Our latest Photographer Spotlight is with Los Angeles based shooter Chris Mortenson. Chris’ BMX background is deep with roots in New Mexico, where he grew up riding and shooting—until making the move out to LA in 2012 for a full-time photo gig with Quintin. Chris’ extensive photo duties with the clothing brand go way beyond shooting action—exposing him to a lot of new work experience along the way. But he still hits the streets with some of LA’s finest on the regular.
Location: Los Angeles
Years riding: 15
Years shooting: “5 years total, but taking it seriously only 6.”
How did you get your start shooting photos?
I have always had a fascination with photographs. My mom was a photographer in the Navy and I grew up looking at pictures of battleships and jets she had taken. I got my first camera in the fourth grade and was constantly taking pictures of anything I could lay my eyes on. A few years later when I started riding, naturally I started shooting my friends and I've just never been able to stop.
What's the BMX scene like where you grew up in New Mexico?
I grew up in a really small town of less than 10,000. There really wasn't a BMX scene. No one at my school even knew what BMX was. Just a couple friends and I rode. We started out on dirt jumps and eventually transitioned to street. There was never more than three or four of us into it. It wasn't until I moved that I began riding with more people and found a scene.
Tell us about your move out to Los Angeles to work for Quintin and how that affected your photography.
Moving out to Los Angeles was definitely a process. I shot my first assignment for Quintin in September 2011. I was heading to a music festival in San Diego and had emailed the brand trying to line something up just to add to my portfolio. I ended up spending the entire weekend back and forth between LA and San Diego. Shooting with Jesse Whaley and Eddie Cleveland in LA during the day and raging in San Diego every night. Quintin really liked the photos I took and I started splitting my time between New Mexico and LA. In April 2012 I made the move to LA and began working for them fulltime. I have to give a big thanks to Nate Richter, Morgan Long, Josh Delcour, and Eben Ficsher for letting me crash on their couch for that month while I found a place to live.
Working for Quintin has had a huge impact on my photography. Since Quintin is a clothing brand, I shoot a lot more product photos and lifestyle photos than ever before. I have learned to work better in the studio. And I've gotten much better working with natural light for lifestyle stuff. I've had to bring to life their concepts and ideas for photos, which has expanded my range and pushed my comfort level as a photographer. It's one thing to shoot your own ideas, but creating someone else's vision presents an entirely new challenge.
What are some of your duties as a photographer for the brand?
I am in charge of producing all the photographic content. This includes shooting look books, catalogs, products, and all the web stuff. My photographic duties also blend into handling video work, managing the BMX team, and pretty much anything else that comes up. Quintin is a pretty small operation so it's nice to have creative control in most projects. Being the staff photographer I'm always on my toes trying out new photographic techniques or concepts that will keep the brand fresh and still hold true to what Quintin is about.
While on the topic of Quintin and photography, they did the Imprint Project, which celebrated the work of BMX photographers. Would you mind giving us a little backstory on the project.
For those who don't know, the Imprint Project was a collaboration of Quintin with you [Jeff Zielinski], Ricky Adam, George Marshall, Walter Pieringer, and Edwin De La Rosa. It is a photo exhibition that was shown here in Los Angeles, in Austin during Texas Toast 2012, in London, and it is currently in Poland with plans to keep travelling. In conjunction with the show, Quintin produced T-shirts featuring a photo from each photographer and all proceeds went to the Athlete Recovery Fund.
It started as an idea I tossed into the air at work one day and everybody loved it. At Quintin, we are always looking to do collaborations and I thought it would be cool to work with some of the photographers I've always looked up to. You see a lot of things like this in the skate industry and I really wanted to bring it into BMX. As BMX photographers we are creating visually stimulating pieces and I wanted to showcase that.
There's no doubt that BMX in general is such a visually striking subject matter, and photography will always be a really important part of the culture. What do you think?
