Lee Cohen steered his pewter brown 2003 Suburban up the winding road in Little Cottonwood Canyon, bound for another day of skiing at Alta Ski Area. It was April. An Altaholics Anonymous sticker was plastered on the bumper next to a dented Utah license plate proclaiming the state’s natural treasure: “The Greatest Snow on Earth.” He wore a knit beanie and the transition lenses on his spectacles were a dark purple. The inside of his Suburban was just as dirty as the outside. Mud covered the seats, the mats were crusted with dirt, and dust was everywhere. All signs pointed to Cohen’s regular passenger, his dog Zeke. An old Grateful Dead cassette tape provided the soundtrack because his CD player had broken a while ago.
“This is the last show they ever played at the Fillmore East,” says Cohen. “I’ve probably had this tape in my car for three months. I love it. To me, it’s the best Dead show ever: April 29, 1971.”
Cohen, 60, has a near photographic memory. He can recall numbers—dates and addresses—as if he were reading them aloud from a piece of paper. This is how he’s categorized so many vivid details of his earlier years. But for the last 40, Cohen’s tool for documentation has been his Nikon camera.
As the longest tenured professional ski photographer at Alta, Cohen is largely responsible for disseminating—and defining—what skiing powder looks like, especially at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon. His images are famous for envious turns in deep, textured snow, but his portfolio also includes culture—mounds of snow on the patio, the icicle-crusted skier giddy with joy on the chairlift, ski patrollers huddling in a storm. His first cover of Powder was published in 1988, and he can’t keep track of how many covers of this magazine he’s published since—at least 10, probably more, he thinks. “I don’t count how many days I go skiing, either,” he says.
Much has changed since Cohen started his career, not least of which is photography’s transition to digital. “Now, they get to shoot their photo twice,” says Cohen. “They shoot it once out in the field and then shoot it again on their computer.” He grumbles about things—crowds, competition, social media. Age is also catching up with him. He has had open heart surgery, knee surgery, and cataract surgery all in the last seven years. But he is still taking photos and publishing them online and in ski magazines, while also shooting fly-fishing and other outdoor pursuits. On powder days, he gets up at 5 a.m. (or earlier) to drive up the canyon before the highway closes for avalanche safety, so he’s ready to get on the hill as soon as possible.
“I’m still doing it,” says Cohen. “I’m pretty stubborn and I’m loyal. I don’t like walking away from stuff. And I have a great time shooting pictures still. I truly enjoy it.”
Cohen grew up in Long Island, New York, and learned to ski on trips with his dad to Bromley and Mount Snow, in Vermont. In sixth grade, one of his friends returned from a family ski trip to Aspen and showed Cohen the trail map. “He created the surreal Western ski experience in my mind,” says Cohen. “That was the first time I thought about skiing out West.”
Cohen made his sojourn West during the summer of 1978, hitchhiking the entire way. He snagged his brother’s camera, without permission, before he left. One guy picked him up in a convertible and drove with the top down in the rain. A kid from Maryland gave him a ride across New Mexico in a ’62 Mercury Comet. Cohen worked in Yellowstone for a few months that summer. When the weather turned cold, he went to Colorado and skied A-basin, Vail, Copper, and Steamboat. He camped in the snow. “We had a cave for a while, off the back lot of A-basin,” says Cohen. “We were camping at Steamboat when it was 38-below.”
On New Year’s Eve, 1978, Cohen went to San Francisco to see the Grateful Dead. “We didn’t get in and watched a live simulcast nearby at Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple at 1859 Geary Boulevard,” says Cohen. After, he drove a Buick Lesabre across the desert to Salt Lake City. That’s when he skied Alta for the first time.
“I just got smitten with Alta,” he says. Lift tickets were $7. He snow-camped near the creek lower in the canyon and temperatures dipped to 15-below zero. He’d leave his sleeping bag to dry in a conference room at Snowbird. But most of all, he skied.
“The fable of mythical powder pulled me in,” he says. That winter, Cohen only stayed in Utah for about 10 days before another Dead show in Kansas moved him onward. He eventually went back East to finish a business degree at State University of New York at Brockport. But like generations of skiers, Cohen had fallen in love with the mom-and-pop ski area at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon and its creamy, overhead bliss.
“Skiing powder, you’re like floating in space,” says Cohen. “It’s kind of like being in a netherworld. You’re almost one with the universe, or something.
You’re in the moment. You’re lost in the moment. High Rustler is my favorite run—on a powder day when it’s bottomless and you can just let it go. Just make turns, you’re not having the pressure to slow down a whole lot. You’re just moving through it when it’s deep. It’s an incredible feeling, weightlessness.”
