Walk west. Through biting cold and heavy snow and eventually you will find a glaciated field of cerebral rabbit holes. Dig deep enough and there is one in particular with the name Blake Jorgenson etched beside it. It falls fast and steep, its cavernous chute lined with tall trees and the odd fleck of a human – but upon landing you will mostly see mountains. The kind that beckon you with seductive shoulders and sharp spines, shivering layers of white under the tumble of clouds. North faces are watching, the only audience for miles. In the middle of this stands Blake with his camera, quiet and unassuming, thigh deep in five hundred shades of grey and gravitas.
A dramatic opening paragraph, yes, but if you’ve seen Blake’s images you’ll understand why.
He is an action sports photographer (who readily pierces other genres). At twenty-three he fell into a creative vortex in Whistler, B. C. sparked by his desire to communicate from beneath his layer of characteristic shy. Nearly twenty years later his images are instantly emotive, refined and unwittingly dramatic as quiet intellects have a tendency to do. He has reminded me over the years of Thom Yorke but far more handsome and only if Thom Yorke was a mountaineer. His hair is currently pop star tidy but mainly shaggy artist, an inconsequential detail for you to know but a part of why chic’s love him and dudes have man crushes on him.
Most importantly when it comes to his work – the process, albeit a challenging one, where frozen fingers and broken equipment in subzero temperatures are all part of it, his quiet nature makes him all the more mysterious or mistaken as aloof. He is the guy at industry parties who bashfully chats on the sidelines with his shy grin and signature quirk: fingertips brushing like he’s twirling imaginary pencils in both hands – a twitch, reported by friends, indicative of his thinking mind. He is an artist at work even when he’s not at work.
Since he is not one for frivolous chitchat or saccharine overtures, conversation with him arrives as surprising as a rogue wave. Especially when it comes to his craft. So you stop, sit down, listen and let it wash over you. It is in these random moments that he delivers the most articulate insights, at times obscurely contradictory like all good artists do. He also reveals how he had to evolve as an astute businessman in his craft, a skill I figured he had to learn whether he liked to or not. He is also treasured by his friends. I’ve often heard of his below-the-radar kindness and lending hand to the ones he loves.
I sat down with Blake over a year ago to do a creative bio for him. Much like the artist himself, our words together have percolated long enough, bubbling on my laptop awaiting your eyes.
He spoke about “the hero”. On failure. The Why. What Sarah Burke said. How most people will hate good art and the one thing you need to be as an action sports photographer…S.F.A.
Rogue wave surfers. Lucky us.
In most of human history, the adventure of life has simply been to stay alive. Nowadays we are obsessed with making life easy. We have become bored, a culture denied of adventure so we have to create adventures and obstacles for ourselves. People are connected so digitally that the authenticity and reality of what is human is what people are looking for. In the past we have always had a Roman-esque “worship the hero” society. The formula being: endorse the hero, then the people will follow – it’s not that simple anymore. Now the consumer is the hero – “Check out my story (on Youtube, Instagram). Everything, therefore, has to be more real, less fantasy and more about human connections.
THE WHY of HIS CHOOSING PHOTOGRAPHY
When I was really young, I feared communication and was incredibly shy. Photography was a way to communicate indirectly as I found talking incredibly uncomfortable. It was my way to get others to communicate back to me, visually.
Later on I learned that in order to be successful it’s a requirement that you learn how to communicate verbally. I had to learn how. If you talk to a lot of artists, they have a similar story. The secret ingredient to becoming successful is that you have to embrace the aspect that you wanted to avoid in the first place.
FIRST BIG PROJECT:
When I was twenty-three, I went to Turkey. That was the first year I was trying to do photography full time. I was tuning skis for work but taking photos instead. I got fired from Blackcomb for missing shifts and took a leap of faith. Back then I could survive off five dollars a week. It didn’t require much to turn the wheels. In Whistler at that time it was during the birth of the action sports scene. Pre-cellphones. You’d go to the ski shop to see what was up.
A year later, I won the TELUS Pro-Photographer Showdown in Whistler. My whole purpose wasn’t to launch a career, it was to communicate. It was about reaching out, not for getting anything out of it. It’s still the same for me but it gets more complicated and intricate as you get older. These days it’s easy to take pretty photos but really hard to communicate on a deep level. “Nobody becomes an expert in photography. You become an expert in what you photograph.” I’ve always loved that quote. No one is a photographer by trade.
ON GOOD PHOTOGRAPHY
When people ask me to review their work, the most common problem I find is they are shooting random stuff. They aren’t diving deep enough into just one thing and it shows. Good photography is typically when someone is an expert in that particular genre.
ON THE MECHANICS OF LIFE
To me, the actual mechanics of how you spend your time in life is the most important thing. When I was younger, I considered being a war journalist. I thought it would be exciting but I quickly realized I didn’t want to be a part of something negative. I find every project I’m a part of to be exciting, exhilarating – the people, characters and personalities. Of course there is adversity and negativity that you have to overcome: injuries, death, danger, huge egos and sometimes poor decision making. As well, it’s not a suit and tie industry – so dealing with unclear communication is common. But dealing with more complicated topics like world politics – that’s challenging. When you have everyone on the same page even when it’s not perfect – that’s when great things happen.
