chrome ball interview #123: mike o'meally

Oz, Aliens and the Day After.

So I grew up in the American Midwest during the 1980s, where skating felt like it came from another planet. I can’t even imagine how it must’ve felt in Australia. How were you first introduced to skateboarding down there?

Well, I had one of those K-Mart plastic board from when I was 6 or 7, but it really wasn’t until I was around 10 that I actually got a “real” skateboard for my birthday… I believe the brand was Reflex? It was cool but it wasn’t until I saw Back to the Future a few years later that I really got into it. That’s when I started to learn about the Bones Brigade and everything. It was on from there.

I was actually a vert skater back in the day, down in Sydney. I was lucky enough to have a yard big enough and parents cool enough to allow a ramp back there. Because it was a total Hail Mary asking them for half-pipe, you know? I didn’t think that it would actually work, but they agreed to it. As long as I mowed some lawns and worked a few weekends, they’d match however much money I saved up. A few of the neighborhood kids pitched in as well. It was super cool.

Was photography something you’ve always done or did it grow out of your skateboarding experience?

Oh, I was skating long before I started taking photos. I didn’t take an interest in photography until after I finished high school in ‘91. I enrolled in college and started working on a Bachelor in Fine Arts degree, that’s when I discovered photography. And as soon as I started shooting, my dreams quickly shifted towards getting published in the magazines. That’s really how I got started on all this… my love of skateboarding led me to photography and trying to get into the mags.

There were only a few people shooting skate photos at that time, in general, let alone in Australia. I think there were only 2 or 3 guys shooting down there, total. But I was only 18, still young enough to be hungry about everything. I did college for that one year and then I took the next year off to focus on being a skate photographer. That’s when I finally figured out what I wanted to do with my life.

My first published photo was a full-page of my friend Michael Davidson ollieing a 13-stair in Slam Magazine. I got a check for $75 bucks and remember thinking to myself, “This feels pretty good.”

Shortly after that, I got asked to be staff photographer for Slam and started to send in photos to the American mags in hopes of getting published there, too. Because while Slam was amazing, you always wanted to be in magazines from the States, you know? That was the real standard. 

It seemed like you were the go-to Australian tour guide for a while there.

Yeah, I think Slam was the only magazine in Australia at that time, so we were always the ones showing around visiting American pros. I met a lot of people that way, actually.

I remember the first pros I ever met were Salman Agah and Alan Petersen on a little distributor tour. It was insane to be around dudes that I’d been seeing in the magazines for so long. And they were both just killing it at the time, too. It’s funny because I have so many photos of Salman from back then that I was super hyped on, but looking at them now, they’re so budget, dude. Like, the composition itself it is pretty good, he’s frontboarding a 7-stair, but it’s definitely blurry. Not that I shot it out of focus, it’s just low-quality.

To be fair, I didn’t even have a legit set-up yet. I was using an Olympus camera with a 50mm lens and a video fisheye lens screwed onto the front. There are things that really do depend on your camera. Even if you do everything right, your photos will still suffer with a set-up like that.

You went on to become editor at Slam before moving to the States, right?

Yeah, I was working at Slam with legendary Australian skater, Andrew Currie. He was editor at the time. And even though he’s younger than I am, he really took me under his wing and taught me the do’s and don’ts. Shoot that from here, not there. Setting me on my way. Because I obviously had the passion and I think he saw that in me.

We actually started editing the magazine together for a while. And before he left in ‘94, he asked if I’d be interested in taking it over, which, I’d literally been shooting photos for less than 2 years at that point. It was a big deal at the time but looking back on everything, it was the best thing that could’ve possibly happened to me. Because I wasn’t stoked on college and I’m not sure how else I would’ve been able to go about things as a skate photographer in Australia. I owe so much to Andrew for all of this.

What was it that still brought you to America? Because editor of Slam seems like a pretty good gig.

Yeah, but I just felt like everything I’d done up to that point was so specific to Australia, that I was only covering things in my country. Whenever I looked in magazines from the United States, it felt like the best of skateboarding on a global-scale, not just from one area. And I looked up to those things, to the point where even though I’m mailing out my photos to Transworld and Slap to hopefully get used, I didn’t really think that it would actually happen. That level just didn’t seem attainable.

But, for whatever reason, Lance Dawes was always super supportive, always wanting me to send in more photos.

“Yeah, put me together a little scene report on Australia and I’ll use it for Slap.”

He actually published a 2 or 3-page article of mine, back in ’93… which, I was just 19 or so at that point. I had no idea what I was doing but him using my stuff was such a lift, man. It was incredible. Because this was all being done through the mail. Writing letters and sending slides with little handwritten notes on them, it took forever and was so easy to get discouraged with everything. But now I had something to show for it! I’m in Slap! It was so inspiring to find that someone I really respected actually gave a shit.

So we kept in-touch and after a few more years of sending in stuff, he offered me a Staff Photographer job. By that point, I’d already taken a few trips over to the States, and now with this Slap gig, it felt like time to really make a go of everything.

I ended up moving to New York in 1998 because I was super into the East Coast scene that was blowing up at the time… and I felt like there were probably way less skate photographers in New York than in California. Plus, I’d recently made friends with Huf while he was out on an Australian trip. He told me to look him up whenever I came out to New York, which felt like a solid contact. A great way of linking up with other dudes, too… that’s always key for a new photographer. Let’s give this a shot.

