Anyone familiar with the Exposure section of Outside will instantly recognize the name Mark Fisher. The 36-year-old has earned a reputation as one of the best skiing and climbing photographers around. Photo District News added him to their 2012 list of photographers to watch, called the PDN 30. I called him to talk about his classic black and white ski images, but first wanted to learn a bit more about his background.
Fisher has taken a lot of pictures in a lot of wild places, a hobby that started at a young age. He took his first picture at the age of eight or nine in Dubai, where his father worked as a civil engineer. As a sophomore in high school, he got hooked on the craft when he took a photography class with an inspiring teacher named Jeff Grimm. In college at the University of Wisconsin, even though he studied German, international relations, and environmental studies, he always took time out for photos. “I was really into climbing, skiing, and mountaineering, “ he says. “So I would be traveling and taking all of those photos doing adventures with friends.”
Not long after school, he landed a job in Germany with a commercial photographer named Ramesh Amruth. Though Amruth exposed Fisher to studio work and the more commercial side of the craft—fashion, advertising, still life—he also planted a seed. “He was the first person that told me, Mark, I think you’d make a really good photographer. You’re good with people,” says Fisher. “And that year was the first time it sort of started to sink in: Oh wow, maybe I could make this a career.”
But to do that, he had to leave Germany and start shooting those things he loved most.
How did you go from commercial work to adventure photography?
I spent three or so years living in Germany, and then I was like, I’ve got to get out of here. I went straight to Alaska and started working as an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School. I went from working in a commercial studio to working for the better part of five years as a mountain guide for NOLS, Alpine Ascents International, and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. That was my main income, but then I was selling photos to places like Patagonia. So it was sort of, Okay, it would be cool to pursue this as a career, but I had no clue how to make that happen. Over the next five years I just built up a portfolio and built up a client list. It was pretty basic to be honest. But I was selling photos to Patagonia and getting a lot of encouragement from the photo editor, Jane Sievert. The first time I submitted photos in 2001 she told me, I really like your stuff, you’ve got a great eye, keep sending me your stuff, and make sure it’s tagged correctly. If you’re on an expedition, I can run it without you being around. I slowly built up and added to my skill set. While working in the guiding world I wondered, Do I really want to be a guide or a photographer? Finally, in 2005, I said, Screw it. I’m going to make this work.
What happened that you made that decision?
I think I just decided that I was more passionate about creating images than bringing people into the mountains. I got sort of burned out on bringing people into the mountains. I was doing stuff all over the world: Africa, Denali, Tetons, Cascades. I was definitely doing cool things, but I just decided I wasn’t as passionate about it as I was about making images. In 2005, I started making a website and business cards, and then I ended up getting a job apprenticing at the Santa Fe Workshop. I spent a season working in the studio and it was awesome. I worked with people like Norman Jean Roy and Paul Elledge, really inspirational photographers doing totally different things. That was sort of a launch.
When did you start shooting these black and white skiing photos?
As much as anything, I was a product of film photography. When I started, I rolled my own film and I shot black and white because that was cheap and easy. You print in the dark room, roll your own film, load your own camera, and that's that. I always shot black and white film growing up. Some of my earlier climbing and skiing shots were on black and white film. I love the contrast. I love the textures, and just the feel of black and white. It’s really challenging to make a good black and white image. When the opportunity presents itself—and a lot of those images you see are digital converted to black and white—I’m always looking for those moments. I’m always looking for an image that is the perfect black and white. A lot of the black and whites are small people in big environments. They are almost landscape images that just happen to have this human element.
What gear do you use?
When I’m in the helicopter—and I’d say half of these images are shot from a helicopter—I have two cameras. I have one camera called a Canon 5D with a 16-35 lens that I use to get wide-angle scenic shots, but I mostly use a Canon 1D Mark IV with a 24-105 lens. The reason I shoot with a 24-105 is because I like to be able to show the environment. I never want to shoot that tight from a heli. Whether it’s the gnarlyness below the skier or the aesthetics of the line, I like to be wide enough so that you can tell a story. That’s really important, especially shooting skiing in Alaska. What’s the background? What’s the scene? What’s the exposure? What’s the audacity of whatever the skier is doing?
When we’re skiing together, in those instances my standard kit is a 5D, a 1D, a 16-35, a 24-105, a 70-200, and often times a 300 2.8. I’ll also carry two tripods. Then I rock pocket wizards, which are remote transmitters. I’ll also sometimes take a 1.4 teleconverter.
