Photography by Dan Milner
In the world of adventure photography, you’d be hard-pushed to find a snapper with stronger credentials than Dan Milner. A lifelong lover of mountain bikes, Dan has shot and written for a whole host of publications, including national newspapers, Outside and Bike magazine in the US, MBUK and of course, Mpora.
He’s equally well-respected in the world of snowboarding, having worked with many of the biggest pros (Travis Rice, Jeremy Jones) and all of the biggest mags in the business - including our sister sites Onboard and Whitelines - over the course of a decade or so shooting winter sports. Based in Chamonix, Dan’s chosen subject matter means he spends most of his time in the mountains. Yet as he explains here, his upbringing couldn’t have been more different…
"Snowboarding took me a lot of places, at least geographically — from Alaska and Greenland, to Russia and Svalbard"
I grew up in one of the flattest areas of the U.K. - Milton Keynes. But I’ve moved around quite a bit during my half century on the planet. I was born in Luton, did a Marine Biology degree in Swansea, worked in the bike industry in Bristol and lived for some years in the Alps. Trying somewhere else never seemed like an obstacle. I guess I’ve always had a bit of wanderlust.
My first ‘proper’ camera was an Olympus OM-1 with a 28-70 lens, a really portable SLR, that I used to shoot political demos in the 1980s. I took it with me on a seven month trip through Latin America in 1989, which gave me a taste of what it might be like to be a travel photographer. But I really had no aspirations then to become professional.
"The potential for a photo to tell a story should never be underestimated."
In ‘97 - ‘98 I shared a house with two British pro snowboarders, James Stentiford and Jonny Barr, in Chamonix. I’d shot a couple of my own travel stories for magazines like Mountain Biking UK, and done a year-long bike trip through Chile and Argentina in 1996, but it wasn’t until that winter that I decided to ‘launch myself’ as a professional photographer. Sharing a house with them gave me opportunities to shoot, to work on my photo technique and get my work into all the snow mags. I owe them a lot.
Snowboarding took me a lot of places, at least geographically — from Alaska and Greenland, to Russia and Svalbard. The pinnacle was probably shooting Jeremy Jones’ Deeper and Further expeditions from 2009 to 2012. But I lacked the commercial suss to earn a decent wage out of editorials and the couch-surfing lifestyle eventually got old.
Mountain biking was my escape from work and I wanted to keep it that way. But I went back to shooting it in 2004 after winning Bike magazine’s ‘Photo of the Year’ (with a selfie shot on B&W film using a Contax G2 camera). As I started to wind down the snowboarding, it took over.
"I’d loved to have shot is Jesse Owens winning at the ’36 Berlin Olympics in front of Hitler."
‘Adventure’ is an overused and generic catch-all term, but I guess it best sums up my work. That element has always been important to me, right from that first independent backpacker trip in ’89. I’ve found a niche combining mountain biking with some quite ‘out there’ locations. Although these days I try to look for a human or social backstory to the adventure - something more significant than just ‘riding bikes across location X ’. I think that’s just me getting older. I’ve realised there are more poignant stories I can tell with my photos.
I’m always amazed at the power a photographer has to influence the story merely by how they choose to shoot it — from composition and framing to exposure and mood. I often frame outdoor and adventurous endeavours within a bigger landscape context which helps remind me (and the viewers I hope) that the world is mightier than we’ll ever be.
One event I’d loved to have shot is Jesse Owens winning at the ’36 Berlin Olympics in front of Hitler. That would have been an amazing moment to capture. Now that our lives are deluged by endless photos, the photograph has become an almost a transient, throw-away item. But the potential for a photo to tell a story should never be underestimated.
Jeremy Jones’ first Deeper movie trip to Alaska represented a new chapter for me as a photographer and for snowboarding in general.
Snow camping 60 miles from the nearest civilisation presented a steep, and at times scary learning curve but ticked the ‘adventure’ boxes that I needed ticking to keep me motivated in what I was then starting to see as a fickle industry. I went on to shoot four more years of Deeper and Further expeditions and Chris Edmunds became a good friend along the way.
I love having had to go through the pre-digital, 35mm film learning process. I think it helped teach me about decisions you should make when you press the shutter, rather than on a computer afterwards. This is one of those shots, taken during my travels in 1989 when I went looking for political unrest as part of my own political education.
Here students were hurling back the tear gas cannisters fired by police from the other end of the street. This shot makes me feel like I’ve turned full circle in my own photography, looking again for more poignant stories to go and shoot, rather than just adventure for adventure’s sake.
The bicycle is the best tool for breaking down social barriers I’ve ever found. I’ve never tired of mountain biking in my 30 plus years of doing the sport, but shooting mountain bike stories, like this nine-day traverse of Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains, is as much an excuse to travel and see new places and meet people as it is a chance to ride.
On such trips you never know what photo opportunities are going to come up or what story you want to tell from them until you see them.
A few years ago I started tagging some of my films with the closing line “if you don’t go, you’ll never know." It might seem glib, but I think if more people had first hand experiences, we might understand other civilisations better instead of seeing them as potential enemies.
Many people thought we were crazy to go and ride bikes in Afghanistan, but we found nothing but warmth from locals, even in the midst of this blizzard that hindered our crossing of the nearby 4800 m pass.
The art of selling a story doesn’t necessarily demand exotic locations, but originality. That was the case with this three-day adventure that had a mountaineering tin bivouac as its focus.
While I’d likely still be out looking for adventure (or escaping the mundane) even if I wasn’t a pro-photographer, the stories I shoot mean finding ourselves in amazing places at times when you’d otherwise be home or off the mountain if you weren’t waiting to get ‘the shot’. The challenges to get there aren’t always easy or pleasant, but the rewards to our psyche are worth it.
You can read the rest of Mpora's Space Issue here.