Chops and the Wandering Lensman sit down for conversation.
|Alex Olson by Jonathan Mehring|
All Photos by Jonathan Mehring.
Tell me about your recent short film, “Walls Cannot Keep Us From Flying”. What’s it all about and where can we see it?
It’s a 13-minute documentary about two kids in Palestine who are skateboarders. Skate instructors at a skate camp. Basically, and it sounds kinda corny, but it’s about them trying to find inner freedom because they don’t really have that externally. Skating is what gives them that freedom. And because of that, they’re trying to spread their passion for skating throughout the community. That’s why they became skate instructors at a skate summer camp… which was pretty much obliterated by COVID, to my understanding. This was all filmed back in July of 2019.
Right now, we’re still doing the festival circuit, so it’s not really available. We’ve already been in a few and waiting to hear back from a couple more. If we don’t get into anything else, we’ll probably just release at the end of the year or something.
Have you done much film stuff before?
No, it’s kind of a new frontier for me, although it’s definitely been on my mind for quite a while. Like, all of the skate tours I’ve been on, I always quizzed the filmers about everything. And I have a few friends in the director’s space who’ve kinda coached me over the years, too. I’ve done a few little content pieces before but never like this. This is really my first foray into trying to make people feel something with a story.
It started with Kenny Reed, incidentally. He’s a co-founder of the skate camp. He initially invited me over to shoot stills, until I was like, “How about a documentary?”
Because I’d just rather be doing that right now.
“Sure, sounds great.”
Little did I know how much work it was going to be. Oh my god… Here I thought we’d just go out and film for a week, pop it all together when we got back, and release it in three months. This fucking thing took two years! (laughs)
The mistake was that we didn’t really know what the story was, so we just filmed everything… which then became the challenge of taking 35 hours of footage and narrowing it down to a 15-minute film. It really was the hardest puzzle ever. (laughs)
So yeah, it was a massive learning process, but also super rewarding. We won honorable mention at SlamDance, which is a pretty well-regarded festival. That felt really good, for sure.
…And now, I’m pitching another documentary! Like, what the hell am I thinking? But I’m gonna do this one the right way and get financial backing first. For this Palestine one, we just went and made it. Putting all our own money into it, which got to be quite expensive after two years.
Seemingly a world away from Palestine, how’d you discover skateboarding in rural Virginia? Didn’t you grow up in a log cabin on a dirt road or something?
(laughs) You’ve done your research. That’s exactly right.
I got into skating through a friend of mine who lived up the dirt road from me growing up. They were four brothers, the Lee brothers. Their parents had gotten a divorce and the Mom had moved to Charlottesville, which is the nearest town over. That’s where all four of them eventually got into skating, but it was the oldest one, James, who got into it first.
So, when they’d come back to visit their Dad on weekends or whatever, James would always bring his board, a Santa Cruz “Street Creep”. And we’d literally share this one board all weekend long in my basement.
I’ll send you a photo of the first ramp we built. It’s hilarious. It’s seriously in this half-muddy backyard at my parents’ house.
What year was this?
This was around ’89 or ’90.
My parents were pretty spooked by skating back then. Because they had taken me to a vert contest in Virginia Beach when I first started skating. And at the contest, I can’t remember who it was, but this dude ended up getting a compound fracture on his leg. There was literally a giant bloodstain on the ramp, but people kept on skating anyway. It was pretty gnarly. (laughs)
So yeah, my parents weren’t really all that hyped on skateboarding at first but I just kinda broke them down.
“Okay, you can build a ramp in the backyard… but you can’t use any nails or screws.”
At the time, I just thought they were being lame. They didn’t tell me until years later that they were afraid I was going to compound fracture my leg, too.
So, what James and I ended up doing, we made kind of a curved shape out of some firewood and two sawhorses, and just plopped some scrap pieces of plywood on top of it. (laughs)
Oh my god.
Two pieces of plywood, one for each transition. No flatbottom. One sheet of plywood was a full 4x8, but my Dad had cut a 2x6 section out of the other one… so that side was basically an L-shape. (laughs)
But for some reason, we’d still drop in on the full 4x8 sheet. Not the smaller side. So you’re heading towards what was basically a bear trap with firewood sticking out. All bouncy and shit.
…And whoever wasn’t skating had to hold the sheet of plywood in-place or it would slide down and you’d have a shrinking ramp. It was ridiculous.
But it’s a good thing you didn’t use those screws… because that would be dangerous.
(laughs) I know, right? The irony.
You didn’t find photography until the 11th grade, right?
Yeah, I guess it was the 11th grade.
My grades had gotten steadily worse and worse every year. But it just so happened that my parents met the woman who taught photography at my school and really liked her. They recognized how good she was. So, in wanting to pair me up with this teacher, my parents began to wonder if maybe I’d like photography. Let’s give it a try.
So, I end up taking a photography course and totally fell in love with it. My grades overall got better. I went from always being late to showing up early so I could print in the darkroom. Staying after-school to do the same.
My parents got me a cheap Vivitar camera at first, which was probably only a hundred bucks or so. But shortly thereafter, I got a Pentax K1000, which was everyone’s starter camera back then. That’s when it really started taking off for me.
Because I was a full-on skate rat by that point. I had my license and a little squad of eight guys or so... Skating around the UVA campus and nearby towns, causing hi-jinx. It was great.
Who/what were some of your early influences?
I was looking at Transworld a lot back then. I feel like the best photos were always in there at the time.
I really liked Slap, too. Because it seemed more artistic. Brian Gaberman and Mike O’Meally were shooting for them, so I started following their work. I really loved Gaberman’s artistic eye. He was using colored flash gels at the time, and I always thought that was cool.
Thomas Campbell had some really amazing stuff back then, too.
So you always liked the more artistic guys, even early on?
For sure. I was really into cross-processing back then. Anything that was wild and weird. I always wanted to experiment, almost to a fault.
I was mostly shooting black-and-white at first, because that’s what we were learning in school. And my photos were just awful for a long time. I had bad gear, too... Like a weird, screw-mount fisheye lens that I’d found at a used camera shop somewhere. But I was hyped.
I started using flashes after a while, but I didn’t start using slide film until I went to college, which was ’99. That’s really when I learned how to take pictures.
Isn’t your first published photo a shot of Chris Cole doing a benihana? Wearing a helmet? Is that true?
(laughs) Yes, that’s true.
There was a contest series down in North Carolina called “Beast of the East” that we went to for a couple years. I remember Pete Thompson being there, taking pictures for Transworld. Mike Carroll was there one year, too. But it was still pretty slack. You could just go out onto the course and take photos. No big deal.
Somehow, I recognized Chris Cole that year at the contest, and knew that he was a “hot am” at the time. He was doing benihana fakies and I had my color gel flash on, so I just ran out there and snapped a couple shots. I didn’t talk to him, I just waited by the quarterpipe and shot him. The shot turned out pretty well so I sent a print into Thrasher, even though they had another guy there shooting the event. I didn’t mean to take him out or anything but they did end up using my shot for the opening spread.
