This story originally appeared in the January 2020 (48.4) issue of POWDER.
ALRIC LJUNGHAGER’S WORLD STOPPED SPINNING. Ten feet off the ground and midway through a double misty 1440, that was a problem. Taking a break from his head coaching duties at the freeski summer camp he had helped develop outside Stockholm, Sweden, he had launched from the trampoline toward a pile of soft mattresses. Yet, suddenly, his once-arching path took on a more anvil-drop trajectory. That is, straight down.
The crunch of vertebrae pile-driving vertebrae was audible. Ljunghager knew as soon as he hit the ground.
“My neck is broken!” He yelled. “Somebody call the ambulance!”
His fellow camp counselors fumbled with their phones as Ljunghager’s screaming girlfriend and pro skier Lucas Stal-Madison rushed to his side. Stal-Madison grabbed Ljunghager’s hand. The two had become close at the camp, and now his grip was keeping Ljunghager alert as the sunny July afternoon started to fade. This was 2014 and the 25-year-old could feel the sensation in his body slipping away—the ski career he had built going with it.
A few days later, Ljunghager woke up in Sunderby Hospital. The feeling was back in his feet and hands, but he had a fused line of flesh down his spine that will never fade. He didn’t need the doctors to tell him he would never ski like before. They told him anyway.
“I had always been scared of this happening, and suddenly I couldn’t go back in time,” he says. “I had to appreciate where I was at.”
That appreciation was hard to find in a dense forest of rehab and days confined to his childhood bedroom. Days turned into months and even grabbing a glass of milk required constant supervision. Yet, with his skis and his future seemingly shelved, he found a new opportunity to communicate when he picked up a camera. Putting the bold creativity that once kick-started a budding ski career behind the shutter, Ljunghager started a new love affair with the sport he thought he’d lost forever.
“Life is a sentence and skiing is one of the words I have spoken during my life,” explains Ljunghager while we drove from Barcelona through the Andorran Pyrenees last winter. “That was one word, but the next word can’t come unless the first words started it. Skiing started the sentence, and it has helped me figure out what to say.”
Ljunghager has been shouting his message ever since. Blurring the line between sport and art, the Swedish photographer’s photos force the viewer to pause and appreciate an inverted image of a skier’s reflection in a rippling puddle; a skier flirting with the massive shadow line of the mountains, charging backwards; or a skier lacing up a hand drag over dirt, without any actual snow in sight.
Armed with a keen sense of light and composition, and elevating style over perfection, he reinvents the way we look at skiing, helping us realize that any day on skis—whether it’s in deep Japanese pow or across a frozen grass patch in Kashmir—is a thing of beauty.
“In one sense, everything is derivative of what comes before it, but in another it can always be looked at through a new lens with a fresh pair of eyes,” says Liam Downey, a pro skier from Vermont who met Ljunghager while road-tripping through Sweden in 2016. “There are no rules to freeskiing or taking pictures—the mold is made to be broken—and that is something that Alric seems to have known since the very beginning.
On our ski trip pit stop through Barcelona last winter, I discovered Ljunghager’s endless, existential curiosity when I walked him through the familiar back streets of my old neighborhood. A trip that normally takes me 15 minutes stretched into an hour and a half as Ljunghager stopped to ask about street signs, run his fingers along a wall, and trace a wayward beam of light with his feet. He tried on and bought a pair of sunglasses from a street vendor and got hungry for jamón so we stopped for a sandwich. Along the way, we were accompanied by the constant click-click-click of his camera shutter.
When he showed me his photos in our hotel room later that evening, I did a double take. I’d walked next to him all day, and traveled that route dozens of times before, but I’d never seen the details captured in his photos. Or, perhaps more accurately, I’d never seen them like this.
“You can be standing in the same place and take two completely different photos,” smiles Ljunghager. “That’s an amazing thing.”
It’s this wide-eyed, childlike approach to the world that drew Peyben Hägglund, a professional skier and original member of The Bunch, an innovative group of Swedish skiers, to invite Ljunghager into his inner circle.
“When you hang with him and you see what he does [with a camera], you would never expect him to be such a lunatic,” says Hagglund.
He met Ljunghager on a fishing boat ski trip in Norway nearly seven years ago, and has been attached to the whimsical photographer ever since. In British Columbia, Russia, India, and beyond, they have slept on dozens of floors together, crashed a used mini-van (or two), and now share an office space in Stockholm. Still, Hagglund says that Ljunghager continues to live beyond definition.
“He is the most mellow maniac in the world.”
