Grilled: Legendary photographer Rob Mathis speaks the truth
For those those that don’t know, Rob Mathis is a G.
People tend to throw out terms like legend and OG at about anything these days, but Rob is the article original, being the photographer that went out on some of the earliest rail trips… before rail trips were a thing.
He is most known for covering Forum Snowboards during the Forum 8 days and has a book called Slide chronicling his many years as a snowboard photographer. Today, he is still at it, an integral component to Park City, still delivering banger photos on the reg. This is Rob Mathis.
You were the staff photographer at Forum Snowboards during what many consider to be the “Golden Era” of modern snowboarding. You guys went on some of the first rail trips ever and really pushed the envelope of a superstar team. How does that experience shape you as a photographer today?
Being able to be on some of the first ever rail trips is something very special to me. It was so loose back in the day. We just went, no idea if there was a rail around, no drop in ramps, bungees… nothing.
I remember days of straight up driving from morning to night not finding a thing. Of course when we did find something it was so new, that the thought of who had done what on the rail before wasn’t even a consideration. The looks on people’s faces when we were posted up in Chicago heading out on rail missions was priceless, they thought we were nuts. The fact we flew in from Utah to ride in their city and not in our mountains was (and still is) completely foreign to so many people. Those were the salad days!
Your book “SLIDE” is an essential piece in snowboarding’s history, what was your ultimate goal behind the creation of it and is it still available?
The SLIDE book came about because once I wasn’t working for Forum anymore and I’d go on rail trips, people would always ask about those early days. For so many people it’s what they grew up watching before they went out shredding. I saw all of it firsthand, and the book was a way to show a whole new generation some of the early (and influential) Forum years.
I had Jared Eberhardt lay it out, and the idea was just keep it simple, let the photos speak. If I were to do it again I would include a lot of the stories that went with each photo. I’m still happy with it though, I still get requests for it even though I just have some copies on hand for my kids when they get older.
I found out recently that Louie Vito ordered it off Amazon! Haha, I was just stoked he cared enough to just track it down and buy it. It feels good that people still care about that stuff.
What was your favorite trip ever with the Forum team?
I have a lot of favorite trips. The one that will always stand out was the first rail trip we ever did out of Utah. We flew into Chicago, then off to Buffalo and eventually into Canada.
I got some of my personal favorite photos from that trip. Nate was crushing it and I got a shot of him on a cool semi-closeout kinked down ledge. It was the trip JP did the red kinked rail for his ender.
The funny thing about that photo is I intentionally included the car in the shot because it had NY plates on it. To me that was so unique it had to be included. If I reshot it now I’d probably reframe that car differently, but all in all that trip was just full of bangers!
You took a bit of a hiatus from snowboard photography, where did you go and what did you do during that time?
Once Forum went through its first tough time, it was rough for me. I was owed a lot of money both for salary and a ton on my credit cards from trips. It was essentially a full year of money. It sucked, I was burnt on the business side of snowboarding and I took a bit of a break.
Essentially for a couple years (2004-2005) I played online poker. I went on maybe one or two snow trips, but my main income was poker. I still play poker to this day, and it does sound funny to say that was essentially my sole income there for a while.
I came back in 2006 and had a blast though. I was hired on with Forum again, but this time Cole Barash was the main guy… I was just filling in on stuff he wasn’t at. I spent over a month in Helsinki and Stockholm shooting for THAT. Such an amazing trip! I’m sure if you ask anyone that was part of that trip they’ll recall it as one of the best of all time. Haha, I’m not sure the “suits” loved their bills from that trip, but damn so many shots stacked!
Who are you working for now and what brought you back to snowboarding?
Besides the slight hiatus in 2004-2005 I never really left snowboarding. I owe everything I have to it! All I did is change how I go about shooting. If you’re on retainer for a company, it’s the best! If you’re traveling on your own dime, you’re just never going to make enough to get by. I have a wife and 2 kids, I need to provide for them. So, I formed what is essentially a small agency and started working with Park City.
I hired Pat Fenelon to do a web series, hired Dustin Ortiz to do the ads and I shot the photos and worked with the in-house marketing team and Jeremy Cooper. I’m actually working on a second issue of “I Ride Park City” magazine for them and it’s been a great experience!
See Also: The best of I Ride Park City
What photographers do you look up to, not necessarily in the endemic sense, but rather artistically speaking?
I look up to a lot of photographers for different reasons. Even though you asked about non endemic, I wanted to give props to the guys out there now. The level is truly incredible.
The fact that Andy Wright is still grinding away and crushing it at this level for so many years is mind blowing. The work ethic and talent that he and Blotto have is just on another level.
Oli just straight up kills it. E-Stone, Daniel Blom, Tim P, Huggy, Pasi, Vincent, the list is endless and the new guys ready to step it up to the next level! It’s definitely a tough way to make an easy living.
Do you feel the current course of snowboarding is flowing in a healthy direction or one to be concerned about?
The current course of snowboarding flowing in a healthy direction? I’m not sure I’m the one to answer that question. My advice on that stuff regarding upcoming photographers is to not get swept up in the politics of snowboarding.
If you love snowboarding it will show up in your photos. I prefer to shoot urban, someone else would kill to be in the backcountry everyday. It’s to the point now where there is something for everybody to enjoy and as long as you’re having fun doing it, don’t sweat the small stuff. Be true to what you love and it will show.
Which riders have impressed you lately?
I’m showing my age here because there are so many damn good kids it’s mind blowing. The ones I’ve personally worked with and impress me are Dylan Thompson, Sam Taxwood, Brandon Hobush, Ben Bilodeau, Sage… I just wind up with so many shots of these guys and they make everything look so easy. I know I’m missing a ton, but these are the ones that I’ve been shooting at Park City.
What music are you listening to these days?
Music? Haha, I’m pretty much all metal all day. Thrash, Black, Speed Metal I love it all. I still have my punk rock roots, but metal is always the go to.
Do you have any advice to up and coming photographers who are attempting to make a name for themselves in snowboarding?
My advice to kids on the come up is shoot, and shoot a lot. There are so many good riders out there that are just as hungry. Be willing to shoot at any time with anybody. Be prepared to make mistakes. Email some of the photogs you look up to. All the main guys are always down to share info. The High Cascade photo class seems like an amazing opportunity. If you don’t have that kind of money, just find the shop kids and shoot with them.
The most important thing is just find your own style. I know I can look through a mag and tell you who shot that photo without even seeing the credit. Experiment, have fun and shoot as much as possible!