It’s one thing to snowboard the world’s biggest mountains. It’s another to snowboard the world’s biggest mountains while lugging along camera equipment and handling a lens deftly on death-defying terrain in subzero temperatures. That’s just what Burlington’s Dean “Blotto” Gray does for nearly three-quarters of the year, as the principal photographer for Burton Snowboards.
The 44-year-old earned his nickname in the late 1980s when a buddy blurted out the word “blotto” during a skateboarding session in the desert. But frozen surfaces are now his preferred stomping grounds. Blotto’s work captures not only the beauty of snowboarding but also the exuberance, silliness, bravery and style that have helped make the sport, and Burton, a notable cultural phenomenon of the 21st century.
Blotto has been working for Burton since 1999 and as principal photographer since 2003. He was recently named one of the top 50 finalists in the Red Bull Illume Image Quest 2013. Judges selected his “sequence” image of snowboarder Jeremy Jones leaping off a building and sliding down a ramp made of snow from tens of thousands of entries from around the world. Blotto carved out time to talk with Seven Days about his life of riding and making art on the snowy road.
SEVEN DAYS: How did you get into photography?
BLOTTO: During the mid-’90s, I worked for a small snowboard company; we didn’t have the budgets to hire photographers and graphic designers every time we needed something done, so we purchased a camera and computer and taught ourselves.
SD: You grew up in Arizona and Texas — was it at college that you started snowboarding?
B: I started riding BMX bikes in Texas [and] found skateboarding some years later in Phoenix, which eventually led to the discovery of snowboarding in northern Arizona. I was attending college in Flagstaff for graphic design as snowboarding took over my life.
SD: What makes snowboarding an interesting subject?
B: The creative individuals that come with snowboarding and the progression happening on a daily basis with these athletes is unbelievable.
SD: You’ve been documenting the snowboard life 250 days a year for the last 14 years. Can you expand?
B: The Burton team is busy filming, competing and touring in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres year-round, so there are endless opportunities to capture the crew in action.
SD: What are some of the farthest-flung places you’ve shot, or snowboarded?
B: Northern Japan sits atop the destination list each season due to massive snowfall, photo opportunities galore and the overall beauty and vibe of the country. In the non-snow world, heading into the Middle East to document professional mountain bikers looking for rideable terrain in Jordan was quite the experience.
SD: What does it mean to be the principal photographer for Burton?
B: I’m blessed to work with so many creative, talented and motivated individuals at Burton. My coworkers and the team riders are next level, raising the bar every day, which is constant motivation to do my best, keep my photography progressing and, of course, have fun!
SD: Are you riding to get a particular shot, or how does that work?
B: Snowboard photography takes you to three primary locations, all very different from each other, requiring varied modes of transportation and preparation. First is the backcountry, accessed via helicopter, snowmobile or hiking. Second is working within the urban environment, moving around by automobile. Third is shooting in bounds at ski resorts — usually in the springtime — using snowcats to build large terrain-park features specific to our needs.
Most of the riding, for me, happens when hiking or using a helicopter; it’s my mode of transportation for descending the mountain. There are times when I have camera in hand while snowboarding, snapping photos as we move about, but most of the time the tripod is set up and I’m moving from angle to angle as the session progresses.
SD: What gear are you now bringing to shoots?
B: The amount and type of gear varies depending on whether we’re scheduled for backcountry, urban or resort. The camera body and lenses are suited for every photo shoot; it’s the amount of flashes, strobes and tripods I get to bring [that changes], given the location and complexity of the shot list.
SD: How have Instagram and other social-media channels impacted your work?
B: Instagram has given photographers the ability to display their work more frequently, engaging followers on a daily basis — Facebook included. A website allows you to expand on any given subject, photo shoot or travel update by posting a number of “behind-the-scenes” photos with descriptive text. If you stack Instagram, Facebook, a website and print media together, the photographic publishing circle is complete.
SD: Any close encounters with avalanches, yeti or difficult celebrity snowboarders?
B: Unstable snowpack is the biggest variable while working in the backcountry; big mountains covered in snow are never taken lightly. We test the snowpack on every single slope we plan to descend and make the decision to drop in or pull back. Even if the slope could produce the best clip ever, it’s not worth the risk — there’s enough terrain and days in the season to play it smart. Our No. 1 fear in the backcountry? Avalanche.
The original print version of this article was headlined "A Ride With a View"