At the dawn of the downhill ski culture in America, there was Ray Atkeson. Over the course of decades, beginning in 1929, Atkeson would wake up early and trek into wilderness areas. He wanted to be there when the light was perfect and before the first ski or boot tracks had been laid in the fresh morning’s snow.
Lugging a large-format camera that, today, would appear to be more of a concertina than an image maker, Atkeson worked the slopes of Sun Valley, Mount Hood and throughout the Cascades to document skiing in its infancy and snow in its serenity.
To early skiers with leather boots, wooden planks and hoop basket poles, Atkeson’s equipment must have appeared strange in that rugged and cold setting. Instead of making music, though, Atkeson would use his squeeze box to capture some of Oregon’s— and skiing’s—most iconic images.
This was the era of Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and Errol Flynn. Sun Valley Resort opened in 1936. Timberline Lodge wasn’t completed until 1938. Nevertheless, the ski industry had its glamorous early patrons and one of its best documentarians in Atkeson. His black and white images in National Geographic, TIME and other magazines introduced America to an Oregon they had only read about or seen on a map.
Atkeson’s talent behind the camera earned him the distinction of Oregon’s Photographer Laureate in 1987 and a place in the Photographic Hall of Fame. He died in 1990 and left a trove of unpublished images in his estate. Here, through the kindness of his stepson and photographer, Rick Schafer, we get a peek into his private collection.
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