Jordan Manley’s Slow Walk

What happens to a top ski photographer when he can no longer ski?

After suffering a head injury, Jordan Manley, one of the most accomplished young photographers in the world, has had to reinvent himself. PHOTO: Chad Manley/Jacqui Bird

After suffering a head injury, Jordan Manley, one of the most accomplished young photographers in the world, has had to reinvent himself. PHOTO: Chad Manley/Jacqui Bird

Editor’s Note: BIKE contributor Seb Kemp recently produced the below video about BIKE and POWDER senior photographer Jordan Manley. This story ran in the January (42.5) issue of Powder Magazine.

It was cold and raining, a dark Pacific Northwest November afternoon in 2012, when Jordan Manley took a break from editing an episode of his webisode series, “The Skier’s Journey.” Manley grabbed his mountain bike and joined friends at Severed Dick, a classic mountain bike trail on Mount Seymour in North Vancouver, B.C.

Manley was pinning it when he miscalculated a tight turn midway down the run. The error sent him tumbling down the steep tube. He did a backward somersault, hitting his head on the muddy, rocky path. Manley assessed himself for any damage, seemed fine, got back on his bike, and went home to continue editing his short film about skiing in Iceland. But he wouldn’t finish the episode, and he wouldn’t mountain bike or ski for over a year.

In addition to Manley’s webisode series, highly regarded for its stunning and unique aesthetic and exotic locations, Manley is one of the most talented photographers in skiing and mountain biking. By the time he was 25, he had won Whistler’s Deep Winter and Deep Summer Photo Challenge—photography competitions for up-and-coming action-sports shooters—four times. Around the same age, Manley became a POWDER and BIKE Senior Photographer, a nearly unprecedented feat. Now 29, he has 45 magazine covers (four with Powder), has traveled from Dubai to Baffin Island, and is now working on a coffee-table book to be released September 2014, called “Movement in Landscape: A Visual Journey from Vancouver to Whistler,” a collection of recreation-based imagery from the Whistler corridor.

There is little in skiing and mountain biking photography that Manley has not achieved, but on that fall afternoon a year ago, all of his momentum and ambition came to an abrupt and painful halt. When he returned to his desk in his twin-brother Chad’s room (their girlfriends call it “The Room,” because they spend so much time at their shared desk there) in their parents’ house—his home base because he travels so much—in North Vancouver, he couldn’t focus. Then the headaches started. The next day the symptoms remained. A doctor confirmed he suffered a concussion. Unlike those who experience a similar diagnosis, Manley didn’t get better. Thinking, conversing, cooking, being in front of a screen, and reading all worsened Manley’s symptoms, and he had no timetable for when his condition would abate. So he made tea and sat on the floor of his parents’ home. Sometimes, he would take a thermos and sit on a bench along the cove in the rain for hours at a time.

“We all are so committed to biking and skiing. It’s something that really gives meaning in your life, gets you up in the morning, so to speak,” says Manley. “It’s what you’re always thinking about, working toward. When that’s stripped away, you’re left not feeling like yourself. What’s your purpose in life anymore? Now what are you getting up in the morning for? Nothing, really. So that’s when you have to reinvent yourself in some regards.”

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When Manley was 12, his family moved from outside Toronto to Deep Cove, an affluent suburb in North Vancouver on the Indian Arm, a fjord that extends 12 miles north from the Burrard Inlet. From his parents’ living room, I can see the hill across the water where Simon Fraser University gave Manley his formal education. The university film program didn’t accept him, so Manley has a degree in political science. Around the back of the house, a soggy dirt trail wends through a thick forest of ferns, firs, and hemlocks. In high school, Manley would shoot Chad, now an architect, riding the ladder bridges they built there. He leaned on the influence of iconic bike photographer Sterling Lorence, who established the look of Vancouver’s North Shore. While he was still in high school, Manley took out his father’s camera equipment and watched Lorence on a photo shoot.

“It’s not always dark and rainy and foggy here, but that’s when he chose to photograph, and that’s when I think it’s most beautiful,” says Manley. “I just kind of followed him, started making my own images. I kind of fell in love with, not just that image, but that feeling of what it’s like to experience those kinds of days.”

Lorence grew up nearby and says their similar styles reflect that.

