7.03.2015

chrome ball interview #83: tobin yelland

chops and tobin sit down for conversation. 

photo: Templeton

With your first published photos coming in at age 15, I’ve always found it intriguing that you started your professional photography career so young. Isn’t that the time when your teenage delusions of grandeur are envisioning pro skate graphics with your name on them instead?

It’s interesting to look back on now because there were a few others like Luke Ogden and Gabe Morford who were all getting into photography around the same time I was.  Luke and I were especially close and took our first photography class together the summer before starting high school.

I imagine that had to help on some level, right?

It probably did.  I basically started skating when I was 12 or so. I’d just started going to a new school and there were a lot of kids around that skated. Before that, I’d been into BMX and the only reason these skaters even started talking to me was because I was wearing some checkered Vans. Getting a skateboard was the next obvious thing for me to do.

There was also a Boy’s Club on Haight Street nearby that was building a mini ramp around this time as well. We all started helping there, which led to meeting people like Micke Reyes and Tommy Guerrero, who seemed like this huge star back then. Julien was there as well, even though he was still only living in San Francisco 6 months out of the year. But yeah, that was the place were I first met so many of the people I would work with for the rest of my life… and that’s where I started taking photos.

At first, I’d only take a few photos here and there. I took it serious but was still having fun. It really wasn’t until after I got those first photos published in Thrasher that I started taking it seriously as a potential “job”. There may have been a few fleeting moments where I thought I could become a professional skater… I remember Jake Phelps once considered putting me on the Thunder Team for approximately 5 seconds, but that was it. I never took skateboarding that seriously other than that it was really fun and I loved doing it.


But how were you able to bro down with what must’ve been a pretty elite set in SF as such a young dude? I know those first published shots were of Mike Alcantar, who I remember from Sick Boys. Those guys must’ve been much older than you.

I met everyone initially through the Boys’ Club and from there, I started hanging out and working weekends at Concrete Jungle, which had a really awesome team. I was basically the grommet kid with the camera but I had the interest and somehow ended up at a lot of the sessions.

That’s how the Alcantar photos came about. Bryce was there shooting photos of Micke Reyes and I just started shooting photos of Mike. I happened to get a really good sequence of him wallriding over a couch. I gave Bryce the photos for the magazine and Fausto decided that he wanted to use it for a Venture ad… Mike’s sponsored by Venture and wearing their shirt so it made sense. I was stoked! I honestly couldn’t believe Bryce would even take my work but once that got published and I got paid for it, I saw the whole photography thing differently.


Are the best skate shots necessarily “action” shots? Because so many of your classics don’t actually have any skating in them at all. What made you start putting equal focus on work that wasn’t necessarily trick-based?

Basically when I got into photography, I just wanted to shoot things that looked cool. I’d be constantly taking photos of my cat or my girlfriend… just whatever. Photography is like any other artform where you just want to do it. I loved skateboarding so I’d obviously try to get good action shots but I also found that getting a good portrait of someone was just as awesome. Action was never all that I shot and I was never the photographer who just shot because it was a job. I know a lot of photographers who don’t shoot photos any other time than when they’re working… like, “I’m off-work! I’m done. No more photos.”

That may be fine for them but I like taking photos. I want to take pictures of the things I see.

Action shots and portraits are different but I do think they go together. When I was starting to do editorial along with ads, portraits were always needed by both magazines and companies, so taking them was to my benefit. Skate magazines didn’t pay much at all back then but if Transworld paid $80 for a full-page trick photo, they might also pay $40 for a little portrait. So it was better for me as a struggling contributing photographer to shoot a lot of portraits.

With any job that you do for so long, it can get a little stale but shooting things like portraits or even documentary-style stuff started to become a takeaway I could use for myself, personally.  So much of that came from taking this documentary photography workshop when I was 17…


Wasn’t that with Larry Clark? I know he’s a big influence of yours.

Yeah, but I knew nothing about any of the photographers that were putting it on at the time. My hero photographers back then were fashion photographers… doing things like nudes and portraits, that sort of thing. That’s what I thought was cool.

Of course, I did skate photography but I didn’t think that was really a thing. I wasn’t sure if it was even interesting to other people, maybe just to me and my friends. I always felt like the skate stuff wasn’t serious, wasn’t respected. Some weird little industry, like surfing, that existed outside of the mainstream that I felt most people didn’t get.

But I remember out of all the teachers there, it was Larry Clark who was really interested in what I was doing in skateboarding. I couldn’t believe he thought all that stuff was cool because I honestly didn’t know it was cool.

Judging by future Larry projects like Kids, he must’ve really meant it.

