Out There: A winning feat
January 18, 2007
Aspen, CO ColoradoTwenty-seven hours slogging up and down scree-strewn San Juan mountain passes and through narrow high-country streams took its toll on Karl Meltzer.Weathered lines surrounded his eyes and mouth after Meltzer crossed the finish of July’s Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run in Silverton. The race, one of the most difficult of its kind, had lived up to its reputation, even for the four-time winner.After the swarm of media and well-wishers had subsided, Meltzer eyed a nearby chair, took a seat, then slipped off his soaked shoes. The bottom of his feet, much like his face, described the race in a way words simply could not. Carbondale photographer David Clifford readied his camera.”I got really close and took a snapshot,” Clifford said Tuesday from Boston. “The bottom of his feet were waterlogged from running through streams. They were pruned like raisins. I thought it was something interesting you don’t see every day.”
Clifford had traveled to Silverton that morning with a preconceived notion of the shot he hoped to capture. He had planned on erecting a black screen behind the fabled rock at the finish line, then photograph the racers.”I was going to leave it up to the runner to laugh, cry, fall to the ground or kiss the rock,” Clifford said. He planned on submitting the collection for Red Bull’s Illume Image Quest 2006, the world’s first photography competition devoted entirely to action and adventure sports.Raging winds made the idea inconceivable. In his haste to come away with something, Clifford was drawn to Meltzer, a runner with whom he had developed a strong rapport in years past. During a similar race in Arizona a few years back, Meltzer wilted under 100-degree temperatures and bowed out after nearly 70 miles; he and Clifford, beers in hand, watched the rest of the race from the back of a pickup truck.Clifford was primed to capture Meltzer’s expression as sweat poured from the pores of his salt-encrusted face. The media that lingered by the runner for more than 15 minutes, however, thwarted the photo opportunity.When Meltzer took a long anticipated, well-earned seat, Clifford’s instincts kicked in.
“After 15 years of shooting, you come away from each shoot with one more trick under your belt. The trick I learned 10 years prior was shooting with a 24 mm lens close to a subject and isolating one aspect. If you can engage the reader thoughtfully, it makes a much bigger impact.”I went out, put my best foot forward and decided to see what happened.”Meltzer’s feet helped Clifford garner the attention of Red Bull Illume Image Quest’s prominent panel of judges, among them the picture editor at Time and the photo editors at Men’s Journal, Sports Illustrated and USA Today Sports Weekly. Clifford’s shot was one of 50 total selections in 10 categories – wings, playground, new creativity, lifestyle, spirit, energy, close-up, sequence, experimental and illumination – for an exhibition that begins Wednesday on Aspen Mountain’s Little Nell run. Red Bull chose Aspen as the kickoff site because of its affinity for the action and adventure sports lifestyle, Red Bull communications team member Chantel Chretien said. Additional domestic and foreign exhibition stops are planned but have not yet been announced.Red Bull will soon announce category winners and from there a photo of the year will be selected. At stake: A photo shoot anywhere in the world with a Red Bull athlete of the photographer’s choice. More than 2,000 photographers representing 90 countries submitted as many as 30 photographs each for review. Clifford, whose photograph is featured in the close-up category, is one of 13 Americans chosen to take part in the exhibit, which is open to the public from Jan. 25 through Feb. 4.”I’m excited and humbled all at once. I mean I can’t believe it, really,” Clifford said. “There’s a lot of talent out there.”A career on the riseClifford is taken aback by the arc his career has taken. Just last year he was in Uganda shooting a descent of Mount Margherita in the Ruwenzori Mountains; the group bailed on the summit attempt because of illness and inclement weather. “The editor of the magazine had read that a group of Japanese senior citizens had climbed the mountain a year earlier, so it really didn’t seem worth it to him,” Clifford joked.
Men’s Journal has inquired about using one of Clifford’s shots in a two-page spread. K2 is planning to use some of his shots at its trade show in Las Vegas and in its new catalogue. The company recently sent Clifford a new pair of skis; they remain unused because of conditions on the East Coast.
He is currently prepping for a trip to India with National Geographic Adventurer – his first assignment with the magazine – to document the first descent of an unnamed river. As a result, he will not attend Red Bull’s opening in Aspen. Recent successes have been somewhat unexpected, Clifford admitted. The Medway, Mass., native initially went to Northeastern University to pursue a career in architecture. Things changed, however, when he enrolled in photography 101.”I liked the class and the people in the class,” he remembered. “I sort of decided then that I didn’t want to be behind a desk, but be out in the field taking pictures.” Clifford spent the next few years cultivating his passion, spending more than 80 hours each week laboring in nearby photo labs. Ultimately, however, he struggled to raise enough money to continue his schooling. He dropped out in 1991 and headed for Aspen to “be a ski bum and escape the creditors.”To pay off his debt, Clifford held multiple jobs. He worked at the Walnut House photo lab and spent summers washing windows.
When he finally saved enough money, Clifford purchased a Nikon N90. He spent close to a decade shooting mountain photos, weddings, sports, landscapes and tourism. He shot for the Denver Broncos and the Aspen Skiing Co., and some of his photographs appeared in Aspen’s two newspapers. He gained acclaim for his work shooting the 24 Hours of Aspen, and extreme skier Chris Davenport asked him to photograph the Aspen/Snowmass freeride team.Clifford continued attend lectures and classes at Colorado Mountain College. He worked alongside industry stalwarts during World Cup skiing and other local events.”The best photographers in the world are right there in Aspen,” Clifford said. “Because of the concentration of great photographers, you need to hold your own or you’ll be left out.”Clifford parlayed his talent and experience into a job as photo editor of Rock & Ice and Trail Runner magazines in Carbondale. He held the position for four years before moving to Massachusetts with his wife, Rixt. The two plan to return to the valley in the next year.It was during his tenure at Rock & Ice that Red Bull contacted Clifford directly to ask if he knew of photographers interested in entering its fledgling contest. That piqued Clifford’s curiosity.
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“Right off the bat I thought, ‘I’d love to do this,'” he remembered. “It looked like a great opportunity to get some exposure, to compete and to see where you stand.”That premise led him to Silverton in July. That premise led to Clifford crossing paths with Meltzer once more. By his own admission, Clifford said the photos he snapped at the Hardrock were not exceptional. In fact, he said he thought the shot of Meltzer’s feet would arouse little, if any, interest from the judges.The panel thought otherwise.”I was looking forward to coming to Aspen and talking shop with some amazing photographers,” he said. “I saw the photos and some are just amazing, and I am psyched to be in their company. “I’m interested to see where this takes me. Hopefully it takes me to some amazing places.” Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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