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chris brunkhart | interview by mike yoshida

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Name: Chris Brunkhart

Age: 45

Home Mountain: None

Hometown: Have to say Portland, OR

Gear: Leica M6

I believe the early nineties was one of the more exciting times in snowboarding. Hardboots were traded in for softboots, board construction and design had accelerated, and the boundaries of what could be done on a snowboard were seemingly reinvented every year. It was insane. New tricks were being invented every season, and I’m not talking about a new grab or an extra cork to throw onto an already insane trick. I’m talking about the fundamental elements that make up freestyle snowboarding to date. Luckily, back then we had a handful of really talented photographers to document what was going on. Enter Chris Brunkhart. Not only was Chris one of my favorite shooters back then, but he had a real artistic, misty side to his persona. He primarily shot black and white film and whether it had to do with his upbringing shooting in the Northwest or the fact that he just loves textures, I was into it. Around the turn of the century, Chris had done it all. He had shot with the best of the best and traveled the globe with superstars like Craig Kelly, Jamie Lynn, and Temple Cummins; a true Northwest legend in his own right. But after the highest high, some of us can succumb to our lowest lows. Chris took a turn for the worse and for a minute he was off the map, addicted to drugs and dealing with how to communicate to his friends that he was gay. It was truly an inner struggle that took years to overcome. Years later, Chris is clean, living in NYC, and shooting and producing some of his most amazing imagery to date. So here it is, the Chris Brunkhart interview, one of my favorite photographers, and a true artist.

—Mike Yoshida

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This shot is from one of my very first snowboard shoots. Matt Goodwill at the windlip on Blackcomb Glacier, BC.

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Big airs at the annual summer pipe at Tyrol Basin, WI.

You have quite the history starting up some awesome companies. Explain to us the history behind Movement Snowboards and also helping put together Frequency Magazine.

What was your introduction to snowboarding and where did you grow up riding?

I grew up in the Midwest, started skating as a kid and always enjoyed the snow. We built jump ramps and launched off them with sleds, skateboards with shoes attached, whatever would propel us through the air. After my family moved to Portland, I started going up to Mt. Hood, renting a Sims Switchblade and riding from 10am to 10pm.

THE STORIES I DID, THE PEOPLE I PHOTOGRAPHED, EVERYONE WAS NO ONE

Which came first for you, photography or snowboarding?

Photography. My dad was and avid photographer, as was my uncle. I sold bird feeders to buy my first camera when I was twelve.

Explain to us the nineties era in which you were a Senior Photographer at SNOWBOARDER. A lot of people talk about those days like they were the golden age of snowboarding, since things were new, growth was booming, and more money was in the industry. Let us know your take on that time frame.

Yeah, the dream of the nineties. Snowboarding was still in its infancy, and not yet embraced by the mainstream. Nobody had turned it into a mass commodity yet. This gave us a kind of carte blanche to do whatever we wanted, impelled us to be creative. We were renegades. Whether it was the graphics, the movies we made, the stories we did--there were no rules or standards, so we just did what came naturally. It was a great time to be an artist or an athlete. You could push the boundaries and evolve at your own pace. Those years were the golden age. Corporations weren’t dictating what was cool, using us as spokespeople and salesmen. Instead, the riders were starting their own companies, making their own image of what was cool. The stories I did, the people I photographed, everyone was no one. We were all just a part of this bigger community, making something out of nothing. We owned it, and we owned it in more than one respect.

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I FINALLY CAME OUT AS GAY TO MY FRIENDS AND FAMILY, WHICH WAS ACTUALLY A LOT LESS DIFFICULT THAN ASKING FOR HELP WITH MY ADDICTION.

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A down day, and taking full advantage of the slushy snow. Jason Brown at Mike Weigele’s, BC.

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Ready to head out, Michi Albin gears up. Island Lake Lodge, BC.

At what point did you decide to move on from snowboard photography, and what are you up to now?

Snowboarding will always be a part of my life, but about ten years ago I realized I had been telling everyone else’s stories and hadn’t yet told my own. I hadn't even figured out my own story. As awesome as the nineties were, it was not a great time to be gay in the world of professional sports. So, by 2002 or so, I started really struggling. I became a carpenter, then a mechanic. I became a drug addict, and I hurt a lot of people, including myself. I finally came out as gay to my friends and family, which was actually a lot less difficult than asking for help with my addiction. I struggled to get clean, to heal. Now four years clean, I’m living in NYC with my partner of nine years. I’ve created space for myself to claim my voice and am learning new ways to work, new ways to tell stories including my own. I am seeing the world through new eyes and loving it.

Wow, that’s really awesome that you’ve grown enough to talk about these issues. So, what are some of the most essential tools that you use to shoot today?

Leica M6. The one camera that will always be at my side. Other cameras come and go, but my M6 is my hammer. I’m not going to call my partner a tool, but he is pretty invaluable to my work. He is relentlessly critical, and always keeps me on my toes, keeps me from getting stagnant.

What are some of the things that you learned, or creative processes that have changed between making Creedle Chronicles and your more recent book, How Many Dreams in the Dark?

