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Welcome to Lee's Corner. Don't Crimp the Magnate - Ski Mag

Welcome to Lee's Corner. Don't Crimp the Magnate

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Lee Cohen 1204

"Vic-torrr," hisses Lee "Magnate" Cohen, addressing you with his version of the word "victim." You don't want to be a victim. As virtually every skier in Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon will tell you, victim is the lowest, scurviest noun in the language of the Magnate. It's the polar opposite of the highest, noblest noun, which is, of course, "magnate."

"Victorious one!" he says, "this is mega!" You smile because you know he calls everyone Victor, and because he's right, this backcountry run through boot-high powder under soaring blue skies is mega. Although he can be tough to understand, the Magnate doesn't intend to break the rules of interpersonal communication. It's just his nature to backhand you across the shoulder, screw his mustachioed, bespectacled Magnate face unnervingly close to yours, then lock a bead onto you with his translucent green eyes before grinning and tilting his head in a canine appeal for approval.

"Yeahhssssss," Cohen concludes. "Mega!" The Magnate is, to use another of his unique phrases, "gleaming," or exhibiting a high level of excitement. Amid the walloping storms and mushrooming snowpacks of the Wasatch, the Magnate gleams often. Powder skiing, especially at Alta, drew him, a New York Jew, to the most Mormon of states in the early '80s. His subsequent hobby-shooting 35mm slides of his buddies-began evolving into a career with the 1987 publication of his first ski photo. In the years since, Cohen has pounded nails, married, had a son (now 12), bought a house at the bottom of Little Cottonwood Canyon, created the "Altaholics" line of souvenir apparel, honed his own distinct language, and absorbed face shots galore. Yet he's still found time to become one of ski photography's most hallowed names. As lauded photographer Scott Markewitz says, "Lots of people try to do the same thing, but Lee has made overhead, in-your-face powder his signature shot."

Consider a picture Cohen calls the "Withey Wave." It shows skier Dan Withey charging through Wasatch fairy dust, a six-foot-high, 40-foot-long wake of powder fanning behind him. Pure Cohen, the focus is sharp. The billowing white obscures dated colors and clothing styles, lending the photo a timeless quality. And the startling girth and length of the contrail punches you in the gut; there's no more persuasive testament to the visceral, erotic thrill of deep-powder skiing. Still, the Withey Wave was never fully appreciated by ski magazines because none ran the horizontal shot on the double-page spread it deserved. Besides, Cohen made a slight error while shooting it: Whereas ski photographers are often accused of tilting the camera to make terrain look steeper, Cohen accidentally skewed his lense a tad the other way, creating the illusion that the Withey Wave occurred on a 20-degree slope. As a result, any skier can put himself in the photo. Folks who behold the Withey Wave "ooh" and "aah" and reach for their checkbooks. The Magnate now sells 13x30 inch prints of it, and framed copies hang in several Little Cottonwood mansions.

Cohen's next indelible powder image could take shape during a photo shoot with skiers Matt Collins and Dave McReynolds on a ridge between Little and Big Cottonwood canyons. And I'm here to watch. Milking every inch of the terrain, Cohen spins a dozen rolls of Fuji Velvia through the motor drive of his Nikon F5 as the skiers churn past bristlecone pines, throwing plumes of white toward the crystalline sky. The Magnate strips down to a T-shirt and ties on a bandana to keep the sweat out of his eyes. He shoots until sunburn reddens noses and stomachs bleat with hunger. All told, the single, 2,500-vertical-foot run withstands five and a half hours of shooting. Afterward, we ski across the flats to Big Cottonwood Canyon and wait for a bus that doesn't show. Twenty minutes pass. We decide to hitchhike. Eventually, a University of Utah student pulls over. He looks at Cohen's dimpled cheeks, moustache, and shoulder-length ir, and asks, earnestly, "Are you Geraldo Rivera?"

