Words by Kim Havell and Jason Thompson
Images by Jason Thompson
Upon graduating from Montana State University in 2004, photographer Jason Thompson joined Big Sky’s Ski Patrol and also worked as a mountain guide in Washington and Alaska, steadily building a career in adventure photography. His focus is on creating skiing and climbing imagery that captures the essence of action adventure.
With a style that Thompson describes as “raw and unposed”, he strives for simplicity. His images are the product of his lifestyle, telling stories inspired by nature, adventure, and the human experience. At twelve years of age, Thompson decided to pursue photography with an old-school Olympus camera. He took photography classes in high school while shooting action photos of skiing, backpacking, and soccer.
Thompson is currently on an expedition to University Peak in Alaska with friend and ski partner, Forrest Coots. When asked about Thompson, Coots shares, “JT has a strong skill set built from years of guiding. He is comfortable climbing and skiing big lines, while also shooting, which allows him to capture that raw-feeling. His images reflect his travels through the mountains via ice climbing and ski mountaineering in iconic locations around the world.”
The Start—Insights from Jason
As a kid, I was drawn to the mountains and loved the winter months. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest I was exposed to some of the finest mountain terrain in the lower 48. The Olympic Mountains served as my launching point for adventuring as well as capturing the escapades with my camera. The Washington experience extended from childhood through high school.
A high school friend gave me a flyer for Montana State University. That was the first time I realized the power of marketing; there was a skier on the front page of the flyer. I was sold. I had also seen many of Kris Erickson's pictures and read many of Hans Saari's words. It was an easy move to a place where two creative adventurers that I had looked up to had made their home base. In the fall of 1999, I moved to Bozeman, without ever having been there, two days before classes started. Five years later I graduated with a degree in photography. The community in Bozeman welcomed me and it’s been home ever since.
For me, the photography process has more been a series of ups and downs with a continual ebb and flow. There have also been great moments that have provided me with bigger surges.
In 2008, Tyler Jones, Seth Waterfall, and I received a Hans Saari Ski Exploration grant for a trip to Mount Shkhara in the Republic of Georgia, located in the Svaneti Region. I had to plan a major trip from a climbing/skiing perspective as well as from a photography perspective. It was a great learning exercise. The expedition was powerful for the three of us, visiting a place that we knew little about. It left a mark on me in my young photography career.
In issue #36 of Alpinist Magazine I had a double page spread. The article, written by Joe Josephson, was about ice climbing in Hyalite Canyon here in Bozeman, Montana. I was humbled and thrilled at this incredible opportunity to be involved.
During my junior year of university, Kris Erickson came in and gave a talk to my photography business class. It was groundbreaking for me. I remember being blown away by the images he was showing, the adventures he had been on, and the people and places he had seen. It was an inspiring forty minutes for me. I remember thinking that, yep, I could do that for work.
Since then I have had a chance to get to know Kris better. The insight he provided that day and since then has motivated me to follow suit in many ways and has helped me to carefully evaluate how I mold and shape my photography and my brand. I have heard Kris mention so many nuggets of wisdom over the years. When I used to shoot slides, I built myself a light table, made of out of cheap plywood and plexiglass. I would write quotes or ideas that I had heard which inspired me or had caused me to take pause. Some of my favorite nuggets written on that light table were from Kris. I wish I had kept that light table—somewhere during the many moves I lost it.
I have always wanted to be a photographer and that has always been my number one goal. But, I tactically decided early on to pursue ski patrolling and guiding in order to give me a solid foundation of management, in particular from a safety standpoint. I heard Will Gadd explain his philosophy and outlook on life as a “positive, negative outlook.” Meaning, the universe is out to kill us. As Will put it, if you get hit with that piece of ice that is your fault. No one else can be blamed for that. He preached personal responsibility. I agree.
As a ski patroller at Big Sky Ski Resort, I learned a lot over the years about avalanches and helping others with medical incidents and avalanche mitigation. I also started mountain guiding, spending time in the Alaska Range and on Mt Rainier.
I have a very open dialogue with athletes with whom I am shooting. Safety is number one. Just because there is a camera does not mean that you have to accept a risk that you wouldn't normally take. The industry trend is to make everything look very sexy. Often times the careful calculations are not shown or exposed. That is one of the things I want to bring to the table as a photographer. Showing the process of how the hazard is being evaluated and what steps are being taken in order to minimize “our” exposure to that risk or hazard.
