Chris Brunkhart and the Most Beautiful Things in the World

Image: Manuel Pompeia.

Chris Brunkhart has been through a lot. From Kalamazoo, MI to Lawrence, KS to Portland, OR. From throwing bags at the airport to globetrotting Senior Photographer at Snowboarder Magazine. From drug abuse and fear of persecution to coming clean and a cross-country refresh.

Now 45 years old, the erstwhile master of snowboard photography still regularly loads monochrome into his Leica and goes in search of emotive imagery, just in a different venue.

After nearly a decade away from the spotlight, Brunkhart’s return was marked by the release of “How Many Dreams in the Dark?”, which reminded us of his one-of-a-kind skill for finding the quiet moments that add substance to snowboard culture. He then shot a photo feature for frequency TSJ Issue #11.1, an insightful look into the Ultra Natural contest at Baldface Lodge, and reminded us why he stood atop the snowboard photography world for the latter half of the ’90s. And now, with three transcendent images of Craig Kelly dropping at Asymbol Gallery, he again reminds us that snowboarding is way, way deeper than above-the-lip action—that soul can be found in the slow moments as much as those of velocity.

I recently caught up with Chris over the telephone at his new home in New York City. He moved there last fall. He sounded excited, refreshed, and inspired by his new surroundings. As he put it, his photography is currently on turbo mode. He is discovering new boroughs daily, exploring the creative process at the International Center of Photography and building upon three decades of collected experience. He has not left snowboarding behind, and hopes to ride the east this coming winter and make a few trips out west, but he has clearly started a new chapter in life—one that is driven by positive vibrations.

Chris Brunkhart speaks about legacy, coming up in the Pacific Northwest in the early ’90s, travels with Craig Kelly, hetero-normalcy in snowboard culture and finding creative energy twenty years down the road.

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How did you get into snowboard photography?

I’d seen snowboarding on TV, ESPN or something, way back in 1986. I grew up skateboarding, just curb stuff and jump ramps, the real basics. When we moved to Oregon in 1988 there were mountains and snow, so I just wanted to do it. I would go to the local shops on the way up to Mt. Hood and rent a board then ride—like from ten a.m. until ten p.m. if I could, all day long. Recoup and then get back up as soon as possible. I started meeting people like Jamie Lynn and Matt Donahue and Peter Line. All of a sudden I had all these amazing snowboarders around me, and I’d always been a photographer. Photography was always my passion, so I just combined the two.

When did you see your first photos published?

The first photos published were in this local ‘zine that I started with a buddy named Scott Hickox in the early ’90s and it was called Boardsports Northwest. It was a 16-page, glossy black and white thing. We did that for a year. And then I worked with Rob Nurmi and Concrete Powder in Canada a bit. Transworld [Snowboarding] printed a photo of mine on the contents page when I was working at a local board shop and that gave me a huge jump start. The photo was of Craig [Kelly].

I was still working at the airport to put food in my belly and pay rent, and then I’d have four-day trips where I’d go out and hit the Northwest as hard as I could then go back to work. But things started going off—[frequency TSJ publisher Jeff] Galbraith ended up getting a job at Snowboarder so I ended up doing more work for them and became a Senior Photographer around 1994 until I left in 2001.

You were part of the crew for an issue or two at frequency TSJ?

Yeah, I helped out. We brainstormed for a year. I helped with the first and second issues and then moved on.

Can you talk about why?

Well I had some drug problems, and they seemed to get the better of me and my decisions. It took me away from my real passions which were my photography, my family, and my friends. It was a five, six, seven year battle, and it’s been two and a half years now that I’ve been clean. I got caught up in being a snowboard photographer. I hadn’t come out to any of my friends, about being gay… it wasn’t just the drugs, it was a lot of psychological turmoil about not being able to be myself, or being afraid to be myself. So when I overcame that hump, it was still a battle with drugs, but it was a huge weight off my shoulders because I was like, “Oh, everyone still loves me for who I am.”

Everyone’s super cool, but there aren’t any openly gay snowboarders, and my life was snowboard photography. I didn’t want to jinx my career because it was the most important thing. Taking photos is still the most important thing in my life. I moved to New York and gave up everything again to start over and become a bigger and better photographer.

Can you tell me about your move to New York?

I’d shot with the best of the best in snowboarding, and I loved it. I kind of tried a little bit to get back into it, like I’d done some stuff with you guys, and I still love the sport, but there are so many stories I wanted to tell and so many more things I wanted to shoot than just snowboarding. And my boyfriend wanted to finish school in New York. Let’s just go and do it. I wanted to restart and expand my career and see new things and develop my abilities. And New York’s New York. It’s one of a kind.

What are you up to there?

