The Evolution of Alta Ski Area’s Powder Photography

Breya Bergom | | Post Tag for Featured ArticleFeatured Article
powder photography
Steve Garrett, Scottie Strand, and Simòn at the Old Watson’s contemplating a huge Watsonburger, 1984. | Photo: Lee Cohen

Alta Ski Area in Utah is the third-highest snowfall ski resort in the United States, with an annual snowfall of 540 inches. With Alta’s impressive powder precedents, it’s no surprise it produces phenomenal powder photos. Inevitably, the process and products of the photography that takes place in Alta have evolved over the years. One of Alta’s most notorious powder photographers, Lee Cohen, has been in the industry for nearly forty years. Through his impressive portfolio of Alta over the years, and a one-on-one interview with Cohen, we explore the transformation of Alta’s powder photography over the last four decades.  

The 1980s

The 1980s were a thrilling decade for Alta. Five out of the ten years of the 1980s received a higher annual snowfall than the present average as reported by Free the Powder. Although Cohen was new to the photography scene, his photos were as impressive as ever.

Cohen got his start in the photography field by shooting pictures of his friends skiing.

We were complete total ski bums,” Cohen said. “Back in the early 1980s, my rent was $130 a month, my season pass was $200 and all you had to do was get to the ski hill every day. It was a cheap existence and it was totally viable.” 

1985’s ski season at Alta did not disappoint. With 599 inches of snow throughout the season, Cohen was able to capture the first photos of his career.

powder photography
Mark Chilcutt, at the end of daylight on West Rustler after getting permission from his mom to play hooky from high school 12/11/1985. | Photo: Lee Cohen

On December 11 of 1985, Cohen captured a scenic action shot of Mark Chilcutt. Because film photography was the norm in the 80s, the familiar, natural vintage tint on the photo captured a sense of nostalgia.

Two years later in 1987, Cohen captured a shot of Steve Garrett. With Alta bringing 410.2 inches of snow in 1987, Garrett was consumed in powder.

Powder Photography
Steve Garrett AKA grandpa, antiquity, relic, ancient in deep on High Greeley 1987. | Photo: Lee Cohen

Cohen’s photography can be contrasted throughout his career. In the 80’s alone, he presents a scenic, vibrant photo that displays Alta’s physical features. On the other hand, the other photo’s monochromatic nature exhibits Alta’s renowned powder reputation.

The 1990s

The 1990s brought peak powder to Alta. Not only did six out of the ten years top the present average in terms of annual snowfall, but the highest annual snowfall recorded took place in 1995 (745.4 inches). Expectedly, the intense snow brought intense skiers.

Back then pro skiing was in its infancy, it was nothing like nowadays where there’s a whole substrate of people who exist off of the ski industry,” Cohen said. “Back then it was mostly just ski bums. So many skiers weren’t sponsored all over the place like now.”

According to Cohen, as his career progressed, so did people’s skiing abilities. “It seems like a natural progression because all that was developing at the same time I was developing as a photographer,” Cohen said. 

powder photography
Gordy Peifer, undisputed LCC King of Air pre-Jamie Pierre sending it on High Greeley, 1993. | Photo: Lee Cohen

Among these distinctly positioned photographs is Cohen’s 1993 pictures with Gordy Peifer. This shoot revealed the exceptional landscape Cohen had chosen to capture.

powder photography
The legend Jim Jack back in his Alta days 1995. | Photo: Lee Cohen

Jim Jack’s photo is a distinct one too, as the action shot exhibits the powder, his skiing abilities, and the terrain. Similar to the 80s, Cohen’s shoot with Jim Jack is masked by the intimate colors that overrode the sequence of pictures.

When asked about the evolution he had experienced in the powder photography industry, Cohen explained:

“I think the general principles are the same, but the equipment has changed a lot. The first autofocus equipment came, which was like the first development in the late 90s. That really created a lot of opportunities for photographers.”

The 2000s

With the new millennium in full swing, new advancements in technology were benefiting the photography field. Additionally, Alta’s snowfall was still impressively consistent. Cohen utilized this to capture some outstanding photos to kick off the new century.

ski photography
Dave McReynolds going deep on the Baldy Shoulder 2000. This pic made the cover of Powder Magazine. | Photo: Lee Cohen

Cohen’s pictures of Dave McReynolds were featured in Powder MagazineCohen’s working atmosphere was perfectly exhibited through this picture of McReynolds, as the powder is devouring him.

Jamie Pierre styling a big air in Glory Hole on February 8, 2008. He lapped it a few times, just another day in the office. | Photo: Lee Cohen

Later in the decade, Cohen flaunted Alta’s geography. His photos of Jamie Pierre may not highlight the powder aspect of Alta, but it highlights the passionate skiers the powder attracted.

