Shooting on the edge

World traveler and photographer Keoki Flagg opens his Tahoe City gallery with shots of Wild People in Extreme Places

Keoki Flagg took this shot, “Ice,” while ice climbing with Jessica Sobolowski in Alaska.

Keoki Flagg took this shot, “Ice,” while ice climbing with Jessica Sobolowski in Alaska.

For Keoki Flagg, the camera is like a paintbrush. It is like a weapon against time. It is like a ticket to another world.

When photographing champion daredevil snowboarder Morgan La Fonte, Flagg didn’t pick a comfortable spot way down on the side of the hill and wait for La Fonte to sail into the air. He went boarding with her and whipped around backward to take the shots.

When shooting a rescue dog for his patrol dog series, Flagg requested to be buried in the snow. A photograph hanging on his gallery wall shows a beautiful golden retriever peering down at him anxiously. Flagg, who took the shot from inside his snow lair, wanted to capture the feeling that a person in danger would have upon catching sight of the rescuing pooch.

“That emotion was like … whoahh,” Flagg says. “And I wasn’t even in danger.”

Photographing ice climbers on an Alaskan glacier, Flagg asked to be lowered into the quiet deep of an ice cave to shoot the climbers inside. Flagg, who grew up ocean diving in Hawaii, says that being in the interior of the glacier was almost like being inside the sea.

“I came out and I was quiet for a day,” says the normally talkative and exuberant Flagg. “It’s kind of like a world inside a world.”

When he photographs Wild People in Extreme Places—the title of the current exhibit on his gallery walls—Flagg wants to show not just what snow looks like to an outside observer, but what it feels like to a snowboarder. He wants to portray not just the beauty of a glacier’s interior, but the awe and physical exhilaration an ice climber feels when being lowered deep below the surface.

“The more direction I gave [the athletes], the more I was interfering with their message,” he says. “[I want to] show a slice of their world without controlling their world. I’m just another element experiencing it with them.”

The photographs in Wild People in Extreme Places are, as a result, crisp, vivid and breathtaking. They are probably unlike any sports photography you’ve seen before, since Flagg says that he’s yet to meet anyone with his wild, unorthodox approach to the genre.

But Flagg doesn’t just follow extreme athletes off to snowy parts of the globe. He also travels across the world alone, shooting African natives, South American schoolboys and Buddhist monks. The photographs range from poignant and reverent to sweet and hilarious.

Yet Flagg hasn’t exactly swept up trophies for his daring brand of photography—he says that many aren’t quite sure what to make of it. He continues to experiment with his shots and uses three times the amount of film as his average colleague, brandishing his camera during a shoot like he’s Jackson Pollack splattering paint.

“I’m not looking through the camera anymore," he says, moving his arms wildly to mimic his camera movements. "I’m painting with the camera."