Born in september 1958, cohen grew up in glen cove, Long Island. One of very few myopic ski photographers, he has worn glasses since fourth grade. A brainiac, Cohen was a teenage chess champ and still excels at mind games like backgammon and cribbage, in part because he's a math whiz and always maximizes his points. He understands accounting so well he taught his CPA how to do his taxes. A passionate Grateful Dead fan, Cohen owns dozens of bootleg tapes, and enjoys herbal remedies with unabashed delight. Nevertheless, his memory remains Rain Man-sharp: He blurts out seemingly any phone number he's ever dialed and ticks off obscure stats like Johnny Bench's batting average in 1971.

After college at State University of New York Brockport, Cohen and a buddy took a rambling, multi-month road trip to Western ski areas. At Alta, he intentionally got stuck in an "interlodge"-the closing of Little Cottonwood Canyon due to avalanche danger-by lingering at the Rustler Lodge bar during a massive storm that dumped 100 inches in three days. "If you come to the Wasatch during a big year," Cohen maintains, "you're hooked for life."

Cohen quickly transplanted. After moving to Salt Lake, he followed the example of established powder hounds, working odd construction jobs during summer, and skiing the light fantastic all winter. At the time, in the mid '80s, ski photographers were notorious for piling snow atop a mogul and asking a toothy, bronze model to splash through it. Cohen couldn't handle it. He had to burn film-to represent the real story of the powder skiing movement: the mismatched Utah ski bums choking on freshies that were lighter and fluffier than anywhere in the U.S.

Ski magazines initially rejected his images, as they reject anyone who has the impudence of being unknown. But he finally published a shot, and gradually became the Wasatch go-to guy, in part because his passion for Alta shows, in every emulsion, that he's living a dream. He loves the hits, the light, the backgrounds, the people, the pillowy accumulations-and he's found it all in what's come to be called "Lee's Corner."

"Lee's corner" is what alta locals and rival shutterbugs call the shoulder above the Wildcat lift where Cohen has shot the powder explosions that have graced a dozen ski magazine covers and three Patagonia catalogues over the past 10 years. Short and steep, the shoulder promises fat billows of snow and easy access. No lifts or trails run above it, so Cohen can take skiers there on "early-ups" before the lifts start spinning. There, in the morning light, he has captured the celebrated powder shots that have undoubtedly contributed to the Alta mystique, even if they can't be directly tied to skier days. "It's one of those immeasurables," says Onno Wieringa, Alta's general manager. "But we know that when people see such cool pictures of Alta, they get excited." Cohen made the shoulder such a no-brainer that perhaps it should now be called "Just About Any Photographer's Corner." Though Cohen's decades of loyalty to Alta may give him unofficial preference, ski-area managers can't bar other "grom" shooters from imitating the Magnate. After all, lots of dreams coalesce and collide in the mountains. Which means that the future is up for grabs: At Lee's Corner, "there's such a cluster of photogs going on early-ups, I'll often go somewhere else," he says. "Besides, I kind of resent that the 'shoulder' is what I'm known for, as if I don't shoot all the shots. I don't want to be pigeonholed as the dude with the sick pow shots from Alta."

These days, Cohen also shoots for Patagonia, Columbia, and The North Face. He's spent weeks in the Chugach and the Alps, firing off stills alongside film crews. But this brings up a whole new set of concerns, because film crews turn their gap jumps and kickers into photo ops for multiple still-shooters. As a result, the athletes lose respect for the notion of exclusivity. "Now guys will take competing photographers to the same secret stashes," Cohen says. "The standards are different."

Which is making a tough business model even tougher. While Cohen and Markewitz ruled Wasatch ski photography in the '90s, their hegemony is long since over. "The Wasatch is just such a great place for ski photography because we get so many snow days followed by sun," says Cohen. "And there's so many people skiing here in the first place. Some are bound to figure, 'Hey, I could get paid for what I love.' So shooting here is much more competitive than it was 10 years ago." Cohen worries that someone might interfere with his dream. The opposite of gleam, this makes him "crimp."

For the Magnate, though, there's no problem a few thousand words can't fix. He's always working the phone, cajoling his skiers. ("Stench cuddler! I need you at Alta tomorrow! Supercrimper coma-lackey victim! Get your sidewall fixed!") Wearing his heart on his sleeve, he communicates every emotion he feels. He'll call a photo editor to discuss at length his or her decision to run three photos instead of four. Worse, these calls come way before business hours, sometimes before 8 a.m.