ON PROBLEM SOLVING
It’s about coming up with different ways to push the limits, with calculated risks, physically and budget wise. When I was younger, my job felt much more dangerous because I didn’t have enough experience and when I returned I felt very alive. Most of the time trips are very uncomfortable and I’d think, “this is really hard, too hard.” But when I got home I thought the opposite, “that was the most adventurous trip of my life.” A lot of the excitement comes from problem solving. You’ll most likely get lost or equipment will break and in the moment you’re not thinking it’s awesome. You’re thinking it’s horrible! You feel the elements of insecurity and discomfort. That’s when you really bond with the people you’re with, through the discomfort. If you stay in your comfort zone you won’t experience this.
WHAT SARAH BURKE SAID
I think it was Sarah Burke who said, “the healthiest way to live is to express every emotion every day – laugh, be scared, cry.” I love this. Our bodies are designed to expel energy and many of us have a tendency to hold it in. When you hold that energy in, it will breach in some other way which might not be the healthiest.
When I’m on these trips my brain works in a different way. When my body is going thru extreme cold I’m not really thinking about what’s going on at home.
ON THE GUTS
It’s important to take risks and go for it. A lot of people don’t force themselves to take time out for personal projects that are a risk. Personal projects in photography are important in order to stay inspired and feel alive. The energy you gain from these projects can then be put into your later work. It’s important to go for it. A lot people struggle when they are stuck in a rut.
I dedicated a whole winter to Sean Petit and a crew. They decided to take a huge risk on their own, with no sponsorship with a move called The Masquerade. I thought, here are these young guys turning away the support of solid film companies and giving it the artist approach – young guys going for it.
I also love longer projects. Creatively these days, the pressure to output is quick. The common demand is to pump projects out in one or two weeks. I love how National Geographic will take six months to a year to figure out a story, the people and the photos. When you run from one project to the other it’s hard to get a sense of things. What Sean and those guys did was a huge risky endeavour and quite rewarding. The photos I created are above normal.
Failure is inevitable. Passion is the most important driver. It allows you to scrape yourself off the floor and gives you the energy to keep going. Passion is needed for perseverance. The hardest part of any work is maintaining the energy needed to keep going.
The thing is, time flies. The next thing you know, you’re an expert. But the passion – if you don’t have it – your body and mind will always take the safe route. All of us have to fight that. If you’re a logical thinker, especially, you will battle with the flat line of security. To stay passionate, you always have to flex your own comfort zone.
The process is what matters most: the guts to get out of bed knowing you went for it. You gain so much knowledge from doing this. If you want to be good at what you do, you have to become thick skinned to falling off the horse. Ironically no one really pays attention to your failures. Babe Ruth struck out more than he did home runs. When you’re going for it, you will hit home runs. Convincing yourself to not do something is far more grinding.
TEACHING PHOTOGRAPHY, THE LANGUAGE
Putting words to the process of photography is challenging when you have to explain how you do what you do. A photo is something that is constructed, assembling communication visually. It is no different than the words I’m choosing to structure this sentence. If I say words out of order – you won’t understand what I’m saying. A bad photo is jumbled communication. A good photo is thought out and well-constructed and the idea/concept you’re getting across, it infinitely grows. You never stop learning – this is photographic process. It’s like baking a cake, to assemble “words” to show to somebody else.
The lighting and time of day, they are the more the superficial elements. The important ones are: what is the relevance of the “words”? What’s the relationship within the content? Why is it going to inspire someone or why should they even care? The coolest part is that you get to express photography in infinite ways. Everyone can create their own language, their own way of communicating visually.
MOST PEOPLE WILL HATE GOOD ART
Some people might not understand all art. Some will. In general with art and creative communication, people (the observer) become empowered by unlocking the positive. When people see paintings or photographs with deep meaning constructed within them they become empowered as an intellectual, especially when they are able to see it but even more so when others can’t.
Hence, really good art is when most people will hate it and a small percentage of others will love it. If everyone gets it, it’s simply mediocre. The intellectuals will be the lovers of that particular art. Fine art photography comes in here, it is often well thought out information to translate deep information. Most people won’t see. Others will praise it.
WHAT EMOTION DO YOU BEST LIKE TO EVOKE?
You already answered it. It’s emotion itself. Anything that you shoot, if there is risk, high energy, serenity, moodiness, sadness – anything emotive can always be translated. All of the places I’ve traveled to connects with this. The person moving, standing, experiencing the environment within the photo is the next level of emotive. I explain to students to look for relationships between things. What is the relationship here? How am I going to translate it?
The challenge with action sport photography is to make it relevant to the observer, that you’ve translated the information in an expert way. You can limp your way through it and even good enough photographers do this. Making it relevant is key.
THE THREE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS for action-sports photography:
Sick. Fucking. Action.*
*His girlfriend was uncertain if he actually said this but I swear to God he did. I have it on tape.