chops and blaze sit down for conversation.
My first ever published skate photo was a Scott Johnston Pure Wheels ad.
The one in Big Brother where they screwed up and put the Simon Evans Experience shit on it by mistake?
Wow, that’s insane that you knew that! Yeah, that’s the one! That was the first published thing I ever got paid for.
(laughs) Not really. I was more stoked it was actually used and I made money shooting photos of my friend.
My first editorial photo was of Joey Bast doing a nollie front noseslide at Black Rock for Transworld, which I thought was insane at the time.
Yeah, I moved to Michigan from Ohio when I was 12, which was around the time I first started picking up a camera… but for whatever reason, I always tried to keep my interests in skating and photography separate. I didn’t usually shoot skating back then. I was always out taking photos of the dumb shit I saw in photo magazines that I was trying to copy. Shooting trees like I was Ansel Adams or whatever.
But once I’d gotten to know all of the dudes in the Michigan scene through skating, I did start taking my camera out every now and then to shoot. Sean Sheffey was around, in his transition from Santa Monica Airlines to Life phase and Kalis was already sponsored at the time, too. They all needed photos and I had a camera so I figured I’d give it a shot but it really wasn’t this big thing for me.
The same thing basically happened all over again a few years later when I moved to San Francisco. I got to know everyone in the city through skating way before I started taking photos. Nobody knew I even took photos except for my close friends. It just so happened that one day while I was working at the Gap, Scott Johnston came in wanting to shoot an ad because his photographer flaked on him.
That’s really how all of this came about. That’s when the lightbulb came on. As much as I didn’t want to mix skating and photography, it’s a lot better than folding shirts for the Gap at 5 in the morning.
You were never even thought about becoming a skate photographer for all those years? Even after shooting with Sheffey and Kalis back in Michigan?
No, never. But it wasn’t like I didn’t take my photography seriously, I was super into it. I just never thought that there was a career as a skate photographer. I’m not sure why that was, it seems so obvious now. I think it had more to do with being such a skate rat at the time, I couldn’t imagine taking so much time away from skating just to take photos of it.
It’s funny because I regret all those years that I wasn’t out there taking photos. I remember skating the DMV curbs with Jim and Tommy after I had moved to SF. Natas would come through, too. It was insane. I’m shooting myself in the foot for not ever thinking to capture those moments. Skating down at Embarcadero with the dudes rather than documenting things with my camera like I should’ve been. You take that stuff for granted when you’re young. I was just more into being a part of the moment and skating back then.
San Francisco was the epicenter of skating back then. It just so happened that a friend of mine was moving out there at the time and I just went with him. I’d never even been there before but I moved out anyway and got that job at the Gap, which still allowed me to skate everyday. It wasn’t like I was trying to go pro, either. I just wanted to be a part of everything and not be in Michigan. I think the windchill was -35 degrees when I left that February. A few days later, I’m in a place where I can skate everyday and possibly even see dudes like Mike Carroll and Jovontae Turner. What more could I ask for?
I definitely didn’t plan out this whole thing where I‘d be shooting skate photos for the next 20+ years of my life. It never once occurred to me.
So you basically owe your entire career to the fact that Scott Johnston’s photographer flaked one day.
(laughs) Yeah, kinda. I mean, I had so many friends around town who were always asking me why I wasn’t trying to shoot skate photos… people like Meza, Karl Watson and Joe Brooke. It was all so obvious to them! But it did work out. Going back to what I said earlier, I could’ve shown up one day at Embarcadero with all my camera gear, got robbed and that would’ve been it. Just some kid from the Midwest trying to point his camera at everybody probably wouldn’t have been good.
Honestly, Kalis and I didn’t link back up again until I was walking out of the Gap one day for my lunch break and I saw him sitting on the ground next to Jamie Thomas.
"Woah! What are you doing here?"
"Dude! What are you doing here?"
"Dude! What are you doing here?"
It’s funny because I definitely remember making a few comments about those earrings at the time but I still didn’t really know him super good. Like, if I saw him wearing some crazy shit like that now, I’d fucking let him have it. But back then, not so much.
I do have a couple of photos of him with the earrings and a Sophisto jacket. That switch crook down mini-Hubba where he’s fitted to the 9’s with super baggy clothes. Tek-9 earring in one ear and a pot leaf in the other… and he didn’t even really smoke that much weed! (laughs)
Yeah, I remember the first time I saw Drake skate was at Wallenberg. He was skating the ledges and I remember thinking just how fascinating he was to watch. It was insane how effortless his style was… which is probably why people still talk about him all these years later.