A Slap photographer obviously doesn’t make a lot of money, but at that age, I really didn’t need much. I was just happy to be there and my passion carried me through the rest of the way.

The first time I ever noticed your work, outside of Australia, was that Huf double rail ollie in Chinatown…

Yeah, that Slap Gallery. That was a spot we’d skate past a lot and had actually been looking at for quite some time. It’s on Hester Street, halfway between Chinatown and Little Italy. I’d been wanting Huf to do that for so long until I finally brought it up to him one day.

Because his clothes couldn’t have been any better color-coordinated to the spot.

(laughs) I don’t remember bringing up what he should wear. I would’ve never told him to wear a red t-shirt… Let’s chalk that up to one of those naturally-occurring coincidences. Maybe Keith made that decision on his own? He definitely knew what that spot looked like but I’ll leave that up to him to confess.

I’m clearly being influenced by the editorial style of Slap in that photo. I feel like after I got on staff at the magazine, I had an even bigger appreciation of Lance and Gabe’s photos. Part of me feels like I’m just emulating their photography in that one, with the popping colors in an urban setting like that.

What about your Kareem frontside noseslide cover? Such an unusual angle, was that the point or possibly an inexperienced happy accident on your part?

It was probably a little bit of both, to be honest. Because I was trying to get underneath him for the height and make it look cool, but with how the spot was set up with the rails and construction, you could only shoot it dead-on like that. He’s on the sidewalk and I’m actually out in the street… that was really the only angle that I felt would’ve worked. I guess it worked out, though. It was a cover.

Honestly, I wasn’t totally satisfied with that photo. Because we didn’t have a filmer that day and he didn’t really land it very smooth. Our plan was to actually to go back and shoot it again later. Lance just happened to like the photo so it got used.

What had happened was I got chewed out by Fausto a year beforehand at the High Speed offices in San Francisco, because I’d gone on a U.S. tour with Zero for Transworld.

“What’s this? I hear you’re working for other magazines! We’re giving you film! If we give you film, you can’t be giving those shots to anyone else!”

Fausto, Jake, Lance… I basically got jumped in by the High Speed gang that day. So fast-forward a year later, I’m sending in everything I shot, just to keep it all on the up-and-up. That Kareem photo just happened to be in a batch, even though I was planning on reshooting it. But not only did they use it, they ran it as a cover! I was shocked, man. Because I had no idea. They didn’t tell you about that stuff back then. You just found out whenever the magazine came out, like everybody else. 

Would it ever get sketchy for you as someone so new to America, out in some dicey areas with expensive camera equipment?

Oh, I’m sure I stuck out when I first got to New York. Some white kid from Australia with his eyeballs popping out of his head. And here I am, going to shoot Bobby Puleo and Tino Razo in Harlem. I definitely remember a point where I suddenly thought to myself, “Shit, man. I’m really in the mix up here. I need to settle down and keep an eye out for shit.”

I never really had anything happen. There were times when I’d see people casing my gear, but I had 2 or 3 guys with me, too. I just had to turn up my street smarts to, like, ultra. Keep an eye out with my bag close.

What about that shot of Lil’ Stevie with the fang?

That was on a Girl/Chocolate Tour, back when he was still on the team. I shot that in Boston after a demo, in-between skating and heading back to the hotel. Stevie was rocking those gold fronts pretty hard back then. He’d skate with them in and everything. I remember him taking them out sometimes if he’d been trying something for a while, like a line or something. Out came the fangs. (laughs)

Stevie was always down to get his picture taken back then. And I was pretty hyped on those fronts. Because I’d listened to Wu-Tang down in Australia but it really wasn’t until I moved to that States that I realized so many skaters were on that same vibe as well. Obviously, the Gravediggaz album cover is a big inspiration here, from the photo down to Stevie wearing them to begin with. That was just the time, you know?

I actually have a ton of other frames from that day but that one, in particular, seemed to jump off the page.

Bobby Puleo. Backside Ollie. World Trade Center. Discuss.

That was this cool spot built by a bunch of DIY dudes who always hung around KCDC. I think a few of them were squatters, actually. They were the same guys who built the volcano down there that Dill had a photo on. That’s the same abandoned lot, right there on the waterfront.

A whole bunch of people were with us that day. Jerry Hsu, Kenny Reed, Tino… we’d skated all over Brooklyn and Manhattan and ended up down there. That spot was never a destination to skate, more of just a cool spot to hang out at. Because that place was hard to skate. The quarterpipe was only 3 or 4 feet high and went to vert, so it was super steep as well as being really lumpy. I remember getting a little chicken scratch grind on it once and was actually stoked with just that. 

All of a sudden, Bobby started popping these ollies. And because we’re in Greenpoint, if you look to the south, you had a great view of the World Trade Center. So it wasn’t a difficult photo to shoot. Everything is pretty much all set-up for you, right there. Just a classic New York photo where the scenery’s laid out in front of you, just frame it up nicely and let Bobby do his thing.

The thing is, I shot that in June of 2001. So I think that was actually published in the September issue. I mean, with the New York cityscape and Bobby being this legendary East Coast skater, it had everything there to be a great photo, but after the towers fell, its impact obviously became that much greater.

