YOU ONLY GET ONE GO
You only get one chance to leave the first tracks. Mark Shapiro, known as the godfather of the art of ski photography, leaves the tracks that others look to. Shapiro inspired the previous generation of ski photographers and continues to influence the art today. A French Magazine has called him “the master of light”. Using God’s vantage point, Shapiro captures the essence of the pure powder experience. The consummate expert, his unbelievable shots catch extreme skiers in bursts of speed and raw power with crystal clarity as they rip past his camera lens.
Born in Toronto, Canada, Shapiro took his first photos at the age of seven when his grandfather gave him a camera. One image that particularly inspired him was the cover photo on a 1962 issue of life magazine, showing a girl doing a handstand on a skateboard.
While in college, Shapiro shot photos with a manual camera and lens, developing them in a lab his roommate had set up. Graduating from trade school with a degree in as a mechanical draftsman, he got a job in a factory outside of Toronto but was rapidly disillusioned. A coworker who was from Zurich urged Shapiro to see Switzerland. So in 1970, Shapiro left Toronto with a one-way plane ticket for Zurich, spending his first winter abroad in the ski resort of Verbier, Switzerland. Then, like now, it was a photographer’s idea of visual perfection. Powder was and is the obsession- skiable terrain all around. Shapiro took typical ski bum jobs to support his photography habit- he worked a grape harvest, followed by eight years working in Swiss hotels to buy film and equipment. In 1974, a friend asked Shapiro to take a picture of him for a Swiss ski Manufacturer. Impressed, the manufacturer bought the photo for about $200. Although Shapiro now considers the shot naïve, it was state of the art for what was then an undiscovered art form. After that, any spare income was devoted to the constant process of upgrading the tools of his trade. Shapiro started to follow the colorful free-style skiing circuit, and top skiers began to seek him out for photos. His work soon began to appear in ads, posters and brochures.
By 1980, his hobby had become his profession, one that has since taken him to Australia, Asia and everywhere else. Communicating has never posed a problem in his travels. Wherever he goes, his pictures speak the language. Shapiro was the first Westerner to ski in Siberia. Spending 76 days in Tibet, he photographed Swiss radical free-skier Dominique Perret and Swiss alpinist snowboarder Jean Troillet, who were attempting the first continuous descent from the 29’028 foot summit of Mt Everest. Shapiro stayed in a camp at the 21’000 foot level in conditions that can only be described as brutal. At that altitude the body cannibalizes itself and he lost 18 pounds. Jet stream winds howled at 200-300 miles per hour, allowing only a limited time window, to summit without oxygen masks and return alive, spending perhaps ten minutes near the top before beginning the descent.
Shapiro lives in Verbier, his favourite, place, with his wife, Franziska and daughter, Kimberley. Never one for team sports confined to an arena or playing field, he prefers to do his own thing and favours individual sports, free of competition unless it’s with the elements. Shapiro will shoot anything having to do with outdoor recreation in all kinds of climates. In addition to extreme skiers, he has photographed mountain bikers, mountain climbers, paragliders, snowboarders and kayakers. The inherent risks are great for both the photographer and the athlete. In the effort to get that split-second, once in a lifetime shot, the photographer looses his footing and fall off of a cliff. Shapiro doesn’t consider himself a great athlete or a great skier, but notes that he is competent enough to get in and out of extreme situations in one piece, with nothing worse than a broken arm to show for it, the result of being struck by a snowboarder.
An artist who dreams, pictures, Shapiro will station himself under a snow cornice, waiting for the exact moment to squeeze off eight shots per second when the riders fly past. It’s over in just a second. Or, poised on a rock, he captures white-water kayakers as they churn by. The only thing that can be predetermined is the location of a shot; you can never preconceive the end result. Although he plans a composition from the best perspective, every photo is spontaneous.
In addition to the physical dangers, photographing extreme sports poses technical difficulties. Mother Nature calls the shots. Winter days in the mountains are short, and sunshine can be scarce. Shooting pictures of extreme riders is a constant race against the clock to take advantage of every second of daylight; to wait until the exact moment when the light captures the full texture of the terrain. Once the snow is tracked, he moves on, searching for his next shot- you only get one go. Perhaps Shapiro’s most famous was the center spread in Powder, the cult publication for extreme skiers. It was labeled simply, “Best photo, Period.”