Those were two very different approaches to making a book. With Creedle, I worked with Volcom to document a year of traveling with their riders. It was one of the best years I had on the road. Wooly believed in me as a photographer, and gave me this chance to work with some of the best riders and artists to create a one-of-a-kind piece. When it came time to work on Dreams, I had almost twenty years of photos. It was a huge undertaking, almost eighteen months of editing and layouts to create a cohesive retrospective of my travels. What I learned from both was that you can’t do it alone. You need editors, proofreaders, friends to help you. Both projects turned out better because of the input form others. Sometimes you can be so involved in a project that you don’t see them gems staring at you.

I’ve noticed that you are quite active on Instagram, and by the way, I’m a huge fan of everything you post on there. How do you envision photography is being changed by digital and social media?

It has definitely changed the landscape. Now, there are so many ways to see great photographs and to get others to see yours. There is a lot more shit out there as well, and it’s harder to navigate through it. I look back on all the other big changes in the history of photography, the invention of 35mm film vs. glass and metal plates, the brownie vs. the 4x5 and 8x10 cameras, the Polaroid. Photography has survived all of these changes, and has made the medium more accessible to everyone and enhanced the art of it as well. I have faith that the digital and social medias will be along the same lines.

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Understand that the essentials are outside the computer

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Sometimes it’s the simplicity and elegance that captures my eye. Jon Sommers and Sean Farmer outside of Juneau, AK.

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Snow in the city brings out the fun. Matt Donahue sessions with the tubbers on Mt. Tabor, Portland, OR.

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At Kenny’s Cabin for Volcom’s Creedle Chronicles, Jamie Lynn flies like no one I’d ever seen before. Backcountry, UT.

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Polaroid of Travis Rice on course at the Mt. Baker Banked Slalom.

Your early work was primarily a lot of black and white photos. What is your attraction to black and white, and do you still shoot it as much, or have you dabbled in color lately?

As a kid, I grew up learning about photography mostly from books. I studied what I considered the masters at the time: Bresson, Adams, Steiglitz, and Weston. For me it just made sense. A black and white photo seems to put you in the frame, in the same time and space that it was shot. They are timeless and emotive. I see in black and white: I see the contrasts, the highlights, the shadows all before I see any colors. When I shoot digital, I’m shooting RAW, so they are color. But sometimes it’s just an after thought.

Who were some of your favorite snowboarders to shoot with and why?

The people I grew up with: Matt Donahue, Jamie Lynn, Temple Cummins, the Mt. Baker Crew, Craig, of course. I guess it was all the guys in my backyard of the PNW. Watching them grow up, get better and push the bar was pretty awesome.

What’s your favorite camera to shoot and why?

Leica M6. Why? It’s a Leica. It’s durable, amazingly sharp, simple design, quiet and unobtrusive.

You’ve definitely captured some iconic moments over the years. What are some of these moments that stand out in your mind as unforgettable images?

Thanks. I’m pretty humble as an artist, and especially with regard to specific works. I don’t think it’s my place to answer this. It’s a question for viewers to answer.

 

Russell Winfield stands for a portrait at Stevens Pass, WA.

Who are some photographers that you looked up to when you first started shooting snowboarding, and ones that you look up to now?

Most of my influences were outside the snowboarding industry with the exception of two: Trevor Graves and Justin Hostynek. Both of these guys were pushing the limits and their creativity in shooting snowboarding and its culture. I was amazed at their ingenuity and creative prowess inside our little sport. They kept me going, searching for new ways to tell the stories we were experiencing. Nowadays, I mostly look to photographers with a unique take on their world. Jacob aue Sobol, Daido Moriyama, Robert Frank and Josef Koudelka are my biggest influences today.

Do you have any advice for up and coming photographers who may be reading this?

Shoot, shoot, and shoot more. Always have your camera with you. There’s more to snowboarding than the action shot. Sometimes those moments getting to the hill tell a better story. Understand that the essentials are outside the computer, i.e. in the physical darkroom. Study how prints are made. Don't expect a magic filter to make your image great. Practice over gadgets. Study the photographers whose work you like. See how they made their images, and don't replicate them, but use what you've learned and put it into practice when you’re out in the field. Editors don’t always recognize good photos, so keep submitting, and then shoot some more.

Craig Kelly was a person that you shot with a lot during your snow photography career. What was it like to work with Craig and how was he an influence on your photography?

At first I was very intimidated. It was Craig Kelly, someone I had looked up to and idolized for a long time. On our first trip together in Alaska my intimidation wore off immediately. He had invited me on this trip because he liked my work, so really there was nothing to be scared about. Over the years that we worked together, our friendship deepened, and we went on some of the best adventures of my life. He understood how I shot, and I understood how he rode, and that is what makes great images. He trusted me with my camera anytime and anywhere, which is all I could ask of anyone.

If you had never picked up a camera, what would you see yourself doing?

I have had a camera in my hand since I was twelve years old, so I can’t really ever see myself without one. Accounting? Farming? Hoboing? I can’t say.

Related Links

super season

Brunkhart Website

crossroads

Brunkhart Instagram

Frozen In Time

Lens Crafter: Lorenz Holder

Digital Feature Designed by David Steigerwald aka Davidaisy