…And helmets were required, it wasn’t just Chris and his benihana fakies. (laughs)
|"The New York Grinder"|
When did photography become a viable career option for you?
That’s a tough question because I always treated it like a viable option, even when it really wasn’t.
After that Chris Cole spread, I started sending photos into everybody. But it’s really Slap and Joe Brook who were the most enthusiastic. Joe was the first person to call me, actually.
“Hey dude, we really like your photos. It would be great if they were of pro skaters but keep sending them to us anyway.”
…probably not that word-for-word, but generally very supportive. I remember him sending me some film, which I thought was the most incredible thing ever… which I then used to shoot more photos of my friends and not pros. (laughs)
I ended up shooting a Richmond skate scene article for Slap that they didn’t use. But during all that… once again, the Lee brothers. I shot a photo of the youngest brother, Will, skating this ledge in Charlottesville we called “The New York Grinder”. It was just a dilapidated loading dock with a wooden bumper, but it was located on this one little block that we thought looked like New York City. (laughs)
At the time, Slap had that section in the back called “Gallery”, which was obviously my favorite. Well, it just so happened that on the side of the building in my photo, it said “Gallery Promenade”. So they ended up running that as their Gallery spread for the month. And they didn’t tell me, either. It just came out… and I lost my mind. A two-page spread in Slap Magazine? I was all-in after that.
An early favorite, I love that John Igei Aesthetics ollie with the crazy hands. Were aware of his arms at the time and possibly asked him to play it up a little for the photo? So sick.
(laughs) Absolutely not.
Okay, so I had just moved to DC at that point, right after graduating from college. Because I was going there all the time anyway. And another early article that I’d pitched Slap was a DC skate scene article, because there was a bunch of younger guys along with all the old pros from the Capital days, who were all still ripping but nobody was paying attention anymore.
Through a mutual friend, I was able to meet all the Pulaski guys back then. So every weekend, I’d just go there to shoot, and ended up with a pretty good collection of photos. I had just begun to shoot slide film at that point and was finally starting to get my exposures right… after ruining 10 rolls of film at one of those Beast of the East contests.
That Igei photo was toward the beginning of all this, the first year of me figuring out how to actually shoot a professional skate photo.
But honestly, I thought that shot was a complete failure when I first saw it, because it was just so different from how I envisioned it… which was a brightly lit, poppy skate photo. He was wearing a black shirt at night, which, of course, I wasn’t paying any attention to at the time. And it’s a bit underexposed, but in the end, I feel like that might’ve lended to the drama of the spot.
That was the Brazilian embassy in DC. Just this weird piece of midcentury architecture with a funky looking tooth of concrete sticking up in the driveway. It was like a launch ramp, basically. You could just blast off this thing.
…I actually shot a photo of Zered doing a method off it later on. Just so ridiculous. He’s like 10 feet in the air.
Igei was the one who showed me that spot. Because I was always trying to get those guys to skate something else other than Pulaski back then.
“Oh, I could probably ollie off this thing.”
So we went up there one night after they closed. I set up my lights with my little red flash in the background and shot it. He wasn’t trying to flare out his arms or anything there. He’s just trying to blast as high as he could. And then he ended up asking me if they could use it for an Aesthetics ad.
I remember talking to the guy at Aesthetics about it. Because this was before you could just email a photo easily, I actually had to describe it to him over the phone.
“How does it look?”
“It came out really dark, dude. I’m kinda bummed on it.”
“Well, you can see his board and you can see his hands, but you can’t really see his upper body. You can see the building but it doesn’t really look like a building. It kinda looks a mouth with this red light coming out of it.”
“It sounds fucking sick, man!”
I send it to them and they’re fucking stoked.
It is fair to say that your photos come from a more artistic place, instead of simply trick documentation?
Yeah, that’s fair. I mean, Burnett always calls me “The Artiste”. (laughs)
I do like the more artistic angles, for sure. Getting a little more creative with lighting compositions or whatever. I like to show “the spirit” of things, for lack of a better word. It’s gotta have some energy to it, beyond just a guy doing a trick.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out. Sometime I do end up taking pictures of guys doing tricks and I get so fucking bummed. Because I do try to hold myself to a high standard. And it’s nothing against the skater. If anything, it’s just because I couldn’t figure it out on that one.
It’s called pre-visualization. Total photo school shit, but that’s the way I work. I have to look at a spot… ideally, I want to know what the trick is, too… so I can picture exactly how I want the photo to look, and then I just try to get there. Often times, I can get pretty close and that’s exciting. But what’s also exciting is when you don’t get close and like the results anyway. Like, “Oh shit! I wasn’t expecting that but it actually kinda works!”
That’s all stuff from the film days, now is completely different. The whole thing happens so quickly now that it’s almost in the moment. There’s a lot less anxiety with digital, but there aren’t really any surprises anymore, either. It’s both good and bad, I guess. Because there’s nothing worse than having to ask someone to go back and reshoot something.
What’s the worst example of a photo you missed?
The one that still haunts me to this day was on this 411 “Around the World 2” trip, back in 2002. It was a filming tour in Hong Kong that Slap had sent me on. I was living in Philly at the time and they sent me, Ricky Oyola and Damian Smith with Vern Laird filming. I knew those guys already, so I felt pretty comfortable with them. But they also sent Elias Bingham, Kenny Reed and Cairo Foster, who was the big deal pro at the time.
This was basically my first international trip since going to Mexico with my parents when I was a kid. And I was already nervous around those guys, too. But my biggest problem was these cheapo radio transmitters I was using. They worked fine in the U.S., but in a place like Hong Kong where there’s so many more radio frequencies flying around, it was causing my flashes to either trigger on their own or not fire at all. And this kept on happening for the entire trip with everyone, but especially when I went to shoot Cairo, for some reason.
I was freaking out, dude. Meanwhile, Cairo is doing these super gnarly tricks and either only one of my flashes is firing or none of them. It was the worst.
He did a lipslide down a 15-stair handrail or something like that… and only one flash went off out of three. And the photo didn’t end up running, either. It sucked. Because it’s not like we could go back to the spot later on… it’s in fucking Hong Kong. We’d already gone back home.
I remember having to call him about it, too.
“Dude, most of your photos didn’t come out. I’m so sorry.”
He didn’t shoot with me again for, like, five years after that.
On a brighter note, I always loved your photos from the roof of Jake Rupp’s barn with the mini ramp. How sketchy was that?
Definitely no radio frequencies to worry about out there. (laughs)
Yeah, I was just climbing around up there while he skated. There was this crazy ladder that went up to the roof. Now that you mention it, it was pretty sketchy, but it didn’t really seem that way at the time. I guess I just got caught up in the moment. That was a massive barn, too.
I was just searching for a different angle. It wasn’t the easiest place to shoot in… and it is just a mini-ramp. We shot a few things like we normally would, but it just felt kinda boring. Then I noticed that ladder.
“Fuck it, let me look up there.”
And it worked out. That was another Gallery shot, I believe.
How much does your own rural upbringing inform how you shoot cityscapes and exotic travel?
