The Chamonix valley is one of the most visually spectacular places and home to Western Europe's highest mountain - Mont Blanc. The mountains here are legendary and so it comes as no surprise that thousands make the journey here each year to ski, climb, hike and bike up high. Whilst a trip to Chamonix is high up on the bucket list of outdoor adventurers all over the globe, it is also right up there for anyone who is inspired by mountains and this includes artists, writers and photographers.
As we draw breath between the incessant dumps of powder snow that have become the norm this month, we decided to catch up with Teresa Kaufman - a professional photographer who runs guided walks in Chamonix and the surrounding villages. Teresa's photgraphy walks offering a unique insight into the traditions and culture of this infamous valley making her a true Chamonix Local Expert.
Where are you originally from and how long have you been in Chamonix?
I'm originally from the US - the New York City area. I went to school at the formidable University of Syracuse, Newhouse School of Journalism in Upstate New York. I stumbled upon Chamonix around 1974 and knew IMMEDIATELY that this would be the place for me. I organised everything in my life so that I could be here - and here I am.
Where did your passion for photography come from and what prompted you to make it your career?
Photography has been my means of expression since I was an adolescent using my father's old cameras (still using them, by the way!). As I think of it, I'm wondering if perhaps it was a way to bond with my Dad at the time. The success of my photos, especially my cat photos, came without effort almost immediately. If it hadn't been for my passion for skiing and mountain climbing, I probably could have been a professional photographer from the beginning. But in actual fact, I didn't actually start the business until I had hung up my skis and climbing harness two years ago.
You have travelled around much of France - why did you decide to base yourself specifically in Chamonix?
I've been travelling in France since I was 5 years old and as my family were in the military I travelled throughout Europe during my formative years. By the time I was 6 or 7 years old, I truly knew that France was where I would strive to live. It was simply so obvious for me even at such a young age. I thus had a great advantage in learning the language at a young age - 'sans accent' I must add. My strategy back then was to speak French like the French and blend into the fabric of the society. I was paving the way to my future which has become my present life.
What are your personal favourite walks in the valley?
I like all the walks I do - they are all different. Each walk has its 'raison d'être' according to the hour of the day, the climate, the encounters... I plan them accordingly so that we are in the right place at the right time. But do you know what really makes the walk ? It's the other people you meet on the walk. People who come on my walks make friends, share techniques and photos, addresses... a cup of coffee, a beer... and frequently come back together to do other walks.
Which photographers - living or dead - do you most admire?
I'm an old-fashioned girl and I developed my photographic eye by admiring the photographs of the French School of Humanist Photography... Even today I still prefer the sobriety of these elegant black and white images to the kaleidoscope of colours and contrasts of some of the present-day tendencies. I have no one photographer that I favour and I actually really like Vincent Van Gogh who's paintings allowed me to imagine different yet accurate perspectives.
A hugely impressive place visually - what is your favourite time of year to be in Chamonix?
Normally - believe it or not - it would be in November and December for the quality of light that can sometimes grace the valley at this time. This indescribable late afternoon light, with it's orange and melon hues and sometimes slate blue-grey skies lasts around the winter solstice but disappears around the middle of February only to return in November. There's only about a 15-minute lapse once a day when that miracle happens. I usually organise myself to have no appointments during that time in order not to miss anything. And I try to do a few photo walks during that special moment. It can be an extremely moving experience... as if an angel passed. Even my clients who are not photography-buffs are stunned by the magic of the solstice light.
Give us an example of a typical day out that a client would experience with you?
For the moment, besides the full-day photo courses, the walks are 'half-day' excursions. My walks are designed to take people into the Chamoniard way of life in the different villages of the valley but also into the different and yet discreetly secretive neighbourhoods of the town itself. The key to all my walks is the magic of encounters with the locals. Some are organised, such as a visit to meet a chef in his kitchen, a gardener in his garden or an artist in his studio. But other encounters are simply spontaneous; friendly and extremely gratifying for both sides. It's an opportunity for the visitor to come into contact with the locals and for the locals to recognize the visitor as someone who is truly interested in him as a person. The visitor becomes a person, worthy of a 'hello' , a smile. Language is no longer a barrier.
You must get some very interesting clients - tell us a little bit about some of the most memorable ones..
My clients, I've discovered, are the 'creme de la creme' of travellers. They come from all over the world, have been everywhere and done practically everything already... and are looking for something a little exceptional which will allow them to have a more personal experience. Travelling has become a bit of a consumer ordeal: like a check-list of places to go. But some people yearn for more than just the 'been there, done that' aspect. My clients seem to have more curiosity for the culture and the people in the places they visit. Curiousity is the key word. It's actually quite rare to find people with curiosity, willing to take a risk on an activity and a concept that hasn't yet become 'a must '. The British are the best travellers in the world - mark my words. I think it's due to living on an island. I'd like to have more French people on my walks but I haven't yet figured out how to attract them. Food, maybe?!
Chamonix is very much the home to all things extreme and sport - is it a challenge to find clientele who are a looking for a ‘softer’ experience?
Yes, you're right. It's really that people have become 'formatted' or 'programmed' by the media. Even the non-sports crowd don't know how to get off the beaten track unless the media has told them how to do so. Chamonix is where everything happens in the mountains and that energy can be contagious. But the non-sports person remains isolated from this electric atmosphere since there are so few possibilities available for him or her. Nonetheless, we say here in Chamonix: To each his own Grands Jorasses, to each his own Everest. If I can hang in there with a little communication know-how, keep those people interested, curious and active, they will find me and my activity. Their pleasure and experience will match that of a freerider - only in a different way.
With phones incorporating cameras with millions of pixels, digital photography and simple editing apps and packages, how difficult is it to maintain a career as a professional photographer?
Good question! As a career, photography doesn't exist any longer. Everyone is a photographer. It's not enough nowadays to take nice photographs since everyone does, everywhere, and all the time. I encourage my clients to bring ad use their telephones to take photographs and actually do this myself. What I can do is give confidence to the amateur photographer - and material for the professional - by putting them in an environment which is inviting and inspiring for photography. Being there at the right time with the right light... it sounds simple but it's all a matter of logistics. Is that a career? Or is it a vocation? It's like being a guide - follow me and I'll show you the way.
A huge thanks to Teresa for taking the time to answer our questions with such honesty and insight - click here for details of walks that Teresa is running over the next couple of months.
For more profiles on Chamonix's key players, be sure to check in regularly with our Leading Locals section.