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Braving the global lockdowns of 2021, we drove to San Martino di Castrozza in the Italian Dolomites. The town was deserted, besides a few locals and cops keen to catch us. A one-in-a-hundred-year snowstorm greeted us with open arms — and we had only ourselves to count on if something went wrong. I’ve rarely felt so far from civilization and so happy. Undeniably a highlight of our life together.

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Braving the global lockdowns of 2021, we drove to San Martino di Castrozza in the Italian Dolomites. The town was deserted, besides a few locals and cops keen to catch us. A one-in-a-hundred-year snowstorm greeted us with open arms — and we had only ourselves to count on if something went wrong. I’ve rarely felt so far from civilization and so happy. Undeniably a highlight of our life together.

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FRAMED
8 min

Layla and Her Muse

Keep on Living the Ski Bum Life
Photos by
Layla Kerley
Words by
Aurelie Morrison-Gonin
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Pascal Tournaire photographed Layla and Bruno during the recce of the first La Sentinelle in 2017 — a ski touring event with no ranking and a day itinerary of at least 2500 vertical metres. That year, it was held in Gavarnie in the French part of the Pyrenees.

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Pascal Tournaire photographed Layla and Bruno during the recce of the first La Sentinelle in 2017 — a ski touring event with no ranking and a day itinerary of at least 2500 vertical metres. That year, it was held in Gavarnie in the French part of the Pyrenees.

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The relationship between a photographer and an athlete can be very similar to that of an artist and his muse. It’s a combination of admiration and trust, a complicity in which both grow, one becoming more creative and the other more magnificent. Some of these associations have become famous in the history of fine art, but almost always in the position of a woman inspiring a male artist.

Today’s freeskiing world has a modern version of those stories, this time with the roles reversed. It’s the story of photographer Layla Kerley and skier Bruno Compagnet.

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Bruno Compagnet is framed by the blue bones of a mighty glacier in the Chamonix Valley. We shot this one the day before leaving for the ISPO fair in Münich. It was a welcome breath of fresh air before the neon light social marathon began.

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Bruno Compagnet is framed by the blue bones of a mighty glacier in the Chamonix Valley. We shot this one the day before leaving for the ISPO fair in Münich. It was a welcome breath of fresh air before the neon light social marathon began.

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There’s been three decisive moments so far in Layla’s life. The first came when she was five. Her parents, who were old-school ski bums, decided to move from England to Chamonix, where she eventually grew up. This was back in the 90s; skiing was getting cool again with the rise of freeride, pushed by the impetus of snowboarding and driven by a few iconic figures. Layla grew up in this atmosphere, learning to ski on the slopes of Flégère and looking at the steeper lines through her classroom windows.

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Bruno ski touring above Le Flégère on November 8, 2023. It was our first day back on skis and an unseasonably early start of the winter in Chamonix.

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Bruno ski touring above Le Flégère on November 8, 2023. It was our first day back on skis and an unseasonably early start of the winter in Chamonix.

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Over time, photographing everything but the action interests me almost even more. Like here, when I focused on Bruno’s frozen beard during a cold day.

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Over time, photographing everything but the action interests me almost even more. Like here, when I focused on Bruno’s frozen beard during a cold day.

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Our work doesn’t always find us in exotic locations. Pascal Tournaire captured us getting some “quality time” at the van during the first day of the inaugural La Sentinelle in 2017.

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Our work doesn’t always find us in exotic locations. Pascal Tournaire captured us getting some “quality time” at the van during the first day of the inaugural La Sentinelle in 2017.

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In the Apennines, just a few hours north of Rome, you can ski with the shimmering mirror of the Mediterranean as a backdrop. The surrounding towns are the culinary centre of Italy’s “boot,” and our friends at ATK Bindings near Modena were great hosts.

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In the Apennines, just a few hours north of Rome, you can ski with the shimmering mirror of the Mediterranean as a backdrop. The surrounding towns are the culinary centre of Italy’s “boot,” and our friends at ATK Bindings near Modena were great hosts.

