Cooper Dodds: Jumper

Reporting on the 1932 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York, E.B. White wrote “why ski jumpers jump at all is a mystery.” Most people write the impulse off as madness and leave it at that. But jumpers know all it takes is one beautiful flight for the veil of mystery to lift.

 

Training and technique are what allow skiers to glimpse the ecstasy of flight. The mechanics of a ski jump are surprisingly simple: translate the speed of the ramp into an aerodynamic flying position as efficiently as possible. The mental and physical work required to perfect this technique, however, is staggering. 

By the time I was sixteen I had practiced the specific movement of a ski jump tens of thousands of times. I honed my craft on hills of all sizes scattered throughout the country and eventually the world.

My introduction to the Midwest’s ski jump tour came unexpectedly in the winter of 2009. Along with two teammates I had relocated from New Hampshire to Steamboat Springs, Colorado to train with their prolific Nordic club. Our goal for the season was to qualify for the Junior World Championship team and compete in Štrbské Pleso, Slovakia. The team was named early, and when only one of us qualified, the two of us who hadn’t were left figuring out how to spend the rest of the winter. 

We heard through the grapevine of a five-hills tournament that took place in the Midwest where some money could be earned. Nearly penniless athletes undeterred by a long drive, we loaded up our 2002 Subaru Outback and headed to Minnesota for the start of the two-week tour.

What followed was an exhilarating experience. We traveled to five ski clubs peppered throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois. And we competed on legendary, old hills with names like Silvermine, Norge, and Suicide. Despite the small size of the towns that hosted us, we skied in front of enthusiastic crowds I hadn’t witnessed anywhere else in the world.

Most strongly etched in my memory from that trip, however, is skiing each of those hills for the first time. Modern facilities allow for safer, longer flights by creating conditions where skiers fly low the ground. Older-style hills, like those of the Midwest, have steeper ramps and larger takeoffs, meaning skiers are much higher in the air.

Once the initial fear is conquered, it’s frankly quite fun. Each jump had its own idiosyncrasies and flying them was as varied as people are unique. Skiing the tour in 2009 reignited my passion for the sport, and I finished the year feeling invigorated rather than dejected as I had begun the season

Flash forward a few years and I’m studying photography in Minnesota. Because of my location, I continued to attend the events that fit into my busy academic schedule. Inevitably I began to bring my camera and document some of the unique culture of the tour. Midwestern fans pride themselves on supporting outdoor events, even in the heart of their frigid winter. I enjoyed mixing it up with the crowds I had performed for years earlier as a jumper, now in my role as photographer and spectator. 

I also loved the contrast the huge ski jump trestles provided with the flat landscape of the Midwest. I can still feel shivers of anticipation and fear from driving to a hill for the first time and seeing the tower on the horizon long before you arrived. At this point I was shooting mostly black-and-white handheld 35mm.

After graduation I moved to New York City to pursue a photography career, but the pull of the tour remained. Each winter I would load up my cameras and drive from New York to the Midwest. After a couple years experimenting with different techniques, I began photographing the tour in earnest the winter of 2016.

I opted for the deliberate method of large-format film photography. I liked the nod to the history of ski jump imagery this traditional practice provided as well as the challenge of documenting a fast-moving sport with such a slow process. It forced me to focus less on the action and more on the athletes, the places, and the hills that had crawled under my skin in the best possible way. I chose to shoot color positive film to add a pop of saturation to what can be a bleak winter landscape.

My personal connection to the Midwest is what initially attracted me to create this body of work. But as the project progressed, I learned the area holds a unique place in the history of American ski jumping. The sport was invented by Norwegians, with the first ski jumping competition taking place in Telemark, Norway in 1866. Renowned Telemark instructors Torjus and Mikkel Hemmestveit brought this unorthodox pastime with them when they immigrated to Minnesota in the late 19th century. 

Under their tutelage local ski clubs were established and a community of Nordic jumping quickly surfaced. In 1887 the American distance record of 37 feet (modern flyers easily stretch past 300 feet) was set in Red Wing, Minnesota. The first formal American ski jumping competition was held that same year in Ishpeming, Michigan, home to Suicide Hill.

There was jumping in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where Silvermine now stands, as early as 1890. Norge Ski Club of Fox River Grove, Illinois was founded in 1905 and is the oldest, continuously-open ski club in the country. Westby, Wisconsin, typically the last stop of the tour, has hosted a tournament since 1922 and is one of the world’s only all-volunteer large-hill events. Their Snowflake Ski Club boasts 500 members and supporters - this in a town of 2,000 people.

This culture of volunteerism and love of flight has sustained jumping in the middle of the country even as national awareness of the sport remains low. Turn up at any of these events and you’ll find thousands of people huddled around massive bonfires and perched precariously along the steep landing hills, whooping for especially long flights. Someone will probably hand you a beer and say, ‘These kids are crazy’. These days I’ll nod and agree, secretly dreaming of when I too was a flyer.

Cooper Dodds

Cooper Dodds is a photographer who creates narratives using the long-form photo essay. His subjects change but his stories are frequently outdoors and crafted around people, perception, and place. Cooper received a B.F.A. from Carleton College in 2013. He currently splits his time between New Hampshire, where he grew up, and New York City.