Yeah, the thing I pulled out of the experience was that so many photographers were going about things in all these different ways but each way was okay. There wasn’t any strict way of doing it, which was really eye-opening to me. After that, I didn’t want to be a fashion photographer anymore.


But how were you able to navigate industry politics and have photos printed in virtually every magazine throughout your career? Were you ever pressured to choose one over the other or experience any type of bullying due to your involvement with a rival mag?

When I started out, you basically had to choose one magazine to work for, either Thrasher or Transworld. Because I’m from San Francisco, I was lucky that there was a local skate magazine around so I started to contribute to Thrasher. The first editorial photo I ever got published was of Jake Phelps doing a tail block and it was actually used for a longboard article.

One of my first assignments was shooting an amateur contest in San Jose, which was awesome. Danny Way and Ray Barbee were ripping. All the guys at Thrasher were supportive and plus, I got paid. But at the time, Luke was also working at High Speed in the darkroom 5 days a week… basically doing entry-level jobs like developing film and printing photos for the other photographers. I just remember him coming home and being so burnt out from being in that darkroom all day, hardly ever getting the chance to shoot. So I found other jobs to pay rent with while I worked toward skate photography.

My first experience with the political side of skateboarding came pretty early on, after I had started to contribute photos to Transworld shortly there after when I was 18. It was great for me because they didn’t have anyone in northern California and needed the photos, but me doing so also pissed off everyone I knew at Thrasher. It immediately made me not one of the guys and they let me know.

I had some skate photos that I had sent to Natas and he, in turn, sent them to Thrasher for an SMA ad. This was back when the magazines did the layouts for some companies’ ads, before companies started having real art departments. Mofo was laying out the ad and he would not use my photo because I took it. There was no real explanation given but by choosing to contribute photos to Transworld, which is a southern California magazine, I had burned bridges in San Francisco. So the next few times that Natas used my photos, he had to tell them that he didn’t know who took them so that my photos were able to be used.

Another time, I had a job shooting for Bronze Age, which was a clothing company based in Venice. They flew me out to Hawaii for a mini ramp contest and when I got home from the trip, I got a call from the owner of the company, Mike Cassel, saying that someone at Thrasher had called him up about how I was supposedly talking shit about him. This was at, like, one in the morning.

“No, Mike, I wasn’t talking shit about you.”

He believed me so everything worked out but that was a little scary.

But it was awesome being able to photograph so much for Transworld and have it be used. The problem was that I was only a contributing photographer and they didn’t want me giving my photos to anybody else. I wasn’t getting a monthly salary so even though I might get three photos published that month for around $200, I still couldn’t shoot for any other magazines.

The only real way we made any money back then was shooting advertisements. Everyone knows there’s absolutely no difference between what’s sold for magazine editorial and what’s sold to companies for ads. A good sequence can run either way. So we just went for it. I photographed everyday for a year because there was never not an opportunity.

That worked for a while but I eventually got tired of still feeling that I was blocked from other magazines. What ended up happening was Big Brother. They had called to ask for photos but I couldn’t due to my steady gig at Transworld. If my photos run in Big Brother, Transworld was gonna get pissed and possibly stop running my photos. You guys are new, what if Big Brother goes out of business? Where does that leave me?

Well, Big Brother ends up running my photos anyway without even asking, which was actually a pretty big deal. Grant called me up about it, kinda bummed. But it wasn’t even my fault. They just did it. And with each new issue, I became more and more interested with what Big Brother was doing. 



We all were.  

The articles were so open. Go on a skate trip and have it be the most random writing, just as long as it was the exact opposite of what another magazine would do. So I quit Transworld even though I still wasn’t totally working for them, only contributing, and did Big Brother for a while.

The best thing was that Big Brother didn’t care if I gave my photos to other people. So while both Thrasher and Transworld cared about my shooting for other magazines while working for them, once I started working for Big Brother officially, those other two magazines still accepted the photos I’d send. That was nice.

Being a contributing photographer is hard. You don’t make much money so being able to work for multiple magazines was the only way I could survive. I hope that me being able to work that way helped magazines realize that they do, in fact, have to pay photographers some kind of monthly check if they expect them to be loyal.


How did Anti Hero come about and how were you brought in to help with the visuals?

Julien had been riding for Real when Deluxe wanted him to start conceptualizing a new company with all of his ideas and interests. Julien’s always been the guy behind the Anti Hero, the creative director… though I don’t think he would ever call himself that. But he ended up calling me about it just because he still wasn’t sure and wanted my opinion. By that point, we’d been friends for years and were actually roommates for quite some time… even if he was always on the road and “roommate” basically meant just having his bed somewhere in the house.