What about Bobby grinding up the rail on a Girl board?

That’s on the corner of 14th Street and 8th Avenue. It’s still there, actually. I think it’s for wheelchair access into the Bank. But yeah, skating weird things that were still naturally occurring in the streets was definitely the East Coast trend at that moment. Skating not your typical stuff in a not so typical way. And Bobby always had the quick feet, which definitely lent itself to that spot. Grinding up a rail wasn’t done very often back then.

I can’t remember why he’s riding a Girl board in that photo. He might’ve been in-between board sponsors, like after Infamous. But that’s classic Bobby. He’s certainly not one to be shy about things. If he likes something, he’ll definitely rep it, like wearing Vans even though he had a different shoe sponsor.

Is there any video of that?

I don’t think so. I seem to remember that it was just me and him out shooting that day. There were actually quite a few days like that back then where there wasn’t a filmer around… I get that question all the time.

“Did he really make that?”

But yes, Bobby definitely made it that day, even if there’s no video of it.

Ever have a bail printed, even by mistake?

I think there might’ve been a few where it wasn’t made that day but the dude went back and got it. There’s never been anything outrageously controversial. I’ve always tried to be very careful about that. Because, honestly, you don’t want that reputation as a photographer. So no, I don’t think I’ve ever had anything run where it was never made. Not to my knowledge.

How was Bobby to shoot with? Such a sharp dude, how much creative input would he give?

Bobby definitely has strong opinions but I feel like I shot with him before he started getting into those different ideas. Bobby was just cool, man. He had a ton of energy and was always out looking for new spots. I don’t know if it was because I was young and impressionable, in addition to being a big fan of his, but I think we always had the same vision as far as how we wanted things to look. So it was cool to be able to find spots for each other in that respect.

He was definitely dedicated, man. And funny. He had very pure instincts and ideals when it came to skateboarding. I remember him having entire philosophies about what makes a spot legitimate to skate. Because he was always out, scouting around. Sometimes I’d go out with him to find things but more often than not, he’d have to send these crazy directions of where to meet him… like multiple trains to wherever, way outside the typical zone. He definitely took me out to places that I otherwise would’ve never gone and I actually got to know a lot more about New York just by tagging along with him. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, how’d that Koston couch ollie with the pizza go down?

Oh, that was a fun day. I was still living in New York at the time but was starting to come out to LA a lot. I was shooting for Skateboarder by then, back when Aaron Meza was still editor. He’s pals with all the Girl/Chocolate guys, so I just fell in with that crew.

It was one of those classic LA days where everybody wants to go out but nobody knows where. Somehow, we happen upon this couch next to a bump. Let’s skate it.

There’s a photo of Mike Carroll kickflipping it, going the opposite way. That’s from the same day. Someone must’ve got hungry as we were trying it and ordered a pizza. Carroll gets his trick, the pizza comes, and there you have it. Koston being Koston.

“I’m gonna ollie it with the box.”

I’m pretty sure it was Meza’s idea. But sure enough, he did it, even with a slice while he’s doing it. And that’s no trickery. He actually balanced that box on his hand. It flew off a few times because of how fast he was going. But yeah, that was a fun time, man. Classic Koston just being clever and super good. He probably did that with the pizza in his mouth 3 or 4 times.

Weren’t you also shooting him at the White Hubba in Philadelphia for Menikmati when he murdered it that night?

Yeah, he ended up getting the cover of Skateboarder that night with a backlip down it. If I remember right, he started with the backlip and also came away with a back 5-0 and frontside 180 nosegrind. All over the course of maybe an hour. McCrank was there and frontside 5-0’d it, too. Heavy sesh, man. That thing is huge.

I remember Fat Bill taking us there to check it out and Koston just went to work. It was one of those instances where I actually started to get nervous as I set everything up. Because this was some real next-level shit. What if my flashes don’t work? Am I shooting this from the right angle? There’s just so many factors and you always want to do your best. Nobody wants to blow it. 

But Koston was on a hot one, man. Hammering out tricks. I’m pretty sure the backlip was maybe 2nd try. Because the proof sheet only had two frames and the first one, my framing was really bad. So I adjusted real quick and next thing I know, he’s rolling away. The frontside 180 nosegrind took a little longer for him, though. He got beat up a few times on that one.

I remember thinking over the course of all that, I’d better adjust my angles between tricks so everything doesn’t look identical to each other. Because everything was so heavy, I wanted them all to get used. The fisheye would’ve been wrong for the 180 nosegrind anyway… so yeah, it worked out pretty well.

How do you typically interact with skaters while shooting? Are you one to give advice or just let them do their thing?

I actually feel like I have a bit of a reputation for being a fucking lunatic. I’ve done everything from offering up beers and cash to threatening to sock ‘em in the arm if they don’t make the next try. But I’m always on the skater’s side. I always try to be encouraging, but you have to be realistic, too.   

I remember one time, right after I just moved to New York, I was out shooting Rodney Torres trying to kickflip frontboard this rail right by City Hall. He’d been trying it for a minute, and honestly, he wasn’t coming anywhere close. I was starting to get frustrated, because I only had so much film. I guess I felt the need to motivate him a little too much.