The Creative Process
The creative visual process has only begun to take shape in the vertical terrain. I think that we have just seen the beginning. As a visual adventure artist I try and pre-visualize how an athlete will ski a certain line or climb a certain line. I use the athlete as my brush stroke on a blank canvas to generate the exclamation point to the already stunning landscape.
Hans Saari stated this idea beautifully: “ The vibrancy of the line means everything. Like a cello, there is no sound until the string is taut. The more you struggle, the tighter the string, the greater the music.”
With the current status of the industry, it takes creativity to approach the visual side of things and to see things from new angles. If I use a business model that my mentors used previously, chances are that I probably will not last too long in this industry.
The digital age has shifted many things. But, I believe that relationships propel us forward. It’s the human connection. As a viewer of images, you are drawn to the content that captures that soul. One of the quotes that I had written on my plywood light table twelve years ago was from Kris Erickson—“It’s about the relationships.“
Just like any business that is starting out, a plan of action has to be put into place. Still, taking that first step into the unknown is still probably one of the biggest adventures upon which I have embarked. But just like climbing or skiing a big objective, after the first few pitches your nerves calm down. I have been able to realize that “yeah, I can do this.” It’s something that you have to commit to. It’s a lifestyle. Creative artists pour their lives into doing what makes them passionate.
Time spent with friends exploring and adventuring inspires me the most. I've found a greater personal joy in the expedition style shooting versus the one-day shoots. It is a chance to get to know my subjects in greater detail and see more of their personalities shine.
There are several folks with whom I really love working:
- Ice climber Andres Marin has been a great friend of mine for a very long time. His energy is contagious. Andres has a drive for perfection and professionalism that is very admirable.
- Forrest Coots and I met for the first time while in Chile during the fall of 2011 on a ski trip. We meshed right away. I enjoy Forrest's desire to take trips to places that require some thoughtful planning. Forrest and I have sat in our tents during storms and shoot texts back and forth dreaming about trips and different ideas that spark our passions for skiing in the mountains.
- Tyler Jones and I met in 2005 while we were guiding for the same company. Tyler has since gone on to finish his AMGA guiding certifications as the youngest American to complete the process. His meticulous attention to detail is somewhat astonishing. Tyler is one of my best friends. From the Republic of Georgia, Montana, Alaska and La Grave, our mountain time has played a huge role in our friendship. I've learned a ton from Tyler in regards to hazard mitigation.
- I was recently on a shoot with Conrad Anker. His vision, dedication and outlook on life is inspiring. He would prefer to talk about his new route the “Nutcracker” than talk about his last summit on Everest without oxygen. His psych for climbing is contagious, his energy transcends generations, his talents are inspiring to watch, and his mentorship helps many. Conrad never stops learning and he is a proponent for adaptation. That’s just rad.
The Future of the Industry
I believe the future involves a lot of creative collaboration. Sharing ideas and collaborating can be very rewarding. It will most likely evolve and morph on a much larger scale. I know of some climbing projects that are in the works based on wide scale submissions from climbers willing to submit content from a whole season’s worth of footage from one location. So instead of one or even five filmers being involved, there will be fifty contributing work.
- Every year I make a little more money than the previous year as a photographer.
- Having my first image published in a Patagonia catalog and then having them re-license it for a store display in the Seattle store—that was a goal of mine that year and it felt really good to nail it.
- Being awarded the Hans Saari Ski Exploration Grant for a Ski trip to Mt Shkhara in the Republic of Georgia.
- Double page spread in Alpinist Magazine #36
- The moment I realized that I actually had an audience that was listening to me and actively following my work. It was a moment that shifted my mindset and challenged me to work even harder. It wasn't just my mom who was looking at my pictures anymore.
- Being asked to give a talk at Montana State University in the same business photography class in which I had heard Kris Erickson give his talk.
- The friends I have made and the many interesting people that I have been fortunate to meet over the years because of photography.
- Being invited on the Cerro Castillo ski trip in Patagonia with Drew Stoecklein, Chuck “The Pit Viper King” Mumford and Forrest Coots to work on and create the short film “Take The Ride.”
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