The words of photographer Scott Rinckenberger as told to Lauren Covello Jacobs.
The Pacific Northwest is unlike most anywhere in the country in that it has every type of landscape you can interact with. Within a couple of hours of Seattle, you’ve got a wild, rugged coastline where you can surf or kayak. Go the other direction and you’ve got giant, glaciated mountains that are often compared with the Alps. A little further east you’ve got desert environments, rain forests. There are just endless ecosystems in which to explore.
I grew up in a rural, woodsy part of Washington, and my childhood was very much about being outdoors. My friends and I weren’t “sit inside and play video games” kids. We were into getting on our bikes and finding a new spot to make a jump, finding a new creek to swim in, catching lizards.
Throughout my childhood and into college, I was really obsessed with skiing. It was sort of my driving passion. By the time I was college age, I had devoted enough time and energy to it that I was one of the better skiers around in my age group. That morphed into a semi-pro ski career that had me traveling all over the U.S., Europe, and South America. I skied professionally from when I was in college at the University of Washington until my late twenties.
For me, skiing was as much a creative pursuit as it was an athletic one. I say “was” only to compartmentalize it; I’m still a passionate and involved skier, and that’s a lot of what I bring to my photography. But there definitely came a time when I needed a new creative stimulus to keep my mind sharp and engaged. I didn’t want to continue to relive the same year over and over. I needed some new input, and photography offered that.
So in the second half of my twenties, I started self-educating in photography and looking for jobs assisting other photographers. At around 27 or 28, I ended up landing a full-time job working for a photographer named Chase Jarvis. That became my real foray into photography as a career.
On weekends, I’d be out in the mountains skiing, riding my bike, or rock climbing. Eventually, instead of skiing mostly out of ski resorts, I started to do more backcountry skiing, where you climb the mountain on foot and ski down. All of a sudden, instead of skiing the same five resorts, I had an entire mountain range as a canvas to explore. It opened up all of these astounding, wild, rugged, beautiful places. I started feeling like I at least needed to bring a camera along to record these adventures. From there, I began developing an eye for wilderness winter landscapes and creating imagery that I wasn’t really seeing anywhere else. And that’s what started to pull me in my own direction.
My best imagery is reductive and graphically simple. The mountain wilderness has so much power and beauty that, as a vast sort of panorama, it’s almost overwhelming. A lot of my work is directed at trying to reduce it to really simple elements that, when combined, translate into that bigger grandeur.
That’s also the reason much of my work is in black and white. For me, eliminating color from my work serves as one of the final tests to see if the image is graphically strong. If you remove all the elements of a giant wide-angle landscape and you start to tighten up your scope in terms of composition, and then you remove color from the equation, you sort of reduce and reduce and reduce. And that allows you to see if the image is still strong without relying heavily on things like color or artificial lighting. Turning things into a monochrome state helps me take that reductive ethos all the way to its natural conclusion.
Safety is a constant focus. There’s no getting around the fact that the mountain wilderness is unforgiving. In the last 20 years, I’ve lost friends to avalanches, rockfall, and rope accidents. All of these things are ever-present dangers, and on some level you have to come to terms with it. If you come to the decision that it’s a big enough part of yourself and your life, you have to develop an ongoing education and respect for that environment. You have to religiously assess risk and carry the tools to deal with an accident or emergency. Going on an adventure is highly motivating, but making it home at the end is really the ultimate criterion.
Home, for me, is in Fall City, Washington, in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Before we had our son, Cedar, my wife and I lived in Seattle. That was a lot of fun – there’s tons of culture, great restaurants, lots to do professionally. But once he was born, we got really excited about moving out to a landscape where he would have a lot more room to roam, and where going hiking or swimming in the river wouldn’t be a whole big “load up the car” mission.
It was a transition going from Seattle to living out in the woods, but it’s been one that fits us well. Cedar is definitely an outdoorsy kid. Every day he’s out riding his bike in the woods or hiking around or swimming in the river – all of the things that give a person a lifelong love of the outdoors. We love where we’re at and what’s nearby. We definitely don’t have any plans to leave.