I imagine it probably has helped me think a little more outside of the box, as far as “spots” go. What makes a “spot”. I’ve always been more in-tune with skating whatever shit you can find, even if it is just junk. Because that’s what we had growing up… Fucking nothing. And that’s probably why I was always down to go to the middle of Russia, totally confident that we’d find spots, even if nobody else was.
…As you know, I’m not above making a spot out of firewood. (laughs)
How was moving to Philly as a relatively green photographer in a notoriously unwelcoming city?
(laughs) Oh my god, it was fucking awful. I hated it so much. I was absolutely miserable.
Because there were a few photographers working there already, right? And Philly had a pretty tribal scene back then, too.
Oh, very much so. I mean, I was able to make some really great friends while living there, but it was just super hard.
Because I was living in DC. I did that scene article, which ended up being a massive feature in Slap. And after that, they’re like, “Hey, we want to put you on retainer but you can’t really live in DC for that. You’d have to move to Philly.”
“Alright, I guess I’m moving to Philly.”
Little did I know that there was a guy shooting in Philly who’d already worked for Slap. Turns out, they had just fired Frankie and gave me his exact retainer.
Yeah. And then they just dropped me in there with the rest of the wolves.
I definitely had to learn how to stand up for myself. Learn how to talk some shit. That’s just how it was back then. I mean, Ricky Oyola can really dish it out. Some of those other guys can, too. It was gnarly, but I do think that I’m better for it.
I lived there for about a year-and-a-half or so, but it probably took almost a year before any pros would actually shoot with me… with the exception of Ricky, ironically. Guys like Kerry and Maldonado weren’t really coming around in the beginning.
Slap was sending me on assignments back then, too. They sent me to Hong Kong. I stayed in Ohio for three weeks to do a Kristian Svitak interview. They sent me to Alabama for a Ben Gilley thing. And I was having the best time, but the skaters in Philly didn’t give a flying fuck about those dudes. They only cared about Philly. But while I was sending in photos of my amateur friends around the city, those weren’t running. They wanted photos of Kerry and whoever, but I couldn’t shoot with Kerry unless those amateur photos ran first to show I was legit.
I ended up writing a really long email to Joe and Mark.
“Nobody cares about the Kristian Svitak interview. We gotta run some Philly amateurs so I can prove myself to these guys.”
They ending up running a photo of Rich Adler backside flipping a block of ice… which, it was a start! (laughs)
Kalis was probably the first dude to show me the time of day back then. Pappalardo and Pluhowski, too, but Kalis letting me shoot his nollie flip down that three-flat-three double-set was huge. And it also became my first cover. That was the moment when everybody started taking me more seriously around Philadelphia. But it definitely took a long time… and I’m pretty sure Slap almost let me go a couple of times that first year but didn’t, luckily.
Because in Philly, there was Ryan Gee and all his guys. The “Hot Crew”, to use a Patrick O’Dell-ism. And there was Frankie, the guy whose retainer I had unknowingly taken. And because he had lost that retainer, he was now freelance and hungry as fuck. Trying to get his while also trying his best to get under my skin, too.
I remember meeting up with Kalis early that day. We go to the double-set and I get out all my shit. Get set up. And Kalis starts trying the nollie flip. All of a sudden, Ryan Gee pulls up with three other cars. And it’s everyone. Maldonado, Pete Eldridge, Kerry Getz, Tim O’Connor… the whole crew. But they’re being cool. Just hanging out across the street, watching. It’s fine.
…But then Frankie pulls up. And he actually gets his camera out and tries saddling up next to me.
He goes, “Oh, you’re shooting a still, huh?”
“Well, I’m gonna shoot the sequence.”
“The fuck you are! No way, man! Get outta here!”
I’m proud of myself for standing up to him, because I really had to. There was another time where I was shooting Maldonado fakie ollie this gap. Frankie was there for that, too… and he actually started trying to shoot it around me. I ended up having to push him out of the way. They even started filming us because everyone thought we were gonna fight, which is funny because I’m so not a fighter. I’ve never been in a fight in my life, but I was just so pissed. The guy was driving me crazy.
How’d Puleo enter the picture?
I met Bobby through Pat Smith. I shot with Puleo a few times while I was still living in Philly, because I had started coming up to New York a lot back then.
I’d honestly been wanting to move to New York for a while at that point, but I didn’t feel like the scene was popping enough for me to pull it off. This is around 2002 or so, during a little lull in New York skating. Plus, Reda and O’Meally were already there, too. That’s a lot of photographers for not that many skaters.
What happened was Love got shut down the first time for that redesign. A bunch of people were leaving. Kalis went to Chicago. Pappalardo and Pluhowski were moving to New York. Bill Strobeck, too. So, this felt like my chance, I’ll just tag along with them.
Bobby was one of the first guys I shot extensively with in New York. He just seems to have a knack for finding newbies to work with. And I love Bobby to death. He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. But he can also be very challenging, too. That’s just how he is.
I always loved that shot of him ollieing straight into the steep cellar door with no runway…
Oh yeah, that was insane.
Was there ever any footage of that?
I think it was just Bobby and I out that day.
It was right at the end of that period where you could just go out and shoot without a filmer… And the photo would have least as much importance as the clip, if not more. That’s definitely taken a dramatic shift.
I love that time because it was nice not having to battle the filmer for the fisheye angle. Because even if they’re your best friend, you’re still competing for the same thing. You can still see them in the photo, or I’m in their footage. Long lens is one thing, but fisheye can be challenging.
How was shooting with Bobby back then? There were always those gnarly tales of him “owning spots” and even rumors of him destroying a few.
There was that song floating around for a minute about Bobby destroying spots, remember that? It’s pretty funny to think about now. But no, I never saw him destroy spots or anything like that.
Bobby was more concerned about never sharing his spots. He was adamant about that. I remember him even laying claim to spots that were in plain view. He’d still try to keep those under wraps, even though everybody already knew where it was.
People are going to skate a spot and people are going to do better tricks than you did. That’s just how skateboarding is. I told Bobby this, that I wasn’t going to keep his spots secret. He got so bummed on me, dude… but I’m sorry, that’s not my problem. You gotta do the best shit ever at a spot if you don’t want anybody else to skate it. That’s why they call it “shutting down a spot”. And as a photographer, I’m trying to capture that.
So yeah, that’s around the time when we stopped shooting together. (laughs)
The only person I ever heard of destroying a spot was Damian Smith… I guess it wasn’t actually destroyed. He got bummed after everybody else started going to a gap he got a trick on, so in retaliation, he poured chicken grease all over the run-up.
This is all just skate lore. I can’t confirm any of it.
(laughs) Chicken grease?
I guess he got it from a restaurant or something? I have no idea. But the run-up was pretty narrow, so after he dumped it, there was no way to get around it.
It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. (laughs)
What about that Tim O’Connor bump-to-bar kickflip photo? And the accompanying tongue-out ollie from the same day? With the crazy angle?
(laughs) Yeah, the kickflip is in Tim’s Mosaic part. You can see me hanging off the fence with my camera. And incidentally, Bill was unhappy with me being in the footage, so he asked Tim to do it again and Tim ended up spraining his ankle really bad. So yeah… That’s something that happens sometimes, which sucks, but at least it wasn’t me asking.
