Dean Gray might be the most traveled man in Burlington. Since 1999 the photographer, better known as Blotto, has logged more than 1 million air miles out of Burlington International Airport. He learned he was in the million-mile club when he received a card from United Airlines congratulating him on his accomplishment.
The accolade didn’t get Blotto much in the way of perks, but it’s still a feather in his cap, a symbol of the energy he puts into his work as Burton Snowboards’ staff photographer. In an average year, Blotto is on the road 250 days, shooting Burton team riders as they huck themselves off peaks from Alaska to New Zealand. And that’s down about 40 days from how much he traveled in his first seven years on the job.
Any way you look at it, Blotto travels a lot. It’s nearly impossible to catch him in town. And, when he’s in his home base of Burlington, he’s generally out on one of his four bikes. Blotto, 41, is caught between dueling obsessions — snowboarding and cycling. While he is known for his breathtaking snowboarding photography, he’s no stranger to shooting bicycles and the people who ride them. Some of those shots will be on display this weekend at Maglianero Café in a show he’s calling “Derailleur the Conventional.” The show is part of the annual South End Art Hop.
For “Derailleur,” Blotto has put together a series of five large-format photos that represent four disciplines of cycling. It’s a smaller exhibit than many he’s mounted of his snowboarding photography, primarily because, he says, he didn’t think he had enough solid bike photos. This despite the fact that his website is peppered with bike images. But for this consummate perfectionist, the photos had to be just right.
Blotto, who earned his nickname from a sticker he had on a childhood skateboard, didn’t start shooting photos until he was in his early twenties. And then he only did it out of necessity.
Blotto grew up in Phoenix skateboarding and riding BMX on the boiling Arizona pavement. He had never even heard of snowboarding until one of the owners of a local skate shop regaled him with stories about shredding the mountains of the Arizona Snowbowl, near Flagstaff. His friend told him it was exactly like skateboarding, except you could go bigger and would never lose your board. Blotto had to try it, even though he’d never seen snow before.
“First run, I was hooked,” he says.
Blotto was drawn to the sport for the same reason he loved skateboarding — the adventure of it. In 1991, he moved to the Snowbowl to be a ski bum of sorts. By 1995, Blotto was riding for a small team run by Technine.
The tiny binding company couldn’t afford to pay a professional photographer to take shots of the team for use in magazines or ads. Despite a lack of photographic experience, Blotto volunteered.
“I think [photography] all started having a draw for me when I was skateboarding and looking at the magazines and the photos of the dudes skating in pools and ramps in the middle of the desert,” he says. “And I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s cool. That’s how I think I could be comfortable holding the camera and know what I’m doing.’”
Blotto taught himself how to shoot, develop and print film; composition seemed to come naturally, as if photography was what he was meant to be doing all along. He wishes he had started it sooner, he says.
Soon Blotto was submitting his photos to various magazines. He quickly earned a reputation as one of the preeminent snowboard photographers on the scene. In 1999, Burton came calling. The company needed a team manager who could also handle being the documentarian. Blotto accepted.
In 2003, he became Burton’s full-time staff photographer; his job was to shoot the company’s team riders as they traveled all over the world shreddin’ the gnar. Blotto’s work appears in the company’s catalog and dealer book. He has also documented the life of pro snowboarders off the slopes, shooting the downtime as well as the travel itself. The photos he produces make the sport look beautiful, always depicting the majesty of the surroundings. For Blotto, context is king, says Michael Jager, president and creative director of Jager Di Paolo Kemp Design, who worked with Blotto to organize the “Derailleur” show.
“What he’s exceptional at is capturing the whole context in a pretty epic way,” Jager says. “And he understands it’s about motion and fluidity of line.”
Recording some of the world’s most extreme snowboarders requires Blotto to be equally competent on the mountain. Though he prefers to shoot suspended from a helicopter high in the mountains of Alaska or Japan — by far his favorite places to work, he says — Blotto often has to be on the slopes, out in front of the riders, to capture what they’re doing.
This engagement is part of what makes Blotto so good, Jager says; being a rider himself, he can see the lines and address a rider’s relationship to the terrain in a photo. The work requires him to schlep all his gear on his back and descend the same peaks as the riders do. Shooting on some of the world’s most treacherous mountains gives one respect for their power, Blotto notes.
“The mountains are gigantic, and you usually descend them one [person] at a time, so you really get a feel for how big they are when your buddy gets to the bottom and he’s a little dot,” Blotto says.
Unlike many sports photographers, who tend to be anonymous, Blotto is well known in snowboarding and cycling circles. Indeed, he’s a pioneer in the field. That’s in part because of his hugely popular website, Blotto Photto, which provides a window into the world of his brand of professional photography and makes what he does accessible.
“Nobody really understands how much work goes into getting a shot — sometimes a full day of work with a whole crew just for one photo,” says Liam Griffin, a former coworker of Blotto’s at Burton and sometime photo collaborator. “It’s cool to see what happens when the weather doesn’t cooperate or things don’t work out at a shoot. To me, that’s just as interesting as the final published shot and gives it more meaning, because you understand the work that went into it.”
Blotto updates the website religiously with regular blog posts chronicling his adventures in pictures and in words. He geeks out on photo tech talk, and posts interviews with folks he thinks are cool. An entire section of the site is devoted to bikes and their owners. There are shots of urban riding, bike polo, BMX and so on. If it has two wheels and it’s not a Huffy, Blotto is shooting it.
Hundreds of his photos have nothing at all to do with bikes or boards — his camera is drawn to architecture, landscapes, city living and countless other subjects. In a word, Blotto is prolific.
Soon Blotto begins his busy season with Burton. He’ll eat Thanksgiving dinner with his family in Arizona and take a plane out the next day to wherever the company is shooting — Austria, British Columbia, Switzerland. The life suits him. Despite the occasional exhaustion that comes with the job, he’s in it for another million miles.