By Evan Johnson
Growing up in Phoenix, Ariz., Dean Gray started BMX riding and skateboarding before beginning to snowboard at nearby Flagstaff while studying graphic design.
Photography, he says, was a skill learned out of necessity while working at a snowboard shop with a group of friends. Lacking funds for professional advertising, Gray taught himself how to shoot product photos and taught himself editing skills for the shop’s own catalogs and on their websites—all of which he and his fellow snowboarders at the shop designed themselves.
In 1999, he was hired by Burton and moved to Burlington, Vt. where he presently works as principal photographer. His passion for snow and photography has led him on adventures around the world from New Zealand to eastern Canada.
Recently, his sequence photo of Vermont snowboarder Jeremy Jones was featured as one of the top 50 images in Red Bull’s Illume photography contest. The top images were featured on an international tour and were published in a book released this year.
Blotto spoke from San Francisco with Vermont Sports staff writer Evan Johnson, about his work at Burton, his progression into snowboarding photography, and what it takes to become recognized in a competitive field of photographers in an increasingly democratic digital age.
VS: In the late ’90s, when you started shooting in Arizona, what was the equipment like?
Blotto: I shot with a Canon 530. They called it the Canon EOS 530. It’s a small, 35 mm film camera. We probably had a wide-angle lens and just a small zoom lens, but every few months, we tried to gain a new flash or maybe a new lens. We kept experimenting and trying to teach ourselves everything about each piece of equipment we got.
VS: And since you’ve come to Burton, what is some of the gear that you find yourself using the most?
Blotto: Nowadays, I shoot with the Nikon D4 and the Canon SL-1. I choose these cameras due to their size and depending on what the mission is with Burton or when we’re traveling, what I need to carry with me. And then alongside me, I always have a couple of cinematographers with me using Red cinema equipment.
VS: How often do you find yourself on the road doing these projects?
Blotto: I’d say over the past 14 years I’m usually on the road about 270 days a year.
VS: Sounds like quite a lifestyle.
Blotto: [Laughs]. It’s very fun. It’s quite a balance you can imagine with family and friends and all that, but it all seems to work out very well. I can’t say enough good things about the people I work with at Burton because everyone’s so talented and so driven and so creative over there that it makes it easier for you to do your job. You’ve got a lot of support around you.
VS: Tell me about the contest you entered at Red Bull. What’s the story behind the shot you entered of Jeremy Jones?
Blotto: I believe this was the third year of Red Bull Illume and I hadn’t entered yet. They contacted me and I said, “I should definitely send them some pictures,” so I did. The one that they chose was under the “sequence” category, it’s one of Jeremy and we captured this photo two seasons ago while we were working the Burton project called “13.”
We were doing street snowboarding, which is what we call that and we were up in Anchorage on a couple different trips. At the end of one of the trips, we were driving out of town, headed to the airport and we were like, “Let’s check one more spot.” We drove through this area where you see the sequence and we were like, “Oh boy.”
We couldn’t extend the trip, but we decided to make another trip there just to hit this spot, so we did. When we got there, the snow was good, the weather was perfect and it all just kind of lined up. We were able to get the job done and it made the whole trip worth it.
VS: When you see that kind of a spot, what exactly are you looking for? How do you recognize the potential in a place like that?
Blotto: I guess when we drove up to this spot —and this spot is a good example—or to any kind of manmade structure like this building, we’re looking for something that has multiple levels, what we like to call a “terraced” building.
Jeremy saw the vision, like, “Ok. We can create a little jump up there with plenty of run-in speed. I can gap over and land on a wall that’s facing the other direction.”
Basically, you look at a spot that has these levels and you just start thinking, “OK, could I go there to there, could I do this, what’s feasible?”
He felt he could do this safely and actually land it, and he did. We probably spent two hours constructing the landing and the jump, and we probably took another 30 minutes for Jeremy to do just “run-ins” where when we used the winch to pull him in, he would check the speed of the run in.
This obstacle is pretty gnarly, you definitely don’t want to fall to the flat and you don’t want to hit the wall at a weird angle. So he did the run-in about 10 times and felt he had the speed and the trajectory correct and then I’d say by the fifth try he landed it. So it was a pretty quick process given the nature of this obstacle.
