Armed with an antique camera, photographer John Huggins illustrates modern-day skiing—but with a historic and timeless touch.
Neither the camera he used nor the gondola car he rode were like those of his fellow skiers. For that matter, what he achieved in the days that followed were not epic runs, but something else equally rewarding: a unique vision and graceful chronicle of the experience of skiing.
Huggins used a Graflex Super D, an antique camera that, in its day, was made popular by such legendary photographers as Alfred Stieglitz and Dorothea Lange. Designed to be handheld, the cumbersome camera accepted large single sheets of film. Normally this would require a tripod. Instead, the specially modified open-air gondola became Huggins’ aerial roost, allowing him to make images of the skiers below, unobstructed by walls or glass. Stooped over the rim of the gondola, “I spent day after day freezing and trying to not let anything fall out,” says Huggins.
Though Huggins wasn’t exactly certain what would result—he only processed the Polaroids once he returned home to Los Angeles—he did know that he wanted to eliminate the horizon and show small figures within a minimalist landscape. He was striving for the pure feeling of being in nature—a theme that carries through his other portfolios—as well as reflecting the influence of Western photographers, such as Robert Adams, through showing the traces of human activity in the landscape.
Originally he transferred the 4-by-4-inch Polaroid images onto archival paper. Recently, using digital technology, he faithfully reproduced these delicate images—which look remarkably like small paintings or watercolors—onto 30-by-40-inch paper. Nostalgia imbues these images—not only for us as viewers, as a result of Huggins’ pastel palette, subtle tonalities and soft focus, but also for the memories Huggins has of Aspen. As a child, he was taught to ski on Buttermilk and he learned to appreciate that the art of skiing was governed by the natural elements of gravity and snow. Of the hundreds of images he made from his frozen perch, “the ones I like feel very free and active, and have a lot of movement,” he says.
Huggins studied photography at Hampshire College under influential photographer and teacher Jerome Liebling, who encouraged him to “photograph what I know; the things that matter to me personally, the things I have a connection with.” He understood it was not the only way to photograph, but this autobiographical approach to image-making is what he embraced. For instance, Huggins once was hit by a fellow skier from behind and suffered a broken tailbone, followed by a ride down the mountain in a ski-patrol sled, such as portrayed in Aspen #5. “It was part of skiing and my experience, so I included it in the series.”
Some of his happiest memories were of skiing with his parents and siblings. “There’s one image with six figures (Aspen #3), almost like a family—some are old; some, middle-aged; and some, young.” He says those memories remain like a set piece in a museum, unchanged. He sees skiing in Aspen as a classic part of America’s heritage, and the use of historic equipment to create painterly images seemed fitting to capture something that endures. For Huggins, skiing is ballet; “it’s beautiful; it’s pure—an ancestral form of transportation and so natural. When someone skis—with those two boards of wood connected to [his or her] feet—there’s a connection not only to the earth, but to hundreds of years of tradition and to all those that skied before.”