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The second decisive moment happened in an instant, at the age of sixteen. While having fun at the Grands Montets wrap-up party, she encountered a man on a staircase. Their eyes met, and she thought, “This is the guy I’ll share my life with one day”. The man was Bruno Compagnet, the Pyrenean skier emblematic of the French freeskiing scene. He was competing at Xtreme Verbier, at the peak of his sport, and was sought after by photographers and filmers who loved his style … and dreadlocks. With his friends Camille Jaccoux and Christophe Villemin, he had just founded a little ski brand called Black Crows.

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The hundred-year storm to hit Austria in January 2019 was my first to photograph but my second to witness. I experienced my first storm of this magnitude in 1999. I was too young to shoot then, but I remember jumping off the balcony into my garden and, later, the oppressive, towering walls of snow as we escaped the Chamonix Valley.

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The hundred-year storm to hit Austria in January 2019 was my first to photograph but my second to witness. I experienced my first storm of this magnitude in 1999. I was too young to shoot then, but I remember jumping off the balcony into my garden and, later, the oppressive, towering walls of snow as we escaped the Chamonix Valley.

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An ephemeral figure stands on the Arrêt de l’Aiguille du Midi, high above the Chamonix Valley. Only one cable car went up that day before they closed the lift due to avalanche danger.

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An ephemeral figure stands on the Arrêt de l’Aiguille du Midi, high above the Chamonix Valley. Only one cable car went up that day before they closed the lift due to avalanche danger.

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22.02.2022 — this date is engraved in my memory as the best day of the season in Chamonix. We did a photoshoot for Black Crows with Bruno and Camille Jaccoux at the Les Grands Montets. I love how the shade of their blue outfits blends with the glacial ice, the sky, and the cold light.

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22.02.2022 — this date is engraved in my memory as the best day of the season in Chamonix. We did a photoshoot for Black Crows with Bruno and Camille Jaccoux at the Les Grands Montets. I love how the shade of their blue outfits blends with the glacial ice, the sky, and the cold light.

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They waited a few years before starting to flirt, time enough for Layla to study contemporary art in Scotland and London, and to decide on the direction she’d give to her life. Layla remembers: “I was fascinated by the ski bum culture of the 1980s through slides I found in my best friend’s attic — her dad was the iconic photographer and filmmaker Gary Bigham,” recalls Layla. “The pics portrayed joyful people skiing naked and partying. I decided to return to Chamonix and live that lifestyle.”

Thus began years of madness, during which Layla worked in a bar until 2 a.m., partied until 5 a.m., then got up at 7 a.m. to go skiing with Bruno. He introduced her to big mountain skiing, taking her to glaciers to ski the runs she had dreamt of as a child. These shared moments were so intense that she started taking photos with her smartphone to capture them.

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A behind-the-scenes shot, photographed by Adrien Rui while filming for a TV series called “Capturing Winter” by Insight TV. They followed us while we did a ski photo shoot in the mountains above Chamonix.

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A behind-the-scenes shot, photographed by Adrien Rui while filming for a TV series called “Capturing Winter” by Insight TV. They followed us while we did a ski photo shoot in the mountains above Chamonix.

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All this until the third critical moment, around 2015, when Bruno took Layla to ski the Nord-Est des Courtes, one of the steep lines of the Argentière basin, a popular area for avid Chamonix skiers. Going straight from the bar to first climb then descend this gnarly venue proved to be a nerve-wracking experience that convinced her she had to change.

She quit her job and decided to become a photographer, as her passion for the profession was growing, and she was starting to receive compliments for her images. “I’m someone who needs support, and everyone has believed in me and pushed me from the start.” Bruno took her to ISPO in Münich, Germany — the world’s largest sporting goods trade fair — to introduce her to his partners at Black Crows and other key industry players. There, she signed several contracts, and Black Crows gave her a better camera to improve her shots’ quality and professional credibility.

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The Pas de Chèvre on the last day of 2019. Once a classic Chamonix line, the ice in the Mer de Glace has receded so much in recent years that the exit is a lethal moraine couloir with significant overhead hazards. Nowadays, most people who ski the route opt to fly out or hike back up.