Wasn’t there some kind of drama with Damian Smith over that bump-to-bar, too?
Yeah, there was a whole ordeal over those photos, which was kind of the last straw with me leaving Philadelphia. Because yes, the bump-to-bar in question was the same one that Damian had switch ollied over earlier. He had a photo of him doing it in a magazine… which now that I think about it, I didn’t shoot the photo that came out but he did actually ask me to shoot it with him first.
I remember him coming up to me one day about it. He goes, “Hey, I want to switch ollie this bump-to-bar.”
“I don’t know, man…”
“What do you mean ‘You don’t know’!?! It’s a fucking awesome bump-to-bar!” (laughs)
I don’t know if I was uninspired by the spot or it was just that day, but I couldn’t really think of a creative angle to shoot it… without being a butt shot. But we still went and tried to shoot it once, he just didn’t do it. He ended up coming back with Frankie and that's when he got it. A great photo actually, which came out in a magazine. I knew about it, which, I guess I poo-poo’d a potential shot in the magazine, but no hard feelings.
So, obviously, I now know where that spot is, but I do wait until the photo came out before mentioning it to other people. So, one day, it’s me, Tim and Bill. And I think it’s the first time I ever shot with Tim. He mentions that he’d like to skate a new spot, like maybe a good bump-to-bar.
“Oh, why don’t we go to that one Damian switch ollied?”
“Awesome! Let’s check it out.”
I don’t know if we touched on the topic of “spot drama” on our drive over there… maybe we did, maybe we didn’t. But it was definitely a topic at the time.
We get there… I remember there was weed growing out of the sidewalk. But anyway, we’re doing our thing. Tim goes to try a kickflip, but right before he goes to pop, he changes his mind and sticks his tongue out with an ollie. I just happened to still shoot the photo. A couple of tries later, he gets the kickflip and that’s how the day went. I send the roll of film into Slap and they’re stoked. Cool.
In the meantime, word starts getting around Philly that I’d taken someone to “Damian’s spot”. And it’s upsetting because those photos of Time are some of my favorite things I’ve shot up to that point, but it’s getting me so much hate. Behind my back, for sure, but to my face as well. I remember having a conversation with Ricky about it, because he and Damian were skating that spot a lot back then.
“Dude, why is everyone so bummed? Damian’s trick already came out in the magazine. I even waited to shoot there until it came out.”
He goes, “Because that’s Damian’s spot.”
I can’t remember if he’d actually found it or what, but Ricky’s point was Damian did his trick on it first. So now, it’s Damian’s spot.
“That’s not really how it works on my end. I’m a photographer. I have to shoot people doing tricks.”
I mean, I gave him the respect to wait until his trick came out, even after he went back there with another photographer. But there’s only so many spots.
It’s a lose-lose for you.
Totally! And I remember Ricky being like “You can never do this again.”
Whatever. I can’t keep track of which spots belong to who. That’s crazy. But a lot of people had that attitude back then, especially on the East Coast. It was a big deal with certain people. I just couldn’t deal with it.
I get the ABD mentality, but when it’s different tricks, who cares?
For sure. Nobody wants to repeat a trick that somebody else did. But there’s only so many spots. And people will find them, it’s only a matter of time.
I remember talking to Whiteley at Slap about the situation. I was like, “Dude, what am I supposed to do? I’m getting photos of the guys you want and it’s getting me blacklisted by half the skaters.”
He didn’t really say much at the time, but when the magazine comes out, he used both the kickflip and tongue-out photos in the same issue. And not only that, he used the tongue-out shot for the subscribe page with the words, “blah, blah, blah” all over it. I could be wrong, but I always felt like that was his little dig at Philly… that this spot hoarding bullshit was too much. Because from his perspective, I’m sure that’s all he was hearing about… in San Francisco as well. Like he could give a fuck. But I remember seeing that for the first time and thinking to myself, “Oh God, this makes things so much worse.” (laughs)
How did the “Road Less Taken” concept originate?
I feel like that whole concept is just an extension of my personality. In a way, I’ve always been trying to escape my own reality. I had such an angsty upbringing. An only child trapped out in the country with no access to anything. Looking at it from a psychological perspective, that’s probably what was going on.
And going back to your point earlier about documenting tricks, towards the end of my time at Slap, that’s increasingly what I felt like I was doing. After three or four years, I was kinda over it. I started looking for some new inspiration. If I’m going to keep doing this, I need to find another way for me to be excited about it.
Basically, I had a quarter-life crisis. I turned 27 and started to lose my shit. I ended up quitting Slap and started working at Skateboarder. I broke up with the girl I was dating. It was a whole thing.
Argentina was the first thing I pitched to Skateboarder, the one with Jerry’s backsmith on that golden rainbow rail. That was really the first one of these trips that ended up taking my career in a new direction.
I’m just gonna pick a random crew of pro skater friends, take off to some random country and write an article about it. I spoke a little bit of Spanish… how about Argentina? I never thought I’d go there. Why not? And somehow, I got enough money together to make it happen. Me, Pappalardo, Pluhowski, Jerry Hsu, Danny Garcia and Van Wastell with Brennan Conroy filming. We went down there and did that shit.
The Jerry cover in Argentina, wasn’t that backsmith basically done out of spite? Someone said that it couldn’t be done?
(laughs) Yeah, I wish I could remember who said it… I have an idea who it was but I don’t want to throw out any claimers and be wrong. You’d have to ask Jerry. But yes, I feel like that specifically made him want to do it that much more. Because they said it with such total confidence.
“It is impossible to backsmith that rail.”
To be honest, it’s actually not that big of a rail. It looks way bigger in the photo than it is in real life.
Good job, Jon.
The ol’ fisheye.
…but wait, he did a front board on it, too. It ended up being an Osiris ad and it looked pretty big in that as well, even though it’s long lens. I guess it just photographs well because of the shape or something…
It’s a great cover.
Thanks, I think that’s probably my best one.
But yeah, we went to check it out first. And I think it was during that time in-between when somebody made the impossibility claim. He must’ve mentioned backsmith in conversation or something, and I think their saying that definitely gave him a bit of a chip on his shoulder about it.
We go back the next day and he frontboarded it pretty easily. Then he goes, “Hey, I want to try a backsmith.”
I remember having this little light go off in my head, that maybe this could be a cover. So I tried to be a little extra careful with everything, lighting it up super perfectly. And we got it.
What’s the most film you ever burned through on a shot back then?
It’s hard to say, dude.
There was a time when I was shooting Pepe Martinez at Pulaski… You know those curved planters on top of the ledge? They’re super hard to pop out of because they’re curved at the worst possible angle. Pep was trying to do nollie 5-0 back 180 out on that.
That’s such a Pepe trick.
Yeah, it would’ve been great. But I think I shot something like 60 rolls of film on that, trying to get the sequence. Because I totally believed he could do it. He would do that trick on a regular ledge all day, but that mellow curve up top just wouldn’t let him. That was probably the most film I ever went through. It sucks he never did it.