I have a job as a carpenter. That’s paying the bills. It’s super fun, but I also have a lot of time to focus on this whole new vision, all these new influences around me. I spent the first six months here just walking around the city and shooting. Every day I would take my camera and go to a new borough, find a new subway line and just take it and get out and shoot. I’m taking classes at the International Center of Photography and that helped develop some different skills. I took a documentary class, a social change class, an abstract class, and I’ve been learning from these amazing instructors and other photographers. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. It’s been enlightening, inspiring, all the positive things.

I would say the struggle is totally worth it because my photography is on turbo right now. I love it more than I ever have. I have a great feeling that this was a great move for me. Time will tell. Meeting people, learning about the art world, about how crazy big the photo world is, and even with my past and my history and success with snowboarding… it gives me a leg up a little bit, but not really.

With Asymbol Gallery they’re trying to connect this action sports world to the art world. How do you see that connected or disconnected?

I love the diversity. I think it’s an awesome project brought out of passion. It was a way to connect guys like Jamie [Lynn], and myself and Blotto and [Tim] Zimmerman and all these people, and give them a space to promote and sell their art. One of the most powerful things for me about snowboarding that surpasses any of the other sports is that snowboard photos are amazing pieces of art because they feature amazing locations and situations that no one ever gets to see. A super small percentage of the world ever gets to see these chutes or these mountain ranges from hiking and backpacking and helicoptering into the middle of nowhere. It kind of opens up the world to a lot of people, and I think that’s the draw of it.

Can we talk about your relationship with Craig Kelly?

After that first photo in Transworld, two or three years later, I saw him at a Mt. Bachelor [OR] event. We were riding the half pipe. It was raining. It was shitty. And he said, “Oh you took that magical photo,” or something. The photo had made the jump look way bigger than it was. We talked a bit and the next season he invited me to Alaska. That was the start of our friendship.

Craig was an amazing individual. I was really honored to become a friend and hang out and travel the way we did. We would go to Chile for a week-long Burton photo shoot and then spend six weeks on the road going to different mountains and finding all these hidden beaches and to surf and being on the road. Those are some of my best memories. Not just with Craig, but all the other snowboarders, when you travel you get more intimate on a personal level. When you travel with someone on the road day in and day out you learn all their quirks. That’s the beauty of traveling and being on the road like that, and getting to know Craig like that was really awesome. Seeing him read Gandhi and Dante’s Inferno and then seeing him charge up the mountain… I went to Alaska a few times with him and Chile four times, Austria, and then we traveled the Northwest and Wyoming, Montana, Canada.

He was quite the visionary I think, leaving the half pipe when he did to go and explore the backcountry. He was the catalyst that kind of opened up the backcountry to the rest of us. He had a vision—I think he saw the future of what snowboarding would and could be. That was part of his power. There were no selfish motives. He wanted to share his experiences and his education and pass it on to others and open up the mountains and the culture and the life to everyone, which is pretty amazing, for a top athlete to care about the industry and the sport and the people like that.

You used to predominantly shoot black and white film. Is that something you’re carrying on? Have you switched to digital?

I still love it. I just got back six rolls of film a week ago and was like, Why have I been shooting digi? Looking at the negatives I was like, Oh my god, they’re so amazing. The very first time I ever got stuff back from my Leica I was like, Holy shit, these are photographs, they’re clean, the contrast, even just looking at the negative it shows.

I’ve always loved black and white. I grew up studying all the masters of black and white photography: Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, the list goes on and on, but that’s always been my influence. You take all of the color out of an image and you get to the essence or the root of the subject, the story, the feeling, the mood, the emotion that the photo emits. That’s something that I always look for: not trying to capture the biggest, best, baddest jump or mountain, or most beautiful scenery. I’m trying to evoke a mood or emotion from the photograph. It’s always been my desire. I can’t say it happens or not. It does for me. I hope it does for the viewers and I think it does because people like my work and want to see more of it. But it’s still a battle of trying to capture that. You see this beautiful scene but I have to ask myself, Why is this beautiful? Why is that affecting me? I want to put that onto my piece of film to share it with the rest of you.

Where can we see your work?

I finally got a website last fall, www.chrisbrunkhart.com. I’ve been updating it and I put up my photo essays that I’ve been working on. There and Instagram, @28f2. Being in New York has given me the opportunity to think of an idea and work on it for months, which is something I’ve never really been able to do before or even thought about really. So that’s up on my website and I keep trying to update it and share with people. You can see my stuff at Asymbol. And hopefully I’ll have a show here in New York by the end of the year.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Coming from humble beginnings myself, any other artist or photographer who has a passion and is wanting to follow it, do it and don’t let anyone tell you no. You just gotta commit. Persistence and patience. It’s awesome when you can follow your passions. It’s one of the most beautiful things in the world.

Editor’s note: this interview was completed in collaboration with our friends at Asymbol Gallery and is the first installment of an ongoing series where we feature Asymbol’s iconic artists as they launch new imagery and artwork.


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