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Pascal Shirley is a photographer, climber, hiker, snowboarder, activist, and an overall explorer. He describes his homebase in LA as “the perfect place to be due to its access to endless music, art, food and cultural activities, which are just as important to me as nature time.”
Holden co-founder Mike Leblanc recently caught up with fellow photographer, and all-around explorer Pascal Shirley. Herein he discusses living and creating in Los Angeles, at the intersection of art, culture, and the California outdoors.
*All photos by Pascal Shirley
One of the things I love about LA is the mash-up of culture, and the ability to escape the city for the outdoors. What drew you to LA?
When I moved to LA in 2007, I was drawn to the work opportunities and diversity of culture, but I quickly realized that there were endless outdoor adventures just a stone’s throw from the city. I love getting out to Joshua Tree for some climbing, or the Kern river for hot springs and camping. Scoring powder days at under-the-radar spots like Mt. Waterman or Mt. Baldy an hour from DTLA is a huge bonus. These days when I need a reprieve from the city I head up to Mammoth Lakes where I have a 16 foot trailer to post up in.
You’re turning 40 in a few days, what does that feel like? How were your 20s in comparison to your 30s? What do you anticipate for your 40s?
Yeah, I can’t believe I’m almost 40. I was around 20 when I knew I wanted to make pictures for the rest of my life. I was studying photography up in San Francisco with some great mentors like Larry Sultan and Todd Hido. I dived into endless photobooks and started assisting photographers in the Bay area and LA.
In my 30s I continued assisting while shooting my own jobs. When I turned 35 I was recognized by a leading NYC photo industry mag called Photo District News. One job led to another and soon I was able to fully concentrate on my own photography. Looking back, I see how crucial it was to apprentice with great mentors.
Now that I’m almost 40, I’m more in love with photography than ever. I’m setting my focus on large format printing and having more exhibitions. For the next decade I’ll be looking to strike a balance between LA and nature time. I also want to hit the road more with my pup Sailor.
You blew out your knee last winter in Silverton, CO. I always enjoyed the rehabilitation of major injuries. It means mandatory down-time to process, assess, and heal. I always came out with more focus and mental strength. How has your experience of coming back from an injury been?
I was having the best day at Silverton! I just came in too hot at the bottom of a runout to keep momentum through a creek crossing. I tore my ACL and fractured my femur ball joint. With the COVID shutdown beginning in March it def seemed like a good time to have to sit it out and heal. I was lucky that my bone fused back together and my ACL tissue scarred over. My first doc told me I would definitely need surgery. Always get a 2nd opinion!
During the down-time I documented LA from a helicopter, so I was able to keep shooting and working on edits. In May, that collection of aerial pictures was featured by the Aperture Foundation. So yeah, rehabilitation has been good for me. I’ve gotten physically stronger and I’m hoping to be back on my board this winter.
Looking at 2020 from the perspective of serious injury and recovery, with an impending environmental crisis, a global pandemic, and the long-overdue exposure of systematic racism here in America, and the globe really—do you see a space for hope and opportunity?
2020 has been a real awakening. When LA was shut down the air was so clean. There wasn’t any traffic, people weren’t idling in their cars. We got a taste of what a city without smog could be like. It motivates me to live more sustainably. There are things we can all do, as simple as bringing a reusable water bottle with us everywhere. Like a lot of people I’ve been growing some of my own vegetables in a tiny garden. We can also ask ourselves, Do I really need to drive to get where I’m going? Now with COVID we have to think about everyone and not just our immediate circle of friends. Even though we’ve all been social distancing, this is a time to recognize the ways we’re all interconnected and how we depend on each other. It’s a time to come together, if not in person, then at least in spirit.
Lately you’ve been in the streets shooting at BLM protests, what’s that like, and what got you out there?
Yeah, I was out there photographing for about a month. How can one just sit around when there’s a mass awakening to systemic racism! Black and brown people are being gunned down and killed in cold blood. Black adults are 5 times more likely to have been unfairly stopped, and twice as likely to be killed by police. I attended a protest in Compton for an 18-year-old latino boy, Andres Guardado, who was shot in the back 5 times by a Compton sheriff. He did not deserve to die for any reason. Watching and hearing his parents speak about him brought tears to my eyes. These communities have had enough of these cruel and pointless deaths and now every police officer is on watch. Silence is violence and we must hold everyone accountable for their actions and words.
Your pictures from Japan capture an experience that feels both intimate and epic. Can you tell me about what attracted you to Japan? I know you’ve formed relationships with some well-known locals, what’s that like vs. being a newcomer?
Isn’t everyone attracted to Japan? Best snow on earth, sushi, onsens (hot springs) and the nicest people! The first time I went with three friends we rented a car and drove in a big circle around Hokkaido. We were hunting for untracked turns, but we all fell in love with the culture.
What really got me besides the deep snow was the purity of the Japanese respect for nature. I never saw trash anywhere. We would forest bathe all day on our boards and then bathe in healing onsen waters. It’s pure healthy living at its finest.
After many trips, I’ve honed in on Central Hokkaido; It has everything I’m looking for minus the crowds. My buddies and I have been going back to that zone for years now. Our good friends Yama, AKA Orangeman, and Shark Boy, have been so gracious in showing us their home. My friend Chandler has a new lodge there called Stealth Backcountry. I would recommend first timers rent a van and just keep following the storms. It’s the epitome of the Car Danchi way of life.
For me, sometimes I get into a certain style of photography, or a subject and I run with it for a minute, but there are shots I just find that I need to take for no obvious reason. Does this kind of discovery happen for you?
I think that’s a healthy way to approach photography. We all get into certain styles and navigate through them. We learn a lot that way. But I really love those pictures you never imagined taking. Finding unexpected vantage points, noticing the smallest light reflection or a tiny shadow— these details can guide you into uncharted territory.
You’ve been a snowboarder for a long time. When were you first aware of Holden and have you ever used the gear? What’s been your experience?
I think I first recognized Holden by the beautiful photographic layouts in the magazines. I love how Holden embraces urban dwelling nature seekers like me. I know I need both to survive. It’s a balance I’ve been walking my whole life. I legitimately treasure all my Holden gear. It feels like it’s made with that same love I share for the mountains and my home city. The bibs and puffy jacket always keep me warm and dry.
See more of Pascal Shirley's work here.
Prints for purchase available here.