But my favorite story, as far as crazy film scenarios go, was on an Enjoi trip in Miami. It’s in Bag of Suck, Jerry does a switch 180 5-0 revert on that blue hubba down there.
What I would typically do back then was bring a brick of 20 rolls of film with me for the day. Maybe two bricks if I thought it was going to be a sequence-heavy day, like if we were going to a manual pad or something.
That day, I only brought one brick. 20 rolls in plastic saran wrap. Jerry’s trying his trick, I’m shooting and Eversole is filming. And it’s taking a long time. I’m just burning through film. Also at this time, to save camera battery, you wouldn’t rewind the roll of film. You’d just open the back and tear the whole roll out, dropping it on the ground next to you. And after a while, you start to have this spaghetti pile of film beside you.
So, the pile is growing. I’m down to, like, three rolls of film. And you have about three tries per roll. I remember quietly asking Matt what I should do.
“Hey Matt, should I tell Jerry that I only have three rolls left?”
And you have to remember, Jerry is screaming and losing him mind right now.
Matt goes, “I don’t know, dude. I think he’s trying as hard as he can.”
“Yeah, I think you’re right. I’m not gonna say anything. If we don’t get it, we don’t get it. Whatever.”
So he goes and tries it a few more times. I put in the last roll. He tries it two more times. Doesn’t get it. Fuck.
At this point, he finally notices the giant pile of film lying next to me.
“Hey John, how many more rolls of film do you have?”
And I just had to tell him… it killed me.
“Uhhhh…. Last roll, last try.”
“ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME!!?!”
I tried explain to him that we’d decided you were trying as hard you could. And it was pointless to tell you.
He just screams out, “FUCK!!” and walks away.
And I’m like, “Oh well, there he goes…”
He jumps on his board, comes back and lands it perfectly.
That’s like straight out of the movies!
I know! I think that’s the only time that has happened, ever.
What’s the give-and-take on more remote trips with the fear of running out of film?
For more exotic trips, I would seriously take 500 rolls of film with me. Maybe 100 rolls of slide film and 500 rolls of sequence film. Just bring a gigantic bag of film with me and get it hand-checked at the airport. And even then, sometimes I would run out and have to go searching for film. Buy some cheap Russian film at a drugstore somewhere.
How’d you land on “The Mehring All-Stars”? Freddy, Kenny Reed, Jack Sabback, Jerry, Spanky, Todd Jordan… What’s the common trait shared among all those guys?
(laughs) Nestor Judkins, Kenny Anderson…
“The Mehring All-Stars” is a Jamie Owens-ism. He coined that term. Because after a while, I found myself repeatedly pitching a lot of the same guys to go on trips with me.
Basically, it was just a bunch of dudes I clicked with. Friends that I always worked well with… And they were still willing to go with me on a second crazy trip after their first one. (laughs)
It was actually quite difficult to find skaters to go on these things. I always invited a bunch of different people, they just never wanted to go. That’s a big reason why I didn’t really pitch these trips to specific teams. It was too hard. Because they either didn’t have an account there or they just didn’t feel like they needed to go wherever. Because why would they go to this exotic place when they can go somewhere else a little more practical? That’s when I started building my own team.
Because I feel like there are two types of pro skaters. There are those who are into their certain routine. Practicing a certain trick, and then going out to do it. And then there are people who are okay with randomly going to some unknown adventure-y type of destination. Trying to get tricks on the road at spots they’ve never seen before and having a good time doing it.
I just wanted to travel at this point. I wasn’t having any fun doing the same thing every day. Trying to find more spots around Brooklyn. I mean, that’s great when things are new or you’ve got some kind of amazing light. There are wonderful days, for sure. But most of the time, you’re just riding around in the car all week, looking for a new spot. You come to this realization, like “Wow, I took my camera out of the bag one time this week, and even then, nobody landed anything.”
That shit was killing me, dude. I needed to get on the road.
How much preparation went into these trips? Did you typically know of spots prior or were you just winging it?
I did as much research as I could, but at the time, it was still pretty limited.
It kinda depended on the place. Like Argentina was a total Hail Mary, but my justification was Diego Bucheri. He had just moved back there and we were gonna link up with him. He’ll be able to show us some spots. That, and I already had some pretty big names who’d agreed to go with me. They couldn’t really say no to that. And it worked out. It was great.
But on the flipside of that, I think I went to Mexico six times in two years… something crazy like that. And those were never really all that great.
Luckily, the internet kept evolving, becoming easier to research and communicate with others. Getting to know Kenny Reed better, he became another resource I could trust. Because he’d already been to so many places. But the real turning point was when Google Earth and Google Maps became a thing. That helped enormously and basically became my go-to way to research. Start with a random country, find a city, click on it and zoom in to see some pictures. If you found a hubba or maybe some marble, you figured there was probably more of that around there somewhere.
That’s all well and good, but that’s an awfully big risk when it comes to a huge endeavor like the Trans-Siberian Railway. How’d that one come together?
I remember first hearing about the Trans-Siberian Railway from Kenny actually, while on a previous trip to Russia. He’d already done it on a Carhartt trip. They took the train the whole way, from Moscow to Mongolia, without stopping. But going through all of these different cities along the way… so many cities in Siberia that you’ve never heard of, Kenny felt there just had to be spots there.
So in 2005, I started pitching a Trans-Siberia trip. And I was really adamant about the idea until it finally got approved in 2007. But because I’d been pushing so hard for it, there was a lot of pressure once it finally happened. Trying to find the right crew, the right sponsors. I definitely broke a phone out of frustration during that period. Luckily it ended up working out. It was me, Jack Sabback, Kenny Reed, Van Wastell, Keegan Sauder and Mike Fox filming.
Research was pretty critical on this one, because I’d previously gone through all of Eastern Europe with Jack and Kenny and there was nothing… except for one golden unicorn spot in Bulgaria. So we started looking into stuff and found this crazy roller rink along the way with these little whoopty-whoops.
“We can skate this thing, for sure.”
And we just went from there. Trying to find a spot in each city along the way and mapping them all out, figuring out the distances apart. Calculating how long we’d have to ride the train between each one. Two days on the train, three days in town. Breaking it down like that.
We definitely built a few ringers into the plan. Like, we stayed in Moscow for a week at the beginning because we knew it had spots. We got a bunch of photos there… just in case there was absolutely nothing in the middle, we were good. Then we hopped on the Trans-Siberian and hit 5 different cities before ending up in Mongolia for a couple of days. Mongolia turned out to be pretty difficult for spots so we decided to head to China instead, spending a week in Shenzhen. That place is always super good for spots.
Incidentally, the city of Astana (now Nur-Sultan), Kazakhstan is probably one of the best skate cities I’ve ever seen. People are sleeping on that one, dude. Because there’s mad spots out there. It’s a fucking gold mine, it’s just really difficult to get to.
|Kevin "Spanky" Long and Fred Gall|
Is Trans-Siberian when the stick-and-poke tattoo kit became a thing?
(laughs) Oh man, I guess that did start on Trans-Siberian. And yeah, it did kinda become a tradition after that… Not every time, but sometimes. That was my first tattoo, on that trip. It was significant enough in my life that I was totally down, and everyone else must’ve felt the same.
