A question I get asked often, is how did Marlenee Photography get its start. Well, to be honest, it was a little bit of luck, a ton of hard work, a freak accident, and by always trying to help others. I’ve learned a lot along the way, made some great friends, and had a blast.
I’ve always had an interest in photography and videography. While I was in college at the University of Montana-Missoula, I bought a traditional film camera, a Canon, and took some photography courses and workshops. I had a good buddy that was really into nature photography, mostly as an excuse to get into the backcountry. I spent a lot of time learning how to take pictures and always tried to get better. But, to be honest, without your own dark room, and a ton of technique, traditional film is really difficult to master, or even get half-way decent at. Believe me, I tried. It was nearly a decade until I picked up a camera again.
After I graduated, I found I really didn’t have time to follow this hobby and found myself in need of money, like many graduates, and sold all of my gear. I totally lost interest in photography. As I got much more interested in snowmobiling, I found video very rewarding. I liked to watch my GoPro movies, evaluate my riding, and try to get better. I also really liked to share my rides with family. At the same time, the digital revolution had taken hold of the film/photography world, and decent gear was available, along with great software.
An early riding video, still one of my favorites, ha ha!
As my riding progressed, so did my interest in the sport. I found myself riding every weekend, with anyone that would. And, having a decent job, I was able to afford a better sled and to ride more often. I found myself connecting with various groups of weekend-warriors, and enjoyed getting to ride.
I began realizing that snowmobiling was truly a passion. I remember moving to Colorado, desperate to find riding buddies. At the time, I lived in Bel Mar, a subdivision of Lakewood, and caught word that Chris Burandt would be speaking at the Mile High Snowmobile Club’s annual membership drive. I attended, hoping to be able to meet Burandt, someone I had watched for countless hours, and whom I looked up to.
Shortly thereafter, I again moved, this time to Northern Colorado. As soon as I had signed a lease, I searched out new riding groups. I stopped into Felker Motorsports, and they suggested I join the local club, the Colorado Blizzards. I attended the next meeting, and was truly amazed at the sense of community and the group bond. Although many of the riders were older, and enjoyed a different style of riding, I treasured riding with this group of people, and still do. Immediately, I was drawn to become more involved. I volunteered wherever I could, and this provided me many opportunities to interact with local and regional athletes, and some time with the pros, many of whom also volunteer.
Riding with Matt Entz
However, the progression of my riding had become very stagnant. I made the choice to take a riding clinic with Matt Entz. I chose Matt, somewhat because of the reviews for his clinic, somewhat for his performance in the Boondockers movies, but mostly because Entz was always volunteering for the Colorado Snowmobile Association, and I valued that very much.
At the time, I had a clapped out 2005 M7 with a Boondocker turbo. The sled was a constant nightmare, having thousands of miles. It seemed to leave me stranded, almost every ride. Still, I took my un-trusty steed to Mountain Skillz, and I’m sure, like every other client, told Entz to not go easy on me. I honestly doubt we were more than 200 yards from the truck and I had been stuck more than a dozen times. I was not prepared or skilled to ride at this level. Entz was patient, and helped me a lot. I got the chance to work with Entz (or rather for him to work with me) another two times that year, and spent the remainder of my time practicing, trying so hard to get better.
My first ride with Matt Entz
In the mean time, I was still riding with my varying group of weekend-warriors, and often with groups of buddies, some of whom had made a name for themselves in small-batch movies, guiding, or just riding technique. It was a different world then. Few people could make movies, and the technology of digital was tough to deal with. Cell phones barely had cameras, and Facebook was more or less still a website, not really available as an App.
The next fall, I decided I wanted to become involved in the industry. I thought, to do this, I would need to produce good content and ride with good riders. While rusty, I knew I was decent at taking pictures, and had a basic understanding of photography, but I honestly thought that I would get people to take pictures of me, and I could use that to get a sponsorship; I never figured I’d be taking pictures of others. I went to Best Buy and bought a Nikon D7000 DSLR kit. I didn’t know or understand the work that went into getting and maintaining a sponsorship. I had no idea what I was doing, and was completely shooting from the hip.
However, I also knew that in addition to taking pictures, I was really good at writing. Through all of high school and college, I excelled at writing. And, really, that’s what got me noticed. I wrote as much as I could, and had pictures to go along with it. The first piece that I had published was a review on Matt Entz’s clinic, and was carried on JoyDigger. The article had a good response and was shared often. Shortly following that article, the Snowies got an epic storm, and I was able to ride in September, which I also documented. Joydigger also picked up that article, and as the season progressed, I found them sharing more of my pictures, video, and articles. I really enjoyed writing for Matthew Mallory (the owner of JoyDigger), but found myself craving more exposure and an increasing audience. -Thanks for everything, Mr. Mallory!