I think that photography and BMX go hand in hand. As long as people are out riding and exploring new places there will always be somebody documenting it. Every crew has a photographer and a filmer nowadays. Imagery within BMX is becoming more universal and the quality is getting unreal. With the new technology, crews are able to share what their doing with the entire BMX community. I think it is not only an exciting time for BMX, but also an exciting time to be a photographer.
Let's switch gears a little… so how do you split up your time between riding and shooting?
When I was younger it was a struggle to put down my bike, but over the years it has gotten easier. I broke my ankle pretty bad a few years ago and couldn't ride for over a year. During that time I just shifted all my focus to photography and since I've gotten back on my bike I've been able to find a good balance.
Does it ever get hard for you to put your bike down in the middle of a good session to shoot a photo?
During a session I just try to ride while everyone is feeling out the spot, so when it's time to handle business the bike gets put down pretty easy. I enjoy the collaboration between rider and photographer/filmer. So when someone is doing something and I get the opportunity to shoot it I still get that rush and feeling of accomplishment when everything turns out good.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
I get inspired by people who are out there doing things their own way and making shit happen for themselves. I watch a lot of documentaries and am always looking at people's work both inside and outside the BMX world. But recently most of my inspiration comes from walking out my front door (I have a pretty dope view) and I just think about how great it is to be out here in Cali being able to make art for a living. That's inspiring.
Give us a quick breakdown of your gear…
Two Canon 5D Mark II's with battery grips, Panasonic HMC-150 for filming, Tachihara 4×5 camera, Minolta 35mm point and shoot, Canon 24-70mm 2.8, Canon 70-200mm 2.8, Canon 15mm fisheye 2.8, Canon 50mm 1.8, two Paul C. Buff Einstein 640ws strobes with two mini lithium battery packs, 1 Quantum Q flash with battery pack, 2 Canon 580ex strobes, 1 Paul C. Buff Alien Bee 800 and 400 (used mostly in my studio at Quintin), four Pocket Wizard Plus II, one Pocket Wizard Mini (for the hypersync), Manfrotto light stands and a 12' boom, 2 soft boxes, umbrellas, and some various lighting modifers to make things look neat.
What is one piece of gear on your wish list?
Right now the only thing I want is a medium format camera with a Phase One 80 megapixel digital back, although an 8×10 film camera is on the wish list as well.
Do you enjoy shooting photos of anything else other than BMX?
I'm always shooting things outside of BMX. I really like portraiture, especially environmental portraits. I like using strobes and lighting to bring people out and really capture their personality. I also love street photography; I'm always carrying a camera and ready to capture that decisive moment.
Tell us about Grassgram…
Grassgram is collaborative project that Wes McGrath and I put together. Right now it is an Instagram gallery for upcoming photographers to share their work. We want to build a community of photographers to inspire each other, start a dialogue about their work, and encourage networking. In the future we're hoping to do more with Grassgram outside of Instagram. For now you can check out the gallery on Instagram @grassgram.
Do you have any goals or projects in the works?
I'm taking a trip to Japan with Quintin in December. I'm really excited to produce some work in a new place and I have big plans for this trip. I'm working on projects for We Made It with Nate Ricther. I'm also currently looking for a gallery here in LA to show work Wes McGrath and I shot the first year we were out here. We showed this work in a gallery in Albuquerque a few months ago. As I said before, we are working to expand Grassgram. Outside of BMX, I am trying to get some gallery shows for my other work. I've been attending a lot of events, meeting artists, and building a local network.
As far as goals go, I am still new in LA and have big dreams. I would like to do more work for magazines. I'd love to go on more team trips. And I'd like to help bring BMX into the art world. BMX photography doesn't get recognition in the art world like skate photography does and I think that should change. It takes just as much skill and attention to composition to create high quality BMX photos.
And finally, where can we see more of your work?
Tumblr: Everythings Better on Grass
Instagram: @cmortenson and @grassgram and @wemadeitLA
I also blog for Quintin and Push It A Stop
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