“Come on, dude. Make this next one or I’m gonna fuck you up!” (laughs)

And he made it somehow! But I still socked him in the arm anyway! (laughs)

“Damn! You really punched me!”

I guess I got a little too hyped after he made it. He thought I was outrageous! And honestly, I still don’t know what I was doing with that. Fuck it, man. That’s who I was at the time. (laughs)

What about Gino’s backside 360 down that double-set?

Oh, that was magic. And he did it quick, too… like, 10 tries. A backside three isn’t one that typically goes down very fast. I was ready to waste way more film than I did. (laughs)

I remember he was with a few of his buddies from Long Island… and RB was on the session as well, Gino was filming for Yeah Right! at the time. He did drag his foot a little on the ride away but I actually like it more that way. I always thought that looked sick.

You didn’t just happen upon that spot and he did it… did he?

Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s what happened. Gino was never the guy to plan things. He was always more spontaneous. Like, you never met him at a certain spot, at a certain time for a trick. He wasn’t making trick lists for his part. That’s just not him.

There was never really a destination in mind. We’d just meet up to skate and end up places. It was more like, “Oh, I might want to try this.”

I think he actually tried to backheel it first… I think. But it wasn’t working out for him. And I think he might’ve switch backside 180’d it, too.

Had you ever shot with him before?

Yeah, I shot a few things with Gino back then. He was always good friends with Huf so that was the connection. I’d find myself going out a lot with Gino, Huf, Jon Buscemi and the Keefe brothers.

There was a Chocolate ad he had with a switch back tail on one of those big red water barrier things…

So that’s a switch backtail…

Right, and he also had a frontside noseslide to fakie sequence at that same spot that ran in Skateboarder for his interview. But the ad was a switch backtail. You’re not the first person to ask me about that. (laughs)

But yeah, that wasn’t even a spot. We just happened to find some wood and a big railway sweeper that we were able to make a little kicker out of. Typical New York spontaneity. Here today, gone tomorrow. 

What was Keenan like to shoot with?

Oh, Keenan was the best. In the last year or two before he passed, I found myself shooting with him a lot actually. He was very similar to Gino in that he was also super spontaneous. But Keenan had this way about him where he’d either tell you, “Hey, I’m going to do this right now” and do it, or he’d tell you straight-up, “I’m not going to make this. Don’t worry about it.”

Keenan was never the guy to drag you along with a trick. You never got stuck as he battled something. He either got it quick or he’d say “fuck it.” He was honest with you. Such a great dude, man. Super good and just easy to be around. We definitely had some funny times together in Australia… him trying to park my rental car, reversing it straight into the car behind us instead. That’s the stuff you remember.

I shot two switch crooked grinds of his in Australia that always stand out for me. They weren’t on the biggest rails at the time, but he did everything with such a good style, the photos stuck out. And he did them so quickly, too. I shot a few ads of him as well… The switch pop shuv-it over that gold rail in Melbourne for Fourstar. A backside 180nosegrind down a rail there, too. I was lucky to be around for all that.

Didn’t you shoot his Skateboarder cover, too?

Yeah, switch backside flip over a highway sign, off that bump on Wilshire in Koreatown. That’s another one where we didn’t have a filmer so there’s no footage of it. But I shot that maybe a month or two before he passed away... one of the last times I ever shot with him. I would’ve never imagined it would be used for what it was, under those circumstances. 

I know you took that iconic shot of him at the beach… 

Yeah, that was right after Huf’s wedding, back in March of 2000 or so. We stopped by the beach in Carmel on our drive back to LA from Monterey, just to take a little break. I actually remember skipping rocks with him into the ocean there. We were all a little dusty from the wedding, for sure.

It’s not like I posed him or anything, we were just hanging out and I happened to have my camera with me.

“Hey, let me get a portrait real quick.”

It’s kind of a serious photo of him, actually… which isn’t really like him. I guess he was just feeling some kind of way. 

Well, I know you recently had a show of your 9/11 photography. I can only imagine what being down there must’ve been like.

Yeah, “The Day the Town Went Quiet.” That was the day after, actually. September 12th.

You have to remember when all that happened, most of the phone lines went down. So it was actually quite difficult getting in touch with people, amidst all that chaos. It wasn’t until the next day when people’s phones started coming back on. So you’re finally able to talk to people… but then what? Looking back on it, I guess the underlying thought was to try going about things the way we typically did before everything happened. To get back to normal.

I remember meeting up at Union Square that day, just whoever was around. Aaron Meza was actually in town for whatever reason, so I definitely remember him rolling around with us. The crew was Meza, Reda, Andy Henrie, Sean Kelling, Eli Gesner, Jeff Pang, Spencer Fujimoto, Todd Jordan, John Carter … we met up at Union Square and were going to try skating up to Midtown. But it was such a weird vibe, man. Really spooky, actually. Skating by Grand Central Station and it was all smoky and weird… the whole thing was just so sad and scary. I remember skating by this car accident where a cab had smashed into another car, which was nothing, really. It happens all the time. But under the circumstances, with everything else going on, it stuck out. Just another thing.

Midtown was just too eerie to skate, man. Just bad vibes. So we headed back down, along Broadway. But the thing was, you weren’t allowed to go any further south past a certain cut-off point… I think it was Houston. So we rolled over to the Westside Highway.

