Pictures of powder: Meet the color blind ski photographer

The mountain is silent save for his thumping heart as he waits for the skier to drop into the frame.A...

Posted: Dec 20, 2018 12:01 PM
Updated: Dec 20, 2018 12:01 PM

The mountain is silent save for his thumping heart as he waits for the skier to drop into the frame.

As an explosion of snow pierces the sparkling air, he fires the shutter, tracking the powdery backwash down the slope.

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But photographer Oskar Enander won't see these stunning images in the same way as the rest of us -- he's color blind.

However, that hasn't stopped the Swede from becoming one of the most accomplished ski photographers in the world.

The only inconvenience, as far as he can tell, is not knowing what color clothes the athletes are wearing.

"My mom noticed it when I was little kid, I didn't really know what the colors were -- green, brown, and I can't really tell what purple is," Enander tells CNN from his adopted home in the ski resort of Engelberg, Switzerland.

"I see colors, I just mix them up. To me it all looks blue.

"On the mountain it's kind of easy. I work a lot with the deep blue in shadows and the contrasts between dark and light. That's when I get dialed so it doesn't really affect me there. Summer is a bit trickier."

'Rock stars'

Friend and fellow photographer Mattias Fredriksson is in awe of Enander's ability, given what some might see as a disability in such a visual medium.

"It's just incredible he can create this amazing imagery while being color blind," the equally acclaimed Fredriksson tells CNN from his base in Squamish, British Columbia.

"I don't know how it works but it's pretty cool."

Enander trod the path of many young skiers, dropping out of an engineering degree in Sweden to live the life of a ski bum in Chamonix, France in 1999-2000.

As a keen amateur photographer he often snapped his friends skiing. When he later moved to Engelberg he took it up more seriously.

His first ever submission to the US ski magazine Powder earned him its Photo of the Year for 2003. He flew to Aspen for a glittering awards ceremony and his career took off.

"I was up there with all these rocks stars of the business getting their Skier of the Year or Movie of the Year award -- I was an unknown photographer and the skier was totally unknown but it didn't matter, the shot spoke for itself."

Now his work takes him all around the world, from the Alps to Alaska, either on assignment for corporate clients, shooting for magazines or feeding his own Instagram page.

"I love Alaska, just how the mountains look, how the snow sticks to very steep slopes and forms amazing spines," he says.

"And I really like Japan, it just snows so much, even on a bad year which would be a great year anywhere else. It's so just so different to Europe. It's very modern and in many ways it's almost ancient."

But he is happiest at home on the slopes of Titlis (3,239 meters) above Engelberg where he knows the best spots and works with a crew of experienced local skiers and snowboarders.

"I know how the light and snow conditions work on this mountain so I don't have to look around to find my spots," he says.

"I work with the sun and follow it around the mountain. Sometimes we'll ski down in the dark if we've been shooting the sunset."

No second chances

Like all good photographers, Enander's best work comes from a combination of a natural eye for an arresting image and hard work in setting up the shot.

If a skier is poised above a big, committing face in Alaska, Enander will be guided by the line they choose to take on, but elsewhere it's vital the athlete knows what he wants from a picture -- with everyone's safety always paramount in his mind.

Having skied into position, Enander will radio the skier waiting above to discuss the shot, using terrain features or changes in snow texture to explain where to aim for in terms of composition and focusing.

Often he will throw snowballs to mark the spot, or take a preview picture of the frame and hike up -- or more likely get the skier to come down -- to show it from his perspective.

"With skiing you don't have a second chance," he says. "You can't have another track in the frame so you've got to nail it first time."

'Totally crazy'

One of Enander's most involved projects was shooting alongside a video company filming an advert for a new high-tech TV in the British Columbia backcountry near Golden.

"They had a crazy idea to shoot skiing at night," he says.

"It could be done very basic with head lamps but it wouldn't look as fun, so we had a big crew with Hollywood light technicians, generators and big, heavy Hollywood studio lights flown out by helicopter to this mountain hut.

"From there we took them by human power through deep snow onto a big ridge. It was a heavy workload."

The skiers were dressed up in light suits with hundreds of different colored LED bulbs, which often broke, while the batteries burned holes in their pockets.

The crew worked through the night until sunrise, before retiring to the remote Sentry Lodge and sleeping until about 3 p.m. Then they'd have breakfast, prepare for that evening's work and start shooting from about 1 a.m. They followed that routine for 12 days until the film was in the can.

"It was totally crazy but it worked out," says Enander. "One of those images won another photo of the year in Powder. It was worth the workload."

'Hard to beat'

Fredriksson started out as a sports reporter, specializing in volleyball, with a local paper at home in Sweden. His interest in shooting images grew after he took some pictures for a feature he wrote on ski photographer Lars Thulin.

His style, he says, is more editorial and "mainly stories of characters and people, not just going out and shooting rad skiing."

"You should be able to take away the athlete or the performer and still enjoy that photograph," he says. "What I really enjoy is to show the context of where you are so I try to tell a little story with that shot," he adds.

But photographing skiing is "way harder" than shooting most other forms of action sports, he says.

"Sometimes it's nerve-wracking," he adds. "The stuff they're skiing these days is really high risk, not just because it's steep and there are cliffs but also the danger of avalanches.

"Safety is number one. But you also don't want to blow it as the photographer.

"But when everything lines up it's hard to beat skiing powder for work and having a good time with your friends in the mountains."

Dream trip

Some of his favorite adventures have involved staying on a boat on the Norwegian fjords and skiing under the midnight sun, or joining renowned ski racer Aksel Lund Svindal on his first ever ski touring trip in Lofoten, Norway.

Another "special" trip was shooting in the Russian Caucasus mountains near a rustic hamlet called Krasnaya Polyana years before it was given an $8 billion revamp to host the skiing events at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

"It felt like a mix of the Alps and Alaska with really good snow, beautiful views and some of the most amazing tree skiing in the world," he says. "It was an incredible experience."

Now the Swede has bagged the dream ticket. For most, heli-skiing is the holy grail but out of reach because of the high cost.

But for the lucky Fredriksson, the luxury, remote Mica Heliskiing lodge near Revelstoke in British Columbia has become a client.

"Now they're paying me to go there, which is ridiculous," he says. "Normally you pay about $10,000 to go there for four or five days.

"It's like having a five-star boutique hotel in the middle of nowhere in the mountains with some of the best skiing in the world just behind, and it's you and maybe 20 others at the most, so you never really have to deal with skiing in someone else's tracks."

'Lucky'

In stark contrast to Mica, Fredriksson is equally at home in a rustic backcountry hut with no running water.

A recent trip for one his clients, a climbing and skiing equipment manufacturer, took him to the remote Blanket Glacier Chalet deep in the Monashee mountains near Revelstoke in British Columbia.

"There's definitely no internet, no cell phone coverage, everybody helps each other, people talk about things like we used to, read books, share experiences. Everyone is on the same page," he says.

"It's a real disconnect from a crazy world."

Fredriksson, who began skiing at the age of three, says it's vital to be proficient at the activity you're shooting, not only to keep up with the athletes, but to know what makes a good shot.

The three magic ingredients are the athlete, snow and light, according to Enander.

"If you don't have an eye for all that -- where the graphics of shadow are and how a skier moves you can't do it," he says.

"I'm lucky. It's a lifestyle I really love.

"It's not about the money.

"If I would have shot fashion I would have had a fancy house and big car but I choose to have freedom and the ability to be up in the mountains almost every day."

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