The First Shoot and Chaos to Follow
By December, I was pushing as hard as I could. I was selling myself to anyone that would listen, begging for the chance to ride with more athletes. Finally, after months of asking, I was able to barge my way onto a photo shoot with Matt Entz and Jon Miller and Brandon ‘TuDizzle’ Cox. At the time, Miller worked Integer, for the ad agency that represented Polaris. Unbeknownst to me, Miller had played a role in a lot of snowmobile media. I don’t think I was really invited on that shoot, but I showed up and wanted to do my best.
I had sold ole’ unreliable (my un-trusty M7) and picked up a new Arctic Cat M8000. We unloaded at Tucker Ponds in Wolf Creek and headed up the pass. I had picked up enough riding skill to not be left behind (but not much more), and spent the day shooting with Entz, Diz and Miller, each of whom were professional and instructional to me. But still, I was the amateur in a pro world. I tried not to think about it, and just work as hard as I could.
As the afternoon faded, we decided to head home. I had no idea what kind of pictures I had taken, but was happy for it to be over. I was exhausted, but overwhelmingly satisfied. Coming out of the backcountry, I was on autopilot. I had trained hard for this season. I had started in early June, and biked at least 20 miles per day, plus two hours in the gym. I was in the best shape of my life. But, even that wouldn’t save me.
What happened next was a freak accident. To this day, I can’t explain it, nor can anyone else. I was following Entz down a descent. The snow was decent, but the grade was uncomfortable, and to add to it, I didn’t care for the way the Arctic Cat handled (just a personal preference). As I continued downhill, I picked up speed and started to roll my sled to the side. It was not responding, and I continued to pull it over to start a bull-dog maneuver. I stepped one foot off the boards and planted my right leg as a pivot point. I felt myself break through an ice layer and hear a loud snap. I felt my sled start to get away from me, and did everything in my power to muscle it away from the trees while it drug me downhill.
The next thing I can remember, I was in front of my sled and not able to move, not even a little bit. I could hear Entz and Miller, and that was reassuring. I hollered to Entz “I need some help”. I couldn’t see them, but could hear a sled start, and Entz came into view. He pulled off his helmet and looked at me, puzzled. I was in front of my sled, pinned between a small tree and the sled. He was looking at me like “are you going to come up here and help me help you”. I couldn’t talk. I told him “I think I’m hurt”.
I couldn’t feel any pain, really, but panic started setting in. My legs wouldn’t work. I had knee problems, previously, some requiring surgery, and the snap I had heard sounded like a torn ligament. I reasoned that I must have torn another ligament, and after a few tense moments, calmed down, coming to my senses. I attempted to help Entz with my sled, but knew I was just in the way. I admitted defeat and scooted on my butt, down the rest of the hill to the trail.
Again, I tried to stand, but it was difficult. I hobbled to my sled, now on the trail, and tried to get on; Entz and Diz had to help me. We were still miles into the back country, but at least we were on the ‘trail’. The ride out was torture. At every bend, I begged and pleaded to God and the voices in my head that the ride would be over.
After what seemed like hours, I made it to my pickup, Entz and Miller at my side. For me, the accomplishment of reaching my pickup was overwhelming. So much, that all I wanted to do was to drive home. I honestly remember thinking about leaving my sled in the parking lot. Luckily, besides the help from Entz, who was primarily focused on my well-being, there were several other good Samaritans, led by Diz, who loaded my sled and gear. Entz helped me take off my boots and bibs. Once I got back down to my base layer, I remember Entz and some others helping swing my legs into my pickup.
Still, I was convinced that it was just a ligament issue. Having dealt with this problem several times, I knew the routine. If I were to go to the emergency room, they would give me some pain killers, an X-ray or two, and set an appointment with a specialist. So, I told the guys I would just drive home and deal with it. TuDizzle offered to follow me to Colorado Springs, if I went that way. I downed a couple of Advil and headed home.
One thing I’ll always remember, for the rest of my life, is the realization of the struggle of a disability. I needed gas. There was no way I could get out of my pickup, and there was nothing I could do. I sat at the gas station, hoping someone would come help me; I felt so defeated. TuDizzle was also getting gas, but on a different island, and a couple minutes later, he came over, swiped my card, and filled me up. My mind wandered from the pain to the realization of what a pain in the butt it must be to be disabled; how would you even get gas?