Though he drinks coffee religiously, the Magnate hardly needs it. A quintessential morning person, he bolts awake before dawn. When other skiers pummel snooze buttons in attempts to delay hangovers, Cohen is up and at it, rustling the blinds so he can peer at the weather. Sharing a hotel room with him sucks. The early awakenings and nonstop verbiage can-and do-exhaust those in the Magnate's wake. But you'll never hear anyone, even his shutter-clicking rivals, say a bad word about him. For one thing, he's the least vain skier on the planet. While outfitting his athletes in the newest, flashiest clothes made, Cohen plies the slopes in beaten black bibs and a dull green fleece. On backcountry trips, he sports circa 1991 sweats-hideous multicolored numbers inspired by a Navajo blanket. His youthful looks-full head of black hair, olive skin, middleweight wrestler's physique-are forever counterbalanced by the tinted spectacles normally worn only by wise guys in Member's Only jackets.

But, although he dresses like a townie, the Magnate simply gleams too much for anyone to call him a victim. Spencer Wheatley, a World Extreme Skiing Champion and heli-ski guide, all but credits Magnate for his career: "If it weren't for Lee Cohen taking pictures and believing in me, I would never have been a pro skier. He's the most diehard powder skiing fanatic of all my friends." One year Lee gave all the boys who ski for his lens a special Altaholics T-shirt of his own design. On the front, in big black letters, and in uncharacteristically decipherable language, it expressed what is perhaps the impetus for every tick that makes Cohen Cohen. It read: don't fuck with my dream.

exclusivity. "Now guys will take competing photographers to the same secret stashes," Cohen says. "The standards are different."

Which is making a tough business model even tougher. While Cohen and Markewitz ruled Wasatch ski photography in the '90s, their hegemony is long since over. "The Wasatch is just such a great place for ski photography because we get so many snow days followed by sun," says Cohen. "And there's so many people skiing here in the first place. Some are bound to figure, 'Hey, I could get paid for what I love.' So shooting here is much more competitive than it was 10 years ago." Cohen worries that someone might interfere with his dream. The opposite of gleam, this makes him "crimp."

For the Magnate, though, there's no problem a few thousand words can't fix. He's always working the phone, cajoling his skiers. ("Stench cuddler! I need you at Alta tomorrow! Supercrimper coma-lackey victim! Get your sidewall fixed!") Wearing his heart on his sleeve, he communicates every emotion he feels. He'll call a photo editor to discuss at length his or her decision to run three photos instead of four. Worse, these calls come way before business hours, sometimes before 8 a.m.

Though he drinks coffee religiously, the Magnate hardly needs it. A quintessential morning person, he bolts awake before dawn. When other skiers pummel snooze buttons in attempts to delay hangovers, Cohen is up and at it, rustling the blinds so he can peer at the weather. Sharing a hotel room with him sucks. The early awakenings and nonstop verbiage can-and do-exhaust those in the Magnate's wake. But you'll never hear anyone, even his shutter-clicking rivals, say a bad word about him. For one thing, he's the least vain skier on the planet. While outfitting his athletes in the newest, flashiest clothes made, Cohen plies the slopes in beaten black bibs and a dull green fleece. On backcountry trips, he sports circa 1991 sweats-hideous multicolored numbers inspired by a Navajo blanket. His youthful looks-full head of black hair, olive skin, middleweight wrestler's physique-are forever counterbalanced by the tinted spectacles normally worn only by wise guys in Member's Only jackets.

But, although he dresses like a townie, the Magnate simply gleams too much for anyone to call him a victim. Spencer Wheatley, a World Extreme Skiing Champion and heli-ski guide, all but credits Magnate for his career: "If it weren't for Lee Cohen taking pictures and believing in me, I would never have been a pro skier. He's the most diehard powder skiing fanatic of all my friends." One year Lee gave all the boys who ski for his lens a special Altaholics T-shirt of his own design. On the front, in big black letters, and in uncharacteristically decipherable language, it expressed what is perhaps the impetus for every tick that makes Cohen Cohen. It read: don't fuck with my dream.

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