Towards the end, yes. Drake is one of those guys who’s talented at anything he tries. Therefore, I think it’s difficult for dudes like that to keep with something once the thrill of learning it is gone. Once you’ve figured something out and it’s wired, it’s kinda over for them.
During the tail end of his career when he was about to ride for 23, you could tell he was over it. I was going to a pool hall everynight for a while there and he started going, too. He ended up getting really into it. I know that he’s super into golf now but in-between skating and that for him was playing pool.
I remember literally dragging him out of a pool hall to shoot one of his only 23 ads. Pleading with him to manufacture this thing for me with the promise that we’d go back and play some more pool afterwards. Luckily, there was a spot directly across the street from us. I think that might’ve been the last skate photo he ever had. He was just over it.
It was mostly before but I knew him after as well. I always kept Lennie at an arm’s length. I’m a pretty mellow dude and the thing with Lennie, he’s always causing a rukus. He was causing a rukus before he hit his head and even after he hit his head and got all into religion, he was still causing a rukus. I’m not the dude to stir things up. If he’s sitting in the back of the bus, I’m up front. I wasn’t trying to be with that dude. But I will say that I loved shooting him. The way he charged, such an amazing skater.
One of my favorite sequences ever is that drop 50 Workshop ad we worked on. The trick itself and then all the frames after where he’s carving around the car in the forground. So sick.
Lennie would always preach out front of the liquor store across the street from my apartment. I would have to time my getting beer to when he was busy preaching to someone so I could sprint over and duck inside. I remember the dude working the counter would always start yelling at me.
“Dude, get your boy out of here!”
“He’s not my boy. I live across the street and I’m here to buy beer. I know this dude from skating but that’s it. I’m sorry, man. I can’t help you.”
That was on Oak Street right by my house.
Skating was so different back then. We’d just go out for fun. I remember bringing it up to him while we were skating one day. He just saw it and charged. That was it. He didn’t even really think about it. Grinded through it all sketchy, didn’t take him long at all.
That photo actually got ran through the wrong chemicals. That’s why it’s cross-processed, the lab I went to put it through the print film C41 chemicals. I remember picking them up and totally losing it on them. I was so pissed. But later on after I got a print of it, I started to realize that it was actually kinda tight. (laughs)
How did Mad Circle enter the picture?
Mad Circle was seriously just a one-man operation. Justin did everything. He did the ads, he did the team, everything. I feel like I got in there because he basically needed an assistant and a photographer… just anything, a voice of reason maybe? I ended up living with him during those days so I saw it all firsthand.
Scott is really the one who got me the Mad Circle job. I was doing random things for Deluxe at the time but they already had Gabe and there really wasn’t a need for extra dudes shooting photos for a company back then. But through that, Scott brought up the possibility of working for Mad Circle instead and, of course, I was down. It was an amazing company and plus, I’d get a paycheck every month. So that’s how that happened.
Coincidentally, Justin also needed a roommate at the time so that’s basically when I began waking, eating, and sleeping Mad Circle for the next 3 years.
Yeah, I mean, by no means do I take credit for that stuff as it was all Justin and Scott but I did help out wherever I could. That was the dope thing about doing everything of Mad Circle in the house: we’d work on stuff all day and then Wing Ding, Scott and everyone else would come over to hang out and look at stuff. To look at what all we did that day. It was so sick.
Justin was really mindful and ahead of his time as far as giving the company a direction. Plus, one of the original art directors for the company who actually drew the logo was Barry McGee.
Yeah, that’s not bad.
The company just had such a heavy foundation and always looked strong. I remember Justin having this huge box of Barry’s artwork, all these mad balls and random screws and things he had drawn. Justin asked me if I wanted to take any of it and I didn’t.
“Nah, maybe later…”
I wish I had that artwork now! (laughs)
It was a mixture of both. It’s funny you bring up the Pontus ad because he had kickflipped over that cone and just from working with Justin for so long and knowing how he is, I knew enough to grab the cone and take it home. I knew I’d need it. It was really close to my house so I just grabbed and shot it with slide film later. I remember thinking how sick it would be to have a black-and-white ad with this crazy orange cone. Justin liked the idea and that’s what we did. I really like how that one turned out.
Fuck, that’s a tough one.
One that immediately comes to mind is that Scott Johnston sequence of him doing the 180 to switch backside 5-0 at Brown Marble the hard way. That’s one of my favorites, for sure. Definitely ahead of its time. I like a lot of the black and white stuff, too. Justin had an ad of an ollie at Santa Rosa park that was nice.
But if I had to pick one, it would be that Scott sequence… or that one of Karl doing the switch backtail where we put the sticker on there that everyone thinks we photoshopped.
