I had to get some old film photos out, as well as more recent ones. And I found some, some really cool ones. It was fun.
Tom Kelly: |00:31:42| Cool. When you have been in the magazines for many, many years, who are some of the early editors that you resonated with that were really instrumental for you and getting into the magazines as a relatively new photographer in the 80s?
Lee Cohen: |00:31:57| Well, my first time I submitted to Powder, I sent slides in and I got a kind of like a cutthroat response from the editor, who was the editor, the managing editor at the time. I'm not going to say your name, but it was kind of like I wrote him a story too called Alta Always, and it was just about my dream mouth. I thought it was perfect for powder. And then he wrote back, Yeah, I'm afraid it's not quite our style. It seems more like here's Aspen or something. And then he wrote, and the film is not that great either, basically. And I still have the letter, but I was undaunted. And I think the next year I got or maybe two years later, I got my first cover on Powder. Yeah, in Powder of my really good buddy Steve Garrett, one of my best friends in the world. He's a disabled Vietnam vet. He became … he was … he's a total ski bum. He may love skiing more than anyone I ever met, and he's 73 now. We used to call him. We still call them Grandpa Relic Ancient One Geezer. Oh man. And I didn't even know. They didn't even tell me that I got the cover, and I was sitting in the Rustler Lodge at the employee dining room table and someone came in and said to me, Nice cover on Powder February 88 as they
Tom Kelly: |00:33:19| Rush out and buy some that night.
Lee Cohen: |00:33:21| No, don't know. They could. I couldn't find one up there. But Buddy, they, you know, brought it out and showed it to me. It was great. But then my big breakthrough in photography came because Dave Reddick, the photo editor of Powder for a really, really long time, I mean, until the very end with powder just kind of close the doors last year. He became a supporter of mine and he kind of thought I was doing something pretty good, and he really helped me kind of take it to a new level. Yeah. Thank you, Dave,
Tom Kelly: |00:33:53| For magazines today. And unfortunately, powder has gone off to the sidelines right now. Just before we started, we looked at your cover on Ski magazine. So you're still getting out there? Where do you put your stuff out these days?
Lee Cohen: |00:34:07| I try to send it to the magazines like, you know, there's just less magazines out there now, and, you know, hopefully print survives. Because I mean, for me, I'd rather look at print, I don't read on my phone. And I think it just looks better. And you know, like I kind of was thinking that maybe magazines will go to a quarterly format and that might be a really good way for them to do it. And then they can make a high quality mag that has resonance. I think they're still totally viable. So, you know, as long as I'm shooting, I'm going to be sending to him like the biggest deals I can get at a shooting ski photography. Ah, when someone comes up to me and says, you know what, looking at your photos has a lot to do with why I moved out here or I go into somebody's house that I don't know, and they have a photo of ripped out of a mag on the refrigerator that I shot or something like that, that that makes it all worthwhile because sometimes I really think that it's a kind of thankless job in many ways with the industry and everything. And it's really like, you know, a feel good, selfish, hedonistic deal. At some point you kind of think, Gee, man, there's got to be something more important in the world than this.
Tom Kelly: |00:35:22| Well, I'm really glad to hear you say this because I grapple with this a little bit because I've spent much of my life in photography, not at the same level that you have. That was my principal earning mechanism back in the 70s, less so since then. But I kind of learned over time that one of the things that really gave me the most greatest satisfaction was not so much getting a check for an image, but it was the feeling that I influenced somebody else and today I do that with my iPhone on Facebook and Instagram. I don't need to have it in a magazine, but that gratification is an important element, isn't it?
Lee Cohen: |00:35:58| Yeah, absolutely. That's how I get the most gratification out of photography. Absolutely. If somebody like just mentions to me, something like that and oh heck, you know, like I still have just when I'm out there, like all the. You know, it becomes work, anything becomes work, it kind of, you know, it has a little nuisance, it's like needling you in the side a little bit like, I still have so much fun when I'm out there shooting on the day that I'm liking what I'm seeing. Just as much fun as day one.
Tom Kelly: |00:36:32| So let's talk about some of the places that you love to shoot. I mean, can you without giving away maybe too many secrets? What are some of your favorite places here in Utah to shoot?
