Beyond the Press Box is a regular feature profiling the folks who color outside the lines of sport.
To preface this interview, well, just maybe look at the pictures. That’s about 10k words right there. And would like to thank Truckee, Calif.-based Court Leve for taking the time with us; that’s (almost) bigger than any of the lines you’ll find below:
Andrew Pridgen: Court, you’re my favorite ski photog. You know why? It’s because all of your shots if you took the skier out you still have an incredible vista/landscape and each video frame photo-worthy. You’re like the Bob Ross-meets-Kubrick of action sports shooters. How intentional is this?
Court Leve: Most of my ski/riding/shooting takes place in Alaska. It can be really tough to show the scale without losing your subject. It’s easy to be drawn into showing as much as possible of the landscape up there and turning your athlete into a dot. Finding a balance that allows the viewer to see the athlete and also get a sense of scale is tough.
AP: Not to belabor the point, but do your athletes ever get jealous that everyone’s looking at the sun dip below the Chugach cloud line instead of their sick line? I would.
CL: No way. The athletes I’ve been fortunate to work with have had their photos taken a bunch at races, competitions, head shots, etc. They are just as stoked, if not more, to see a shot of themselves in a photo that shows the landscape. I find this especially true with racers. They spend the majority of their time on snow on a race course and their photos are predominately tight shots of them racing. The athletes know what they look like! They don’t need to be able to look at a photo and say, “Hey that’s me!” They know it and like having that moment, that time captured.
AP: I know you always pack a little humility in your carry-on when you go shoot big lines but indulge me for a second: When you’re out there in the no-fall zone and trying to balance your gear and trying to set up a shot and trying to keep up and trying not to die, are you ever like, “What the fuck was I thinking?”
CL: You need to trust your gut and trust who you’re out in the zone with. You should rarely ask yourself “What the fuck was I thinking?” out there. The consequences are real with very little margin of error. But keeping calm and being aware of what’s going on around you and being able to crack a joke here and there at the right time can be a switch in gears the crew needs. Scoping lines can sometimes turn serious, athletes in deep thought about their line, their outs, their life maybe. You do not want to get in their headspace. But, sometimes the right remark at the right time can cause a chuckle and be just what the situation calls for. Or maybe it will shift the crew into looking at a different line and moving on. One for me in particular was while working in Valdez with Seth Wescott and Ueli Kestenholz. We had to drop into the top of a run aptly called Sphincter. The entrance was very steep and a super narrow and you had to dog-leg right or adios off a cliff. Of course Ueli drops in and flashes the line. Seth buckles up and pats me on both shoulders, looks me dead in the eyes and says, “Good luck.” laughs, grins, then turns and flashes it. It made me laugh for sure. Followed by me asking my guide Dave “The Wave” for any advice. He’s casually rolling a drum cigarette and without hesitation or even looking up at me says “Yeah, don’t fall.” Being able to laugh then and pull my mind down a few notches was great. I skied the thing like shit but was making jokes to my buddy filming me dropping into it.
AP: Scariest moment for you on the mountain in the last half-decade?
CL: So, speaking of “What the fuck was I thinking?” and never saying that …A few years ago we were shooting on a run called Bubbies. It’s a huge face, steep and probably near 3,000 vertical. The snow was amazing. After we shot our athletes, I decided to ski like a regular skier, not like a camera guy with 50 pounds on my back. A few turns in I was in heaven but the snow changed a little lower and had a bit of zipper crust on the top. I was for sure going way too fast and wound up in the back seat which ultimately ended with skis flying, slide for life for several hundred feet. I will never forget being on my belly in the superman position and watching one of my skis slip through my fingers. Crazy visual to remember as I was spinning around and trying my best to dig in, which I finally did. I was super (putting it lightly) lucky to wind up with a broken tripod, a bump on the head, a sore knee and a little bit embarrassed. Back to your other question, also a great time for some self humility to ease your friends who no doubt for a bit thought this situation could end poorly….
AP: I know there’s a good bit of gallows humor out there when things get a little hectic, especially in AK. Any one incident stick out where everyone’s feeling pretty nervy and someone said or did something to ease the tension?
CL: We were looking at a huge first descent from the helicopter. Mitch Tolderer felt good about his line and conditions. The next thing to do was figure out where to shoot it from. We spun around a few times in the heli and Tom Day, cinematographer for Warren Miller says, “Hey Court, what do you think about that?” He was pointing to a little peak with a landing area about the size of a pool table. It pretty much looked like what a kid would draw for a mountain peak. Sharp and pointy, cliffs on all sides and zero way of skiing down. This was moments after my aforementioned crash. Between that and the seriousness of Mitch’s line the mood in the heli was pretty darned quite and business-like. We’re hovering, silence sorta waiting for my answer; “totally medium” I respond over the headset and everyone laughs because it was a totally hairball idea to land where Tom pointed to. So of course, that’s where we wound up shooting from.
