Perhaps no photographer understands the mechanics of Olympic gold-medalist Ted Ligety’s athletic ski racing turns better than Jackson-Hole based Jonathan Selkowitz.
As a former college racer and ski coach, “Selko” knows what it takes to ski a racecourse quickly. In the last two decades, he has applied that understanding to photography so well that Ligety has used Selkowitz’s images to study and improve his own racing form.
Once a shooter for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team itself, Selkowitz had countless opportunities to learn about and document skiers’ styles. At the end of a training day, “Ted would come up to my room and say ‘What have you got Selko?’” the photographer said.
Now, after years as a lensman and a lifetime in the ski racing business, the SelkoPhoto credit may fade from the course. Print publications face well-publicized challenges in the Internet age and the money available for editorial work has dwindled.
“It’s been harder and harder to sell pictures of ski racing,” Selkowitz said. After a career that took him around the world and through the great alpine resorts of Europe, the past season may be his last on the famed World Cup circuit.
Selkowitz, 49 years old, started skiing as a child while growing up in Massachusetts. He was a free-skier, ski-ballet artist, mogul specialist and even aerialist. He didn’t begin racing until high school. When he went to Colby College in Maine, he declared history of art as his major. “In reality,” he said, “I majored in ski racing.”
That course of study was a prerequisite for life in and around Jackson Hole, where he moved in 1988 to become a fixture. He began teaching adult racing programs at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and then started to coach kids in the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club. He lives in Victor, Idaho, a 30-minute drive over Teton Pass where real estate prices and the cost of living are lower than in Teton County.
Only as a coach did Selkowitz begin to pick apart the sport’s mechanics to understand what it takes to make the perfect ski-racing turn. At the same time, the realities of living in expensive Jackson Hole began to weigh. His degree from a prestigious liberal arts college qualified him for work as a bartender and landscaper in the valley job market.
“I saw everybody else having to move away from here,” Selkowitz said of the employment landscape. In 1991 he resolved to move to Missoula, Montana, to study environmental science — but only after a final season on the slopes.
“One more winter,” he promised himself. “I’m going to ski my ass off.”
That January, in 1992, he was forerunning a racecourse when he snapped his anterior cruciate ligament, an essential thread that holds the knee together. The injury forced him to pursue a craft he started practicing that fall — photography. He continued to coach his kids, but began to take pictures of them as well. A camera-store owner encouraged him to become an assistant to a professional Jackson Hole photographer. “I never considered photography as a job,” Selkowitz said. He held the job for more than four years.
“Wow, this is pretty cool work,” he told himself. “I realized how much intrinsic satisfaction I got from making compositions.”
Enthused by his newfound passion, Selkowitz set off to shoot World Cup ski racing, first in Colorado. “I’m going to go down there and be the best ski photographer ever,” he told himself. That sentiment lasted long enough to get his first film back. His analysis; “I suck.”
He soldiered through his initial years of shoestring budgets. “Sometimes I’d drive all night … sleep in my car in the Vail parking lot, be the first in the press office,” filling up on the complimentary coffee and donuts. He quit coaching in 1997. “I was transitioning from trying to teach the perfect turn to trying to catch the perfect turn.”
But his business plan lacked a crucial element — sales. “Those first couple of years, nobody bought my pictures.”
Selkowitz kept at it. Many professional photographers helped him out, figuring he wasn’t their competition. Each race was “like a photo seminar,” he said. He finally got a break.
At a World Cup race in Park City, Utah, in 1997 a representative from the Duomo Photo agency approached Selkowitz with an offer. Picabo Street was racing in Japan and sponsor Nike needed promotional pictures.
“How’d you like to go to Nagano and shoot the Olympics,” the Duomo representative said. There was only one answer. “That was the first time I was paid to shoot ski racing — the Nagano Olympics,” Selkowitz said.
Understandably, other jobs began to fall in line. The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team hired him as its official photographer, a position he has since left. He also shot for Ski Racing magazine and sold photographs to numerous ski glossies and other outlets.
Among those was a picture of a teenager forerunning the slalom course at a World Cup race in Aspen. Nobody knew who Mikaela Shiffrin was at the time — 2012 — but her form and style produced the best picture of the day. It caught the eye of editors at Powder magazine. As its title indicates, Powder has scant desire to promote racing on hardpack snow.
But the Shiffrin-Selkowitz combo made it on the magazine’s cover. In what might have been the high-water mark of his career, 2012 was when the International Ski Federation named Selkowitz its “journalist of the year.”
The photographer’s relationship with Ligety illustrates the understanding Selkowitz has of the sport and how that translates into breathtaking images. He first saw the racer at a national-level event in Colorado that was part of the NorAm racing league.
“I remember quite clearly [it was] a NorAm at Winter Park,” Selkowitz said. Ligety “hadn’t made a name for himself.”
Something stood out as the youngster braided a trail through the race gates. “This is some beautiful skiing,” Selkowitz told himself. A review of the shoot proved that point. “The best pictures I got that day were of Ted.”
Subsequent shoots with the U.S. Ski Team at summer training camps in Chile revealed Ligety’s potential. Even against accomplished racers like Daron Rahlves, photos of the newcomer looked great. “Ted was looking way more dynamic,” Selkowitz said of the comparisons.
Upending geometric theory
Many factors go into winning a ski race, some of which Selkowitz explained as he described his quest for capturing the perfect turn. Theoretically the straightest line — and hence the shortest distance — through a serpentine ski course will produce the fastest time. But sometimes skiers can go faster by taking a slightly longer route.