“I know he’s very captivated by these mountains we live around in the similar way that I am,” says Lorence. “He’s out there hiking all the time—out there alone, roaming through the woods. You see it in his art, see it in his photos. He connects to the natural landscape so much. You can tell—the timing, the light, and what it looks like in his world—he has a deep appreciation of the environment.”

Seeing the skier—Dave Treadway—for the forest in Whistler. PHOTO: Jordan Manley

Seeing the skier—Dave Treadway—for the forest in Whistler. PHOTO: Jordan Manley

Manley is a dork. He wears Birkenstocks with socks, shorts, and sweaters. He’s also present, thoughtful, and cerebral, not in a dark, self-loathing way. Quite the opposite. Being around Manley stimulates a need for fulfillment. He’s ambitious, politically engaged, and yearns to learn. But because reading, writing, and conversing exasperated his concussion symptoms, Manley eventually found a way to gain knowledge despite his injury: He went for daily walks and discovered birds, ecology, trails, and himself.

“I learned the slower you walk, the more you’re able to see,” says Manley. “You can see at different scales much better. There’s this great quote by this guy who is kind of a philosopher of walking and I’m probably going to get it wrong here, but he said, ‘The mind was a sort of landscape, and walking was a means of crossing it.’ I feel like that was really true for me. Walking was the time of day that I really got out and learned about things, and I was doing something instead of just sitting on the floor. So I was healing my mind, I was learning about my own mind via walking.”

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There’s a book on the coffee table in the Manley living room by the photographer Freeman Patterson. In the ’70s, Manley’s father, Paul, took a class from him. Patterson’s work is now guiding Jordan’s photography. In the book, Patterson writes candid captions about the abstractions of his photographs. He writes: “I have concluded that my repeated use of the circle was a healthy process of self-understanding originating in my unconscious. Symbols that occur repeatedly in pictures or dreams become less frequent or disappear altogether when the factors that cause their occurrence are identified and dealt with emotionally.”

Manley looks beyond the literal interpretation of his photographs, too. On his walks, he started taking a daily Instagram photo. “That was very helpful for me emotionally, because I felt like I was doing something, creating something. That kind of got me by everyday.” He says he dreams about hitting his head again all the time. On one of his walks, Manley took a photo of the rain through the beam of his headlamp. He clicked away on his iPhone. The next morning, he realized that the wild patterns he created looked similar to what his concussion symptoms looked like when he closed his eyes. From there, Manley gave himself the challenge of imaging the visual symptoms of his concussion.

Manley and his cerebral partner Chad Sayers (pictured here) have a spiritual connection. They've  produced hundreds of published shots together. PHOTO: Jordan Manley

Manley and his cerebral partner Chad Sayers (pictured here) have a spiritual connection. They’ve produced hundreds of published shots together. PHOTO: Jordan Manley

“He is so intellectually powerful of a person,” says Lorence. “He’s a well-read, pretty brilliant person. I sometimes think he tries really hard to send a deeper message in his photos. I think he thinks about them a lot; he really wants to pass on a deeper meaning in his shots.”

Manley and I take off our shoes and sit on some rocks in the sun along the Indian River, at the northernmost end of the Indian Arm. We cruised up in his inflatable Zodiac and stopped at Silver Falls along the way. Manley, in his waders, submerged his tripod into the bubbling pools to shoot the 40-foot falls for his upcoming book. Now we’re eating mango and orange slices and admiring the thick pollen in the spring air. There’s so much of it, it looks like it’s snowing. Dumping, really. We talk about whether he’ll ski again. Although he is apprehensive about skiing—it’s really just a means to an end, he says—he will produce the final season of “A Skier’s Journey” this winter. He says he didn’t really miss skiing, but tells a story about recently photographing a wave for his daily Instagram upload, and the feeling it harkened.

Manley's photographs reflect his own personal journey. PHOTO: Jordan Manley

Manley’s photographs reflect his own personal journey. PHOTO: Jordan Manley

“I just felt adrenaline for the first time in three and a half months, and I yelled out, like, ‘Woooooo yeah!’” he says. “I was just taking an iPhone picture of a wave, but when you don’t have that feeling in awhile, you forget what it’s like, and you get it again and it’s pretty cool. I guess that taught me that there’s these feelings we’re after in skiing and mountain biking, and they’re very simple feelings of a body moving through, negotiating terrain, and exercising your athleticism, challenging yourself physically and mentally.

“We’re kind of addicted to accessing those feelings of getting on a bike or skiing down fast.”

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