On the way home, I had to call my wife and let her know I was hurt. It was a six hour drive mostly devoid of cell phone service, and I doubt I was home before 11 PM, so she had tons of time to be terrified of how bad it was. She met me at the sidewalk, a pair of crutches in hand. On Monday morning, I called the specialist and made an appointment. Friday was the soonest they could see me. I was now in a lot of pain, but mostly from the swelling. My right leg was tight in my Under Armor athletic shorts. It was a Saturday night.
By Wednesday, my wife had enough. She called the specialist and demanded an emergency appointment. They had me come in the first thing the next morning for X-rays, but assured her I wouldn’t see the doctor until Friday. The facility was strictly an imaging facility. They pulled the X-rays and then pulled me into an MRI. I remember being slid out of the MRI machine and could hear the concern of the technician. They left me on the table as they left the room to discuss.
Diagnosis and Surgery
They came back in and told my wife, who was now in a fit, that I would have an emergency appointment and needed to be at the specialist in the next 30 minutes. We had to travel to another facility, and when we arrived they ushered us right in. The doctor soon entered the room and brought my images up on the screen. He told me that he was very concerned about my injury, about internal bleeding and clotting. He told me I would be getting surgery in the morning, gave me a prescription for Percocet, and told me to get some rest. I had shattered my right tibia. The top 2-3 inches were like broken glass, extending an inch or so into my tibial platform. It was surreal and everything seemed to run together.
I was hauled in for surgery the next morning. In preparation, I had marked my leg with a sharpie “DO NOT AMPUTATE”. It was a joke. The surgery center did not find it funny and the nurse handed me a rag and a bottle of rubbing alcohol so I could remove the marker. I later found out that they use marker as part of the surgery and didn’t want the doctor to get confused. I still find it funny.
When I woke up, I was in no pain, completely immobilized from the spinal tap and the remaining Morphine-based drugs in my system. I remember watching ESPN, which is a weird choice for me, and seeing that Kobe Bryant had incurred a similar injury, possibly within days of me. Sports doctors were telling the newscaster that he would be out for six weeks. I had a goal.
Shortly after waking up, I was greeted by the surgeon. He and his team were evaluating me, looking for any signs of post-surgery stress or shock. I guess I passed the test. The surgeon and his team began to explain what I would be facing in the short term, possible long-term affects, and my options. He told me I would need to be completely immobile for 2-3 weeks, no weight-bearing for 8-12 weeks, and would not be off crutches for six months.
“But”, I countered, “Kobe just had the same injury and was only out for six weeks”. The surgeon laughed, and said, “we’ll play it by feel. A lot of it will be how hard you work, but some of it is just how your body works.” He then cautioned me that the extent of my injury could easily lead to never walking again, or even amputation. “Great”, I thought.
As soon as I got home, my mind immediately returned to snowmobiling. In the days following my surgery, and lasting a week or more, Colorado received the best storm of that winter, dumping what looked to be a foot or more, every night, across my favorite riding areas. I was riddled with frustration, watching my Facebook feed, as it continued to stream, in high definition, the story of what I was missing.
To combat the ensuing depression, I went to work. I opened up all of the pictures from my camera, and spent the next two weeks focused on YouTube and every online tutorial I could buy, doing everything I could to learn how to edit pictures. By early January, I had my edits ready to present, and uploaded them to DropBox so I could share the link with Jon Miller and Matt Entz.
Looking back, those pictures were horrible. But, Miller and Entz were only positive and encouraging with me. In the end, even if they had been brutally honest about the quality, I wouldn’t have cared. I was hooked, and knew I had something special; it just needed a little nurturing.
Every moment that I wasn’t trying to develop my photography skills, I spent working on my rehab exercises. The pain was excruciating. But, I had set a goal. I would be back on the snow in six weeks. Whatever it took, however bad it hurt, I was determined.
My accident happened on Saturday, 12/14/2013, and my surgery was on Thursday, 12/19/2014 (if I remember right). On Thursday, January 16, I convinced my wife to let me load my sled and head to Crested Butte. I had been invited by Joe Duncan to photograph his newest event “Roost the Butte”. I can’t remember how I ever got in touch with him, but I couldn’t afford to pass up an opportunity like this.
