The Story Behind the Viral Shot of Snowy Mountains and the Hollywood Sign

Photographer Pete Halvorsen talks about capturing the “grail” image, and the overwhelming response

April 18, 2023 7:06 am
Hollywood sign as seen from LAX with snow covered mountains in background © Pete Halvorsen
The viral photo in question is below, but we'll tip our hats to this one too.
© Pete Halvorsen

An iconic Los Angeles landmark, the Hollywood sign has been photographed countless times since the original iteration was erected 100 years ago this year, from a cameo appearance in Superman to approximately 300 billion Instagram snaps. However familiar an image, though, it still has the ability to capture our attention — when photographed by the right person, at the exceptionally right time. 

For evidence, see photographer Pete Halvorsen, a well-known fine art, travel and commercial photographer in Manhattan Beach. Halvorsen used great positioning and the lens compression technique to depict the ocean, the sign and a massive swath of snowy mountains behind it. The shot was magnificent — a “grail,” as Halvorsen calls it. Given the historically snowy winter and recent influx of rain and snow pack, Halvorsen saw the chance to capture the realities of this cold and stormy winter in a single shot. 

“It definitely captured a moment,” Halvorsen tells InsideHook. “What I’ve always found with Instagram is that the ability to share a unique moment with a lot of people really feels a lot different than if you were to pull up a Google photo. You could Google ‘snow on a Los Angeles mountain,’ and it would look amazing. But the feeling of ‘Hey, this is Pete, this is a real person in Los Angeles who just took this photo of something that’s happening right now and shared it’ — there’s a different feel to it.”

Reposted by the L.A. Tourism Board’s @DiscoverLA account, the shot racked up over 26,000 likes at the time of writing, and an exceptional number of saves, reshares and reposts on Stories (I saw it at least 40 times in my own feed that day). Halvorsen’s own post hit over 5,500 likes, and he counted over two million impressions on the backend between both posts. The shop where he offers prints of his work was so inundated with orders for the image that he had to pause sales. 

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“I had to turn my store off for a little bit, just to honor the people who had already put orders in, and fulfill those,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve done over 200 prints on it, which is pretty wild for me. I normally do very curated, one-off fine-art stuff for interior designers. I’m not a volume seller of fine-art prints; I usually take my time with them. But this just ended up being one where I’ve created more of a volume opportunity. Company offices in L.A. have wanted to put the shot in their office, because it’s not only a beautiful photo — it’s a talking piece around what it was like to see the mountains like that in 2023.”

Getting the shot wasn’t too difficult for Halvorsen, who’s spent years scoping out great locations to shoot Los Angeles. (Far from hiding his shooting spot, Halvorsen tagged his post with it: the Shipwreck Hiking Trail in Ranchos Palos Verdes.) With the knowledge that there was a clock on how long the snow would remain on the mountains, he set out to capture all three elements in one shot.

“I just wanted to get the ocean with the Hollywood sign, with the snow,” he said. “That was my grail, to put those together. Those spots aren’t necessarily secret spots to take photos from, but I was definitely not shy about shooting a whole lot during those three days, because it felt special.”

A native Californian, Halvorsen has been shooting the state for the bulk of his life. Originally moving to L.A. like so many others to pursue acting, he got into photography as a stay-at-home dad looking for a hobby — it was something to do on walks. He now shoots around the world at the behest of his clients, and he’s working on his first book project, Pier Pressure, a visual love letter of sorts to the Manhattan Beach Pier.

Despite his success away from home, he’s happy to stay rooted in California.

“There’s something that’s so special about how our light is here,” he says. “That golden light in the Golden State, without getting too poetic…it is something special. I’ve been around the world, to many different places with great sunsets, great sunrises, beautiful light at different times a day, but there’s nowhere for me that has ever matched our light, especially along the coast. There’s something magical about that last hour of the day — the way that this light descends to the west.”

Follow Halvorsen on Instagram here, and learn more and purchase prints at his website.

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