We hung out and talked about what it could be like. I remember the overall initial concept early on was pirates, which it still basically is. That kinda mentality.

I remember going to one of the first meetings at Deluxe and since we figured every company needed a photographer, that was going to be me. I’d shoot video, too. It was all so exciting to be out there creating this new thing.

I was the one who brought in Chris Johanson. I’d recently met him and going to a lot of his art shows. I loved his stuff. I thought it was a good match for the company so I turned Julien and John Cardiel onto him and they were into enough to ask him to do the graphics.


“Pirates” is pretty spot-on but how would you describe the Anti Hero visual aesthetic? I mean, 20 years later, you still know an Anti Hero ad immediately.

One thing you have to know is that Julien’s mother is an artist. When Julien was in San Francisco, he lived with his mom in this huge art community. So he’s growing up in an environment where he’s staying around all these artists for half the year and the other half, he spends down in Venice with his Dad. Venice had some awesome skaters but it is a tough and aggressive place. I think growing up in these two scenes like he did had a very apparent influence on him.

Julien wants to do things his way, that’s the way he’s always been. I feel Anti Hero is the result of him seeing things differently. I mean, if you look back at some of those old SMA ads he was in, they look very similar… especially the one where he turned pro for them. All the writing is handwritten and it’s totally autobiographical and real.  A very similar formula to Anti Hero. It says his Mom told him that if he put that syringe on a board as his first graphic, he was getting kicked out of the house. There’s a photo of him skating at Benecia, there’s another photo of him driving a car and there’s his first board graphic, which was the airplane syringe… skating was his drug. Then it says, “Oh well, I guess it was time to leave anyway.”

All that stuff really happened. The photo is of him driving to his first pro contest. I rode out there with him and Micke. And that is around when he moved out of his Mom’s house. But it’s all handmade and personal. He’s had that aesthetic all along, Anti Hero just gave him the outlet to keep doing it.


What is your favorite Anti Hero ad?

Oh man, I’ll have to find images because it never ran. Fausto or whoever wouldn’t run it in Thrasher. They knew that parents would get pissed or maybe they’d possibly get into trouble or something. But it was so good. I remember seeing it and just being like “What the fuck is this?!”

Basically it had no skateboarding in it. It’s a page consisting of 6 or 7 panels with photos of famous people who had died, all of whom have checkmarks beside them. All the people who had died have a checkmark and there’s one photo that doesn’t have a checkmark and it’s Ronald Reagan, who wasn’t dead yet at this time. The people with checkmarks were Jerry Garcia, who Julien loved making fun of, John Lennon and I think Princess Diana. But it says at the top of the page in typewriter, “In order to bring our message before the public and to make a lasting impression, we’ve had to kill people.”

Wow!

Yeah, it was like all of these people had been killed just to bring this message forward and it just said “Anti Hero” at the bottom. I loved it because Ronald Reagan wasn’t dead yet… but he was next.


You’ve shot Julien, one of skateboarding’s biggest recluses, for decades.  Honestly, just how picky is he with photos? I’ve heard stories of him ripping film out of cameras.

(laughs) He never ripped film out of my camera but I can see him doing that. He’s a perfectionist. He really likes his skating a certain way and doesn’t want a picture out there that he doesn’t feel good about. it’s as simple as that.

I’ve been in those classic “job” situations with him, even back in the SMA days, where a deadline was coming and they needed a photo from him. If, for whatever reason, a photo didn’t feel right to him, he’d choose not to run anything. He’d be adamant about it. I know when I try to get him to approve stuff, it always feel really great to shoot something that he’s super psyched on.

The opposite side of that is when a session doesn’t feel right to him, he’ll tell you to stop taking photos. It’s over. He did that a lot, even though sometimes I’d still try to sneak a few. If I thought one was good enough, I’d show it to him later. It actually worked out a couple times.

I remember his Transworld Pro Spotlight being a bit more difficult. It was Luke Ogden and I shooting photos of him up in San Francisco and I remember Grant Brittain hitting us up, not able to figure out why we weren’t done yet. We’d been shooting for months at this point, which at the time was much longer than they usually took. We had to explain to Grant what a perfectionist Julien is, that it just takes a fair amount of time with him. We couldn’t just go out there for a day and get everything we needed. Julien doesn’t work like that.

Grant didn’t seem to believe us and honestly seemed kinda pissed at us. He ended up arranging for Julien to come down to LA and shoot photos with Spike. There’s that centerfold at that curb cut gap Spike shot a lot of photos at…


Yeah! I heard while they were shooting that, Spike was also trying to get a few other different things but Julien just did what he wanted to do and then he was done with the photo session.

