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Despite being considered “the dean of Northwest nature photography” by The New York Times, Ray Atkeson’s vast oeuvre of winter sports photography and alpine landscapes has been curiously passed over by the history of photography. Atkeson was born in 1907 on a farm near Grafton, Illinois, and started using a Brownie box camera at the age of 15. He had one of his earliest successes when he forgot about a camera set up in front of a disused railway station until about an hour after he set the exposure time. The resulting photograph was published in a magazine.
On completing high school, Atkeson went West, taking labouring jobs in the wheat fields of Kansas and apple-picking in Oregon. Taking his camera with him on these jobs, he documented the grandeur of the American Great Plains. He arrived in Oregon at the age of 21 where he would remain for seventeen years, practicing as a commercial photographer. His decision to go freelance in 1946 marked an important turning point in his career as his focus moved towards photographing the spectacular ski and snow country of the intermountain region of the Western United States. It is for these enchanting snowy vistas that he is best remembered.
Lugging a heavy 4×5 camera through the mountains in the days before the invention of the chairlift, Atkeson can be regarded as a truly intrepid photographer, intent on bringing the splendour and exhilaration of the sublime alpine landscape to the public’s attention. As his wife, Doris, has said, “his greatest joy was sharing the beauty of these places with people who couldn’t go there”. Hollywood’s endorsement of snow sports made Atkeson’s work particularly sought after and it was published in National Geographic, LIFE, Sports Illustrated, Saturday Evening Post and Reader’s Digest. From the 1930s to 50s, Atkeson made thousands of photographs and published many photobooks, including Ski and Snow Country: The Golden Years of Skiing in the West which features a text by the famed skier, Warren Miller. His photographs from this period capture the glamour of the early winter sports scene and resound with a sense of the excitement and danger that accompanied its rise in popularity.
In his later career, the assistance of his granddaughter, Karen Schmeer, ensured that Atkeson could continue to work even when his eyesight began to fail. He died in 1990 at the age of 83 at his home in Portland. Although Atkeson’s work appears in collections alongside the greats of the American canon – Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams – his name has not been indelibly inscribed onto the history of photography in the same manner as some of his contemporaries. He is, perhaps, one of the most unjustly forgotten innovators of the medium.