Lee Cohen: |00:36:43| It's all. It's all incredible. I've got my little spots up here at Alta. I like to like, you know, the backcountry at Alta Rocky Point is maybe the most photographed place on Earth, possibly even at one point when Freeze magazine was around, the photo editor said, If I see any more slides from Rocky Point, I'm throwing them in the garbage and I still go there. I still get shots published there. It is just an incredible mecca and I find that you can always make a place look different. You shoot it with a different millimeter lens or from a different spot. If you shift your location even just a few feet, you're making it look different and change lenses. It's way different. And you know, you just got to try to change your approach and make the same old thing look different and it can be challenging. But I don't find it to be that difficult. And there are humongous opportunities in this in the resorts here and out of the resorts.
Tom Kelly: |00:37:37| Do you go up with a camera every time you're on the mountain?
Lee Cohen: |00:37:41| Absolutely not. Like as I've gotten older when I was younger and sometimes I kind of beat myself up over this because I miss opportunities by not having it with me all the time. And it doesn't seem like it would be that much of a pain in the ass to have a small backpack with a small camera and small with a small zoom on it. But I just want to go skiing sometimes when I got to keep it alive and especially on storm days, I used to like to shoot on storm days because nobody did it and it gave me an edge. I thought, but now there's such a humongous photography scene that everybody's out there shooting all the time, and I'm only going to shoot when I think it's really worth getting the goods. And I want to go skiing on those storm days and I want to keep my love for skiing alive. And you know, at some point I'll probably stop shooting pictures and I'm hoping I'm still skiing and loving it.
Tom Kelly: |00:38:34| Well, I want to talk about the new generation of photographers, but before we do that? Who are some of the photographers over your career that you've shot alongside of here in Utah?
Lee Cohen: |00:38:45| Well, Scott Markewitz and I were the two photographers in Little Cottonwood for a really long time, and there weren't that many people around. And you know, he could be the greatest ski photographer of all time. Perhaps like he's just like a machine. And he had like all the contracts when I was first coming up. And he's just an incredible photographer. Chris Noble was a photographer around here. He was also ... but skiing and wasn't his main gig. He was kind of did a lot of mountaineering and some climbing stuff, and he had a big deal going with the north face. He was really like tapped into north face. They're the bigger guys around here, I hope I'm not leaving anybody out, you guys.
Tom Kelly: |00:39:28| That's OK. They'll let us know. But as you look at them as you look at how it's changed today, and I really get excited when I look at the new wave of photography that's coming through from the young photographers that is really looking at things a little bit different, maybe processing a little bit different. I kind of see a bit of the, I'll call it, the Instagram age coming out. How do you see the new generation of photographers coming up and what do they represent?
Lee Cohen: |00:39:58| Well, I think that there's just so much more quantity out there, it makes it tougher for somebody like me, let's say, or for anybody, for any individual, like it's more competitive. But I think that they're, you know, they're taking it to new heights to at the same time, I don't think they're doing anything necessarily that different than what me or any of us other old fogies are doing. But they're hungry and the young guys are out there pushing the bar and they're out there all the time like I was when I was their age. And they're getting it done, being hungry. It's like a huge factor in getting anything done. Like if you're a basketball player, you know you're out there practicing your basketball. If you're a football player, you're running sprints and getting your knees high. If you're a ski photographer, you're out there shooting ski pictures.
Tom Kelly: |00:40:45| Is there anything that's characteristic about the style and how the style of imagery is changing?
Lee Cohen: |00:40:52| Uh, you know, no, I don't think that much, really. I don't think that much, I think like you go through like little periods of, OK, we're backing off on like there is a while with a big air. Shots were really, really in style and they're still in style. But like, it seems like they went back to more POW shots like lately. In the last few years, I see like ski areas will advertise skiers and powder more than they do air. And but you know, the air stuff is super exciting and the powder shots get to be mundane, I guess.
Tom Kelly: |00:41:27| Yeah. Do you have any tips for recreational skiers who are out here in Utah on a vacation and is want to get this great power shot of their buddies? Any simple tips that you can give them on how to get a great shot?
