Snow Princes

Airplane-hopping, hotel-chillin’, trampoline-jumping, helicopter-riding, Nintendo-playing, booze-guzzling, weed-huffing, white-powder-chopping, fart-igniting, porno-consuming, mayhem-inducing. Ladies and gentleman, it is my pleasure to present the professional male snowboarder -- a Homo sapiens who surfs big snowy mountains and throws down mad tricks in the Terrain Park, a human projectile so comfortable in the air that having wings would make the experience less interesting. When the snowboarder and his family of brothers are not in motion, they are on all fours, resting in packs with steam coming out of their nostrils. They huddle together like gorillas in the mist, slapping the snow with their mittens, baring their teeth, excited by the photographer‘s lens.

Ari Marcopoulos, a photographer who once printed for Andy Warhol and shot tons for Transworld Snowboarding magazine, picked up snowboarding late in life and began shooting the young gods of snow. His results enter the world in the form of Transitions and Exits, a coffee-table-sizelap-dance-friendly art book, a close look into the culture surrounding professional snowboarding. The book’s title is not about the athletes‘ grand leap into adulthood or their transitory existence, or how their physical matter mutates to spiritual beingness, exiting life, embracing death (though how pro snowboarders survive some of the crashes their bodies endure is hard to imagine, and their recoveries do seem like a form of reincarnation). Transitions refers to trannies, which are the sloped landings of jumps; Exits are simply pre-planned routes out of avalanche paths when boarding in the backcountry.

At its best, Transitions and Exits is an amusing document with lots of cool pictures: an intimate, relaxed scrapbook about the psycho male world of pro snowboarding. Unlike in other sports, the difference between professional and amateur in snowboarding is surprisingly tiny. Just the idea, professional snowboarder, leaves many practitioners rolling in the aisles. It’s one of many reasons why boarding‘s such an appealing activity: The learning curve is so swift that good athletes have been known to turn pro after five years of riding.

Most of the faces photographed in Transitions and Exits are wide-eyed and blank, their cheeks, noses, eyes and foreheads raccooned by sun and goggles. The most arresting of the bunch carry remarkable wounds. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, sexier and cockier. Boys are proud of whatever punishment their bodies can endure. Broken blood vessels, stitches and scars become the purest trophy. These kids, photographed with wounds in full bloom, look like prizefighters, tough guys mugged by snow.

Transitions and Exits devotes several pages to shirtless, tattooed white boys in a bathroom smoking pot out of a Life Link snow-shovel handle, a beer can, a cored apple or an Evian bottle -- pictures in which the vibe and immediacy, the urgency to get high, are palpable. They bear some resemblance to Larry Clark‘s Tulsa -- minus guns, needles and impending doom. There are other brilliant pictures of athletes in repose, such as three exhausted figures lying on a bed: one on stomach, sleeping; a second lying on back wearing a neck brace, eyes closed; a third figure sitting up, holding a computer disc, staring off into space. Another great sequence depicts two incredibly young boys lying on a bed in a fancy hotel room with a porno image on a TV monitor in another room. Marcopoulos spoils the idea by continuing the sequence, dropping the kids out of the frame and just showing the porno. It was the original composition that was so trippy, the young boys lying in a tidy, sterile hotel room, completely unaware of or uninterested in the adjacent porn flick, that made the photo so compelling. Suddenly it’s not their cool indifference being documented, but rather the photographer‘s own prurience.

MarcopoUlos does his best to examine portraiture (with a huge nod to Nan Goldin), landscape (he is apparently a fan of Andreas Gursky), and lifestyle (let’s say Clark‘s Kids as well). Marcopoulos seeks a type of anthropological study, and like Margaret Mead among the natives or Jane Goodall with chimps, he became intimate with his subjects. So close was he to them that precious objectivity was lost, and his report suffers for it. Sure, he had full access. But the stories behind the pictures rarely leak through. Too many of his pictures reek of you had to be there, like Cousin Wacko’s rowdy vacation photos: someone flashing a peace sign, blurry landscapes, dudes lighting farts, pictures of other people taking pictures, popping zits, CD-ROM characters shot off a TV screen, and repeated images that aren‘t worth the initial glimpse.

This is a shame, because Transitions and Exits could have been a perfect book. I know the simple snapshot is all the rage. It’s humble, it‘s simple, but it’s also pedestrian and boring. Ah, but boring is loaded, my friend, I argue with myself. Boring is full and true, more real -- boring is an unfair assessment rendered by an insensitive dickhead misreading subtle information. Wrong, I say to bullshitting self, it really is boring. There really are dull pictures in this book. Yes, photographs of the chronic, huge sticky-wicky marijuana buds can be beautiful (e.g., Karl Blossfeld, and his botanical oeuvre), as well as the athletes post-huff, crispy and zombielike, but you can see the effects of secondary smoke in some of the weaker photo selections: a figure standing on a balcony with his arms out; a psychedelic curtain with an eye in the middle (the eye repeated on a second page in detail); stagnant interiors, empty landscapes (too much Gursky), dorky sunsets, a double-page spread of a blurry mountain with a subtle hint of clouds. If you‘ve been above tree line, you know how drop-dead beautiful and transporting an alpine landscape looks. It makes one instantly grateful to be alive. Marcopoulos captures it on occasion with mesmerizing shots on slope or out of aircraft, and misses it just as often -- with pictures that never go beyond seeming ultrastony or straining with all their might in the direction of contemporary photo theory.

In the book’s jacket text, Marcopoulos is referred to as a ”freestyle teleologist.“ The American Heritage Dictionary defines teleology as: The philosophical study of manifestations of design or purpose in natural processes or occurrences, under the belief that natural processes are not determined by mechanisms but rather by their utility in an overall natural design. That‘s the photographer, and in his liner notes on the last pages he thanks many people: those who were in the pictures, bros who helped, countless snowboard and clothing companies, ”. . . and last but not least, my main nigga Eric Kotch . . .“ This is where whitey takes on the language of the black man in order to appear gangsta and hip-hop. The notes continue: ”PEACE>>KNOWLEDGE POWER>>POWDER RULES!!!“

So do cliches.

What this book does do fairly well is present an accurate portrait of hanging out and traveling with the physically brilliant adult-children who are the reigning princes of the snowboard world (Terje Haakonsen, Jamie Lynn, Johan Olofsson, Michi Albin and many others), living large in hotels around the world, competing in contests, making plenty of kaysh (serious moola), partying like it’s 2099. The book‘s masterpiece is a hyperdetailed picture shot with an 8-by-10-format camera and 35mm film, where Marcopoulos Photoshopped eight stages of an entire run into one luminous landscape era. It’s an exquisite picture that features Craig Kelley ripping through a remarkable hole in the mountain, a tunnel of rock. Transitions and Exits will play equally well to photo-world people and snowboard kids -- that‘s the awkward fence it straddles -- pictures of the green bud and porno girls will keep tykes of all ages riveted.#


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