Yeah, I love the belt. But those ads are definitely up there for me, for sure.
I know SJ has said that he kinda held back at first when shooting with you, just in case you blew it. Could you sense that at the time with him and possibly others?
I think Scott was the only one who really felt like that. But it’s not like he kept that a secret from me. He always thought I was way too stoned to shoot photos. (laughs)
He’s so meticulous at everything he does, which is why he’s good at everything. But we worked well together. He’s such a wound-up dude and I’m definitely not, especially in those days.
There was one time when he had a Droors ad due and we were out trying to shoot it. He just kept asking me over and over again, “Dude, do you got this? Are you sure? Are you sure you got this?”
“If you keep on worrying about me, you’re not going to even be able to skate!”
“I don’t know, man. I mean, I know Ballard is coming up…”
“Well then fuck, dude! Go shoot with Ballard then. I don’t give a shit.”
“Well then fuck, dude! Go shoot with Ballard then. I don’t give a shit.”
I remember turning around and seeing Bobby Puleo and Brad Staba over in Union Square, thinking to myself, “Fuck this, I’m gonna go shoot those guys instead!”
And that’s what I did. We went and put food all over the ground and I shot them rolling through pigeons. That’s how that photo came about. I was supposed to shoot a Droors ad with Scott and shot a bunch of birds instead.
I love Scott. That’s just how we worked. And after a while, he did start to trust in that I knew what I was doing.
We were just out skating. We were skating the Pier and had gotten kicked out. That ledge was just up the street so we always ended up skating there a good bit. That particular parking meter looked like it had been hit by a car and caught my eye. I didn’t even notice it had a Deluxe sticker on it while I was shooting. Scott was skating that ledge and that’s just how I decided to shoot it that day.
Did Scott even realize you were shooting it composed like that?
No, he had no idea. He was worried that I was even shooting something so basic like a back smith.
“Dude! Don’t shoot a photo of this!”
“Scott, trust me, man! You do your thing and I’ll do mine.”
No, no one did. That was something where Giant just pulled the plug on it. I don’t even know to this day what I’m really comfortable saying about all that but it was definitely not the best how it went down.
We had just put out the 5 Flavors video only a couple months before. It was still firing on all cylinders so nobody expected it to come to an end like it did. I know that Justin had some differences with the people there and I think it was just a situation where they wanted all of their brands under one roof. I mean, Mad Circle was basically just this one dude out in SF. But I do feel Mad Circle could’ve gone on for several more years. It could still be a board company to this day.
It’s hard to pick out one moment. It was such a great time to be a part of all that and be friends with those guys.
If anything, I’d have to pick this trip we all took to Vancouver for Slam City Jam that year. Just all of us in a van: me, Gino, Sheffey, Keenan, Chico, Carroll, Rick, Koston and Meza smashed into this van like sardines. It was the funnest drive. I have so many great photos from just being in the van on that trip. I remember Meza giving Eric shit the whole way up from LA to SF about how he’d better back noseblunt Hubba when we got there. Just talking shit for hours. He’d bust on Eric and then do shit like tap me on the shoulder in front of Eric to ask how I was planning on shooting him do it. All with that classic smirk that Meza always has. So good. But, of course, he ended up doing it.
Something like that, yeah.
I heard he didn’t even like it when he did it.
No, he wasn’t overly thrilled about it. Not at all. But I certainly was.
I remember having so much anxiety over that photo, not knowing what it looked like. It was insane. I thought about it everyday for the whole two weeks until I finally got home. I walked around with that roll in my pocket the whole time because I wasn’t about to go to some random lab in Vancouver. I wasn’t going to a place that I didn’t know but then I started to worry about possibly losing the film as well. What if something happened to it? It was psycho but it all worked out.
Talk a little about how you started coming out to Philadelphia and Love. Did it feel like some new golden era for the city at the time?
To be honest, for the first year I went out there, it wasn’t that readily apparent to me, even though I was definitely still tripping on all the stuff that was going down. Granted hindsight is always 20/20 but knowing what that place means to skating now is insane. Kalis and I were just talking a few days ago about what it was like to be there at the time and be part of it. Something that people look back on 15 years later and it still holds up. It’s still people’s favorite.
I was lucky. Kalis was getting a shoe and I had just started working for DC… I remember Kelly Bird telling me straight-up, “Get ready. You’re going to be spending a lot of time in Philly.”
I was down. Kalis and Stevie had this super shitty apartment together and I’d go stay on their couch for weeks at a time. Hang out with all of Stevie’s homies, go skate and grab a cheesesteak on the way home. Go out everyday, shooting everything that was going down at Love that day… and if there wasn’t much on that particular day, going up to Stevie or Josh to make something happen.