I’m not sure what we were expecting to do. Or what we were even looking for. Just trying to return to normal, I guess.

But wasn’t it hard to breathe out there, pushing around?

There’s that shot of Spencer with the flag over his face… It wasn’t like you were out there choking, but the air was definitely thick. All you could smell was fire and demolition. Dust. It wasn’t as bad from Union Square up to Midtown, but once we got to the Westside Highway, it was much worse. You couldn’t escape it.

It was such an intense day… and it’s weird to say, but I do remember us having a good time skating. Like a nervous good time. Because you have to understand that there were still fighter jets flying over the city. No one knew what was going to happen next. You were hearing all of these rumors. There were sirens everywhere… fire trucks, ambulances, State Police. Just constantly flying down Broadway and 2nd Avenue. Every two or three minutes, there’d go another one. But other than that, the streets were completely empty.

The photo of everyone skating down the street, shot from the front, that’s right in the middle of all that chaos. I had a nice, big cruiser board at the time and just happened to find myself in-front of everyone for a second. I looked back and it presented itself, so I snapped off a few. But that was it. That photo is one of only two or three frames.

People always ask me about that day, but honestly, it was truly terrifying. Because you didn’t know what was happening. Is it over? Are those U.S. jets up there? I mean, people had been panicking for 24-hours straight at that point. Is this it? Granted, you have to get on with your life but you can’t help but still be quite nervous about everything.

People weren’t actually trying tricks, were they?

Not really. We were mostly just pushing around. Because the whole thing just felt bigger than that. We might’ve skated those ledges in midtown but looking back through the contact sheets, I don’t have any photos of actual tricks happening. Just cruising.

Didn’t you guys run into MCA from the Beastie Boys out there, too?

Yes, we did actually! We ran into him at the end of Houston on the Westside. Reda and those guys knew him a little bit. We only talked for a few minutes. I guess he was just out there, trying to make sense of everything, too.

I feel like I was shooting everything in a trance. Because there was no reason or purpose for me to be out there shooting. I guess I was trying to capture something, even though I definitely didn’t know exactly what, at the time. It wasn’t until a few days later, when I finally started looking through everything that I realized what I had.

Meza and I did that article for Skateboarder because we wanted it to feel like a positive reaction to such a horrible incident. Like, what better thing to do than go skate around? Sure, it’s kind of a frivolous thing to do under those circumstances, but at the same time, that’s the point. With all that stress and fear, let’s just go have some fun.

Heavy shit, man. On a lighter note, I know you started shooting for the Alien Workshop in a more official capacity around this time. How’d that go down?

I feel like Alien Workshop came about through living in New York and shooting with Dill. Because I remember going out with Dill right after I moved there in ’98 and we just kept it going. I met Ave through Dill and started shooting him, too, whenever he came out. But I was lucky in that I was around when Pappalardo and Wenning were on the come up as well, busting crazy shit in the streets. So through those guys, I started going down to Philadelphia more, meeting up with Rob Pluhowski and Kalis. And from there, I just found myself in the mix, going on Alien tours here and there.

It was never anything that I went after intentionally, it just kinda happened. I was actually in Dayton on a trip when those guys asked me. One of my all-time favorite companies, Chris Carter and Mike Hill take me out to lunch at a Bob’s Big Boy and ask me to shoot ads for them. And it was the one time where they asked me what I needed to get paid and they had the same number in mind. No need for weirdness or negotiating. It was great.

Alien was just a lot fun to shoot for… and I always loved their art direction. Mike Hill might not be a man of many words but he could always vocalize his feedback in a way that made sense. It was honestly one of the best companies to work for. Those guys are real straight shooters, man.

But with such a unique vision, what kind of things would Mike suggest? He wouldn’t “brief” you, would he?

It’s hard to explain. Because he’d give me nothing and everything at the same time. Like, out of a bunch of photos, he might notice one shot of pigeons on a telephone wire, for example.

“Oh, I like that. Shoot more like that.”

He’d give you just enough of a hint to let you know what he was looking for. He never laid things out entirely because he still wanted you to bring something to the table. He could get things out of you that you didn’t even realize were there. It was never “Go shoot 10 photos of industrial powerlines.” He’d lead you into it. It wasn’t so obvious. 

Maybe because I was such a fan of the brand, I knew the kind of things they were looking for. But I’d just send in a bunch of stuff and let them respond to certain things. He was never critical of anything, only super encouraging. Like a silent master.

I‘d usually send in at least 1 skate photo, 1 portrait, and just a bunch of weird stuff. But the layouts that he’d come back with were just incredible. Seeing what he could make out of whatever I sent was always so cool. Never once was I bummed on the layouts he did with my photos…  splitting a portrait with a different picture in-between and the skate photo being tiny in the corner. Or that one series he did where he overlayed 3 or 4 different photos on top of each other? I’d never seen anything like it… and here he was, using my photos to do it!

Joe Castrucci at Habitat was always super cool as well, with much of that same attitude and ease to work with as Mike Hill. It was great to be able to shoot for both those companies, both in their prime.

Talk about that Pappalardo golden switch ollie photo over the rail.