The early ’80s were years of deep snowpack and long road trips with friends to go skiing.
“I started shooting photos because I liked documenting what my friends and I were doing,” says Cohen.
In 1981-82, he saved up enough money to move to Salt Lake City where he lived in a trailer park with a football coach. He still remembers the address: 457 West 9260 South. “That was a really big year," he says. "It was just dumping. I think it snowed 637 inches—maybe.”
The following ski season, Cohen gave his friend from New York, Pat Duffy, a grand tour of the West, visiting 22 ski areas in Utah, California, Idaho, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Colorado. After that, he decided to stay in Utah for good.
“I’m pretty sure I can say it was the best winter I’ve had,” says Cohen. “It dumped and I was blissfully unemployed, living the ski bum life on the cheap.”
Alta in the 1980s was a sleepy, old-timer ski area. Cohen worked odd jobs in the summer and saved up a few thousand dollars, which was plenty to cover the rent ($125), a ski pass (less than $200), gas, food, and his bar tab. At that time, the ski industry was largely focused on Tahoe, where pro skiers (like Scot Schmidt) and pro ski photographers (like Larry Prosor and Hank de Vré) were all the hype. “I remember trying to convince people that Utah was a worthy place, too,” says Cohen. “That we got a lot of snow and had a lot of great skiers, too.”
His first submissions to Powder were rejected with curt notes from the editor at the time, Neil Stebbins. A few years of persistence, though, and he eventually got published. In February 1988, he was sitting in the employee dining room of the Rustler, one of the higher-end lodges at Alta, when someone handed him a copy of Powder. Cohen saw his photo on the cover, a shot he had taken of one of his buddies on a classic bluebird powder day.
“I was sitting there, hanging out, and they were like, ‘Dude, that’s a sick cover shot you got,’” says Cohen. It was a complete surprise. Thirty years later, he still has the manila envelope that Powder used to ship his slide back.
One morning last spring, after a storm rolled through the Wasatch and dropped more than 20 inches at Alta, Cohen was knee-deep in the snowpack on the Shoulder of Mount Baldy. He crouched low to line up the camera angle. The terrain was smooth, undisturbed, and blank. He hollered up slope, where two skiers, Julian Carr and Drew Petersen, waited for his cue to dive in.
Many of the photos that Cohen has published were taken on the Shoulder. About a hundred yards of 35-degree terrain at the top of Alta’s Wildcat chair, the Shoulder is Cohen’s spot. It receives the mountain’s first light. It has the right pitch. The snow fills in. Cohen says it’s efficient, though he gets defensive about it, too, because the Shoulder has become his very own cliché. “There’s all these people who think it’s the only place I’ve shot a picture, and I don’t like that,” he says. “I get shots from everywhere.”
That day, the Shoulder was not delivering. Cohen flipped through the pictures on his camera’s screen, however, muttering they were no good. The light was too flat. Change of plans—cohen packed up his camera. He had another location in mind to shoot.
We followed two ski patrollers to a steep alleyway in the trees that dives off the backside of Alta and into Snowbird.
The snow was falling harder now, and the trees added dimension and depth to the frame. Cohen had a good feeling about this spot. He staked his poles in the snow and shoved one glove on top of each pole. He took his camera out of his pack, immediately zipping it shut so it wouldn’t fill with snow. On most days, Cohen shoots with three lenses—a 24-70mm, 70-200mm, and a 14mm.
Cohen yelled up commands to Petersen and Carr. His inner New Yorker was flaring up—commanding, decisive, and loud. He knew exactly what he needed out of this shot, and a lot was hinging on their success. The last few months had been warm and dry and Cohen had been injured, so he hadn’t been able to shoot much. This was one of his first good powder days of the year.
The first of the resort skiers started to filter through, pinging shots through the trees like animals raving with madness. Meanwhile, Cohen continued to work the slope in 20-foot sections, leap-frogging with Carr and Petersen to harvest as many photos as he could out of the precious snow.
Finally, at the last pitch, Cohen made the call to enjoy the rest of the descent. He got exactly what he needed and put his camera away.
“Let’s ski the rest for our heads,” Cohen said.
“Skiing powder, you’re like floating in space. It’s kind of like being in a netherworld. You’re almost one with the universe, or something. You’re in the moment. You’re lost in the moment.” —Lee Cohen
If there is one theme that carries across Lee Cohen’s vast body of work, it’s that his photos all capture the dream of what it means to ski powder. The snow could be feathery and light, or chunky and explosive, but it’s always untracked and pristine.
