Jordan Manley: Filmmaker, Photographer
Words by Jill Macdonald
Jordan Manley: Filmmaker, Photographer
Words by Jill Macdonald
“I’m trying to capture what it’s like to have a concussion.” The photograph is a series of dots and dashes, actually raindrops captured with an IPhone. The sum total of this person’s ability to concentrate in one 24 hour period. Even with a brain injury, Jordan Manley finds a way to bring his internal vision to light.
Who is Jordan Manley? He is a vanguard, an influencer, a person that others watch and take note of as he sets and resets the style of outdoor action photography. Bursting onto the scene in his early twenties, from nowhere, this kid entered and won photography contests with shots that no one had thought to conceive, much less had the tools to execute. Perspective, angles, lighting. He knew what he wanted and he made it happen, enlisting the help of his brother and his friends, who just happened to be athletes and intellects, like himself.
Bold? Without trying to be, certainly. “Am I a risk taker?” Jordan repeats the question. 1996: Deep Cove, BC. Fresh transplants from Ontario, twelve year old Jordan and his twin brother, Chad, do what they have always done; ramble around outdoors, chasing after brother Les. “Having an older sibling, you’re always trying to catch up. That seems pretty normal. I guess we were pushing ourselves in certain ways, but it was never reckless.” Manley is very careful with his selection of words. It reflects the thought and patience that he puts into all things, and also his humility; he doesn’t answer the question.
For reference, the younger Manleys were 4 years behind their sibling and rolling with the likes of Thomas “The Kid” Vanderham, one of the first professional freeride mountain bikers, and future Olympic downhill racer Manny Osborne-Paradis. Not your average neighbourhood punks, messing around on bikes and skis. “There was a pool of very talented people we grew up with. The North Shore mountain biking scene was taking off and I was out doing these things with my friends. It wasn’t much of a reach for me to start documenting what was going on.”
Not extraordinary for a very young man to pick up a camera, take unique shots of his friends and then have that become a career— this is definitely an understatement. Professional action photographer Dano Pendygrasse looks back at Jordan’s entry into the magazine and photography world. “Jordan altered the game. He flipped the athlete/photographer relationship into something where he had a vision and they worked to realize it. Not him trying to capture their huge jump or killer line.”
Pendygrasse is also the Visual Media Producer at Arc’teryx. With years of experience shooting editorial assignments, he has insights into the process and the dynamics. “Jordan shot without constraints and if he didn’t have the tools to get that point of view, or that perfect light, he built what he needed. It was exciting and shocking, and he just kept the freshness coming. Everyone paid attention. Immediately.”
Think about this: How does a person develop their craft and make a living simultaneously; and what about the athleticism? “Certainly to be an outdoor action photographer you have to be proficient. To get places, and to be where I want to be to take those shots and yet still stay within my risk tolerance – or at least close to it.” To become Senior Photographer at both Powder and Bike magazines by age 24, there was a lot going on. Skill, confidence and huge amounts of time in the mountains developing those abilities.
At ages 75 and 72, Jordan’s parents are not typical of their generation. They became parents later in life than the majority of their contemporaries. Mom is a university dance professor with a specialty in children’s dance education; Dad is a retired civil engineer whose principal career interest was waste management systems and how they interact. Both concerned about a greater well-being, educated and exposed to international ideas and different schools of thought. A set of conditions that may have influenced how they raised, and/or prepped themselves, for children who would also make choices outside the norm.
True to their style, Mom and Dad were not overly involved in their children’s activities. They encouraged and provided the means for the boys to ski race, mountain bike and do what they did, but kept a respectful vantage point from which to support them. No helicopter parenting.
This is significant in how it relates to the behind-the-scenes reality of outdoor action sports and photography. All the Manley siblings are excellent skiers. Amongst themselves, and in the crowd they ran with, Jordan has spent a good amount of time reflecting on risk. What’s at stake, what is the outcome, what does he really want say? While he worked out the fundamentals of how to get the standard shots, establishing building blocks that would allow him to eventually realize his inner vision, Jordan chose to live at home. It was a risk of a different sort.
Jordan: “I had the luxury of being able to experiment. Without the financial pressure of having to be an entrepreneur, I spent time learning what I could do with photography. That makes a huge difference.” He wants to emphasize this. How fortunate he has been. “Lots of talented people had to drop out of action sport photography entirely, in order to make a living.” While he continued on, developing narratives and enlarging the scope of his storytelling abilities. He took some ribbing for it but at the same time, his friends participated and helped him capture remarkable images.
In all of Jordan’s work there is artistry. Patience. Love of place, motion and connection to people. A Skiers Journey (ASJ) began six years ago, when he saw that there was a niche to fill. “Salomon Freeski TV had been going for a while and (Mike Douglas) did a very effective job of changing the format of filmmaking in the ski industry by taking in online and making it episodic. That, combined with significant advancements in camera technology at the same time, made it possible for someone like myself to make a higher end product at lower cost, and have a venue for publishing it on my own, through social media.”
The genesis was the simultaneous emergence of a number of elements that gave in-roads to small producers to carve out a niche in the landscape of ski media, which had until then been dominated by just a few major production companies. It was also an opportunity for Jordan to revisit his earlier fascination with film and moving pictures. “I saw an opportunity to differentiate what we were doing through narrative. I was interested in exploring and exposing the culture behind all these international locations. To celebrate the human side of skiing.”
They began with Kashmir, India. Original members included skier and world traveler Chad Sayers, Jordan’s partner in the ski industry. As it turns out, they met future wingman Forrest Coots at a Kashmiri mountain refuge where he was filming with another group. In terms of skiing, the timing was a disaster. Dangerous, sugary and unpredictable when they arrived, it was a sketchy and perfect trial episode. “Let me state this for the record. Chad Sayers and Forrest Coots are really unique because not many, in fact very few, professional athletes would choose to work on this kind of project. I am really appreciative.” Manley is referring to the amount of time spent not skiing. Collecting visuals and soundscapes that were about place, exploring details via travel that could be seen as a dead-end in terms of any heart-stopping lines or first descents.
Jordan: “We were rarely going where there is the best skiing, but choosing to go places where skiing existed in an interesting way. People may not recognize how unusual it is to find partners, and friends, who are willing to go along. There can be very little skiing. Lots of waiting.”
As time went on and the creative process matured, ASJ series became a vehicle to probe the margins of skiing. Manley: “We were drawn to superlatives, or the contrasts. The idea was to capture culture and setting, what supports the story being projected. Otherwise it’s just about skiing and it could take place anywhere.”
Three seasons later, ASJ had nine locations on film and a fourth and final season scheduled. Ideas swirled. Familiar with each other’s quirks, the skiers remained relaxed that Jordan would come up with a vision and things would fall into place. Their collaboration worked because of trust and confidence in each other.
And then the completely unexpected happened. Jordan crashed while mountain biking. Nothing spectacular, but with a concussion serious enough to put the season on hold. Ten months later, his recovery well underway, Jordan was trying on ski boots. He stood up, knocked his head on a shelf and – Slam, dunk. The setback was worse than the original injury. By far. Twenty-nine years old, at the peak of his efforts to date and the most he was able to manage was a slow, brief, daily walk. A Skiers Journey was indefinitely on hold.