That was just another classic day of skating around New York. I want to say that crew was Rob Pluhowski, Pappalardo, Fat Bill and Brian Dale. We certainly had a thing for bump to bars at that point and that one, in particular, was “known” for its size and being really hard to skate… because the bump had this scoopy-whip to it.

We’d been there before and he just ollied it. Getting a feel for it, I suppose. But this time, I could tell he wanted to try something over it. So he ollies it a couple times to warm-up, but it’s starting to get dark. You could see the wheels turning. Suddenly, Pluhowski starts egging him on to switch ollie it.

“I don’t know, man.”

He really only tried it five times or so. I don’t want to say that he wasn’t coming close but he was pretty tired and this was a some pretty big shit. You can see in the photo that his shadow is directly beside him on the wall. That spot is along the Westside Highway, where the sun comes at you in a straight-line west, like that Manhattan Stonehenge you get. So it’s maybe 20 minutes before dark. Fortunately, I had some high-speed color film in my bag, but that’s only gonna help so much.

So those first couple tries, you can tell that he’s not sure if he’s feeling it or not. Because we’re all pretty exhausted. But he tries a few more, and out of nowhere, he clears one. So now we’re all hyped. Pluhowski’s cheering him on. Anthony’s starting to commit and gets it 2 or 3 tries later. Landing perfect. Such a perfect ending to one of those long New York days of trying to make something happen.

The shot of him walking by the Hasidic Jews and the one where he’s uncovering the boards in the snow… Were you and Anthony fairly close?

Yeah, I like think that we were pretty good friends. He came down to Australia a bunch and we always had a good time. I feel like it always helps strengthen a bond whenever someone sees where you’re from. And Anthony was fun to travel with.

It was interesting to see him grow from being a relatively sheltered Long Island kid to getting on Lakai and travelling the world. I feel like that time when I was shooting him, that whole Mosaic-era, he was really starting to come out of his shell. Becoming a bit more outgoing and talkative.

The one of him walking past the Hasidic Jews, that’s just how New York is. Just a quick one while we were out skating one day. But the snow one, that was actually out on his roof top. Going back to that switch ollie ad, the portrait that also ran of him with the sun blasting through his head? That was the same apartment, him and Pluhowski. I want to say it was on 2nd Ave and East 4th St? Something like that.

But yeah, I just happened to be in the City for that snow shot. A late snow. Honestly, I typically went back home to Australia during the winters… because, no offense to anyone, but fuck an East Coast winter. So yeah, all that was actually in April, if I remember correctly. I was over at their apartment, just hanging out, when Anthony starts telling me about how he’d left his board collection outside, up on the roof. That was photo was his idea, actually. He thought it might look cool. But we were only up there for a minute or two. I’d just taken a few photos when he looks at me and goes, “Fuck this. It’s too cold. Let’s go back inside.” (laughs)

Anthony’s a good guy, man. He’s a deep thinker… maybe a bit too much. But the most brilliant ones typically go down some pretty strange paths. And like Bobby, Pops was always willing to go that extra mile in order to make something special. What I always loved about Anthony is that he’s just this quiet little guy. So unassuming. But he would go so big! Like that switch ollie? That was huge!

Another one that stands out to me was his frontside noseslide sequence on that big brick ledge in Cincinnati. That drop was over head-high! And not only that, he battled that for a while, actually… which makes it even gnarlier. Because that wasn’t something you wanted to skate for very long.

What about that shot of Dill lying in the rain?

Oh, that wasn’t planned at all. Just another spontaneous moment.

There was this 3-stair with a sidewalk going out to the curb. He was trying to do some manual trick up the 3-stair. But this was late summer in Sydney, so it’s super hot. He’d been trying it for a while when suddenly, this gnarly thunderstorm breaks out. I had my camera with me, so I had to run for shelter across the street, but Dill keeps on trying it. In the rain. Obviously it’s slick and I remember him going down this one time and not getting back up. He’s just laying there in the rain, basically out of pure exhaustion. So I ran out and snapped a few. Again, not planned. Not by any means.

I know you shot those pool photos of Dill and Ave, what was the story there?

That all came after Lance Dawes moved to LA. He was always super keen on pools. I’d even go out and skate pools with him myself. But with Ave and Dill, I feel like it was a combination of being frustrated with getting kicked out of street spots and pools simply being fun to skate. I mean, I think you can tell how much fun they’re having in those photos, especially Anthony with his shoes off. And yeah, they really got into it for a while there. They got pretty good at them, too.

Having been through so much with both Ave and Dill, you had to be pretty hyped on shooting Anthony’s TWS comeback interview during Mind Field, right? With all the Black Sabbath stuff?

Yeah, that’s one of my favorite covers actually. Most of those photos were shot on an Alien trip out to Texas, towards the end of 2007. The Black Sabbath stuff was at this foundation spot in Atlanta that Grant and those guys had going for a while. But that was just Anthony goofing around, being super into Sabbath. Somehow he got a  can of spray paint and it was on after that.

“Yeah, I’m gonna do a Sabbath thing... wait, let me lay in it.”

But it was great seeing him out there, skating so hard again. He worked hard on his own terms but I think a lot of his comeback stems from being out there with Greg Hunt, too. He really stuck by those guys and gave them motivation. He believed in them. I saw that firsthand, shooting photos on all those Alien trips for Mind Field. Greg was diligent in looking out for those guys. They were definitely struggling with whatever they were struggling with, but Greg was always there with the healthy alternative, if they wanted it. And the fruit of those struggles are all pretty obvious now.