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The Pas de Chèvre on the last day of 2019. Once a classic Chamonix line, the ice in the Mer de Glace has receded so much in recent years that the exit is a lethal moraine couloir with significant overhead hazards. Nowadays, most people who ski the route opt to fly out or hike back up.

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Laden with snow, the trees in Sonnenkopf in the Arlberg region turned into a forest of monsters during our visit in January 2019. Bruno Compagnet fitted right in.

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Laden with snow, the trees in Sonnenkopf in the Arlberg region turned into a forest of monsters during our visit in January 2019. Bruno Compagnet fitted right in.

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After watching Bruno enjoy an exciting life of travel and adventure, she had found a way to be fully part of it: “‘If you can’t beat them, join them!’” was my motivation for earning my place in the ski industry,” she laughs.

Since then, Layla and Bruno have travelled the world with their skis and her camera, multiplying their ascents and photos. Over time, their collaboration grew in life and on shoots: “We hardly need to talk anymore,” she explains. “We have an exceptional harmony and a total understanding of each other.”

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It was unimaginable to get a shot with no one else on the front face of Les Grands Montets. We were graced with the unusual opportunity because of the liminal period between the destruction of the cable car by fire in 2018 and its rebuild slated for 2024.

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It was unimaginable to get a shot with no one else on the front face of Les Grands Montets. We were graced with the unusual opportunity because of the liminal period between the destruction of the cable car by fire in 2018 and its rebuild slated for 2024.

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They have become one entity: Layla and Bruno. She explains,” This image of a ski bum traveling couple is not fabricated — it’s real — that’s how we live.” Among the destinations that left their mark are a trip to the Balkans, punctuated by memorable encounters, a winter in the deserted Dolomites while COVID confined Europe and multiple trips to the Lyngen Alps in northern Norway.

By giving Bruno the chance to be featured in many more photos, she has helped prolong his career. At 55, he remains a skiing icon in a sport that increasingly favours the young and continues to live his passion as he always has. It’s a relationship in which everyone benefits.

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Our saturation date with winter is always May 1. We’re just done. Missing the freedom of the saddle (bike for Bruno and horse for me), we turn our heels away from the peaks.

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Our saturation date with winter is always May 1. We’re just done. Missing the freedom of the saddle (bike for Bruno and horse for me), we turn our heels away from the peaks.

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We enjoy the easy living of the warmer months, slipping into a simpler way of life, sleeping in the car, feasting on pasta with Chianti wine, and exploring.

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We enjoy the easy living of the warmer months, slipping into a simpler way of life, sleeping in the car, feasting on pasta with Chianti wine, and exploring.

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Several times, we have visited the Strade Bianche at Eroica — a legendary vintage bike gathering — in Tuscany, Italy. It has a relaxed vibe and is so different from our winter scene.

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Several times, we have visited the Strade Bianche at Eroica — a legendary vintage bike gathering — in Tuscany, Italy. It has a relaxed vibe and is so different from our winter scene.

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Photography provided Layla with a way of expressing herself, and a medium that touches people more quickly than contemporary art. ”Photography is easier to understand than an installation; it’s less elitist,” she says. Layla’s talents are increasingly recognized. She has created her own style, which has opened new doors for her and won her peers’ respect. She continues to create images for the companies that first supported her but has also expanded her client base and subject matter — sometimes straying from the snowy peaks and her muse.

In particular, the 31-year-old Layla is keenly interested in the history of mountaineering and ski culture. She likes to portray characters who have lived their lives to the fullest and are now simply quiet and inconspicuous elders in the Chamonix Valley. She also likes to profile ski bums she’s met on her trips who have decided to make a home in isolated and exotic places to fully enjoy their passion. In this way, Layla is helping to document the unique culture and characters of freeskiing that first inspired her — and is preserving it all for perpetuity.

Aurelie Morrison-Gonin is a journalist, photographer and filmmaker. She doesn’t mind getting out of her comfort zone to follow the athletes, share their adventures, take close shots of their actions and capture their emotions. Based in Chamonix, France, and Crested Butte, Colorado, Aurelie is working globally, preferably where there are some mountains.
Layla and Her Muse
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