At five years old, when most of the kids in the Swedish coastal village of Luleå were kicking around a soccer ball, Ljunghager already had his first welding kit, spending afternoons trying to build his own submarine out of a rusted-out car. In the quiet, buttoned-up society of Swedish suburbia, Ljunghager gravitated toward the rebellious flair of his father, Anders Nordin. A demolition and heavy machinery expert by trade with a passion for crazy inventions, he built a functioning submarine alongside his son, sailing it through the town harbor to the chagrin of the Ljunghager’s neighbors.
“My father told my sister and I that you need to try strange, dangerous, and new things, otherwise you are standing still and it’s not healthy,” explains Ljunghager. “Life is supposed to be fun, not just safe.”
Nordin also introduced Ljunghager to photography. An amateur photographer, he installed a darkroom in the house. Ljunghager, his older sister Ronja, and their parents spent hours developing photos together (Ljunghager’s grandfather was also one of the early adopters of film photography in Sweden.) Even as a child, the youngest Ljunghager was drawn to controlling his frame. He remembers a black and white photo of a tree and a road that his father snapped as one of the first things he “had seen that was truly beautiful.”
Eventually, Nordin and Alric’s mother, Susanne Ljunghager separated, and Nordin moved to Stockholm. Susanne, always the rock within the Ljunghager roost, saw her husband’s wild creative streak in a young Alric. Though admittedly afraid for her son’s safety, she chose to let it grow.
“Alric has always been very expressive,” says Susanne. “As a child he was always singing; you couldn’t ignore his passion.”
Ljunghager spent hours with the family tape recorder, fascinated by the voices playing back again and again. Even as a child, he loved the idea of a third person perspective, the idea that “we could move time from one place to another.” When Susanne and her children moved to a smaller house on the other side of town, she gave each of her kids 5000 kroner (a little over $500). Ronja bought a new bed. Alric, a camcorder.
The camcorder became Ljunghager’s constant companion. Susanne had organized family trips into the mountains since her children were young, and had both her kids on skis by the age of three. When Ljunghager headed to nearby Måttsund ski area after school, his camera tagged along. Obsessed with Matchstick Productions and the new wave of freeski movies, Ljunghager started to film short ski films around Luleå.
“We didn’t have a big mountain in town, so you had to be creative,” says Daniel Rönnbäck, a Powder contributing photographer and part of Ljunghager’s high school ski posse.
Back then, the two teamed up to film a ski road trip from Luleå to Riksgränsen. Ljunghager knocked himself out hitting a kicker, but the pair eventually finished the movie and started receiving other film work. The film even inspired Ljunghager’s dad to stop working and ski bum around the Alps the following winter.
Rönnbäck quickly deviated into photography, and eventually Ljunghager focused more on teaching skiing in the winter and coaching freeskiing in the off season. He started his summer camp, Snow Camp, and drew a lucrative following of up-and-coming Swedish freeskiers like Stal-Madison.
Yet, just as Ljunghager started to find some professional footing, his world nearly came crashing down.
In April of 2014, Ljunghager’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. By May, before Ljunghager had time to process the diagnosis, his father was gone.
Three months later, Ljunghager suffered the trampoline injury that broke his neck and landed him in bed for nearly six months.
“My whole life went away,” he remembers. “I became the kid that needed taking care of.”
Sitting in his room back in Luleå, he found temporary relief in his camera. As he recovered physically, photography started to take over. He eventually moved to Bergen, Norway, and got work stacking boxes at a warehouse. The job paid well, and he planned to put all the money towards a new camera and pursue photography full time.
But, it was in Bergen that the tsunami of grief chasing Ljunghager finally caught up. After spending a majority of his early 20s feeding off the energy of aspiring skiers, he was suddenly surrounded by coworkers that “spent all week waiting for Friday, just to get to Friday and start worrying about Monday.” His grim surroundings would be the final drop in a cup that had filled all too quickly. One day, he started throwing up blood. The next week, a doctor diagnosed him with severe depression, and immediately put Ljunghager on medication.
“I thought this was life without skiing,” he admits.
Even though the medication helped slow his spiral, Ljunghager felt trapped in a world far away from the one he had built in the mountains.
That was when Stal-Madison reached out with a lifeline. He and a group of ski friends were headed to northern Norway for a weeklong sailing and skiing trip. The Bunch was gaining a following for their stylish urban skiing, quirky online video edits, and extended van trips around Scandinavia. They needed a photographer. Stal-Madison, who had carved out a pro ski career since winning Level 1’s SuperUnknown video competition in 2012, hadn’t seen his former coach since the day of his accident, but offered to fly him up to shoot with the gang. Ljunghager said yes.
Within hours of meeting up with the crew, Ljunghager snapped what would become his first of five POWDER covers—an image of Stal-Madison emerging through an explosion of powder while skiing backwards, his hair flying and his black-masked face something out of a Mad Max film. Stal-Madison loved the shot, but never thought it would be a cover. “Too controversial,” he assumed.
