Mark Shapiro’s Words to Live By

Meet the Godfather of freeride ski photography

This interview originally ran in the October 2015 (44.2) issue of POWDER.

Interview by Jack Shaw. Photo by Tero Repo.

AGE: 68
LOCATION: Verbier, Switzerland
OCCUPATION: Photographer
ROOTS: A Toronto native, Mark Shapiro arrived in Zurich, Switzerland, on September 3, 1970. He eventually found his way to Verbier, where his first winter consisted of, as he says, “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, and skiing every day.” Shapiro is now often referred to as the “Godfather” of freeride ski photography, having been one of the first to document the freeskiing movement of the 1970s. His work with “Team Clambin”—alongside John Falkiner and Ace Kvale, who lived in a chalet in Verbier’s Clambin neighborhood—was the stuff of legends, and spearheaded the pilgrimage of many ski bums to the Alps to seek the truth behind his mythical pictures. Exotic landscapes, big adventure skiing, and ridiculously deep powder were his trademark, and his subjects, a who’s who of the international skiing brotherhood.

I guess I was one of the very few who could understand light, and how to use a manual camera accordingly. I began working with TéléVerbier [the ski lift company] in the late ’70s, as they saw what I was doing was good for the area. The local Bagnard police helped me out with my permits and everything, so I became legal, and it went from there.

You just have to hang in there and believe in it. I always believed that it could still work, where a lot of my contemporaries moved on to other things. I just stuck it out.

As time goes by, you never stop learning—there’s always something new.

I don’t use auto-focus; I don’t trust it. Auto-focus in a snowstorm? Forget it.

Since Verbier became one of the capitals of freeride, it’s become extremely crowded. I’ve found that a good portion of these freeride skiers have all of the gear and don’t know how to use it, and a lot of them are completely uneducated about any kind of mountain lore. The snowpack is not the same as it used to be, and things get really dangerous out there. It used to take a week or two for [Col de] Creblet to get skied out. Now it takes 20 minutes.

You deal with it the best you can, or you go somewhere else. I still live here because I love it, and I love the Bagnard people, and they like me and respect me. As far as skiing, I go up and ski for myself and with friends, but I don’t shoot here anymore.

The skis, the hype, the magazines and media demanding more rad, more rad, I’m a bit past that.

The ski bum life is not really possible anymore. Not over here, because all of those ski bum jobs, like washing dishes, they just don’t exist anymore because of the political atmosphere. Because of the immigration laws of the EU for North Americans, it’s impossible to get work permits. Anybody who says they are a real ski bum, they’re just a trust-funder.

Any kid who wants to move to Verbier needs a shitload of money, because it’s expensive. Just like all of the big-name resorts anywhere—Jackson, Aspen, Whistler—mortals can’t live there anymore.

Clambin was a fantastic era. But as we got older, got married, had kids, it’s become legendary. We were on the top of our pile. Everybody knew who we were. The skiing world came to stay with us, passed through, and then went out into the world, and the legend grew. When John had to move out of the chalet, that was the end of Clambin, but it still lives on as a legend.

It was great because the poon was all over. It was the best time of our lives; it was Verbier’s golden age.