By Sidetracked, Tom Hill
Reuben is standing over a kilometre away from his subjects – riders from the Salomon Freeski team. They in turn are 384,400km away from their backdrop – the moon, which is 149.6 million km away from the sun, and is about to pass directly in front of it.
"I like photography but I woukd never climb a mountain to do it! What an inspiring story!" 5 stars by Whitney
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It is a generalisation, but a fair one, to say that of the millions of new photographs created each day, the overwhelming majority will only ever mean something to a few individuals.
They don’t need to do anything else, and are no less important because of it.
Precious few photos rise above this – things of inherent beauty.
They inspire, trigger deeper emotions in people who may know nothing about the origins of the shot.
Finding the Origins
Image by Reuben Krabbe
Reuben Krabbe is a man who is a living embodiment of Thomas Edison’s quote, ‘genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration’.
The photographer has made a name for himself chasing the impossible shots, the once-in-a-lifetime images that bear dwelling over once the initial ‘wow!’ has passed.
From a skier backlit by the aurora borealis to a mountain biker carving a perfect arc around a tree, he seeks out a fresh perspective in a world crowded by great action photography.
Reuben is standing over a kilometre away from his subjects – riders from the Salomon Freeski team.
They in turn are 384,400km away from their backdrop – the moon, which is 149.6 million km away from the sun, and is about to pass directly in front of it.
It is one of those beautiful coincidences that, from our lump of rock called Earth, they both happen to look the same size. The team have minutes to get the shot.
One which Reuben has been planning for months, one which despite all that planning has slim chances of actually coming off.
Image by Reuben Krabbe
All alone, despite those standing next to him, he shouts into a crackling radio in the eerie gloom of a total eclipse, his finger hovering over the camera shutter as the first rider drops in, the rest of the team letting out primal screams into the darkness.
The idea for the shoot illustrates an evolution in Krabbe’s thinking – his drive to take the next step, push his personal boundaries, and perhaps a hint at the single-minded determination that was required to capture a once-in-a-lifetime moment in perpetuity.
What could be bigger, more difficult than the northern lights? A total solar eclipse. One percent inspiration; tick.
It is worth expanding on how incredibly small the chances of success were.
The only opportunity to capture the eclipse somewhere with suitable conditions for skiing was Svalbard – a Norwegian archipelago north of the Arctic Circle.
Svalbard is not famed for clear weather.
Despite this, Krabbe sold his idea to the Salomon Freeski team, who were inspired enough to throw their resources into the adventure, and film the results.
It would be a trip of a lifetime, but one of differing objectives.
‘The skiers were fairly honest that the concept was silly and not as interesting to them as simply skiing.
They executed any request I had at any time, but everyone has to be honest about their emotions on a trip, and they were sure to voice that the eclipse was a bit of a time burner,’ recalls Reuben.
It wasn’t as simple as turning up to Svalbard and waiting for the big day.
‘The difficulty was largely in trying to find something that is perfect, since you cannot move or adjust at the last minute.
You commit, and the entire trip comes to a pinnacle whether or not you’re ready, and whether or not your location is great.
And it would be one thing to simply shoot a wide-angle scenic shot during the eclipse, it’s another thing to try to create an alignment of skier-ridge-sun-camera that would be difficult in any location.’
We dream of perfection in our lives, but how often do we truly chase it?
How often are we willing to put in the effort, whether that be physical, mental or emotional to give ourselves the chance of achieving it?
What if we know that the chances of success are still small, regardless of our efforts?
It’s natural to see photography as an artistic pursuit.
It absolutely is, but in considering the end result, it is easy to forget the process that went into creating it – a process which can feel as far away from standing in a beautiful landscape as it is possible to get.
Image by Reuben Krabbe
Given that there would be no second chances, Krabbe applied a scientific rigour to his preparation.
‘I looked at tons of photos of solar eclipses from Google image searching, and used the metadata (information held inside the image file) to understand the different exposure settings for the eclipse. That dictated shutter speeds and what style of images you could shoot.
‘Then, the aligning of skier-ridge-sun-camera was a matter of bush-league stargazing.
With rough coordinates (11º inclination, 11º west of south) we knew roughly the location in the sky where the eclipse would happen. Take all of that, and figure out where on this ice-covered island everything can line up.
It was tough, but once we were on the island it was more problem solving than creativity.’
Sitting in the mess tent at base camp, Reuben tries to articulate his vision – his very personal, gut sense of what he wants to achieve.
Sometimes the things we hold closest – our beliefs, instincts and passions – are the hardest to explain.
He has spent days ‘problem solving’, but not finding the answer.
A few more percentage points of perspiration are extracted; perfection is not easy to find, and the right location is proving to be elusive.
The team are clearly wary of losing precious time to the pursuit of someone else’s dream.
It is unlikely that they will return to Svalbard again, and they have their own dreams to chase – mesmerised by a single photograph of unridden ridgelines and couloirs.
No small irony that a photo should hold such power to them.
Even the most self-assured of us have doubts.
The critical eye of others causes us to reassess what was once so black and white. Is it really achievable? Is it worth the effort?
Early on we may give in to those doubts, file away our dreams in the ‘one day’ box.
For those who persevere, though, there reaches a point where we are in so deep there is no choice but to keep moving forward, to follow through on what we have promised ourselves and others, despite being struck by stage fright.
‘While walking around on polar bear watch for the two nights prior to the eclipse, I promised myself I would never undertake something like that ever again’ says Reuben.
‘I felt too horrendous from nerves, stress, and the way this personal goal was affecting other people’s happiness as well.
Image by Reuben Krabbe
Stress and Nerves
‘On the other hand, there’s a surreal fatality of the countdown prior to this event, where the clock marches on unapologetically, and you’ve really put yourself in a place where you must act regardless of your own emotional state. So, stress and nerves be damned, the show must go on.’
Rider after rider drops in.
A window of two minutes, 28 seconds closes.
The guttural screaming persists, adrenaline courses through veins. Time – and this very particular view of space – keeps moving on.
A moment has passed, yet remains burnt into the memories of a small but select group who were present.
Reuben visibly relaxes, only now able to separate himself from the goal that has become his life for the last two weeks.
Anyone who has the vision and drive to seek perfection has to be self-critical.
They make mistakes, learn, do better next time. It is a never-ending and incremental process.
It sometimes takes greater humility to be able to say ‘this was as good as I hoped’.
‘Unlike most images, I wouldn’t change anything about the golden sun shot from the eclipse. The published image looks almost identical to the raw image file, which is a cool side note as well.
‘Photographers can never look at their images without seeing all kinds of backstory and detail; it’s a shame in a way.
I really wonder what it looks like to others. Several times I’ve stopped, shaken my head, and wondered how on earth it could all come together. It really does feel beyond belief.’
It is the wonder of a photograph that we too can share those precious few minutes, or more accurately a single fraction of a second.
The motion of the skier, the earth, sun and moon all frozen – perhaps continued – in all perpetuity.
As an image it can be simply appreciated as an enthralling shot. For most of us, though, it piques our curiosity.
‘What? How? Where?’ beg to be asked, and it is a story that is worth being told.