That was it.

Yeah, the one-foot shot ended up getting used and the interview finally came out but I definitely remember Grant sorta apologizing to me later about how he now understood what we were talking about.


So we have to get into the making of Fucktards… was that just you filming and Julien editing?

Basically. While I did film most of it, the whole team did like to film at times. Just having the camera in a backpack and breaking it out whenever something good was about to go down, which definitely helped out in getting some of the crazier footage. I mean, easily one of the most memorable things is that puking scene in the kitchen. That whole thing from Julien trying to film his friends talking shit, hoping to get something funny. He wound up filming a bunch of dudes puking instead.

Classic stuff.

But I did film most of it. It was only a couple of months. I filmed all of the Super 8 stuff and that little segment of Pixelvision in the middle, too. A lot of the shots, whatever the format, I was just shooting with nothing really in mind. Like the credits where I’m panning up that girl’s arm to her lips? That was just a shot I had that ended up getting used.

I made a few suggestions and brought in some extra footage like that but it was definitely Julien’s thing. I just wanted to help in making it, to not get in the way. To help make it the best thing it could be.

Well said.

We were trying to make something that was the exact opposite of the normal way to make a video. We wanted to do the opposite of what other companies were doing at the time.


I know you shot the cover photo... What the hell is going on there?

Yeah, that was my photo. It was this random party that no Anti Hero skaters were actually at.  Brian Ferdinand and I had taken a Greyhound bus out to Sacramento for a weekend and met up with all these awesome guys through Brian. It’s hard to explain because they were amazing skaters but just so different than anyone I’d ever met before. They all dressed up in ripped jeans with spikes and shit. Lots of Levi’s, tiger stripes and leopard print. It was awesome.

But yeah, we ended up at this random party with all these hippie kids in tye-dye. Whatever, we’re hanging out and drinking beer. Having a good time. Curtis Stauffer is there, who used to skate for SMA actually. Curtis is just this center of attention type character and starts goofing off in front of these hippie girls. For whatever reason, he starts pretending he’s John Travolta and begins doing this impression. That’s the photo.


How do you go about shooting non-skate stuff that the subject may not want captured for posterity? Like a walking Eric J high out of his mind or even the police car stuff with Micke… do you shoot these things first and then figure it out later?

Honestly, I didn’t fully know what was going on with Eric J on that one. That clip was on a Portland trip where he was already on a program of staying up all-night partying before we even left. But here we are on this full-on skate mission and he just kept it going. I honestly think that he may have been cracking under the pressure a little bit. I mean, being on a team with Julien and John Cardiel… that’s kind of a big deal. Eric Jay was a rad skater but was also from a really small town and maybe wasn’t ready to be in that kind of stressful situation. So he went out partying a lot. At the same time, that front blunt he did on that wall at Burnside was amazing. We were able to get some really amazing stuff from him but he’d always ditch out of the hotel room in the middle of the night and go hitchhiking. We’d wake up in the morning to go skate and he’d still be awake, telling us how he met up with the metal rocker chicks… which was rad but he’d be completely burned out and we were ready to skate.

That shot of him walking, we were only trying to get shots of him for the video so he could be in it more, whether he’s skating or just walking around. That shot was kinda like showing him coming into work late, haggard.

As far as the cop stuff with Micke, you have to remember that he was a full-time police officer for almost 2 years when Antihero started. But back when we were roommates, I was always so fascinated with the day-to-day stuff he faced as a policeman in San Francisco. He actually let me go out there with him a bunch and honestly, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Press and photographers would typically go on ride-alongs with police. It happened all the time, just not usually for a skateboarding video. So yeah, I’d go out with him a lot… but definitely staying close to the car. (laughs)

The footage in Fucktards was from this one night where I had just broken up with my girlfriend at the time and was super bummed. I called Micke and was complaining to him about everything when he offered to let me tag along in the car. Looking back on it, I think that was Micke’s way of trying to cheer me up. But I remember getting into his unmarked police car around midnight and I had my video camera, my still camera and a trumpet.


That’s amazing.

Yeah, I was kinda drunk and totally bummed. Saying shit like, “Man, I hate girls! Girls suck.” (laughs)

The first thing we did was go to the donut shop, because that’s what all cops do. This isn’t in the video but I remember filming him walking out of the donut shop and into the cruiser like, “Oh, coffee and donuts!”

Then we just drove around shining the spotlight on people. But yeah, he looked at all the stuff and approved it before we put it in the video. He made sure it was kosher. There was probably some stuff in there he didn’t want anyone to see… nothing super terrible but logistical stuff as a police officer. 