A master of powder photography, Cohen is near-sighted. He has an eye for up-close detail, like the wrinkles in the snowpack when a skier dives in, or the moisture-heavy snowballs that spray inches from his nose as the skier whooshes past.
If there is one theme that carries across Cohen’s vast body of work, it’s that his photos all capture the dream of what it means to ski powder. The snow could be feathery and light, or chunky and explosive, but it’s always untracked and pristine. The skiers in his photos are commanding strength and power to fly down mountains.
In the early to mid ’90s, Alta was just starting to emerge from an old-timer’s hallowed ground to a ski resort with the chops to breed some of the world’s best skiers—finally stealing some of the spotlight from Tahoe. Cohen was a force pushing that shift to the front pages of ski magazines. He had a solid crew of skiers—they were all friends who soon started calling him “magnate”—and they’d go out and shoot photos every day the sky popped blue after a storm.
“He has captured the heart and soul of what Alta was like in the ’90s and currently,” says Spencer Wheatley, who was part of the same crew. “Working with him, shooting photos with him, changed my whole life.”
One of the first days Wheatley went out to shoot photos with Cohen, they went to the Shoulder. Wheatley nailed a shot that was ultimately published in Powder’s Shooting Gallery in 1995, and set him on track to become a professional skier followed by two decades as a heli ski guide.
“I’ve always felt that Lee just loved skiing and he loves Alta more than anyone I’ve ever met,” says Wheatley. “He became a fixture, for sure, and really sent out to the world what it was like to be at Alta first thing in the morning, getting a powder run.”
Cohen is also father to professional skier Sam Cohen, who was raised at Alta and skiing Mount Baldy’s chutes as an 8-year-old. When he was a teenager, Sam started shooting photos with his dad and now hops between Utah, the Pacific Northwest, BC, and Alaska, shooting for ski movies and embarking on ski mountaineering expeditions.
With his son gone more often than not during the winter, and after separating from his wife, Sam’s mom, in 2012, Cohen lives alone with his dog Zeke, a blue-eyed Australian Shepherd who greets him at the front door by putting both paws on his chest and licking his face. His house in Sandy at the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon is stacked with photographs and keepsakes. There are photos of his childhood—going to Mets and Yankees games in the ’50s with his dad and his grandfather. (Yet, somehow Cohen became a Red Sox fan.) Photos of Sam are on nearly every wall. A scenic mountain shot illuminates Sam on a jagged ridgetop with his skis on. Another shows a much
younger Lee, his smile is giant and his arms are wrapped around his son, with the same signature spectacles and bushy mustache he’s recognized by, but with much darker brown hair.
In the days of film photography, Gordy Peifer—one of Cohen's more memorable Alta powder skiers—remembers Tuesdays being the day Cohen would get his slides developed. When Cohen came home, he’d find Wheatley and Peifer and the rest of the crew waiting for him to set up the slideshow. A younger Sam would be at the house, watching his father’s slides, too.
“We would freak out when we got an amazing shot,” says Peifer. “And we had to wait back then. You couldn’t just look at the camera.”
Today, Alta is in a time of transition. Longtime leaders like general manager Onno Wieringa and marketing director Connie Marshall have retired, and the politics of the Wasatch are growing as exponentially as the population in Salt Lake City. But Cohen doesn’t give that much thought. “Alta has done a really good job to do what they can to keep the flavor, to follow the Alta credo,” says Cohen. He’s not sure when he’ll retire, either. “Let’s see what kind of winter it is this year,” he adds. What is more pressing to Cohen is his ability to keep up with young skiers. But that’s the benefit to being the skier with the camera—everyone waits for you on the skin track.
Last April, as we made our way up the canyon, Cohen straightened out the road considerably—crossing the yellow line and veering into the other lane as he talked animatedly about Dead shows and Sam and Zeke. We pulled up to the Peruvian to grab a cup of tea and play a game of Scrabble. His first word scored 80 points, so I called the game early with the excuse that we really should go skiing—this time without the camera.
It was raining, a warm spring storm, but conditions were surprisingly good. Cohen asked if I would have gone skiing on a day like today if we hadn’t made plans. I replied honestly that I probably would not have. “Me neither,” he said, chuckling. At this point in Cohen’s life and career, he is choosy with his ski days. The man has skied a lot of powder, and is understandably particular. But we were out, and once you’re out, every day is a good ski day.
Our last run was out to Eagle’s Nest. We took the High Traverse and stood at the top of an alleyway for a moment, looking down the fall line. The mountains met the sky and the evergreen trees framed a tunnel that dropped out of view as the slope steepened. It was quiet. Cohen pushed off and cut turns around the bumps. He skied this one for his head.