2000s technology introduced the start of portable cameras, such as the J-SH04 which came out in 2000, and the mobile phone with a built-in camera. Although it was not super significant yet, the advancing adaptability of mobile phones was proven to be slowly progressing over time. Additionally, in 2003, digital cameras were outselling film cameras. This was a major adjustment for the powder photography industry.

“It is just insane how crisp [digital cameras] are,” Cohen said. “There are a couple of things about digital that I think are not as good as film, but overall, I think it’s superior and really made it a lot easier. The biggest thing about shooting digitally is that you can go home and process again, whereas in the old film days you shot it, you got it, and that was what you got.” 

The 2010s

Even though the 2010s brought the lowest annual snowfall since 1944 of 323.5 inches in 2015, the decade did not disappoint in terms of photography. Again, Cohen took advantage of Alta’s landscape when shooting with Tyler Peterson in 2012.

Tyler Peterson styling the mute grab in the Alta side-country on March 20, 2012. | Photo: Lee Cohen

Of course, compared to the 80s and 90s, the 2010s didn’t meet snowfall expectations. Still, don’t let the 491 inches of powder fool you. There were still several opportunities for powder shoots even if the 2010s weren’t dumping 700 inches of snow like the 80s and 90s.

snow evolution
Caroline Gleich, pigtails flying in North Rustler during a classic Alta storm January 29, 2013. | Photo: Lee Cohen

The 2020s

So far, the 2020s have brought decent snowfall to Alta. Luckily, the snowfall didn’t go to waste, as Cohen explains the minuscule impact that COVID-19 had on his photography. “The only thing it altered was ski areas shut down and that was it. All the ski areas in Utah closed, except Alta allowed people to hike, so I was able to go and shoot a few pictures. It didn’t affect the process at all, it just kinda threw a kink in the program,” Cohen said.

powder photography
Tyler Peterson in the best snow of the season on January 10, 2020. | Photo: Lee Cohen

With the technological advancements present in the 2020s, photoshoots like Cohen’s with Peterson could focus on several aspects with new clarity including lighting, powder, atmosphere, and the environment. Cohen is confident in the possibilities and potential of the powder photography industry stating:

“I guess I’m kinda known for close-up pow shots cause I like to catch the action. To some people all these powder shots—you have seen one you have seen them all—they all look the same. But to me, there’s a lot of nuance and difference between them.”

ski powder
Sam Cohen welcoming Spring, March 21, 2021. | Photo: Lee Cohen

Most recently, Cohen captured shots with his son, Sam. This image sums up Alta’s most prized feature: powder.

Unfortunately, in recent years climate change has been an arising threat to snowfall. The irregularity in climate can present uncertainty about the future of powder photography. “Right now it seems to be warming up and not snowing as much as it used to, but I wouldn’t make any huge generalization that it’s not gonna snow anymore. I believe in climate change, man is definitely messing up the planet, but I’d like to think that Mother Nature still holds the trump card, she can overrule and make it start dumping any time she wants.” 

Nevertheless, Cohen predicts a more widespread appeal of powder photography saying,

“People love shooting pictures and it seems like people love getting pictures of themselves now more than ever,” Cohen said. “You know, with iPhones and everything, it’s a lot easier for everyone to have fancy cameras. I think that powder photography will continue on forever, as long as there’s still skiing.”

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19 thoughts on “The Evolution of Alta Ski Area’s Powder Photography

  1. Very informative article chronicling the evolution over the last 4 decades of Mr Cohen’s photography talents, especially with powder shots, the progress of photography tech from the days of loading film to the digital age, and thedwindling recorded yearly snowfalls.

  2. Great article on Lee Cohen, photographer extraordinaire, and his subjects. Having skied Alta and Snowbird since 1972 there has definitely been a shift in snow totals but still hopin for those bottomless days once again.

  3. Do you know him personally to know he’s not a thinker. Typical of guy like you. Anyone , with a functioning brain can see the stark difference here in Utah from the 70’s to now.

  4. Sadly Cohen had bought into the climate change BS. He is a great photographer not not much of a thinker. He should stick to photography.

  5. Impressive article! Loved the layout and flow of the piece. Photograph selection was on point and took the article to a whole new level! Even as a non-skier, I was invited in and experienced a measure of what brings excitement and beauty to that world.

  6. This author tells the story of powder skiing photography at one of our great downhill ski centers. You won’t find a better description!

  7. Not gonna say I agree with EVERYTHING said…but beautifully written, and that’s coming from me, a super tough guy from Down South!

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