To a generation of snowboarders, Craig Kelly was the absolute embodiment of the sport. His innovative approach to riding transformed everything he touched, from halfpipe competition to backcountry riding to the products he helped to design.
Craig Kelly's impact on snowboarding wouldn't be nearly as significant if it weren't for the photographers and videographers who rode and traveled with him, capturing the images that built his legend. Through his lens, photographer Chris Brunkhart documented an incredible number of these iconic moments with Craig.
By Colin Wiseman
Chris Brunkhart’s imagery goes beyond snowscapes, beyond documentarianism. Using simple equipment for the most part—usually a Leica rangefinder and black and white film—Brunkhart’s vision developed during the northwest uprising in the early 90s. His unique, clean style advanced snowboard photography just as the riders around him progressed the sport.
Born and raised in the Midwest, Brunkhart started riding in 1988 after moving to Portland at the age of 18. Boarding day in and day out he met up-and-coming riders from the northwest, guys like Jamie Lynn, Matt Donahue and Peter Line, and the photos came naturally. “All of a sudden I had all these amazing snowboarders around me,” Brunkhart says, “and I’d always been a photographer—that was always my passion. So I just combined the two.”
Indeed, before he was a snowboarder, Brunkhart was a photographer, and it showed in his work. He found creative outlet beyond the confines of the action shot, in the quieter moments in-between—in the simple powder turns, in the style of a rider as much as the riding itself. “There’s a lot of beauty in snowboarding,” Brunkhart explains, “and it’s not just about backside 360s or 720s or whatever. The little simple moments can help tell the story so much more.”
The first public offering of Brunkhart’s vision was through a ‘zine called Boardsports Northwest, which he created with his friend Scott Hickox at the start of the ‘90s. It wasn’t long before established titles came calling. First it was Concrete Powder up in Canada, then Transworld Snowboarding ran a shot of his featuring Craig Kelly. Brunkhart went from working in the airport to pay the bills to a Senior Photographer at Snowboarder Magazine pretty quick. By ’95, Brunkhart was traveling the world with fellow northwesterner and Snowboarder editorial staffer Jeff Galbraith and his upstart crew of riders from the PNW. This lasted through the rest of the decade—near home at Mt Baker with Jamie, Donahue and Jeff Fulton, Chile with Craig, and everywhere in between. Through it all, Brunkhart built a special bond and appreciation for Craig—for his riding, but also for his dedication and perspective and approach to snowboarding.
“Two or three years after that first photo in Transworld,” Brunkhart explains, “I saw Craig at a Mt. Bachelor event. We were riding the half pipe. It was raining. It was shitty. And he said, ‘Oh, you took that magical photo.’ My shot had made the jump look bigger than it was, or something like that. We talked a little bit and the next season I got a phone call from him inviting me to Alaska. He was an amazing individual. I was really honored to become a friend and hang out and travel the way we did.
“With Craig, it wasn’t just a photo shoot. We would go to Chile for a week-long Burton shoot then spend six weeks on the road going to different mountains and finding all these hidden beaches to surf and being on the road. Those are some of my best memories ever. Not just with Craig, but all the other snowboarders—when you travel with them you get more intimate on a personal level. When you are on the road with someone day in and day out you totally learn all their quirks.”
This is what comes out in Brunkhart’s photography: intimacy. Yes, he is capable of timeless action, of transferring the perfect moment to a broader audience. But he is also a master of the subtleties that make life as a snowboarder something special. Moments of quiet reflection. Sadness. Exuberance. Pain. Transcendence.
“That’s the beauty of traveling,” Brunkhart continues, “and getting to know Craig like that was just really awesome. Seeing him read Gandhi and Dante’s Inferno, and then seeing him charge up the mountain. I went to Alaska a few times with him and Chile four times, Austria, and then we traveled the Northwest and Wyoming, Montana, Canada. He was quite the visionary, leaving the half pipe when he did to go and explore the backcountry. He was the catalyst that kind of opened up the backcountry to the rest of us. He had a vision of what he saw the future of snowboarding would and could be. There were no selfish motives. He wanted to share his experiences and his education and pass it on to others and open up the mountains and the culture and the life to everyone. It’s pretty amazing for a top athlete to care about the industry and the sport and the people.”
And Brunkhart was able to spread his own vision alongside Craig and his compatriots from the Pacific Northwest, a vision of snowboarding that cuts through the hype and brings a human element into snowboarding superstardom. That is his legacy.