Snow Shooter: Jeff Cricco

The backcountry can be a dangerous place for athletes and photographers alike. Jeff Cricco stays behind the lens, but he thinks about safety every time he ventures into snowy landscapes.

While he was home in West Vail, we caught up with Cricco to talk snow safety and learn how he deals with the stress of putting himself on the line for his job.


Jeff Cricco learns the ways of his GoPro. | Las Leñas, Argentina | [Photo] Jeff Cricco

Backcountry Magazine: What drew you to photography as a profession?

Jeff Cricco: I moved to Vail when I was 18. I went to a term of college, and it just didn’t work out. I moved out to Vail because a buddy of mine from high school moved out here and kind of did the same thing—he also decided to drop out, but then ended up going back to college. I moved out with him. From there I was just working as a cook, trying to find something to do, something to fulfill myself. I felt like I wanted to find my calling.

I had taken some photography classes in high school and they were really the only classes that I did well in, so I continued to shoot pictures every once in a while. I ended up meeting one of the editors for the Vail Daily and submitted some stuff to them, and then a part-time guy gave his notice and the full time guy was on vacation, so they needed someone instantly. They just hired someone without experience and that was me. I got really lucky. Working at the paper was cool because you were forced to shoot everything. It’s like going to school for photography where you get an assignment to shoot different stuff, and so I was forced to learn everything.

At that job, a lot of times photo editors from different magazines would call up looking for some photo, and the local paper is usually the first place they call. I was introduced to Dave Reddick from Powder, and from there I just kept submitting. After two years I had success with Skiing Magazine and Powder and figured I would freelance. At this point I was still working as a barback and a bouncer. I did some power washing, I did some painting—seasonal jobs just to make ends meet. And after five years of that I ended up going full time as a photographer.

BCM: What was it about action photography that called to you over other genres?

JC: I have always been intimidated by just shooting scenics and nature photography, because even before the age of digital photography, there was always such an amazing amount of scenic photography. I felt [that genre] was kind of pointless for me, because there was so much good stuff already out there. I would never shoot as well, so I focused on skiing because exposing snow is really hard. The only other sport I have shot that I think is harder is hockey just because of the reflections and the brightness of the snow. And then there is the fact that it is pretty hard to be out there. I am always trying to get early light or late light, and it is usually colder then. So I felt like it was a niche that I could weasel into without being that good and get some exposure, because there weren’t as many ski photographers back then as there are now. In the beginning of the backcountry/extreme scene there were less people doing it [taking action photos] so that is what brought me to skiing—also my love for the sport. It is an amazing environment to be in when the snow is super light and blower. I just fell in love with it. It really is unique. It’s pretty cool too when you see the finished product. You never know what you are going to get when you are shooting at a two-thousandth of a second, which is such a fraction of time that you don’t know where the snow is going to be blowing up and when you finally get to see it, it is pretty cool.

BCM: Where is your favorite place to work? Why?

JC: I really like working where I live because you get to know the light, you get to know the spots. At the same time, there is something about going somewhere completely new that you are seeing for the first time through new eyes. I usually have pretty good results when I go someplace new, because I get excited; it’s not the same old. Alaska is always amazing to go to, but it is such a gamble. It is such a headache dealing with all the clichés of the down days. Going on trips with film companies, you don’t actually have to be that great of a photographer, you just have to be someone who can keep it cool, keep a positive outlook and be a good member of the group who is stoked to be there and not freaking out, not worrying about spending thousands of dollars to just sit still and not do anything. It is more about being confident and knowing that you are going to get it done when the [opportunity] presents itself.

BCM: What is the funniest thing that has happened to you while shooting?

JC: I was shooting a Ski Magazine boot test, or maybe it was a ski test, over at Copper Mountain. At the time I was struggling to make ends meet. Buying film use to be eight dollars a roll, and then you throw in another ten dollars for developing, so you are looking at close to $20 a roll, and when you go and do a shoot they don’t pay you up front. So I thought I could get the job done with three rolls of film, or something like that. I pretty much ran out of film about half way through the shoot. I pretended to do the rest of the shoot without any film in the camera. I remember doing the whole, “Alright, awesome! That was a good one.” And there was nothing in the camera. I was probably 23 when this happened. It is embarrassing because I lied, but what was I going to do?

BCM: There are a lot of vibrant colors in your photos, a lot of deep reds. What draws you to this style of composition?

JC: It is kind of a cheap trick. If you shoot the first twenty minutes of light and the last twenty minutes, it’s an easy way to get good stuff. For me, it has always been, “If I suffer a little bit and wake up at three in the morning, the results are going to be a lot better.” Back when I was shooting film, I used to shoot Fuji Velvia. Chris Murray was one of the original [photographers]—kind of when Patagonia took off early on, they started dominating with their catalogues and everyone really became impressed with their overall branding—Chris was one of the guys that would shoot into the sun at sunset or sunrise.