Still, Ljunghager stuck with his vision. Two days later, he shot the Powder Photo of the Year, a skier arcing his turn down a wavy natural halfpipe above an enchanted Norwegian valley.
“We all knew he was mad good,” remembers Stal- Madison. “But I don’t think we knew how good.”
For Ljunghager, the trip provided far more than just content. Over the course of the eightday excursion, he found an unexpected support system in the group of Swedish skiers. The Bunch liked what he was doing, bouncing ideas off him in real time. They skied from sunup to sundown, and then spent all night sharing stories and hatching crazy plans for the season to come.
“The Bunch never had a photographer until Alric came along,” says Stal-Madison. “He was immediately a piece of the puzzle. He was our missing piece.”
For the first time since his accident, Ljunghager felt energized. The Bunch’s artistic take on skiing bridged the distance Ljunghager felt, since the accident, between himself and the mountains.
“I found that shooting skiing had the same adrenaline as skiing itself,” says Ljunghager. “Hanging with ski buddies, meeting cool new people—it made taking pictures meaningful.”
Over the next few seasons, Ljunghager followed The Bunch around the world—shooting in Whistler, Russia, India, and the deep reaches of Scandinavia. As his bond with the group evolved, so too did his work, helping capture the group’s dynamic style in a way that defied the conventions of traditional ski photography.
“It’s been a lot of years of one photo—a fake ski turn with lots of powder,” says Rönnbäck. “Everyone can do that, but not everyone can compose a photo the way Alric does. He has a clear vision of what he wants to do and sticks to it.”
It’s a vision that adapts at light speed. The Bunch’s skiing is spontaneous and Ljunghager’s photos are its mirror. Moments come and go in an instant and the rush is hectic—he has shattered more than one camera lens chasing the crew—yet the photographer has found a calling in the chaos.
Ljunghager can’t sit still with his camera. He crawls, he twists, he climbs. When the mood strikes him, he can still throw a backflip—while wearing a 40-pound camera pack and holding his old, beat up Canon in hand. On a shoot in Russia, he scaled a five-story, burned-out factory in his ski boots to get the angle he wanted (he proceeded to fall asleep on a foot-wide ledge while waiting to get the shot). In India, he lured a bunch of monkeys into the crew’s hotel room for an impromptu photo shoot. The more uncomfortable the situation, the more creative the photo.
“If a tourist is coming into the frame, it’s natural to think that the guy is in the way and destroying the image,” explains Ljunghager. “For me, it’s more like, ‘Okay it’s a tourist in the frame and I have to do something about it.’ It’s an opportunity.”
Ljunghager never intended to become a ski photographer. A freeskier raised on the ski images smattered across the magazines, he felt that the level of ski photography was so high the barrier to entry for a young, untrained photographer was simply out of reach. When he finally started pointing his camera at his friends, he could barely name another pro skier outside of The Bunch, much less a ski photographer.
At Kimbo Sessions, Sweden’s massive gathering of international freeski talent, Ljunghager struggled to put names to industry faces. He felt uncomfortable not being in the know. But it didn’t affect what he was there to do. In a few days, he says he collected hundreds of publishable photos.
“I think that not being too involved with skiing might be a good thing,” laughs Ljunghager. “Maybe it’s a new perspective.”
Fate forced Ljunghager out of the ski world, photography brought him back in, but it was his experiences in between that forged a unique perspective on ski photography providing an electric shock to ski media. Instagram creates an insatiable demand for imagery, and an endless conveyor belt to meet that demand. Alric’s unorthodox imagery has the rare capacity to stop the mindless scrolling.
“I think what separates Alric’s work from everyone else is that it’s truly his own,” explains Downey. “It’s just evident that an Alric photo could only have come from one person. In a saturated market like action sports, it is incredible to have ownership of your work in that way.” Ljunghager still shoots with the original Canon 6D he bought from his earnings at the warehouse. It’s five years old now. The housing is cracked and the sensor fogs up on wet days. One of his lenses is glued together after a fall snapped the lens filter (Ljunghager admits that focusing, especially in stormy conditions, has become a bit of a challenge.)
Up until last season, he still earned his offseason checks as a caretaker in a geriatric psychiatric ward, juggling work with a Masters in Visual Communication at the University of Bergen and winter shoots with The Bunch. It’s a circuitous path compared to many of his contemporaries, but one that Ljunghager—despite his recent successes— doesn’t take for granted.
Ljunghager knows that his ski photography has only just scratched the surface of possibility, and that the future is his to write.
“[He’s] like Ansel Adams on acid,” says Downey. “Classic, but so different. He doesn’t want his work to be viewed as an insult to his photo forefathers, he understands that the only real insult to them is to do something unoriginal.”
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