CL: Ski of choice for a few years have been my Volkl Chopsticks. I call them the ‘cheat-sticks’ because they are so forgiving. I’m due for something new if anyone wants to sponsor me! My camera pack consists of the following (from memory may be forgetting a few things). Nikon D3s, D4, 16mm, 17-35, 24-70, 70-200, 80-400, two pocket wizards, extra batteries for everything, memory cards and a monopod for my second camera setup firing remotely. Somehow manage to stuff some food and water and an extra layer along with a probe and shovel. Sometimes I’ve added a third camera …Oh, and a pocket camera around my neck.
AP: Travel plans for this winter? Or are you going to keep it mostly local?
CL: For the past ten years whenever I’ve made plans this early in the season they never happen. For a few years I felt I couldn’t make time for Alaska. Then I wind up driving to Points North with owner Kevin Quinn with my dog and staying there for 2.5 months….
AP: Home-base is in Truckee and you’re now heading into the fourth pretty unspectacular Sierra winter in a row. You travel enough and you shoot enough beyond the snow to mitigate that work-wise, but do you stress about the snowpack with everyone else in town?
CL: I never stress about the snowpack, anywhere. Not a whole lot you can do about it other than go somewhere else. Spend enough time looking for good weather and snow whether that be in the lower 48 or Alaska and you know it’s all part of the game. And are you saying this year is already written off? I’m going to hold on to hope for now! Maybe a little stir crazy at times, but that’s why they invented whiskey.
AP: In a previous life, you were one of my favorite news photographers. Along with the aforementioned action and landscape work, you always turned out nice lifestyle and breaking news stuff. How do you satisfy that itch to diversify and work beyond the stoke?
CL: I pick up editorial work here and there which I really enjoy. It’s great connecting with people and having different assignments thrown your way. Making the mundane look interesting. That challenge is what I like. Photography is unique in that you can reinvent yourself, have a totally different job from day to day. It can be hard to keep things fresh. I think it’s a constant challenge for me and it for sure has its ups and downs.
AP: Avy awareness is definitely everyone’s topic one. As a shooter in these conditions, because you’re juggling, your safety is first, last and everything in between. Do you feel the heightened awareness is giving people pause, or do you think it’s an excuse to push further?
CL: I think people should always pause and listen to your gut. Surround yourself with people that are taking things slow and who are experienced. I’ve been spoiled to shoot and ski so much with Points North, Kevin and a number of his guides who all have a number of years, if not decade(s) of experience in the mountains. To the untrained eye it might seem like they are just hopping in a helicopter and heading out into the mountains but they are constantly tracking weather, snowfall, winds, etc.. And when they are in the zone guiding their brains are working overtime looking at all the angles and constantly assessing the conditions. Anyone heading out backcountry or even in the resorts need to always be checking where they are, whats above them, etc. There are more avalanche incidents now maybe than 10 years ago but there are more skiers in avalanche territory as well. Sadly each year we lose people. Some experienced, some not. You can be as careful as humanly possible and still get caught. Again, trust your gut and if you are with people that are scaring you, or you think are acting like a cowboy. Find new ski partners.
CL: Give me a second.
AP: Best spot (non-tourist) to grab a beer in Truckee?
AP: One Tahoe meal you look forward to having when you’re away?
CL: Cooking at home. Traveling often means eating out a lot.
AP: Skier you’re most compatible with?
CL: Kevin Quinn. He’s pushed me and made me a better skier over the years and knows my skiing ability better than I do.
AP: Mountain you’re most compatible with?
CL: Squaw on a powder Wednesday.
AP: Fill in the blanks: On a dream pow day, I want first tracks on ______.
CL: Any line in the Chugach
AP: Skiing with Daron is like _______.
CL: Skiing by yourself. You won’t keep up! Bring your skigee to wipe the dust off your goggles!
AP: The girl who shreds most in Tahoe is ______. (Sorry for putting you on the spot.)
AP: The best skier the rest of us has never heard of is _______.
CL: That skier question is really tough. I’m very out of the loop there I’m afraid. I would have to say the person I’ve skied/worked with that blows me away both for his eye, ability to direct and ski sometimes all at the same time with 80 (yes, eighty) pounds on is back is Tom Day.
AP: My favorite shot of all time is ______ (feel free to include image).
AP: And the shot that got away is _______.
CL: I can’t show you that one.
AP: The future of Squaw is ______.
AP: Ay’ait Mr. Leve, we’ve pestered you enough. Time for you to showcase your wares. Let the people know how to find and schedule you:
AP: Much appreciated Court! Be safe this winter and can’t wait to see what’s next.
CL: Thanks for the interview!