The snow, when you are shooting directly into the sun—not necessarily with the sun in the shot—but the snow really captures the light and you get these amazing colors in the snow. He turned me on to that, and he also shot Velvia. Velvia is a 50-speed film that is super contrasty. He would push film multiple stops, which would add contrast. Back then it was kind of a cheap trick; it was like using Instagram filters. You could get these very realistic but otherworldly reds in the snow. Right off the bat I loved the idea of shooting that way. It was something I learned through Dave Villemure, a skier I shot back when I first started shooting ski photos. Dave shot a lot with Chris Murray. He told me some of Chris’s secrets.

BCM: What are some challenges of being an action sports photographer?

JC: My biggest challenge and my biggest issue is doing something that is quite dangerous and bringing people out there—attracting people to the backcountry. About 15 years ago we had it all to ourselves and there was no scene. I ended up publishing a shot in Powder, and I published the location. I got a load of crap from everyone, and I know that it was stupid. The reason I go to these places is because there is fresh pow and no tracks. If I do something that is going to bring in lots of people who take away those fresh tracks, then that is not really smart on my part and it’s not fair to the community that goes out there. After that happened there was a six- or seven-year period where I shot a bunch of spots—one spot I shot we dubbed Poser Ridge because it is a super steep aspect that only goes for about 200 ft., so it’s steep enough to get some action, but it’s not that dangerous if something happens. I could capture really good stuff there, but I was purposefully shooting places where I thought no one was going to want to ski, so that I wouldn’t attract more people to the good spots in the Vail backcountry.

I don’t think its right for me to bring people to these spots. They don’t know what I know; I don’t know what they know. They are going at a different time with different snow, conditions change rapidly and someone seeing a picture that says exactly where it is, it’s not responsible. I think the backcountry is way more dangerous than a lot of people give it credit for.

BCM: How would you describe your compositional style?

JC: I learned the whole journalistic style of shooting tight and seeing the person’s eyes through other photographers that I was working with at the paper. That style is something I have always tried to do. In ski photography it was in vogue in the ’90s, the tight Lee Cohen, Scott Markewitz pow shot. The [popular] style really pulled back in the 2000s—the action was loose, the skier became smaller in the frame—but I still really like [tight shots]. It is super hard using telephoto lenses and I really like using a long lens and capturing that really tight, dramatic shot. With that it is all luck. The snow has to come up and cover just the right amount of the person’s face. There has to be goggles, there has to be two ski tips showing. I have thousands of deep powder photos that just don’t work out, not because of the athlete, not because the powder wasn’t good, but just because of the timing and that two-thousandth of a second in time where the powder was covering too much of the skier or not enough.

I also try to use the technique of taking a scenic shot and then placing the action within the scenery. There are a lot of photographers that do that. You look at the shot and if you pull the skier out of the shot it would still be beautiful. I strive for that kind of image but it doesn’t always work out.

BCM: What is the most spectacular thing you didn’t catch on camera?

JC: My whole extended family is from Hoboken, N.J. and that whole area right across from the World Trade Center. I was back home the day before the Trade Towers fell. I didn’t want to shoot those pictures to make money, but as a kid I grew up in New Hampshire and we used to visit Hoboken a lot. I have fond memories of playing on a cannon that overlooked the Hudson River, overlooked the Twin Towers. I left the Hoboken the morning before [the planes hit] to visit with my mom. I had all my camera gear and I don’t know why, but I just wish I could have documented it. It does sound opportunistic but I really just wanted to capture those images because it meant so much to me as a kid.

BCM: How do your kids impact your career as a photographer?

JC: Having kids has had a significant effect on me. Being involved in the industry and losing friends, I’m not that psyched on that. I am not making a judgment on anyone else who has a family and has a job that involves working in a risky environment, but I personally feel very guilty about my profession when it comes to being at risk on a regular basis. I have tried to focus on that and not put myself in as many risky positions as I used to. It is definitely something that I think about every day, and in the last four or five years I have known too many people that have passed away doing what we do. It has been guides, people that I have known really well, people that are not big risk takers and it has brought me to the place where, if I am going to be in this field, it doesn’t matter how smart I am, how safe I try to be; the bottom line is that if I am in avalanche terrain five days a week, I am going to be at risk. I don’t like that now that I have kids. I don’t know what else I would do though. I definitely don’t want to cook again.

See more of Jeff’s work on his Instagram feed at @Jeffcricco

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