So how heavy is your pack?
It ends up being close to 50 pounds, 45 pounds. It’s heavy, but that’s sort of the way you have to roll. Sometimes I’ll go lighter—if I know I’m not filming.
What’s your toughest shot?
It’s not a ski shot, but it’s the first image in my climb portfolio that’s a black and white. It was on a tough expedition. We had just made the decision about the snow conditions. We had been down climbing and decided, Oh, you know what? It’s too dangerous. Let’s rappel. So there’s a lot going in there that I managed to capture. This is on Denali, on a route called the West Rib. We had actually been down climbing the West Rib to make an ascent of the Cassin Ridge. We encountered these really gnarly conditions, tons of rock fall and tons of water because it was too warm. We ultimately had to bail not too long after this shot was taken. We ended up climbing the West Rib up to the summit. It’s just an amazing position.
And for skiing?
I think one of the universal elements of ski photography is that the moments are really fleeting. Things are happening so fast. There’s no way to know what’s truly going to happen. That’s not true of all images. Take, for instance, any of these powder shots that are close, like the color one. They are pretty easy to predict and pretty easy to shoot, because you’re working with the athlete and you’re like, Okay, I’m going to stand here. You ski by me here. This is this awesome backdrop and we’ll get this color shot. A lot of these black and whites—in fact all of them, for the most part—are totally unscripted moments in time when so many forces come together.
Take the skier going over this big crevasse. It wasn’t physically hard to get this shot, but you only have one chance. This image stands out in my mind because we’d literally been in Petersburg, Alaska, for weeks and weeks and it’s been raining every day. We just festered in this one town, just waiting to get out in the mountains, and this was literally the first day we had been out in weeks. Not only that, but this was unplanned, not premeditated. Nobody had any idea that he was going to do this flatspin 360 over this 50-foot crevasse. So, in that instant, you’re like, Holy shit, do I shoot it vertical? Do I shoot it horizontal? Where do I put my subject? This is all happening in the blink of an eye, and so I think what I’ve gotten better at over the years, is anticipating: Okay, if he’s going to go there, this is how I want to frame it.
Basically, you have to make all of these split-second decisions. It’s super easy to blow the focus, or just not get it. Any number of things can happen. You’re moving. You’re in the helicopter. Your hands are cold. Something could malfunction. On one hand, autofocus helps you get shots like this. On the other hand, autofocus could also ruin it because it tracks on another object. It’s not so much that it is the toughest shot that I’ve ever gotten, but more that I feel like these shots are sort of the gifts that I get. Especially in this sort of fine art collection. They are sort of the payoff for all of the long days, and the hard work, and the cold weather, and a lot of physical work and planning and time. You get these gifts. This is sort of what I go for. Every year, if I can get one image that is like this image? That’s it.
Were a lot of the images surprises?
Yes and no. Some of them were. I knew I wanted to show this image of a skier making a descent of this iconic peak, Devil’s Thumb. That’s an image where it’s not just serendipity. I don’t think serendipity produces these images. I think it’s a combination of the years of planning and experience. Ultimately, it’s your eye. None of these black and whites are heavily cropped. It’s that vision, but the moments when these happen? You never know. They happen unexpectedly and then you get this image where you’re like, Oh yeah, these things fit. Look at this solitary skier on this blank canvas that’s happening in mid-air. There was a conscious effort to frame it. I want this clean diagonal line coming from the corner. I’m just going to shoot this skier on the blank white canvas. Then there was this moment when he sort of jumped in the air. That was unexpected. But I wanted to take the shot because of the white background and the clean line. That was a conscious decision.
What do you hope that people get out of these shots?
My hope is that they enjoy them, that these images transcend the world of skiing and appeal to someone who’s a non-skier. That they enter the world of fine art enough that someone would say, Oh, I could put that on my wall. Hopefully, they invoke some sort of emotion for the people that look at them. It’s not just ski porn. It’s not just action sports. Take image number 22 in my ski portfolio. That’s just a moment in time. Yeah, it’s skiing, but it almost looks like this big wave of water with these really thick shadows, and light, and texture. I want these images to transcend that world of action sports, where the skier as the subject is just sort of an element in this larger environment that ultimately gives you something different.
To see these skiing black and white images in a photo gallery, go here.