VS: In addition to your work at Burton, your website (www.blottophotto.com) also features photography from all over the United States and the rest of the world. Do you think there is a common theme to your work?
Blotto: I just find the beauty in everything around me wherever I go. That’s why I love travel, whether it’s man-made like cities, or nature and the mountains. It goes on and on.
Right now I’m in San Fran and I’ve been going out at midnight each night documenting the city and the bridges, particularly Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge. I just love taking pictures so whether it’s a hobbyist routine, like these midnight shootings of the city, or I’m on the job with Burton, I find equal thrill. I think it’s just nice to keep the camera in my hand so I can constantly learn and constantly keep myself occupied being creative.
VS: When you’re out at night in San Fran or on assignment for Burton, what are some of the things you look for to recognize that beauty? What makes a good picture?
Blotto: You can find beauty in anything, even the most mundane, but there are some things out there that you see, like on these midnight missions in San Fran, when you see the Bay Bridge lit up at night, you’re just, like, “Whoa.” It kind of makes you want to take a picture of it because it is a beautiful structure.
In snowboarding, when we’re out there with the fresh snow and the light and the shadows, that’s just begging for you to pull up a composition and figure out the light and make it as dreamy as possible.
In the streets, driving around in a car, you’ve got so much equipment, you’re allowed to use a lot of flashes, etcetera, or in the sequence with Jeremy, it’s just so gnarly you want to see it from start to finish, nothing too fancy, just showing the rawness of it.
VS: It seems like you have a pretty unique story, with your origins teaching yourself the photography, composition and editing skills and going all the way to where you are now at Burton. For someone who is an aspiring photographer, especially in the area you are, what does it take to get recognized?
Blotto: Basically, you need to live and breathe that lifestyle. I have kids write to me on a weekly basis, saying they’d love to become a snowboarding photographer. I say, get with your crew and you got to move to a mountain where there’s snow.
You have to run with your crew and learn while they’re learning—and this has to be your life. What happens when you start running with and learning is that it leads to travel, and travel leads to connections.
But what it all comes down to is you’ve got to be positive, you’ve got to be a team player and you’ve got to work hard.
In the 21st century, there are obviously many outlets for photography. It’s a beautiful thing, really, because you have websites, social media, and you still have print. So there’s a place for all this work you do to build up. It’s all about being with it and doing it. That’s speaking for bike, skateboarding, anything. You’ve just got to be in it.
VS: Another challenge, I suppose, is that everybody has a camera on their phone and they can take pretty good pictures and share them immediately. Doesn’t that crowd the playing field and make it harder to rise above the rest?
Blotto: I certainly agree with you there. But that just means you have to work harder, be more creative and, like I said, being a team player goes a long, long way – especially in snowboarding.
VS: Do you look at any other snowboard photography? Do you have any favorite photographers?
Blotto: I don’t go out of my way to check out other stuff. I’m a little bit preoccupied with the tasks at hand. With the assignments at Burton, I don’t have a lot of extra time to branch out and look at everything, but I receive the snowboarding publications on a monthly basis so I look through and I see that some of my favorite dudes are always killing it. Adam Moran, my coworker at Burton; Cole Barash; there’s a French guy name Matt Georges, but that’s just a couple.
VS: So what’s the next thing we can expect to see from you or your work at Burton?
Blotto: We just finished up our summer shooting down in New Zealand and our viewbook catalog comes out, so that’s a big step for us every December.
Then we’re coming back to Vermont to view all the products for next year. That’s the big thing on the table. After that, we’re opening two Burton Snowboarding flagship stores in the San Francisco–Berkeley area, I’ll be around for those.
We’re in the midst of season planning what we’re going to do this winter so we all just got together at the Burton SoCal offices, all the team and media. This means the team managers, the photographers, the filmers. We all sat down and made the plan of what we’re going to do this winter.
VS: Sounds like you don’t get back to the Burton HQ in Burlington often.
Blotto: [Laughs] No, but I go whenever I can.