I want to say it started with Keegan Sauder. He was really into stick-and-pokes. And Kenny was the first victim. What happened was that we all got really drunk on bottles of wine that night. A bottle of wine each, I think. And that includes Keegan, who was the tattooer. We didn’t really have a tattoo kit but someone had brought a sewing kit and I just happened to have a pen with India Ink in it, so we squeezed some of the ink out into a bottle cap, using a cigarette lighter and Russian vodka to sterilize our needles… which, it wasn’t even a needle at all. It was a fucking safety pin. (laughs)
Kenny’s idea was that he wanted to get an “R” on his arm for “railway”. (laughs)
We all thought that was a good idea, for some reason. So Keegan drunkenly starts jabbing Kenny’s arm, but he’s so drunk that he writes the R backwards… and he also gives it three legs! And it’s fucking giant! All huge and diagonal…
“Oh my god, dude. You drew the R backwards.”
After a few minutes, we realize that word for “I” in Russian is spelled with a backwards R. Alright, I guess we’re all get backwards Rs then. And that’s what we did.
The tattoos did get progressively better as time went on, but Kenny’s is still my favorite.
|Kevin "Spanky" Long|
Didn’t you get into the habit of making up stories for articles when a trip didn’t work out as expected?
(laughs) Yeah, I did that a couple times. I took a page from Chris Nieratko, although I don’t think he ever fictionalized stuff. Maybe he did, you’d have to ask him. But he definitely wrote about things other than the skate trip. And I remember specifically thinking to myself one time, “Well, if Chris is doing that, I can do whatever I want.”
I believe there were only two articles that were totally fabricated.
Care to divulge which ones?
Well, there’s a Morocco trip I went on in 2006, which was a total fiasco. The story in the magazine was about being chased through a bazaar by bandits or something… but now that I think about it, the real story is pretty good, too.
Let’s hear it.
Okay. So it’s Jerry, Jack, Kenny, Rich Adler and I with Mike Fox filming. We flew into Barcelona initially, when Kenny says, “Hey, I’ve been hearing about this crazy city in Morocco that’s apparently made of marble. Some kid told me about it. We should go.”
(laughs) A lost city of marble.
Right? We’re all like, “Fuck yeah, let’s do this!”
So we all get flights to Casablanca. And to start out with, the car rental place gives us this crazy map of the area that’s been Xeroxed three-times over. It’s just a spaghetti mess of streets. I remember the guy draws a line through this maze of streets and actually off the side of the map with an arrow.
“Your hotel is over here.”
It took us five hours to find this hotel, dude. Just driving around in circles. It was crazy.
The next day, we drive to Agadir, Morocco, which is a nine-hour drive south from Casablanca. And on the way down, we decide to stop for a minute and stretch our legs. So I pullover and we all get out of the car for a quick little break. We’re all running around the desert, goofing around and shit. It’s the middle of nowhere.
And the keys… I lost the keys.
|Jerry Hsu and Kevin "Spanky" Long|
(laughs) Oh shit.
Yeah, I remember us all getting back in the car, and I go “Alright, who has the keys?”
Kenny just looks at me. “You have the keys, dude.”
I look out the window.
“Don’t fucking look out the window like they’re out there, dude!”
The sun was going down. It’s starting to get cold.
I don’t know what to do but I try to take charge of the situation.
“Alright, everyone get six feet apart. We’re gonna comb the desert!”
Somehow, Rich Adler spots my footprints and is able to track down my keys.
“Here’s the fucking key!”
We were so stoked, man. We carry him on our shoulders back to the car in the last rays of sunshine. We felt like our lives had just been saved. And now we’re all hyped because we’re on our way to this supposed city of marble.
Well, we get there and it’s complete fucking dogshit. There’s nothing to skate. The only saving grace was that we run into this little skate kid who ends up taking us to his mom’s house for dinner, which was super awesome. And that kid now actually runs a skateshop there. But other than that, Kenny got a trick at the one spot we found. And that was it. The only skate photo from this entire excursion.
We drove straight back, nine hours at night. Dodging donkeys on the road. It was pretty wild, man.
What about the other one you made up?
One of those Mexico trips I was talking about. Just a boring trip where nothing happened, so I made up a bunch of shit… which, maybe I was too good at it because people still ask me about that one. Usually I’ll tell them that it was all made up, but sometimes, I just don’t say anything. (laughs)
What was your favorite trip? What’s a place you never got to go to? And what’s a place you never want to go to again?
My favorite trip would have to be either Trans-Siberian or motorbikes in Vietnam. Trans-Siberian trip was more fun, because it was, by far, the craziest trip I’d ever attempted at that point in my career. It almost seemed outlandish. But Vietnam was more of a rite of passage. Because I’d never ridden a motorbike before… and not only did I have to learn how to ride one, I then had to drive 2,000 miles on it. I didn’t even really skate on that trip. The guys did, but I’d only brought a cruiser board and ended up giving it away about halfway through to some kid in a village. So, for me, it was more of a motorcycle trip.
The thing is, I’ve said that I would never want to go back to certain places. I think I said that about Mongolia… but I would totally go back there. I said that about Bolivia and I did end up going back there. And it wasn’t so bad the second time. I don’t know if there’s anywhere I wouldn’t go back to.
And a place I never got to go to? I always wanted to explore Africa more. I’d still love to do that.
Give us your best Fred Gall story.
Aw man, let’s skip this one. You know, the stories are crazy but then you start telling it and they’re basically just about drinking.
But weren’t you on that Alien S.O.B. tour with Freddy and Dill? When Dill got his No Dice tattoo?
(laughs) Oh man! That’s a good one! Okay, I forgot about that one… And yes, that’s when Dill got No Dice on his palms. Definitely not a stick-and-poke, that one.
Honestly, the crux of the story is kinda hearsay, because I was in another room. This was an Alien/Habitat trip we were on, down south. It was me, Dill, Fred, Metal Lou and Danny Renaud with Strobeck filming.
Apparently, Fred got super wasted and weird one night. He was out with Metal Lou, and Lou actually tried to contain him from doing who knows what back at the hotel. They end up getting into a fight and evidently had an all-out brawl in their hotel room. At some point, Fred was somehow able to get Bill’s keys. And still wasted, he and Danny Renaud took one of our two rental cars and drove to Nashville in the middle of the night… because Danny wanted to skate these handrails. Drunkenly driving through the middle of the night from Louisville to Nashville, which is several hours. And we have no idea, we just wake up to this. I walk out and just happen to see the manager standing in the hallway, outside of Fred’s room.
And this is like a Marriott or something… a nicer hotel.
So I walk down there and look inside. All I see is a folding closet door and it’s broken in half, crossways. There’s a chair with three of its four legs stabbed into the mattress. A bedside lamp is broken off the wall. It’s a total mess. And the manager is in there with a couple other hotel people. They’re just looking around the room, like “Oh my God.”
Then they see me and slam the door in my face.
