For Cooper Dodds, the Midwest really is flyover country.
Dodds, a ski jumper from New Hampshire, competed internationally, jumping at venues built for the Olympics, places like Lake Placid, N.Y., and Park City, Utah.
But it was when he flew off hills in the country’s heartland — where the sport was first brought to America by Scandinavian immigrants — that he became captivated by the unique ski jumping culture of the Midwest.
Dodds continued jumping in the Midwest when he went to school to get a fine arts degree at Carleton College in Northfield. After graduation, he moved to New York City to work as a professional photographer. But for years, every winter, he drove from Brooklyn to the Midwest with his skis and camera.
The result is a recently published book of photographs called “Jumper: Flying in the Heartland”(Daylight, $45), which documents the venues in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois that make up the region’s prestigious Five Hills Tournament, including the Minneapolis Ski Jumping Club’s Bush Lake jump in Bloomington. The book includes an essay by Peter Geye, an award-winning novelist in Minneapolis, who was a ski jumper himself.
“I spent 12 years jumping, 12 winters that formed in me the closest thing to a devout faith I’ll ever know,” Geye wrote. “The memories are permanent. They unfurl over and over again, and I visit them as a way of finding peace and quiet in the tumult of daily life.”
Dodds, 29, said that something similar happened to him after jumping in the Midwest.
Q: Is the culture of ski jumping in the Midwest different from other places?
A: Absolutely. It wasn’t until jumping in the Midwest that I experienced these huge crowds. I think Midwesterners pride themselves on supporting outdoor events, especially in the winter, like winter is meant to be experienced outside. So a ski jumping event is great for that. You build some huge bonfires, and you drink some beers, and you watch some kids fly really far down this hill.
Q: So ski jumping is a big deal in these smaller towns?
A: Westby, Wis., is the biggest hill and it’s the last stop of the [Five Hills Tournament] tour. They’re a town of about 2,000 people and that weekend when I jumped there, I think there were about 2,000 people who traveled from all over. And these events in the Midwest are largely volunteer-based and they typically only open the hill for that one weekend. It’s an excuse to get together. It’s an excuse to see people, and for a jumper it makes for a really fun environment.
Q: You used a large-format camera for the book. What did that involve?
A: You have to shoot it on a tripod. You can only shoot individual sheets of film, which are loaded into film holders. One sheet of film is 4 inches by 5 inches. I was using this sort of antiquated method and a very slow process of photography to document a really fast-moving sport.
I liked some of the creative limitations that gave me and it forced me to focus less on the action of the sport and more on documenting the hills that I had fallen in love with and the athletes and the places and the culture of the Midwest tour.
Q: Many of the photos in the book aren’t of athletes flying in the air. There are pictures of bars and beauty queens and farm fields.
A: That’s some of the reason I fell in love with the Midwest tour. It’s a place where you don’t expect a culture of ski jumping to thrive. I learned after the fact this is actually ground zero for American ski jumping because Norwegian immigrants brought the sport over and there weren’t any big hills around because you’re in the flat Midwest. And so they would sort of find the largest hills around and that would become your landing area. And they would erect these huge steel scaffolds that would just tower above the flat Midwest landscape and you’d launch from that. That was part of the culture I wanted to document.
Q: Do you still jump?
A: Occasionally. Yeah. A couple times a year. It’s one of those sports, I feel like your passion, your connection with the sport only grows with age. There’s something about that pursuit of flight that kind of sticks in you in a way that you really can’t forget. So I think some people do keep searching for that. They keep trying to jump. I’m not jumping at nearly the level that I was before. But when you have one of those beautiful, effortless flights, it brings you back. It’s still an unbelievable feeling.