One of the most significant traits of the high-level creative is an ongoing curiosity. A deep seeded passion for learning and progressing. This can also be found in many of the world’s most successful athletes, so it’s no wonder that one of the outdoor world’s most talented and inspiring photographers and skiers, Scott Rinckenberger, has an almost insatiable desire to learn, explore, and to push both himself and his craft to the limits.
The Washington state-born Rinckenberger was an up and coming skier in the region, chasing the copious amounts of powder that the Cascades unleash winter after winter. It’s easy for mountain enthusiasts to become complacent with the abundance of snow and uncrowded peaks that the Pacific Northwest offers to its loyal followers. However, Rinckenberger’s creative curiosity soon overtook him and he began pursuing a career as photographer all while skiing at an elite level.
His photography career lead him to work with the world-renowned commercial photographer Chase Jarvis, who helped Rinckenberger not only develop his technical skills, but also taught him invaluable entrepreneurial tricks, allowing Rickenberger to define his own path in a highly competitive market.
Rickenberger’s work is visually stunning, but there is something more visceral in his work. His landscape and adventure photography evokes a undeniable pull to the wild places that he portrays in his photos. We caught up with Rinckenberger to talk about how he came to pick up a camera, learning from the greats, and his willingness to get uncomfortable in the name of personal progression.
Where did you grow up and how did you initially get into skiing?
I grew up in Woodinville, Washington, about 30 minutes from Seattle. My introduction to skiing wasn’t particularly unusual. My parents took me up night skiing at the Summit at Snoqualmie when I was around six. The funny thing was that although I had never skied before, for some reason I already knew that it was my favorite thing. From that first day, I was obsessed. My class notebooks from junior high and high school are full of sketches of ski logos, drawings of mountains and poster mock ups for ski movies starring me and my friends. There was never a question in my mind that I was going to take skiing for whatever ride it offered.
Growing up were you doing the contest thing, or were you just cruising the mountains?
From early on, I’ve known that I’m either not competitive, or perhaps way too competitive. In either case, I decided that organized competition wasn’t the way I wanted to experience my passions. When I compete, I lose the playfulness that has brought me so much joy in life. Instead I’ve focused on just judging myself against my own previous performance and my vision for how I want things to look and feel. In this framework I was able to develop as an athlete and an artist, and it is just as applicable today as it was when I was 18.
I feel like in places like Utah and Colorado there is sort of a pipeline for becoming a pro skier or boarder, was there anything like that in Washington?
It’s funny, despite a huge population, a number of excellent resorts and world class mountains, Washington definitely does not have an established track record of breeding pro skiers/riders. There are definitely exceptions, but BC, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, California and even Idaho produce pro skiers at a rate that is exponentially greater than Washington. I think it’s partly the decentralized nature of the mountains here (there are no major overnight destination resorts), and partly the fact that people here seem content to operate quietly in splinter cells throughout the state. In any case, there’s definitely a lack of what you might call a ‘pipeline.’
When did you first realize that skiing was something you excelled at and could pursue professionally?
More than having anything to do with excelling, it had to do with passion. There simply was nothing else in the world that meant as much to me as skiing. This manifested in my showing up time after time, and chasing every opportunity possible in order to ski, travel, and hopefully find a way to do it all full time. I can’t say that I ever made the jump to being an A-List pro skier, but I was able to generate enough opportunities to allow me to ski all over the world and land in the pages of the magazines I had treated as holy books in my youth.
There are a number of athletes that eventually pick up a camera as it seems like a natural progression for creative people with experience in the mountains, but many times it’s spurred on by an injury or some other life event. Was there something that was a catalyst for picking up a camera, or was it always something you were interested in?
I think that what drives a lot of us to pursue various paths to their natural conclusion is curiosity. By the time I was in my mid twenties, I felt like I had unlocked a lot of the riddles that made skiing so fascinating. While I was no less passionate about exploring the mountains with my skis, my mind wanted more food. Photography proved a way to continue to explore the parts of the world that I found most inspiring, while also providing a new craft to try and master, and ideally, a career path for the long term.
Was there a moment were you kind of thought the photography thing is working, maybe this is the way forward?
There was a huge learning process between initially having the idea that photography could be my career, and actually making it happen. I would say that I spent a full ten years studying, tinkering, and learning from some great teachers before I had developed enough of a voice as an photographer to actually want to pursue my art as a profession.
