Granby author and photographer captures the soul of the High Country’s yesteryears
Kent's Gunnufson's newly released book, Rocky Mountains: A Self-Portrait, takes readers on a photographical journey through the area during the 1970's and 80s.
The community and landscape of Grand County and the High Country has evolved since as the area has exploded in popularity over the last few decades. Grand County photographer, author and filmmaker Kent Gunnufson documents a bygone mountain era in his latest work, “Rocky Mountains: A Self-Portrait.”
The author’s work includes text and photographs of the stunning landscape of the Rocky Mountains, plus his life and the lives of working members of the High Country during the 1970s and 1980s. Gunnufson’s photos capture the area’s soul and close-knit community. He also expounds on his creative philosophy.
“I’ve been documenting people’s lives up here for some time. I’ve made several documentaries and written a couple books, but I hadn’t really done anything on me,” Gunnufson said recently. As he neared retirement, he took on an autobiographical project.
“I thought it would be nice to tell my story, not completely, but a slice of all these people I’d come in contact with and what my (photography) process was,” he said.
Gunnufson will hold a book launch at the Granby Library Friday, August 26 at 5:30 p.m. Martin J. Smith of Grand County Community of Writers will lead the book discussion.
A local writing connection
Gunnufson joined Grand County Community of Writers to help him hone his writing craft. The group meets once a month to discuss their projects. Gunnufson’s book had been decades in the making, but encouragement from the group put him on the path to publication.
“I’d written different things at different times, a section here and a section there. I started piecing it all together, reworking and reworking it. I’m not a writer, but I appreciate people who do it,” said Gunnufson, who concentrates on visual storytelling through film and photography.
“The writer’s group has been a great help … and inspired me to put this book together. I’ll scratch it all out, and they’ll help me start it over again,” he said with a laugh.
The end result is “Rocky Mountains: A Self-Portrait.” The book includes landscapes, people and moments in time Gunnufson found significant.
“The pictures are a culmination of my life,” he said. “I wanted to showcase the best of my work.”
Readers get a historical snapshot of the people who dared to live a hardscrabble existence in the High Country, where jobs were hard to come by.
“Everyone seemed to have some kind of advanced degree or experience, and there were even two PhDs washing dishes at the Copper Kettle, one of the town’s restaurants,” Gunnufson recalls in his book.
He writes of a heavy-equipment operator who was an Olympic ski racer when he wasn’t running a dozer, and a restaurant owner and TV personality who worked construction to make ends meet. His book includes photographs of a man reconstructing a home in an abandoned miner’s cabin at 11,000 feet, and a female construction worker sleeping in her van through the winter.
Gunnufson’s mission was also to chronicle a pivotal time in the High Country’s history, before the area became gentrified.
“The character of the community changed over the years, mostly due to ski corporations turning into mega corporations,” Gunnufson said.
The mega corporations decided they needed more labor, specifically cheap labor. Seasonal workers, especially students, were willing to work for lower wages than locals who were living in areas like Breckenridge or Aspen.
“The (ski corporations) started recruiting people from all over the world, giving them visas and selling them a ski vacation with a job attached,” Gunnufson said. “In order to compensate them, they created employee housing. But the established people who were up here didn’t want to be crowded into employee housing.”
On top of this, he said high-end development expanded across the ski area.
“(Developers) bought cheap places and tore them down to build luxurious condos,” said Gunnufson.
Locals who had helped the economy run could no longer afford to live in the mountains they called home.
“Before, we had people who lived here all the time. Visitors loved socializing with the workers,” Gunnufson said. “They came back each year to see people who were here, their friends.”
Local workers and visitors formed a kinship, skiing, fishing and partying together. But slowly the familiar faces of those working at the ski lifts, restaurants, bars and shops changed.
“People who were a part of this community, trying to make it year after year … were replaced by highly seasonal workers,” Gunnufson said. He added that he wants readers to know this community of persevering locals once existed.
“I want to give people my perspective of the working man in the High Country,” Gunnufson said. “One of the points of this book is that there was a period where the ski working community was a very special part of this community.”
Gunnufson writes in his introduction that his life closely paralleled his photographic subjects. Like many ski workers, he took a job in construction to make ends meet for his family; sometimes he even travelled out of state to find work in the low season.
Throughout this time, he never stopped taking photos. He hiked in snowy, subzero weather to find the perfect nature shot. He dug a fox hole by a race course to capture speed skiers shooting down the hill.
Gunnufson’s book also includes quotes from famous artists and writers. A quote by Henry David Thoreau reads: “Not how is the idea expressed in stone, or on canvas or paper, is the question, but how far it has obtained form and expression in the life of the artist.” The concept that all photographs are self-portraits creates another layer to Gunnufson’s images.
“Since photos are half of who you are, what I found when I was documenting all these different people was that I was telling my story as well as their story,” Gunnufson said. “So when you read to the end, I’ve taken you on this journey, shown you my process, using the quotes and photos to bring you along, to what is my self-portrait.”
Gunnufson added that viewing his photography is a reflective experience. “You see things from (the photographer’s eyes), but at the same time, you’re putting your thoughts into it, your interpretation,” he said.
Those ready to see the yesteryears of the Rocky Mountains through Gunnufson’s eyes can purchase a copy of his book at the Aug. 26 reading, or by visiting MountainMagazine.com. “Rocky Mountains: A Self-Portrait” captures a unique moment in the area’s history, chronicling not only Gunnufson’s life and photographic philosophy, but the lives of those who called the High Country home when it was still half-wild.
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