Ligety wasn’t the first to stand a geometric principle on its head, but when he did, he did it better than most. “Ted differed from the rest by actually choosing to take a slightly longer line,” Selkowitz said. “That’s called ‘taking it deeper.’ He’s carrying more speed from one turn into the next.
“He, more than anybody, starts carving earlier and carves a greater percentage of the turn than anybody. This is where Ted has risen above his competition.”
The larger arc also keeps the racer farther from the racing gates, offering other advantages. He can keep his body in a more natural and faster position and isn’t slowed down, or even injured, by whacking the gate — a thick, plastic pole.
The technique of “taking it deep” is especially effective in the giant slalom, Ligety’s specialty. The event is a midpoint discipline between the straighter, faster, downhill race and the wiggly slalom.
There’s also a peak action moment in each arc when the forces in the skier’s turn are at their maximum. At this point, Ligety‘s legs are practically parallel to the snow surface, his hip just inches off the ground. Frequently, Selkowitz and others seek to photograph that instant.
“I need to see their skis totally bent and carving,” Selkowitz said.
Not all turns on the course offer the same challenges, however, and Selkowitz seeks difficult terrain where racers are tested. “What kind of action is going to happen there?” he asks himself as he surveys the racecourse. Some corners are on banked terrain, sort of like those on a NASCAR speedway. In a banked turn, skiers are more crouched, compressed.
But there are often a few “fall-away” turns on ski courses as well. They’re particularly dicey and require the utmost concentration and skill to negotiate at speed. Consider, for example, if the surface of 33-degree banked Turn One at NASCAR Talladega Superspeedway were tilted away from the infield instead of toward it. How impossible would it be to drive it at 180 mph?
On a fall-away turn on a ski course “if you’re not totally on it, the feet go out,” Selkowitz said. Plus, on fall-away turns the skier is less compressed, more stretched out, more visible in a photograph.
Selkowitz also seeks hard, durable snow — perhaps in the shade — where the course won’t become rutted and buck the skiers around. “That allows the athlete to perform to the fullest,” he said. What Selkowitz seeks is “witnessing the perfection of what the world-class athletes can do.”
Over his many years on ski hills, Selkowitz has come to know many courses intimately. Races are often staged on the same run at the same resort year after year. So the veteran — photographer or skier — can gain an advantage. Selkowitz will find the gate he’s looking for on a certain day and ponder; “Where can I stand to witness the gesture of this turn?”
In addition to the rules of physics and ski racing, the rules of photography always play in his mind. Ski lift towers can’t intrude. “What do we have for light, what do we have for background?” he asks himself.
“I have Plan A if it’s sunny, Plan B if it’s cloudy,” he said. “If the background is lighter than the subject, it doesn’t work.” Spray kicked up from skis, for example — a great representation of action — can’t be seen against a white backdrop. “The most obvious good shot is the break-over with clean blue sky,” he said.
But Selkowitz needs to produce original work and can’t shoot from the middle of the pack of photographers, even if it would produce the most obvious good shot. “I’m always trying to go to some other spot,” he said.
Cat-and-mouse on the ski course
Ski-federation rules require photographers to be in place an hour before the race begins, which has produced a cat-and-mouse game in some instances. As other shooters have come to appreciate Selkowitz’s art, they’ve also tried to capitalize on his knowledge. “I know they’re waiting to see where I’m going to go,” he said. “I’ll hide in the woods, watch the other photographers go by. I try hard to have a unique position and I try hard to be stealthy about it.”
Ski racing, by definition, takes place under decidedly difficult conditions. Selkowitz has to stomp his feet, swing his arms, keep his lens and viewfinder fog-free and avoid frostbite as he racks the focus on his cold, metal lens, trips the shutter with the tip of an exposed finger.
Often the best spot to shoot also is the coldest. “The abyss,” is a fantastic area for dynamic ski racing turns on one course, “but it doesn’t get any sun,” Selkowitz said.
While Selkowitz is a student of the sport, he also has a secret weapon. As the U.S. Ski Team photographer, he hung out for weeks at a time with American racers, becoming part of the family. Some skiers that he coached as kids even became the subjects of his photographs.
“I was able to get to know them as a friend and former coach, as opposed to the media,” Selkowitz said. The relationships added to his library of knowledge as he prepared for races.
When all the above considerations have been resolved and the race begins, Selkowitz can finally start focusing, composing, exposing and capturing the moment of peak action. In today’s world where everybody considers himself a photographer, Selkowitz’s story illustrates the preparation, knowledge and work it takes to become outstanding.
Sadly, these decades of accumulated knowledge and practice may no longer be applied to the dynamic, colorful World Cup ski circuit. Selkowitz’s catalog will soon become out-of-date. Because gear, sponsors and athletes change quickly at the top of the ski-racing mountain, racing shots have a shelf life of perhaps only two years. It will be another 30 before they are considered nostalgic, or perhaps historic.
Ski racers themselves eventually come to understand the inevitability of their decline on the competitive stage. Yet photographers would seem to be insulated from the forces that keep brief the careers of their subjects.
Is there life after ski racing photography? Perhaps there is. At the end of this winter, Selkowitz showed up for a beer after a photographing on Snow King Mountain in Jackson with former U.S. Ski Team downhiller Andy Chambers. But Selkowitz wasn’t shooting the speedster alone. Instead, his subject was the Chambers children — the next generation to grow up on Jackson’s Town Hill and perhaps the next racers to wear red, white and blue.