Getting Back on the Snow
I was accompanied by Brian Lundstedt of Tyler’s Backcountry Awareness, who was a title sponsor for the event. He picked me and my sled up and would serve as my wife’s trusted baby-sitter, ha ha. The four hour drive was pretty miserable, but at least I had good company.
I spent the rest of the weekend, slowly putting around on my sled, taking whatever pictures I could. I had to drag my crutches with me, and navigation in the snow and ice with crutches is a real bummer. But, I got face-to-face access with industry stars like Paul Thacker and Levi LaVallee, both of whom had no clue who I was, but were happy to allow me to interview them. I guess if you’re confident and play the part, people will believe anything!
To make a long story short, I was fully back on the snow on February 8th, and 100% (well, maybe like 90%) healthy and able to ride like I wanted; although, I was still very nervous and lacked the riding confidence due to my injury to make good choices. I spent the rest of the season, riding where I could, but mostly focused on getting better shots.
Developing a Name
The final push, that year, was Spring Fling. I had a ton of opportunities to capture some awesome riders, pulling some huge stunts, and was thankful for the opportunity. As badly as I wanted to get my pictures out, I wanted to make sure that I was helping out these athletes by providing good content.
When I got home from Spring Fling, I started editing my photos. I couldn’t get my mind off the fact that I wanted to do more, and make something of this photography thing. And, I thought, to do that, I needed a Facebook page and a logo. So, I went to 99designs.com and bought myself a $499 logo design package, worked with dozens of designers, and got something I am proud to display. I built my Facebook page, and launched it with photos from Spring Fling 2014. Everyone in attendance was happy to share my photos, and I built a small following.
Putting it All Together
So, how does it all come together, and what has made me successful? Well, for starters, NONE of it would have been possible if I hadn’t worked so hard to get involved in the sport. My accident, while unlucky at the time, provided me with recognition to a lot of industry people, from Entz, Diz, and Miller who helped me out, to Thacker and LaVallee, who still comment to me about being interviewed by someone riding a sled on crutches. I consider it good luck, looking back. But, most importantly, it is because I always try to look at everything I do with the viewpoint of “how can I help someone else”.
I have volunteered THOUSANDS of hours, over the past five years to snowmobiling. My involvement with CSA has presented me with face-time with leading professionals, both in terms of athletes and critical people across the spectrum of the industry from advertising agencies to OEM’s to top-tier administration of organized snowmobiling. It is a TON of work, and very frustrating at times, but, I can only hope that I’ve done my part to help the industry out. To this day, I’ve donated every penny I’ve made, back to the Right To Ride fund, to support the preservation of public access to public lands.
Luck. Let’s face it, a little luck never hurt anyone. And, a lot of people just don’t see the opportunity, or realize their luck. I am an incredibly lucky person. I have the perfect wife, the perfect family, a great job, and have generally done pretty well for myself. However, I’m cognisant enough to know that hard work and a good personality begets luck. I believe that I’ve worked very hard to develop my skills, product and relationships that have put me in the situations to ‘have’ good luck. But, a little luck never hurt anyone.
The last trait, helping people, is the hardest to maintain. What I’m doing only continues to grow, and for that I am thankful. But, it comes at a price. I provide free content, and continually strive to help everyone in the sport. However, it’s expensive. Each year, I spend thousands of dollars on camera equipment, more on sleds and accessories, and even more on travel. I don’t charge for what I do. Even the corporations that use my pictures don’t pay me. For each image that is used, I ask for a donation of cash, in-kind trade, or volunteer hours directed to the Colorado Snowmobile Association. I love that I’m able to do that (mostly because I have a good job), but each year, it gets really hard to swallow the advice from my financial planner. And, because of that, I often find my brain asking “How is this good for me”. That attitude is wrong, and I always try to correct it. Every time I focus on helping others, not myself, it always pays off. But still, this one is my biggest battle.
Forever, I want this to be fun. I hope I’m able to continue the success, and hope I’m able to help a ton of people enjoy the sport that is my passion. I hope I’m able to save even one acre of riding area. I hope I’m able to spend days riding with my sons and wife. I hope I never take it for granted. And, even if one day, this becomes a job for me, I hope I’m able to enjoy it like I do today and be filled with excitement before each ride, not able to sleep with anticipation.
So, for all of you listed here and the dozens of you that aren’t, I thank you, truly. I have been surrounded by so many good people, that have been so supportive. It’s been amazing. And, for those of you that are new to the industry, or are looking to get into it, keep pushing, the next class of athletes, photographers, filmmakers, and industry talent is out there.