Eventually you went to work for Chase Jarvis. While I’m sure this strengthened your technical ability as a photographer I would have to think that working for Chase had to help instill or strengthen an entrepreneurial spirit. What was the biggest takeaway from that experience?
Oh, man, the list of things I learned from Chase is endless. He is just such a dynamic person. Never satisfied, never one to leave well enough alone. I think that the biggest takeaway was that you have to always be curious, always adapt, and always be confident in what you’re pursuing. This profession is littered with broken careers that weren’t able to deal with changing technologies and market realities. Chase was always the first person to adopt new technologies and realities, and to master them. I think that seeing this practice succeed time after time was my biggest lesson.
The whole time you are still actively shooting skiing and general outdoor adventures?
For most of the time I was working with Chase, I actually wasn’t really shooting anything for myself. I had a full time job in one of the busiest photo studios in this part of the country and I didn’t want to be in the position of half-assing a part time photo career on the side. I decided to put all of my photographic energies into my work with Chase. In my free time I continued to ski hard, and it was during this period that I went from a hard charging resort, sidecountry, sled, cat, heli, etc. skier to being a strong backcountry skier and mountaineer. Once I learned the potential of human-powered skiing in the deep wilderness, everything changed.
These explorations into the remote reaches of the Cascade Mountains finally provided the spark that I needed to pick up my camera in my free time, and to begin to craft my personal vision as a photographer.
What was sort of your first big editorial or commercial break as a photographer?
I was very fortunate when I made the move to start my own photography business. I had an established track record at an excellent photo studio, a number of great relationships in the outdoor marketing space, and a portfolio of work that was definitely unique to my approach. Work for brands like REI, MSR and Eddie Bauer came fairly quickly. I need to give a huge thanks to the people who hired me early on, their belief in me was everything. I think it was when I found my images on billboards for Apple that I had that ‘holy shit, it’s really working’ moment.
Adventure can sometimes feel like an exploited or overused word, but you have partaken in and shot some pretty serious objectives in the last few years, including shooting a portion of the epic 34-day Snoqualmie to Canada traverse last season. What draws you to these big projects?
My attraction to projects that hopefully live up to a legitimate definition of adventure is due to my evolution as an athlete and an artist. My relationship with shooting outdoor sports is a tricky one. I’ve been involved in the game on both sides of the camera for probably 20 years. This is enough history and context, that it’s pretty hard for me to get excited about shooting the latest trick in the park or somebody crushing powder in the sunshine at the ski area. These things just feel a little bit fleeting and often manufactured. On the other hand, as an athlete I’m extremely fascinated with longer, more complex outings which require a broad skill set and a high level of endurance. Since my photography has always followed my athletic pursuits, this is where I like to pursue my art as well. Deep, committed missions such as the North Cascades Traverse give me the opportunity to really challenge myself physically and mentally, while also giving me the time and the environment to study places that are deeply meaningful to me as a photographer.
The word “suffering” is something I keep seeing pop up in the outdoor adventure world. Is it critical to suffer for your work, what does that sentiment mean to you as an explorer and as an artist?
I think you have to try really, really hard in order to be a successful athlete or artist. In most cases, this will involve some pain, discomfort or big sacrifices. It also involves joy, triumph, and a level of fulfillment that’s hard to find in a more conventional way of life. While there is definitely an element of suffering in most of the projects that I’m attracted to, I think it’s time for our outdoor culture to stop putting this part of the equation on a pedestal. The idea that the person who suffers the most is winning is antithetical to why I pursue a life in the outdoors. Suffering is an ingredient, but if all of the ingredients are mixed just right, freedom, love and beauty is the finished product.
Is there a dream project or objective that you would love to accomplish?
There is a never-ending list of dream projects that gets longer instead of shorter. The long term objective is to build a world where I can focus on pure art and make my living with the images that serve not to sell a product or lifestyle, but to celebrate the unhinged beauty of raw nature.
It seems like the PNW had a pretty epic winter, did you have any big adventures this past season?
It’s definitely been an epic winter, but it’s also been stormy and unstable in the big mountains more often than not. My ski season, and the missions that mean the most to me are just starting to ramp up right now. Let’s chat in a few months!
What is a piece of advice you would give to any aspiring outdoor photographers, what do you wish you would have known when you were just starting?
There’s one rule: be different.