Written by Ryan Salm
Glossy photos of spread eagles, daffies, cliff drops, and powdery rooster tails have long frozen the kinetic artistry that is skiing. Tahoe skiers and snowboarders are some of the most artistic on the planet, and their energy is captured by the photographer who stands in the cold, balancing on the mountain’s edge, composing and then capturing the perfect millisecond moment in time. It is an art unto itself, and for the last three decades, the art of photographer Hank de Vré has helped define the ski culture of Lake Tahoe.
The Boat, Big Apple & Beyond
In 1957, an Amsterdam-based photographer named Alphonse de Vré decided to move his family across the Atlantic to the United States of America. Tumultuous seas and storm-filled skies of winter made for an arduous crossing. While other passengers were hunkered down in their cabins, Alphonse could be seen hanging onto the rails, his Leica camera in hand, snapping away as the seas crashed onto the deck.
From inside the ship, Alphonse’s nine-year-old son, Hank, one of the de Vré’s 13 children, was watching intently. Awestruck, Hank thought to himself, “Wow, that is really cool!”
Little did he know then, but his path was set.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Hank landed his first commercial photography job years later at the age of 24 in New York City. But something was missing. Life on the East Coast eventually lost its luster, and in 1972, Hank made his move to California in search of “sandy beaches, girls and hotrods,” he recalls. Little did Hank realize that instead of the SoCal quintessentials, he would be immersed in the NorCal mountains and the world of skiing.
No Ski. No Problem.
Many move to the mountains intent on life as a ski bum, but Hank didn’t know the first thing about skiing when he happened upon Lake Tahoe. Lured in by a summer camping trip to Blackwood Canyon, he never left. Hank rented a cabin in Tahoma with his brother, married the girl who moved in next door and the rest is the history of one of the most revered ski photographers in the Tahoe Basin.
But before anything, Hank had to learn how to ski. He took various jobs at Tahoe Ski Bowl, what is now Homewood, first working the lifts and later becoming a ski instructor even though he was just learning himself. The flatlander began finding his place in the snowy mountains. But something was still off. He wanted to get back into photography.
On a whim, Hank approached Tahoe Ski Bowl owner Ray Kettenhoffen about taking ski pictures. That’s how he punched his ticket to both skiing all day long and establishing himself as a Tahoe ski photographer.
The Big Time
The slopes of Tahoe Ski Bowl began to feel small. He began to dream about moving up to the big time.
“Alpine Meadows was where we skied after we graduated from Homewood,” Hank says. “It felt huge at the time, but after we skied Alpine everyone would say, ‘Now we gotta go to Sq**w.’”
Once he got to Sq**w Valley, now Palisades Tahoe, Hank never left. He found what had eluded him all those years — capturing motion with emotion. He then started to land gigs with area ski resorts, establishing a name for himself in the ski world, which in turn opened doors for him to travel the world working for a variety of ski publications.
A natural byproduct of his work as a ski photographer was teaming up with the biggest names in the history of American freeskiing. In Hank’s words, “If you find an athlete that you can work with and trust, who is smart and somewhat safe, that’s what’s important.”
There is a distinct art form to the skier making a turn and the photographer composing a shot. It’s that teamwork between the two that truly creates the magic. Hank, now 72, has worked with all of Palisades’ best. Revered for his positive attitude and perpetual stoke, it’s no wonder that when Hank calls on an athlete to shoot there’s no need for him to ask twice.
From photographing legends like Scot Schmidt in Greg Stump’s “The Blizzard of Aahhhs” to the newcomers like John Treman, Hank has witnessed an incredible amount of talent come and go. Treman became one of Hank’s early go-to athletes even though Hank didn’t take him seriously at first. It wasn’t until Treman bypassed Hank completely and mailed an A-track showcasing his skills to Hank’s wife, Meg, that the two began to work and, in turn, travel the world together.