We go get breakfast. And I can’t remember how, but we somehow figure out that they’re in Nashville. So we go down there to find them, which we finally do. It’s all pretty chaotic. But since we’re already down there, after all this drama, we figure that we might as well skate these rails… only to get there and find that the rails had been taken out. They’re not even there anymore. (laughs)
At that point, I’m just like, “You know what, guys? I’ve got some hidden spots over in Virginia. Let’s just go hit those.”
So we head over to this 70s roller rink outside of Roanoke. It’s got a three-foot vert quarterpipe made of concrete, in a giant semi-circle. We get three or four tricks there.
And then we went to my parents’ house, shot guns and swam in a pond. That’s when it became the S.O.B. tour. Because Danny Renaud kept on holding this .22 rifle, which is a very small gun. Basically, a step-up from a BB gun. But he kept on waving this gun around, screaming in a crazy southern accent, “Get off my property, you son of a bitch!”
(laughs) I know you shot a lot of Pops around Mosaic, including his Slap and Skateboarder covers. How was he to work with back then?
Oh, Pappalardo was the best. He was awesome to work with.
Honestly, I remember being kinda shocked when we first started shooting together, because I was kind of a weirdo back then. This was back in those early days of living in Philly. There’s always been a side of me that wondered why he or Pluhowski even gave me the time of day back then.
But yeah, I started going out with Pops and Pluhowski a little in Philly. Then we all moved to New York around the same time, and that’s when we all started skating a lot together. It was typically me, Pops, Rob and Bill. Just driving around and looking for spots. Talking shit. It was awesome.
Pops was a quiet dude but he always had such a good eye. He’d typically be the one to find the best spots, along with some really cool trick ideas to try there, too. He was honestly pretty inspiring to work with. Because I always felt like he wanted his actions to speak louder than his words.
Do you have a favorite photo you shot of him?
Well, there was this Barcelona trip we went on together. Me, Pops, Rob, Brian Dale and Brennan Conroy filming. We got an apartment together for a month and just skated Barcelona every day. He did that drop-in to 50-50… like a double-kink drop-in that ended in a handrail. I remember being super blown away by that.
And this is kinda funny, but the portrait for his Slap interview? That was on this same Barcelona trip. I remember him saying, “You can’t show my face in the portrait. I’m down for anything, just don’t show my face.” (laughs)
Luckily, he skated for Alien Workshop, which is probably the only company you could kinda get away with that. But I knew this one lens of mine would flare out like crazy if I shot him directly into the sun. Like, backlit and kinda pulled back? I thought that actually came out pretty cool.
But if I had to say a favorite one, I’d probably go with that backside grind up the hubba in Zaragoza, Spain. Black and white with the big sculpture in the back. It was a Lakai ad.
Yeah, I think it ran as a sequence.
Yeah, but I printed a still from that. Right when he pops off the end there. I love how that one came out.
With guys like Pops and Jake Johnson, is there a feeling of knowing these guys are in their window? Are you just trying to let that play out and capture it… or am I romanticizing this a bit? Because in retrospect, Jake during Mind Field must’ve seemed pretty unstoppable.
Kinda, but I’m not sure if I had that perspective yet. Probably not back then. It was obvious that these guys were ripping and I definitely wanted to go out with them every day… but realizing it was some type of “era”? I’m not sure. We just seemed to click and I didn’t want to overthink it.
Bill was the one who brought Jake to my attention. I hadn’t even seen his Chapman part before. All I knew was Bill saying, “Dude, you have to come out with me. There’s this kid named Jake and he’s fucking killing it”.
The first day I met Jake, we shot that wallie front tailslide over the barrier, onto that flatbar.
That’s a good first day.
For sure. Jake and I have always gotten along really well. He’s obviously amazing on a skateboard, but he also ended up being someone who was down for crazy travel as well. He’s always fun to shoot with because he likes to think outside of the box and try different things. And he usually pulls them off. You could say that he has kind of a different view of reality.
I knew he was destroying it back then, but I don’t know if I was aware that those might be his most amazing years. It just seemed like anything was possible with him.
When I think of that time with Jake, his switch wallride on that slanted white marble wall is what immediately comes to mind. With the pillar underneath? Because where does that idea even come from? A switch wallride? On a marble wall with a pole underneath? It was shocking to see.
What about Dylan? I always loved your portrait of him on the couch for his Skateboarder interview. Was that his apartment?
With the smoke ring? Yeah, he was living in this super random apartment, right off Melrose. A nice section of Hollywood, but a total skate house whenever you walked inside. I stayed there while we were working on the interview. Just him and another roommate. I remember sleeping on the floor and waking up to him every morning, smoking on that couch. Every morning, that portrait is what I would see. Dylan sitting there, chain smoking. So I had to take a photo.
“Hey dude, I need to get a picture of this. Blow a smoke ring for me.”
And his front heel Skateboarder cover? Did you intentionally light it like that for the shadow or was there more luck involved in that?
I think that I just happened to put my flash there and noticed the shadow… like, oh shit! Then I fine-tuned it to make it better. But no, that’s not how I initially planned it. Just one of those happy accidents.
That’s definitely one of my favorite photos of him. And I love how they put the logo in fluorescent pink. I actually think that made it a lot better. Because the picture by itself is cool, but definitely not as good as it looked on the cover.
That spot was crazy, too. That thing is super high, and that “bump” was pretty much shit. He was so on fire at that time… both him and Jake. If you went out with either of those dudes back then, you knew you were gonna come back with some amazing shit, no matter what.
You shot his impossible sequence over the bench, too.
I did. And he didn’t like how he did it the first time, so he came back for it again. I don’t think it was while he was in New York, either. I’m pretty sure it was a whole separate flight out to do it again.
What made you go sequence for that instead of still?
Impossibles are a tough still, man… And also, because of the way he did them. If you notice, his impossible would already be back on his feet by the time he peaked out. So it really wouldn’t look like an impossible in a still. It would look more like a shove-it or something. It wouldn’t translate.
That one was kind of a challenge to shoot. Because you typically want to be in front of the obstacle, but you’re not going to see the action of that trick unless you’re behind it. Luckily, you could shoot through those benches on the side, too.
There’s a warm-up shot from that day, too. I think Gravis just posted it on their Instagram the other day. We were at Thompkins and he was warming up by doing impossibles over these orange cones, which was crazy in itself. He did it again and again.
“Alright, I’m ready.”
So, we go down there and he did it pretty quickly…
Oh, that’s what that song was in. I was trying to remember that the other day… I guess they just didn’t have money to actually license any real music. (laughs)
But yeah, that ollie was psycho, man. I had been looking at that thing for years. Always showing it to people, and they’d always say the same thing.
“I don’t know, man.”
“No, look… the curb cut kinda extends the manhole cover. It gives you a little more boost than normal.”
Luckily, Joey saw it my way. I love Joey.
How did you even notice that “spot”?
(laughs) That’s just my upbringing coming into play again.
It also comes from driving around Brooklyn for so many years. I just kept looking at this one block, knowing that there just had to be something there to skate. It looks too cool not to. Somebody has to figure this out…
Well, I guess this huge 10-foot gap into a cellar door is it. (laughs)
Do you prefer creative improvisations or specific missions?
