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There are some instances in your career that are turning points, certain opportunities that inspire you, challenge you, test what you are made of, and encourage your passion and dedication more than any previous experience. This past July I was granted just such an opportunity. I was hired to be the photographer for Native Eyewear’s catalog shoot here in Whitefish, Montana.
Unbeknownst to me, Native had selected Whitefish out of 18 mountain towns across the nation to be the location for their Local’s Only Project for 2012. Not only would Native be coming to Whitefish to complete their catalog and ad campaign, but they would be hiring local writers and a local photographer to “tell the story” of Whitefish, it’s community, and it’s mountain culture. Native had previously selected Hood River, Oregon as their location for 2011.
I had briefly seen an open invitation for applicants on Facebook a few days after Native announced that Whitefish would be their town, and initially brushed it off, not really reading into what it was all about. It wasn’t until a co-worker from Kalispell Middle School sent me the link to the application, with the text that read, “YOU HAD BETTER BE APPLYING FOR THIS!!!” I did a little more digging and decided to submit my application and my portfolio for consideration, and was ecstatic when I was selected as one of three finalists out of roughly 35 photographers who applied.
Little did I know the extent of the Facebook battle that would soon unfold. Native opened the final selection to a vote, fighting for the coveted spot to be the final photographer chosen for the project. I was blown away and humbled by the support that so many people provided. Hundreds of people around the country rallied to support me through voting on Facebook, and 800 votes later and I was grateful to be done with the whole process, and deeply thankful for all the support gathered.
Many times as a photographer in an increasingly digital world, people tend to interact only in the background, viewing photos anonymously from the privacy of their own screens, rarely reaching out with comments or support. Aside from Facebook “likes” on photos posted, or hits on web pages, there are few times when I have an opportunity to hear from people who are inspired or at least excited about my photography. Almost more satisfying than winning the contest was hearing from hundreds of people who explained to me how my work had really moved them. I had a handful of people contact me throughout the voting process who had grown up in Montana or visited at one time but didn’t live here any more, and told me how my photography reminds them of home, of adventure, of this place that will forever be a part of them. For me, this was more valuable than money, or notoriety. To know that something you are so intensely passionate about is resonating with the hearts of hundreds of people across the country was extremely fulfilling.
A week and a half went by before the Native and Motive (the advertising agency that manages Native’s marketing) crew landed in Whitefish for our pre-shoot meeting. I was shocked at how laid back and fun this crew was, and really had a blast scheming up what this catalog was going to look like, feel like, and how we were going to capture the essence of Whitefish, as well as highlighting the eyewear. We met with the four local writers who were going to be putting words to the images: Matt Holloway, Jason Forrest, Christine Phillips, and Kimberly Barreda, and who would really be establishing the flavor of the catalog. Gradually, over many cups of coffee, conversations, and late night beers, the storyboard came together. I now had a game plan for the entire shoot, and had roughly three weeks before they would return to Whitefish for the eight-day shoot. In total, our shot list included:
*The Purple Frog Gardens (local farm that has community work days for the community members to work at the farm and in return, take home some vegetables, http://purplefroggardens.org)
*The local farmers market in downtown Whitefish (providing food and fresh produce, http://www.whitefishfarmersmarket.org)
*Dream Adaptive’s summer recreation day (local organization that seeks to enhance the quality of life of individuals with disabilities by providing year round adaptive recreational opportunities, http://www.dreamadaptive.org)
*Knox Boards (local custom longboards by Robert Knox, http://dev.ovid9.com/knox/)
*The Whitefish Trail (a newly constructed section of trail on the edge of Whitefish providing excellent hiking, running, and biking terrain just minutes from town, http://whitefishlegacy.org)
*Whitefish Mountain Resort, aka, Big Mountain (our home for winter and summer recreation, http://skiwhitefish.com)
*The Whitefish Review (local non-profit literary journal that publishes fiction, non-fiction, poetry, art, photography, and interviews, with a slant toward mountain culture, http://www.whitefishreview.org)
Some of those locations were paired with recreational activities, others were shot separately, in all we shot: cross-country mountain biking, hiking, road biking, trail running, stand up paddle boarding, fly fishing, downhill mountain biking, wakeboarding, long boarding, and wake surfing. I had my work cut out for me.
I began formulating a rough schedule, factoring in travel times and locations, working around activities that were already set in stone. Then I began contacting “models,” which were mostly all my friends, making this process even more enjoyable. The great thing about living in Northwest Montana is that nearly every one who lives here is borderline obsessed with one or more of the activities needed for the shoot. Scheduling them all within an eight-day window in the middle of July was a much more difficult task.
Over the next two weeks the schedule came together, athletes fell into place, phone calls were made, camera gear was organized, and then reorganized by my wife. My anticipation and excitement grew as I thought through locations, angles, ideas, and schedules over and over again. I already tend to put tremendous pressure on myself, and this situation was no different. Not only was I going to be representing a tremendous outdoor company, but I was also in a deeper sense representing the entire outdoor community of Whitefish and Northwest Montana. Needless to say I didn’t sleep very well.
All of my preparation paid off as the days of the shoot unfolded. Athletes, weather, and activities all seemed to cooperate seamlessly with very few hiccups. A typical day looked like this: up shortly after sunrise to catch the early morning light downhill mountain biking, transition to a trail run shoot, quick lunch with the Native crew and further debrief and discussion of the upcoming day schedules, back out to shoot cross country mountain biking on the Whitefish trail, dinner and drinks with the crew, tearing up the dance floor showing our new friends how to get down Montana style, and then home to edit photos and re-organize camera gear until around midnight. The eight days flew by, and I was content with the imagery we were able to capture in such a short amount of time.
