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Hanover native documents a ski jumping scene in the Midwest

  • Janne and Ville Korhonen, Team Finland, 2019, a photograph from "Jumper," Cooper Dodds's book of photographs taken at the Five Hills Tournament, a ski jumping competition in the Upper Midwest. (Cooper Dodds photograph)

  • Cooper Dodds carries his 4-by-5-inch view camera on the Bush Lake ski jump in Bloomington, Minn., in 2018. (Nico Tanner photograph)

  • The 94th Annual Snowflake Tournament, Westby, Wisconsin, 2017. (Cooper Dodds photograph)

  • "Rod and Gun Club, 2016." (Cooper Dodds photograph)

For the Valley News
Published: 11/29/2019 8:18:26 PM
Modified: 11/29/2019 8:18:17 PM

In 1883, when Norwegian brothers and Telemark skiing instructors Torjus and Mikkel Hemmestveit immigrated to the plains of northwestern Minnesota, they introduced Americans to ski jumping. Before long, the sport became a sensation in the Upper Midwest as residents built jumps and founded ski clubs.

Over the course of more than a century, ski jumping has remained a beloved winter tradition. More than 30 jumpers and thousands of fans still travel to the Midwest every year to see competitors fly off some of America’s most storied jumps during the Five Hills Tournament. Among them is Cooper Dodds, a Hanover native, former competitive ski jumper and professional photographer who recently published Jumper: Flying in the Heartland, his third photography book.

In Jumper, Dodds brings together photographs taken throughout his past five years at the Five Hills Tournament, a two-week ski jumping series that takes place on five hills across Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. Bookended by essays from fellow jumpers Peter Geye and Chris Lamb, Dodds guides readers through 45 images of athletes, spectators and landscapes, a community captivated by flight.

Professional photography was never part of Dodds’s plan. He spent his childhood ski jumping at Hanover’s Oak Hill with the Ford Sayre ski team, coached by his father, Tom Dodds. It was there that he took his first 10-meter jump at 10 years old.

After graduating from Hanover High School in 2008, Dodds deferred from Carleton College and moved to Steamboat Springs, Colo., hoping to land a spot on the U.S. Junior World Championship Team. He didn’t qualify, so he and a friend packed up his Subaru Outback and drove east to compete in the Five Hills Tournament.

“For two weeks, we had a blast,” he said in a recent telephone interview. Dodds was used to training at the slopes in Lake Placid and Park City, Olympic jumps with surprisingly small crowds. The Five Hills Tournament was different.

“You’re driving to Westby, Wisconsin, a 2,000-person town,” he said, “and they will get almost 2,000 people to come watch these competitions for the weekend.”

Dodds was also drawn to the “distinct personality” of each hill. “Modern hills are designed for the skier to fly much lower to the ground and you can travel farther and safer which is all well and good, certainly. But it just means that hills become more like each other, and these hills, I mean some of them have been skiing for upwards of a century, and they don’t feel like anything you’ve skied before.”

Since his first tour in 2009, he’s gone back every year: sometimes to jump, sometimes to take photographs. Dodds was introduced to photography by longtime teacher Pete Lange at Hanover High School, where he learned the basics using a pinhole camera made from a metal can. In 2015, Cooper returned to the Five Hills with a 4-by-5-inch Wista view camera he’d bought for $300 on Ebay. That year, he began taking photographs for Jumper.

Large-format film photography, the style of almost all of the work in Jumper, is a slow process, seemingly incompatible with the pace of ski jumping. Unlike its digital counterpart, it’s labor-intensive and requires subjects to sit for a portrait. His choice to use this method forced him to focus less on the action and more on depicting the culture of ski jumping in the Midwest.

A nationally ranked athlete accustomed to soaring off of Olympic jumps, Dodds might seem the last person who could find satisfaction on the sidelines. But as he continued to take photographs, he noticed similarities between photography and jumping. The antiquated form of photography he used served as a nod to the tradition of the sport, both early 19th-century inventions. Both activities also required patience and preparation.

“A ski jump itself, when you do it right, is just so easy,” he said. “But it has taken thousands and thousands of hours of effort to be able to do that thing right. Photography is the same way. Also a ski jump is over in five seconds, four seconds. So much effort for a very short amount of time. A photograph is even less — a five-hundredth of a second is the actual capture … but making photographs that relay the emotion that you’re trying to, that takes thousands of hours on the back end that nobody sees. People only see the long ski jump flight. People only see the finished photograph.”

In several senses, time is the overarching theme of Dodds’s work. The photographs demand consideration of the preparation that preceded them. Piles of kindling and glowing bonfires serve as tributes to the crowds that support jumpers despite freezing Midwest winters; portraits of the hills, to the volunteers who spent hours preparing them. Athletes suspended, their ski tips angled toward blue skies, are simultaneously disciplined and bold, representations of past and present. Dodds said, “… you are in control because you have shaped your body over 10 years and 10,000 jumps and all of this very specific training and regimented eating and weightlifting and flexibility and all of this stuff and also, you’re flinging yourself off of an icy track into the air going 60 miles an hour.”

While Jumper allowed Dodds to pursue ski jumping and photography on parallel tracks, those subjects are diverging as he works on a handful of other photography projects. One, with the working title Domestic, considers the subtleties of a lived-in home. Another combines images taken while walking in public parks. And after five years photographing with frozen fingers, he’s excited to take on a warmer theme.

“As I was working in these conditions with my view camera, gloveless and all this stuff, I was just fantasizing, ‘What’s the next beach project?’ ” he said. He wants to document the devastation and recovery of Florida’s Forgotten Coast after Hurricane Michael struck in October 2018.

Even though Dodds has retired from competitive jumping and released Jumper, the sport will always stick with him. “It doesn’t go away,” he said. “If anything, those feelings just become stronger.”

Anne Yanofsky is a junior English major at Dartmouth College. She is from Rye, N.H.

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