Hank shot with all the greats, from the DesLauriers team to John Egan, aka “the Wizard”. He works with some of the best female skiers in the game like one of Palisades’ best, Kristen Ulmer, who Hank refers to as the godmother of extreme skiing, as well as Astrid Walty, Kristen Lignel Lane, and his wife Meg.
On the Move with Matchstick
Hank’s past work is prologue, having hitched a ride with Matchstick Productions following the next generation of skiers worldwide and working side by side with Palisades’ own Scott Gaffney.
“When I was in college on the East Coast, Hank was nabbing cover after cover of Powder Magazine,” says Gaffney. “His images were dreamy, inspiring, and iconic and I’d study and lose myself within them. The de Vré name was clearly amongst the upper echelon of ski photographers.”
As an aspiring motion filmer, Gaffney said he had the good fortune of linking up with Hank shortly after he moved to Tahoe.
“We not only developed a solid working relationship, but as we traveled the globe together we became good friends,” Gaffney says. “He’s just a genuine soul and damn funny to be around. And when he yells out, ‘On it!’ you know he’s nailing the shot.”
Those early days of straight airs and style slowly slipped into the rearview. With the likes of CR Johnson and Shane McConkey, skiing saw a complete shift. Spins, new school tricks, and antics were the name of the game and, not surprisingly, Hank was there to document it. The “Red Bull Effect,” as Hank likes to call it, was in full effect and had skiers going bigger and faster, always pushing the limits of what was possible.
With Palisades Tahoe at the epicenter of resort-based freeskiing, there was no shortage of top-tier talent like Brad Holmes, Jaime Burge, Jimbo Morgan, Chuck Patterson, Jeff McKittrick, Jeff and Amie Engerbretson and everyone at the Sq**w Valley Freeride Team.
“The end goal is to show the spirit of skiing,” says Hank. “The spirit of that feeling when you go out and the cold air hits your face and the wind is blowing through your hair.”
Hank and others’ hard work during the early days essentially put Lake Tahoe, Alpine Meadows, and Palisades Tahoe on the map of premier world skiing destinations. Hank has shaped the way we view our local ski scene and has influenced many of the photographers that have followed in his footsteps through good vibes, great imagery, and inclusivity.
In the winter of 2011, after completing a shoot on Eagle’s Nest at what was then Sq**w Valley, I ran into Mike Wilson. After a quick chat, I watched as he skied away, eventually stopping midway down the Fingers where he was building a kicker. Standing 100 yards or so away, I waited for the upcoming show. As Wilson charged down the line I decided to pull out my camera and snapped a sequence of his enormous double back flip.
After skiing down to the bottom, I noticed that Hank had been shooting the entire scene from below. Not knowing the proper protocol for this type of situation I reached out to Hank. I felt conflicted as I had snapped a great image of Wilson but it was clearly Hank’s shoot.
After a brief conversation, Hank assured me that his angle wasn’t what he had hoped for and to go ahead and do whatever I wanted to with my images. As it turned out, the shot of Wilson would become my first published image in Powder Magazine.
Still Chasing Light
The men and women behind the lens often wake up before others are even stirring. We are stealthy in our movements and generally have two things in mind as it pertains to ski photography: good snow and good light. If a photographer does their job well, the ordinary passerby will notice only their tracks on the snow and their published images in magazines and on billboards.
Into his seventh decade, Hank still has the passion for his craft and can be found snapping shots on the slopes of Palisades.
“It’s a magical, wonderful getaway and we are lucky enough to be able to drive over, hop on a lift, and the next thing you know you are hiking up the peak,” Hank says.
With a change in times, a change in name, and a change in the guard as far as photographers are concerned, Hank’s bright smile is as warm as the California sunshine. He is still producing great work and has an unshaken level of stoke, which should inspire us all.
Former Powder Magazine editor, Steve Casimiro, may have said it best.
“Photographers who have devoted themselves to a particular mountain or area can help define that area. In Tahoe, Hank has the most longevity of anyone. There were a lot of Tahoe photographers in my day, but Hank has never put down the camera. When you think about Tahoe skiing you think about Hank de Vré.”