The shoot came to a close, the images and the stories were sent back to the folks at Motive to put together into the final catalog, and life slowed back down to a normal pace. However I was not the same. I had been changed by this experience, in a way that I had no way of anticipating. I was hired by a company to capture images of people recreating in a variety of ways, while wearing amazing sunglasses, all in an area that I call home, but my experience turned out to be so much more than that. For the first time since I moved to Whitefish six years ago, I was forced to take a much deeper look at the community that surrounds me. Not just the structures and the roads that make up the town, but the real roots, the true foundation, the people that live here. I paused from behind the lens of my camera to watch others interact and communicate with the beautiful environment that we are so blessed to live in.
Matt Holloway hit the nail on the head in his opening manifesto about Whitefish that kicked off the catalog in saying, “Maybe it’s because grizzly bears roam these mountains. No doubt, when hiking up a trail in Glacier National Park or the Jewel Basin, or anywhere nearby, you are no longer top dog on the food chain. An acute sense of humility creeps up the spine, heightens the senses and forces one into a different state of mind and heart. Maybe this rubbed off on the town- landscapes sculpt people, people sculpt landscapes. Nonetheless, an odd synergy between humans and the town seems to keep the humility, caring and giving alive…There is no other place like Whitefish, nor would we ever want there to be.”
I am grateful to have been a part of this process, and am forever stamped by the relationships made, the lessons learned, and the experiences had throughout it all. Thanks for reading, track more adventures and projects here on our blog and our Facebook page, www.facebook.com/noahcouserphotography.
One of the most amazing things about teaching full time is getting to come in contact with incredible young students. For the past two years, I have helped out with the International Baccalaureate Science Field Trip that my wife Megan organizes. This year we had a chance to take 60 high school students to the deserts of Moab, Utah. This was an unforgettable experience for everyone who went along, and I feel privileged to have been a part of it. Check out our highlight video filmed with the GoPro Hero 3.
Michael and Josiah Hughes are two of the most energetic, creative, and talented skiers that I’ve ever had the pleasure of riding with. They also happen to be two of my best friends. I’ve been riding with these brothers from Darby, Montana for about 8 years now, and I am blown away at the continued progression of their skills and talents. Check out this highlight video we put together last year, and keep an eye out for their new edit dropping this fall.
We had the incredible opportunity to borrow a Sprinter Van and drive it from Montana down to the California Coast. Loaded with bikes, surfboards, running and climbing gear, we set off on an 11 day adventure that I will remember for the rest of my life. Check out the video made with the new GoPro Hero 3 to see some of the highlights.
Photographing the pond skim competition was like icing on the cake to an incredible season up at the hill this year. One of the deepest bases in years, and it seemed like we rode new snow every week. Had lots of great opportunities this winter, and got to shoot with lots of new skiers and riders which was a lot of fun.
I always get a little choked up this time of year. Snowboarding has gotten me through the many long, cold, dark Montana months past, and it’s hard to see it go. Not that we are at a total loss, we still will do plenty of backcountry trips this spring, but there is something about riding at the mountain. It’s such a social environment, so many friends that all come together to ride each weekend, plus I don’t feel like dying after a full day, like I usually due chasing some of our friends around in the backcountry.
Being a teacher I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for summer, mainly the not having to work, or not spending most of my week with 13 year old students, but winter has such a special place in my heart.
I’m glad the pond skim and fifty degree sunshine of Saturday helped bring a close to a fantastic winter season at the Big. Plus I didn’t end up in the 38 degree pond of water as so many did that day.
Two and a half hours into the grueling skin up the ridge to the hut I was furiously recounting everything in my pack that I wish I would have left in the car. We had decided that this was going to be a luxury spring break trip, packing 3 Litres of wine, French cheese, home-made cookies, chicken sausages, two Nalgenes of pre-mixed margaritas, and many other delicious items to eat and drink. With all my avi gear, photo gear, food, clothes, and others, I had two packs, one about 45 pounds strapped to my back, and one about 30 pounds strapped to my chest.
4 tiresome hours later we arrived at the Jumbo Pass Hut, sitting at 7,780 feet in a high alpine pass. All of the sweat and back breaking work began to fade away as we examined our awe inspiring surroundings. After a quick nap to regain strength, we headed for the ridge line right behind the hut. Some soft turns with incredible views and the painfully overloaded hike in was long forgotten.
Another day of riding and I was loving the hut lifestyle. Lots of good lines to choose from, and a nice warm fire and food to come back to. Sure beats sleeping in a wall tent with your camera, water, and boots in your sleeping bag so they don’t freeze overnight.
Rarely do you find yourself in the trouble of getting too much snow, but we were in that very predicament. Our sunshine was traded for thick clouds, wind, and copious amounts of pow. We were forced to hole up in the small but cozy hut for a day and try to wait out the storm. 42 games of Catch Phrase later, we found ourselves eating yet again. It seemed like we were doing more eating that actually riding, but after all, it was a luxury spring break trip, and we were enjoying the company as much as the snow.
With avalanche conditions at a dangerous level and rising by the hour, we made the decision to leave a day early, as most of the terrain we were looking to ski would be extremely risky to ski for at least another day or two with over 20 inches of heavy powder on top of a melt-freeze layer.
Sometimes ski trips end up not being about skiing, but about appreciating the people in your life that make trips like this one what they are. So many times we get caught up in chasing the next big dump of snow that we forget to stop and spend time with the people we love, and appreciate what really makes this sport fun. Powder never seems to fully satisfy, but loving friendships certainly do.
That was my Mr. Roger’s moment for you, but seriously, I’ll take cool people over pow any day. Check out the site for some more photos from the trip.