You said that you “almost dropped your camera” on Dylan’s switch backside flipping the Huf rail. What did you mean by that?

Exactly what I said! I literally almost dropped my camera! Because I was only going to shoot a still of it. I had flashes set up and everything. But then he ended up sticking one and stepping off real quick.

“Fuck! He’s about to stomp this. Let me get a sequence!”

So I ran up and got the flashes out of the way real quick… and he’s already rolling at it! He wants it, man. So I come running back and basically slide into position. I was half laying on the curb when I shot that. Hardly set, definitely not ready. I’d just got the horizon straight… and he landed it that try. Definitely one of those almost blew it moments.

But yeah, the camera was loose in my grip. I’d dropped down to shoot so quickly, I wasn’t even holding it correctly. But I had to make it work. I know that sounds crazy but that’s how it is. Whenever you’re shooting a big move, your adrenaline starts going. It’s hard to remain calm at times.

Literally a male model with amazing style and talent, Dylan had to be incredible to shoot, right?

Well, the thing that always stuck out to me about Dylan, in addition to everything you just mentioned, was how tough he was. He could take a slam, for sure. I’ve seen him battle tricks for hours and not quit. So I always found it so ironic that people would call him a pretty boy. Sure, he was a ladies man, but he was really tough, too. He’d get beat up and keep coming.

Like, I remember him breaking his arm in Australia on a Transworld trip. I had to take him to the hospital, he never complained. Not once.

Speaking of tough guys, I’m not sure how much of this you want to get into this, but what happened with Mike V at Tampa Pro that year?

It’s a long story… he actually wrote a long blog post about it back in 2001, right after it happened. He had one of those early Wordpress blogs and it got pretty nasty.

Basically, he had done a spoken word performance at a Santa Cruz video premiere the Friday before and I don’t think that it got the best reaction from the crowd. I tried to offer him some encouragement and I guess he took it the wrong way. I probably should’ve just kept my opinion to myself but I was still pretty young and stupid… I think I had more than a few beers that night, too. (laughs)

Fast forward to that Sunday, long story short, I arrived at the Skatepark of Tampa for the finals and he basically jumped me. Right there on top of the flat bank, in-front of the entire industry. It’s honestly a bit of a haze. I still had my camera bag on and next thing I know, this dude has steam coming out of his ears and I’m flat on my back. I’m pretty sure that he punched me and did some kind of wrestling-style stomp on my chest. But it’s not like I got super hurt or anything…it was more embarrassing than anything else.

It did get blown out of proportion… and I did make an effort to squash it with him later on. I remember seeing him a few more times over the years and even shot a photo of him at one point. It was definitely an awkward moment but whatever. Because he was one of my favorite skaters growing up and here he is, punching me in the face. It’s just one of those things. A funny story to tell but nothing I’m particularly proud of, by any means.

What about Shane Cross’ frontside nosegrind down El Toro at night?

(laughs) Yeah, that’s a story there.

I basically got a call from Matt Mumford at the last minute. I feel like they had plans to shoot with somebody else that fell through. I’m not sure, but I had literally no warning. Just a call at 8 o’clock at night.

“Hey, are you around? Shane wants to go for one tonight. Can you get down to El Toro?””

So I drive down there and as I’m setting up my lights, Shane is doing 50-50 grinds down it as a warm-up. No problem. This is going to be good. I remember him even throwing a smith grind down it, right in-front of Mumford… which, that was Matt’s ender in his most recent part. Shane’s doing it right in-front of him as his warm-up. And not only that, he’s literally talking shit to Mumford as he’s doing it, mid-grind.

“How do you like that, old man?”

Just being cheeky, you know? But it was crazy to see. Mumford’s laughing it off, but still, he’s gotta be thinking to himself, “What a little shit.”

So yeah, first-try smith grind warm-up… he rolls away and just disappears. For like 10-15 minutes, we don’t even know where he is. Keep in mind, this is late at night. Everything is set-up and the generator’s running, he’s just out in the darkness somewhere. We could hear him doing some flatground, pop shove-its and stuff. He did that for a while actually, while we’re just standing there, waiting. No explanation or anything… he’s just over there in the dark, in the zone, talking to himself. I wasn’t even completely sure what he was going to try next. They’d mentioned a nosegrind but I wasn’t completely sure.

Suddenly, we hear him coming, rolling towards the rail at full-speed. Tak-a, tak-a, tak-a, tak-a…. Out of the darkness, first-try nosegrind. Perfect.

Holy shit.

Yeah, it was unbelievable.

So, because it was late, I end up staying down at Mumford’s. And it quickly becomes apparent that he wants this photo developed immediately… because he wants to check it out, right? That’s a big trick. But the thing is, I’d never used that lab down in San Diego before. I don’t want to say I was paranoid, just cautious. So I’m able to hold him off until I can get back to my regular lab. But because it was one try, literally out of the dark, that’s when the pressure starts to kick in. Nowadays, you’d just check it at the spot, no problem. But this is film. There’s countless things that can go wrong. Like, what if my flashes didn’t go off? Aw, shit… did they go off?

