August 19, 2004
“The Perfect Line” would have been an unrealistic designation for a book documenting 12 years of snowboarding photography.
“No line is ever perfect, when you think about it,” said Truckee’s Sean Sullivan as he talked about the original title idea for his publication “Lines,” a documentation of more than a decade of snapping some of the most talented snowboarders on some of the most famous mountains in the world.
The title would have also contradicted the author’s own life. Geographically, Sullivan has led a life full of twists and turns, a philosophy he relates to “Lines,” a collection of his best photos from 1989 to 2001. The book takes you on a powdery journey through Tahoe, Cascadia, the Rocky Mountains, Japan, Alaska, Europe, South America and Australia.
“The bottom line is everywhere in life you go, you draw a line through the landscape,” he said. “Whether you’re walking, or riding, or driving, you have a path that you follow, and that’s the main concern with the name. It’s all about the path that we’re all on.”
The book has been out since September 2003, but Sullivan has recently moved back to the Tahoe roots of his professional snowboarding photography. Shooting in Tahoe was what enabled Sullivan to impress publishers and land a senior photography position at Snowboarder magazine in fall 1990.
Sullivan’s first love, however, was skateboarding.
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Before his initial move to Tahoe in fall 1989 at the age of 19, Sullivan was working for Thrasher magazine in Southern California. He established friendships with pro skateboarders like Jason Lee, Mark Gonzalez, Danny Way, Omar Hassan and Ricky Barnes and received his first paycheck from Thrasher at 17. As much as he loved the scene, he eventually grew tired of struggling financially.
“When I told (Thrasher) I was going to move up here, they didn’t like that very much, so they let me go,” he said. “I was cool with that because I wasn’t really making the money I wanted to make in skateboarding photos ” not even enough to scrape by.”
Initially, the move to Tahoe turned out to be difficult as well.
“I spent a whole winter scraping by on (Top) Ramen and rice and beans,” he smiles, as he recalls his first couple months in Tahoe.
But now, after that original eight-year stint in Truckee-Tahoe from 1989 to 1997, Sullivan’s “line” has come full circle, leading him back to Olympic Heights about three months ago. With a professional reputation established and a book to prove it, Sullivan is back for at least one more winter of photographing in Tahoe.
In 1997, Sullivan moved away from Tahoe to Seattle for a change of pace. He kept his job at Snowboarder, but by May 2001, his heart just wasn’t in it anymore. Sullivan switched career paths and earned a certificate in audio engineering at the University of Washington. There, Sullivan learned the art of producing music and has started a record label called Amfibius Recordings, which he calls “music for the dance floor spun by DJs on vinyl.” Sullivan is also part of a traveling DJ group called Mellow Kidz.
Sullivan’s budding interest in music made him stray from his passion for photography, but now he’s insistent on doing both.
“I took three years off, and I was focused on producing music and DJ-ing and I was traveling a lot doing that,” he said. “I finally decided that I miss the mountains and I miss being up here, so I thought I’d try to get back into (photography) full time again.”
Sullivan said about one-third of the photography in “Lines” is shot in Tahoe: “Squaw, a lot of Donner backcountry, Sonora Pass, Sugar Bowl, a little bit of Boreal, Mt. Rose a lot; mainly backcountry. Resorts are cool, but it’s hard to get all the conditions to come together at a resort.”
Sullivan’s ideal photo shoot is an empty mountain covered with deep snow on a sunny day, he said. He has worked with Standard Films in Kings Beach and plans to work with them again.
“They’d have filming days and bring riders into town, and I’d tag along,” he said. “You end up getting the best days with those guys because they’re the best riders.”
He said he would also jump at the chance to work for up-and-coming snowboard companies.
Although he has excelled with the camera, his original vision was to be on the other side of the lens. Describing himself as an aspiring professional skateboarder in his youth, it was a nasty injury to his ankles that forced him to think otherwise. That’s when he picked up a camera in his early teenage years.
“I wanted to hang out with my bros, so my mom gave me a camera,” he said. When Sullivan was about 10, he would sit in with his mom during classes at Newport School of Photography. He wouldn’t pick up a camera until five years later, but when he did it came natural.
“I didn’t really have a lot of trouble with it ” like everybody’s got something they can do, and this seemed to be the thing I was able to do,” he said.
Sullivan said he still prefers film over digital, and he most often develops his shots at Barifot Photography in Tahoe City.
One concern for Sullivan and other snow photographers is the possible danger of avalanches. One of the editorials in “Lines” is written by Craig Kelly, who died in such an accident before the book hit stores. Sullivan said the number-one safety precaution is to make sure everyone in the crew is wearing a transceiver.
As far as “Lines,” Sullivan now has something eternal to showcase 12 years of travel and hanging out with friends.
“After sifting through my photos for so long, I finally decided that this stuff needed to be on permanent record,” he said.
After he had signed a contract with MBI to put the book out, it took a year to put it together. Sullivan even moved to Oregon for four months to work with designer Aaaron Draplin, who works for Cinco Design in Portland. Sullivan definitely wasn’t in it for profit.
“It’s not a big money-maker,” he said. “The payoff is in the fact that you have the book out. People are seeing it; people are being influenced by it, and it’s affecting people’s lives in a positive way. To me that’s what’s most important, more so than the money.”
A second edition of “Lines” with more photos and minor corrections may be in the works, Sullivan said.
[To order “Lines,” go to http://www.djsulli.com/lines.php. For more information about Amfibius Records, visit http://www.djsulli.com. Look for an in-depth story about the record label in “Action” in the coming weeks. To contact Sean Sullivan about photography, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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