I want to say that I’m more of an improv guy… But at this point in my life, I really appreciate a planned mission, too. (laughs)
If I’m going to go through the effort of bringing out all my gear, I want to know that somebody is going to try something. That we’re not just gonna drive around all day and look at stuff.
How much of a collaboration are your photos? Are you looking for skaters wanting to get a little artsier… or can that be annoying?
Not at all. I want that collaboration. I love it. When skaters are excited about taking a photo, it makes the whole thing that much better. It’s almost like you can tell in the photo. And it definitely makes it more fun, process-wise. When they want to see my angle and talk about how a trick can look even better? I love that shit.
Most of the time, a skater won’t say either way. Because they just don’t get involved like that. But there are a few who get excited about looking at the back of the camera. And it feels good whenever they seem to get hyped on what it is you’re doing… It makes you feel like they actually want you there. It’s not just all about the video.
Are you one to recommend wardrobe to help out at a spot? I’m thinking of Tyshawn’s over-the-top back noseblunt with the reds…
(laughs) Oh man, that was either a total coincidence or his good thinking. But that definitely wasn’t me.
I did used to carry around packages of t-shirts in my bag. That was a real thing. Because the worst thing is showing up to a spot, either at night or with trees in the background, and the guy has a black shirt on. Their body just disappears and there’s nothing you can really do about it.
Like that John Igei shot?
Yeah… but then again, I don’t think that shot would be as cool if you could actually see his body.
But yeah, there was a time where I’d carry a few spare shirts around. Did anyone actually wear any of these shirts? Maybe once or twice. But usually, they’d have a spare shirt of their own to throw on. In case they started to sweat through one, they’d typically bring a change.
Sometimes I’d tell them up front that they couldn’t wear black… or white, actually. Sometimes white can be just as bad.
How’d you meet Tyshawn so early on? And what’s it been like to see his evolution?
Tyshawn is kinda like Jake, in a way. They both realize their own value in all of this. That’s something which has always struck me about those two. They know their place in this world and in their reality. Jake has always seemed to have a bird’s eye view of himself, much more than other people ever do... And Tyshawn, maybe even more so.
In 2016, Tyshawn told me that he was going to be Skater of the Year in 2018. He fully called it. It was insane to watch go down.
I gotta thank Bill for so many of the people I’ve ended up photographing. He really does have a special eye for talent, and I feel like he wanted to work with me above some other photographers. Because just like Jake, Bill once again called me in the beginning of Tyshawn’s coming up.
“Hey dude, this kid Tyshawn is ripping.”
I think he was only 14 when he grinded that 14-stair handrail at Police Plaza. He was so young that I remember him getting super upset about not getting himself to try it. He actually had tears welling up in his eyes. He wanted it so bad… He was so worked up that an old lady walking by actually started yelling at us!
“What are you guys doing to that poor boy!?!” (laughs)
But he managed to get a hold of himself and fucking did that shit. And he did it so sketchy, too. I don’t know if you can tell in the footage but he doesn’t lock in at first. His back right wheel is rolling on top of the rail until about halfway down, then it clicked over into grind. But that’s a make.
Not a lot of people know about the really horrible crack up top, either. He brought a sign to put down and roll over, but it was still pretty wobbly. So he found a piece of cardboard and put that underneath it, for stability. (laughs)
He’s literally popping off a piece of cardboard there, onto this gigantic handrail. Just the worst thing ever. But he did, dude. Just like a boss.
I love that skitching shot of him through the window. How’d that one come about?
That one was totally improvised. We all just happened to be out skating one day and his friend had a car. Pure luck.
I was really starting to get into street photography at that time. I figured that if I was going to be shooting in New York, I should probably have a camera with me at all times. So yeah, I was carrying my little snapshot camera that day. We all hop in the car, and Tyshawn’s like, “Hey, I’m just gonna skitch from here to downtown.”
I’m riding in the back. At some point, I look over and there he is… so I take a couple quick photos out the window. Simple as that.
|Anthony Van Engelen|
What’s a popular photo of yours that you personally don’t like?
(laughs) You know what? I love certain things about this one, but there are also things that I really don’t like about it. The photo of Ave doing a feeble grind around the corner, with his arms down by his side.
I actually love this photograph, but only because of how Ave is doing the trick. The photograph itself is totally whatever. The lighting is bad. The exposure is not great. The composition is okay, I guess… It’s a butt shot. There’s really nothing good about the photo itself, but the way he’s doing that trick is just amazing.
|Sebo Walker and Mark Suciu|
So, after all your travels, to have these photos collected in a book for National Geographic is pretty incredible, man. Congratulations. But I have to wonder with Nat Geo being so different than your typical skate mag, did they notice anything different about your work that maybe you hadn’t heard before?
They did, for sure. But they also let me lead the way in what was authentic to a skate audience. They freely admitted that they didn’t know that space, which was good.
But any realizations about my work outside of a skateboarding filter came much earlier, when I was trying to break into the advertising world. You really have to look at your own photos for yourself, or it’s probably not going to go well for you. Having to look at my work in such a different capacity and pulling it all together, I had to figure out a common thread in all of it for myself. I feel like you really have to distill everything down so that it all makes sense to you personally if you’re ever hoping to land any work outside of skateboarding.
It was very difficult for me to figure out. I remember printing out hundreds of these little 2x3” prints and placing them all over my bed. Trying to figure out what it is that I’ve been doing with my life. Having art friends come over to help me edit it down even further. It took a really long time.
So, by the time the Nat Geo book took off, I feel like I was a little more ready for it.
All these years later, how do you keep photography interesting? Because along with your short doc, I know you’ve been shooting some bike stuff recently, too. Does it really come down to simply trying new shit? Widening your scope?
Widening the scope in order to keep things interesting, which my Instagram audience does not like. (laughs)
My likes are taking a beating right now but I am feeling fulfilled and that’s all that really matters.
The biking thing just kinda fell in my lap, which has been a lot of fun. I just shot a cover, my first biking cover came out today… which is pretty wild to think about. It’s different than skating but there are some similarities there, too. It’s just nice to change it up, you know? Try different things. But my first love will always be skateboarding. It’s still the most exciting thing to shoot, by far.
As we wrap this up, I typically keep throw this one out at the end here… which has been known to bum so people out. But what do you see as your proudest accomplishment of your career, and your biggest regret?
(laughs) Oh my God…
Well, my proudest moment would have to be the Nat Geo book. That’s a no brainer, for sure.
My biggest regret is probably being too negative for too many years. I was very “glass half-empty” for a really long time… And I just got sick of it. I got really sick of being so negative. I found myself around a lot of negative people and others that glorified negativity, using it for humor. Because I thought it was cool, I guess.
But then, I remember meeting Rick Howard for the first time and being stunned by just how positive he was. It felt like such a breath of fresh air, which made me think about my own behavior and how I was being perceived. I had to start making a conscious effort to not only be more positive myself, but to also not let myself get so annoyed by little bullshit that doesn’t matter. Not letting things deter me from having a good time. And honestly, I wish I would’ve tried to do that years earlier.
Thanks to Owens, Whiteley and Jonathan for taking the time.