I finally get home and I still remember sitting at that lab for 3 hours, waiting for the photos to come back. Super nervous about this one frame on the roll. But everything worked out. The flashes went off, I’d framed him right… We’re good. Wow, what a relief.

Do you prefer mission-style shoots, like Shane at El Toro, or shooting more spontaneously in the streets? 

I don’t have a clear preference these days but I feel like I do get more of a kick out of the spontaneous stuff, as a photographer. Capturing those little slices of life, and if it works out as a picture in a magazine, even better. Because that’s how I look at skating.

Obviously, as a professional photographer, there will always be cases where I have to meet someone at a set time for a set trick, which does take out a lot of the guesswork. But honestly, I’d rather catch things on the fly. Because I feel like you can tell the real moments versus what’s pre-planned… like, if there’s a security guard running at you or something. Street skating is illegal, man. When you have permission or a closed-set and everything looks perfect, you lose something in the photo.

My favorite photographers are Dan Sturt, Tobin Yelland and Gabe Morford. I feel like those three have a mastery of perfectly lit and composed skate photos, but there’s always some kind of unknown element going on in the picture as well. Because skating is about being punk. It’s trespassing and essentially being naughty, for lack of a better word. Otherwise, you might as well go to a skatepark.

Those Sturt photos: the Hensley Bridge photo, Hensley on the hat, all of the Gullwing ads... To me, those are the penultimate skate photos. Because they have drama, they have style and cool tricks that look really good. Good lighting and composition. Those are perfect photos, in my opinion. And, if anything, I’ve always tried to emulate those on some level, while also trying to bring a little something of my own as well. But those have always been the benchmark… and Spike Jonze… and Grant. There’s too many guys! (laughs)

But those are all relatively early skate photographers. Has skate photography become too formulaic?

There’s something about those early skate photos because they’re literally being created for the first time. I feel like since the mid-90s, everything’s just been repurposed a bit. Yeah, people started shooting medium format, but eventually, compositions start to repeat themselves. That’s why 80’s and early 90’s skate photos are so iconic, because they’re still figuring out how to shoot everything. I think a certain naivete and inexperience with things is important, because that’s what lends itself to happy accidents.

Skate photos these days are almost too perfect. They don’t have that raw energy the way they used to be, even into the early 2000s. There’s too much of a dependency on what has worked in the past.

But at the same time, you have someone out there like Matt Price. He really gets in there, man. Taking risks. It’s hard to get photos that chaotically perfect but he’s doing it and I respect that. He definitely knows what he’s doing.

Jake Darwen is also amazing. He’s got his own thing going on, but seems to know his history, too.

So why don’t you have all of this stuff in a book?

Oh, I’ve thought about it. I think every photographer thinks about doing one. And I’d actually love to put one out but publishing can be quite expensive. Not that I’m writing it off, though. I’d just have to narrow everything down…. I honestly don’t know if I’d make mine all skate photography or what. Have to think about it, I suppose.

As we wrap this up, what are some tips you’d like to give for the aspiring photographers out there starting out?

Something that I’ve always tried to pass along is this great piece of advice I learned from Gabe Morford, and it still rings true to this day: shoot straight and love your subject. Learn how to use your camera properly and pour all your passion into what you do. The rest will come. Don’t get into skate photography because you want to get rich or famous. Get into it because you love it and you want to do it. Yeah, it all seems glamorous from the outside, but it’s a tricky game, man. You have to love it, first. If something comes out of it, great. Just don’t have any expectations.

Big thanks to Mike for taking the time. 


CC Rider said...

Great interview! He shot some of my favorite photos.

captain chaos said...

Jeez, first Dawes and now Mike! Damn fine work!

Anonymous said...

Gnarly one, thanks so much.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Chops and MM!

Anonymous said...

Makes me want to take skate photos

Anonymous said...

Literally no one does interviews better. No one.

SXM said...


TB said...

The Vallely story! Haha


Great interview, great bloke, amazing photographer! After my first Australia trip in `97 I contacted Mike through Slam magazine for some photos of spots and skaters I had met so I could do an article about Oz for the german Monster Magazine. Damn, there wasn`t internet back then, I think, I wrote a fucking letter to Slam! Whatever, Mike made ends meet and send some unknown kid in Europe like two dozen original slides and some more of his mate Dave Adair which was so awesome. I was beyond stoked. Long story short, the article didn`t turn out as I wanted to and I struggled super hard for Mike and Dave`s payment and to get the photos back (when I finally got them a couple were missing). Those Monster guys showed me first hand on how NOT to do a magazine and treat fellow contributors. I met Mike two years later on an Adio tour in Hamburg when he had made a name for himself in the scene and he said he had always wondered if we would bump into each other at one point. He wasn`t pissed at all about the former incident saying stuff like that happened all the time. In 2000 me and some friends started BOARDSTEIN magazine and you bet for the next nine years we tried to treat photographers the best and with the most respect we could. Thanks, Mike, for that early lesson in true skateboard media commitment!

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samhei said...

An epic interview on an epic photographer. I met Mike for the first time after the Tony Hawk comp in Paris. We shared the same taxi to the hotel and at the end of the ride he forgot to take his camera gear from the trunk...I hope you got the gear back Mike ;)