BRECKENRIDGE – Listen up. You’re only going to hear this once. Nate Abbott’s improbable path from despondent ski bum to one of the top freestyle ski and snowboard photographers in America is a true story. He really is a college dropout who walked into a bustling magazine office with zero photography or editorial experience, somehow scored a photo internship, became managing editor soon after, then, about two years removed from delivering pizzas to pay the bills, found himself as a senior contributing photographer.Even he admits, “It’s just ridiculous.”Eight years have passed since Abbott hobbled into the Boulder office of FREEZE magazine, unsolicited, a 21-year-old kid looking for direction. Shortly prior, he had dislocated his hip while skiing in Crested Butte, where he moved after leaving school at Emory University in Atlanta. See, the ski shop Abbott worked for that winter dangled a free entry into the U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championships. Whichever of its ski bum employees proved himself above the rest got to compete on the shop’s tab. Abbott wanted in, but instead digested a season-ending injury.He retreated to his parents’ home in Boulder, and fate took over. His mother accidentally ruined his point-and-shoot camera while doing his laundry, so Abbott treated himself to a $400 Canon Rebel. The next week, he walked into FREEZE and scored an unpaid internship under photo editor Flip McCririck.Now, Abbott works for clients such as Powder, Skiing, K2 (he shot the famous Animal House ad with Glen Plake last year), the New York Times, Oakley and Snowboard. He gets sent all over the world and dines on the tabs of others. His is a traveler’s life, adventurous and trying; from Feb. 5 to May 10 this year, a span of 94 days, Abbott spent only two nights at home in Breckenridge.When the winter is over, Abbott returns to the modest mountain digs he shares with his wife, former Burton rep Christine Sperber, just outside town. He listens to music and sits down to sort through the 20,000 photos he shot this year.’Lucky’
Notorious BIG’s rap lyrics boom in the background as Abbott explains his side of the ridiculous tale he calls his own. Sitting in jeans and a yellow Armada T-shirt, with a buzz cut and steel-blue eyes, he talks matter-of-factly.”I’ve had every bit of luck possible and just been in the right place at the right time,” he says. “I’ve just been very lucky. I don’t know what other word to use.”He is proud that his journey includes little in the way of formal training, and says he learned so much more on the go with McCririck than he would’ve in academia. “I have all these friends who have gone to photo school, and they can copy anyone’s work, but they can’t create their own,” Abbott says.He does not share that problem. Abbott’s photos catch the eye. He gets angles others do not always see. He stalks the landscape for the photo that will stand out.Abbott’s style often is reflected in the athletes he strives to capture. For instance, he believes Pep Fujas is the best skier in the world right now. Why? “He’ll do something just because everyone else isn’t doing it.”Still, as Abbott sees it, excelling in this business is not solely about taking good photos. Rather, “It basically comes down to whether you can work with the athletes.”
“You gotta be friends with them, you gotta be able to hang out with them, you gotta be able to keep up on the hill with them,” he says. “If you go out with a big snowboarding film crew and don’t know how to use a snowmobile to get where they’re shooting, you’re never gonna get invited out again.”
It’s not so much about coming across as “cool,” exactly, but more about learning to exist in the athletes’ environment. McCririck – who admitted he gave Abbott the original internship even though “everyone else in the office just wanted a hot chick with big boobs” – describes it this way: “It’s a hard road to tiptoe through. It’s hard knowing when to pull out a camera, but even more importantly, when not to pull out a camera.”McCririck said Abbott was overly hungry in the beginning, and that he annoyed athletes from time to time. Now, according to Breck local Steve Fisher, an X Games gold medalist and one of the top freestyle snowboarders in the world, Abbott takes the right approach. “He’s not one of those guys who’s just like, ‘OK, one more time, one more time’ – even when you’re tired,” Fisher says, adding: “There’s a pretty good buzz going on about him these days.”
The 245-foot shotAbbott has become known for his versatility; he was one of the first shooters, McCririck says, to recognize the value of storytelling lifestyle portraits in combination with innovative action shots.He has been known to embrace the rare dangerous treat, too, in order to relate to his subjects. While photographing Shane McConkey and Seth Morrison with a Warren Miller film crew in Engelberg, Switzerland, two years ago, Abbott gave in to McConkey’s invitation to try ski BASE jumping.He launched off a 245-foot cliff, pulled his chute, overadjusted the steering controls, dropped into a freefall, righted himself just before landing on his head and shoulder – yet somehow walked away without injury.
“I thought he was gonna die, and he almost did,” recalls Morrison, a Frisco-based big-mountain skiing pioneer.Abbott shrugs off the close call, just as he does the time he was buried up to his waist by an avalanche while shooting in Alaska. Mistakes are part of the game. He moves on.So does his work.”There are so many things I’ve done, even up to last week, that I’m totally embarrassed about,” he says. “But if I took all those things away, I’d still be taking bad photos.”Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-4633, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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