“Hey man, can we shoot a photo? I’ve been sitting here all day.” (laughs)
That’s actually how that switch front nose went down of Stevie’s. Clear everyone off the ledge and boom! Just like that.
Kalis tre over the can and the Wenning switch heel off the ledge over the can. You can’t tell me those were also shot of out boredom, right?
Kalis tre over the can and the Wenning switch heel off the ledge over the can. You can’t tell me those were also shot of out boredom, right?
No… well, the Wenning one was kinda like that. We were skating at night and the idea just popped in my head. I thought it would be dope because we were always there during the day. No one had filming lights or anything like that back then. Definitely not in Philly. You never saw night photos at Love back then so we thought we’d gave it a shot. There was no production whatsoever…. which is kind of the cool thing about it. We just did it one night.
The tre flip was a little different. I remember being at Dyrdek and Ave’s apartment in LA when Kalis told me about it. I couldn’t even believe it. I can’t remember the name but somebody had already shot a photo of it. The problem was the angle they shot it from was straight-on. With all due respect to whoever that was, that was not a good photo. I remember seeing it for the first time and telling Josh, “Fuck that. We’re going back to do it. We have to get that one right.”
That’s something that had to be shot from the side so you can see the distance. So you can see the catch and the can.
So we went back the next week and I got a sequence of it. I basically flew out there almost specifically for that trick.
I definitely looked at some older photos for inspiration and I’m constantly asking Grant questions anyway. Even back when I was just starting, I’d write him letters to get his two cents on things and he’d write me back. But yeah, I’d ask Grant a lot of questions prior to the session and then just be figuring things out on the fly with whoever was skating.
“What are you doing again? Where are you going?”
Unfortunately, Danny gave me a lot of practice because when he was filming for the DC Video, he’d be out there for up to 7 hours sometimes.
But you had to be terrified at first with all that Mega Ramp stuff, right? Then probably strangely comfortable with the whole scenario…
Honestly, at this point, I feel like I almost have as much confidence in Danny’s skating as he does. I remember in the past doubting certain things he’d say but I’ve learned over the years to not ever do that. Take that rail, for example.
“You’re going 45mph straight at this huge uncapped piece of steel and you’re going to front crook it? Really? … Alright.”
I wasn’t there for any of the building. That was kept under wraps because Ken didn’t want a lot of people knowing about it. I just remember Greg coming up to me and saying, “Hey dude, this is going to be fun. There’s something gnarly going down.” (laughs)
I remember going there and just being blown away. I think I’m actually the one who came up with the name “Mega Ramp”, even though it’s long been trademarked. But I remember seeing it and thinking that it was literally bigger than a building.
But I was there the first time he skated it… he slammed and slid on his stomach all the way down. It was obviously sketchy but he just powered through and figured it all out. It’s amazing that the dimensions were right considering he just eyeballed it as it was being built. Build it here, this high with this certain amount of transition and it should be good.
There were definitely some trials though, for sure. That box-type ledge thing he skated for a while before the rail? That thing was psycho. He just looked at like a big ledge but imagine going 45mph into a front feeble accidently when you’re trying a 50-50? That’s scary even on a curb going regular speed!
The slams he took on that thing were insane but he’s like a cat. He’d just spin around and knee slide on his elbows backwards. He never goes into anything blind. He always knows what he’s doing.
Greg and I talked a lot about that. I mean, it’s almost next to impossible to convey how truly gnarly that stuff is. The average person can’t possibly wrap their heads around it.
I think we lucked out that it was built in an area where we could get really far back and give it a sense of scale. We could use long lenses and show it for what it really was, the best we could. When you shoot something long of that enormity, it’s the same thought as to why you don’t shoot a 20-stair rail with a fisheye lens. It’s 20-stairs, you don’t need to polish that turd up. It’s already gnarly. You just try to show it for what it is.
Those ads were nuts and I think about half of the skaters were really into it. But it’s funny because people still to this day talk about wanting to redo those.
Most of that came from working with Ken. I remember doing the one with Dyrdek and the wolf and Ken talking to me about how these really weren’t so far out of the realm of what could actually happen.
“You know Dyrdek probably will end up having a Lamborghini and hell, he’ll probably buy a wolf, too. That’s funny. These are supposed to be funny. But at least make that Lambo yellow, you dumbass! That way it’ll show off more at night!”
The original idea for Dyrdek’s cover was him just wanting something outrageous, which we definitely succeeded at. But originally there were supposed to be 3 girls in there, only 1 showed up. Gnarly b-grade porn chicks we hired through Flynt.