Lee Cohen: |00:41:42| Well, you know, if you're shooting with your phone, I probably can't help you because I don't shoot with my phone. Hardly ever. But if you're shooting with a real camera, you concentrate on following your subject. Try to set up your shots if you're not a pro. Try to set up your shots to make the odds be in your favor and have the light working in your favor, either being side lit, front lit, backlit. If you're shooting in the storm, go out when there's a lot of snowflakes falling.
Tom Kelly: |00:42:16| I think what you said about light, a lot of people don't think about light. We see this in the Zoom era where someone sits themselves right up against a window in the back light comes through. But thinking about that light is pretty vital to a good shot, isn't it?
Lee Cohen: |00:42:29| Lee Cohen: Yeah, yeah. And it's, you know, and the conditions are important like, you know, to an average recreational skier on the hill, it might not be so important that it has to be stellar conditions of beautiful sparkly powder, that's untracked. But it helps. It's going to make it look better, like getting shots of your buddies in skied up snow is good or you know, The biggest thing is that I would say to my skiers skiing powder, don't lay it over because you want to just ... in Utah, it's deep enough. You don't have to fake it. Just try to ski with form and style. Don't bring your hands too high. Don't make your hands too low, no higher than like a little below your shoulders and alternating pole plants in the powder. Ski with style - form is everything.
Tom Kelly: |00:43:17| Great advice. Lee Cohen, Thanks for sharing all these stories today. We're going to close out this episode of last year with our fresh tracks sections. A few questions to close things out. First of all, a simple one. Nikon, Canon, Sony.
Lee Cohen: |00:43:33| I think they're all great. I've been a Nikon person my whole life. So, you know, at one point I might have thought about changing when Nikon was lagging behind Canon in the autofocus, but they were a year behind or a year and a half. And then they had it. And I love my Nikon equipment. It's burly. It can take a beating. Like, I'm not like the most careful person, so I'm a little abusive of the equipment and it's done me well.
Tom Kelly: |00:44:01| I'm with you on that Nikon F, you could drive nails with that thing. Back in the '70s.
Lee Cohen: |00:44:05| I still have one of my neck kind of too. I still have one.
Tom Kelly: |00:44:08| I don't think I do. I've got like an FE and an FM, but somehow I got rid of all of those. But do you have a favorite Utah ski run, either a resort run or a backcountry?
Lee Cohen: |00:44:19| High Rustler is my favorite run in the world on a powder day when it's smooth. I don't like it when it's bumps anymore because I've had a knee replacement and I'm just getting older and I don't ski bumps anymore. But when it's north, facing the snow stays good. When it's smooth or it's powder, it's the greatest run ever.
Tom Kelly: |00:44:37| I looked up there today and it was bumps, so I didn't ski today, so I didn't have a I ...
Lee Cohen: |00:44:42| I heard it's skiing good, though.
Tom Kelly: |00:44:43| Looked, you know, I did look pretty good though. The top especially. Do you have an image that's very special to you?
Lee Cohen: |00:44:51| I have a handful, you know, I have a bunch, a bunch of images that are, you know, like, I could probably be impossible for me to say this is my favorite image ever, because it just changes like I've been really fortunate enough to work with some great skiers over the years and they've all become friends of mine. You know, we started as friends before we were like professionally, like skiing together. And you know, the best one of all of them is my son, who's a pro skier, and I've gotten to shoot him, I guess probably more than anybody because I've been making them work for me since he was a little kid.
Tom Kelly: |00:45:27| He's there and he's free, right?
Lee Cohen: |00:45:29| Yeah, yeah. And he rips like he's as good as anybody.
Tom Kelly: |00:45:34| Cool. Do you have a favorite High West whiskey brand?
Lee Cohen: |00:45:38| I've tried them all a little bit. I'm going to say Campfire.
Tom Kelly: |00:45:41| I love Campfire. It's just so different. Very distinct. Very smoky. Last one in a single word. What does your passion for mountain photography mean to you?
Lee Cohen: |00:45:55| Hard one. Powder.
Tom Kelly: |00:45:57| Yeah, powder. We'll take it. Lee Cohen, thanks for sharing all of these wonderful stories and insights. We have loved your photography these past few decades and keep at it. We love it.
Lee Cohen: |00:46:09| Thank you, Tom. It's great to be here. Thanks.