We got the cheetah from this taxidermy spot nearby. I’ve actually seen those exact same animals from there over and over again at different things…. even at the DC 20-Year party! Those same penguins are still making money for that place 20 years later.
(laughs) I was just making the most of it. It was an insane amount of fun but I do feel that so much of it was done well enough to where even your super-cynical Jason Dills could still appreciate it on some level. They got the joke. Some of that stuff was so insane that it’s really no surprise people are still talking about it. So much of that can be attributed to how smart Ken is. He really knows how to get people’s attention. DC was smart enough to recognize what was funny, sick or just looked cool.
I truly miss working with someone as brilliant as Ken. It just goes to show that you can have a ton of amazing photos but unless you’re working with the right people, they won’t know what to do with them. They won’t get used in the right way, if at all. It’ll come and go like a fart in the wind.
No, it’s not. He was basically landing and starting to roll away but he never fully made it. The ground there is so slippery and he kept sliding out. But he was so close. I could’ve used a sequence of it, that’s how close he was. He just wasn’t making it well enough for footage. There was no question of whether he could do it or not, it was more about him actually going back to do it.
This was right when Nick got on DC but it just so happened to be right before his career took kind of a downturn and he never went back to film it. Even though I’m not one to normally use something that gnarly if it’s not a make, there was no question in my mind at the time that he could and would go back to do it.
The first thing that comes to mind is AVE’s nollie crook backside 180 out at the USC ledges, a sequence for his shoe ad. I was living down in San Diego at the time and had to drove up four days straight to get it. It became this crazy battle where AVE got in a fight with some random dude at the spot and the guy ended up coming back that night and smashing the whole ledge out with a fucking sledgehammer! He just smashed it to pieces.
Yeah, so we went there the first day and didn’t get it. AVE gets in a fight. Drive up from San Diego the next day to find the ledge totally smashed and unskateable. I turn around and go back home while AVE goes out on the hunt, trying to find this guy. Drive back the third day after Greg and those guys bondo’d the ledge but there was still something wrong with it and we still didn’t get it. On the fourth day, we got it.
Remember that I’m still shooting film at this point and every single try was a roll of film. It was such a long trick. He’d nollie crook the whole thing and I wanted him rolling in and out of the frame so it was a full roll sequence. I probably went through a 100+ rolls of film for that one.
It’s kind of a two-part answer. As far as photography is concerned, you have to keep searching. Keep trying and learning so you can get better. Even tonight, I’m shooting this In Transition thing and we’re going to a fucking skatepark. But I’m excited because I went to Grant’s and borrowed some stuff. I’m gonna be using 10 flashes to line up the park and shoot into them. Just having fun with it. That’s how I keep myself psyched on skate photography.
I’ve been guilty of digital magic. It’s easy. You have everything right there and you can just keep making photos technically better and better. At one point in my career, I had a digital Hasselblad and a studio strobe to shoot skating… shit they use to shoot fucking Vogue covers with. You don’t need that for skating. You can get just as rad of a photo with one flash and a fisheye lens. Seeing the back of your camera and knowing how everything could be that much better through this or that, that’s what people get in the cycle of doing. I’ve been guilty of it and had to take myself out of that space. Going back to thinking about things as they happen. Pushing stops. Because no matter how technically perfect a photo is, it’s all about the end result anyway. Some of my personal favorite photos were shot with really shitty equipment. I mean, Koston’s back noseblunt down Hubba was shot with Konica 3200 speed print film that I bought at Walgreens. Rick and Eric were skating both sides of Hubba during that session so I couldn’t set up flashes. I bought print film instead. That’s what I had to do.
I think some of the magic gets lost with all of this technology. Just by leaving the shutter open and exploring the unknown of what something could look like is so important. Those experiences are what made it all so magical to me. That’s why I keep trying to push myself with different techniques, having fun. Throughout my career, the things I’m most stoked on are the things that I was just having fun with. That’s what I feel ends up looking the best.
Not to wax poetic or anything. That’s just how it is.
As far as print media dying, I like Instagram and I post things regularly there but there is a sense of things becoming less special. That sucks. Too much crap floods the brain and doesn’t let the significant stuff really shine. Same thing with videos. Getting a photo in a print magazine is still a very special thing but that just might be my own antiquated view.
The internet puts more pressure on the magazines, which is tough. I think some are doing a better job than others as far as reacting to it. I think what the Skateboard Mag did recently was smart. Making something tangible that you want to hang on to… that is exactly what every magazine was when we were younger. Something you want to keep that is significant. There needs to be more of that.
big thanks to Mike for taking the time.