Around the same time but with a totally different aesthetic… how did you get involved with making A Visual Sound?

Yeah, that Stereo stuff came about after running into the old Deluxe crew on a Europe trip while I was covering those old skate contests they used to have over there. I was working for a Spanish magazine and ended up hopping in the Deluxe van in Germany and tagging along. I think just being there with Chris and Jason as they were figuring out Stereo was how I got into the mix. I was already shooting them and we got along great so A Visual Sound seemed like the next step.

Once we got back, I started shooting with them everyday for, like, 9 months. Jason and Chris had very specific ideas about everything… how they wanted it to look and the music… even down to the intros for the parts and the interludes with the still photos and everything. That one was a lot of fun to shoot.  I remember all the dudes were so serious about wanting everything they did to look polished and proper.  


I know you played a large role in Ethan’s coming back to California and getting on Stereo at this time. Wasn’t all his Visual Sound stuff filmed in something like 2 weeks?

Ethan did live with me at the time but as far as moving out here and switching sponsors, that was just timing.  What happened was that I had driven out to New York with Julien, Rick Ibaseta and my other roommate. Thomas Campbell was having an art show at Alleged Gallery and beyond that, we just felt like going to New York. Once we got there, Julien and Rick were kinda over the idea of driving back and figured they’d stay longer and catch a flight home. That drive is so draining. Thomas was there and trying to get back to California, so probably as a favor to me, agreed to ride back since he knew how rough that was going be on only two people.

But because Thomas was with me, we started visiting all of his connections along the way. I’d never met Ethan before but he and Thomas got along really well and he was in Iowa City. He was only 16 and still sponsored by Toy Machine but obviously since he had moved to Iowa with his family, his career was basically facing a death sentence. So Thomas suggested to Ethan that he should run away at one point.

(laughs)

Yeah, Ethan’s mom found out and got really pissed at Thomas, as any mother should. I didn’t know Ethan but it basically came down to the fact that it was my car, he could come with us if he wanted to. We were going to California anyway. I think I might’ve been 20 or 21, really thinking nothing of how wrong it was. At the time, it seemed only right because Ethan was so talented and mature for a kid that age. He wanted to be a pro skateboarder and he could obviously do it. So I offered him to come with us and he did.

When we got to California, he stayed at our house for 2 months.  I remember sitting next to him as he called his Mom, working everything out so he could stay. During that time, because I was still working on A Visual Sound, he was hanging out with Chris and Jason a lot. They got along well and got to skating together so within a few weeks of him moving out, they asked him to ride for Stereo. This was literally during the last two weeks of the video and I still remember Chris and Jason asking me to try and film a part with Ethan real quick. It was crazy but we just shot everyday. Ethan was so motivated. In retrospect, he was probably more motivated by his new situation more than anything, here he is out in San Francisco by himself as a 16-year-old kid, basically having to jumpstart his skateboarding career. The thing is that he’s really talented anyway. He’s one of those skateboarders who can just step on a board and rip at anytime. So it honestly wasn’t that hard to get a bunch of footage of him.

As far as those cutaways everyone talks about, we had to shoot an intro of him to fit in with the rest of the video but Chris and Jason didn’t really have any concept. “Just shoot some footage of him doing something interesting and we’ll use it. “

We just went out with my Super 8mm camera and made it up. I think at this point, the video was due in a week. I remember we had stayed up really late and the sun had come up when we decided to shoot the intro right then. Go get some coffee and cruise around the Mission.

“Alright, what do you want to do?”

He started adlibbing all this stuff, walking backwards and things. I think I asked him to lie down in the street. But it was all spontaneous and I think that shows.


A Visual Sound and Fucktards were ahead of their time almost to a fault, as they largely fell on deaf ears at the time. Was this frustrating for you? Was it difficult to remain steadfast in your convictions?

Honestly, not really.  Skateboarding was still small and we were all broke as hell. I know we were trying to do something different than what was out there. Chris and Jason were trying to do a type of direction and look that nobody had seen before. Julien with Fucktards as well. We weren’t really concerned with how it was going to be received or if it would be appreciated. I think it was obvious that Stereo and Anti Hero were never one of those big companies, which I think is a big reason why we were able to make those videos to begin with. We did our best with the time and resources that we had.


What’s your all-time favorite San Francisco spot to shoot at?

As far as a skatespot to shoot in San Francisco, I had a lot of fun shooting photos in Embarcadero. It was so oversaturated at the time that it was almost a non-spot. It was basically a skatepark but I had a lot of fun shooting both there and and Hubba Hideout. Those two are definitely up there for me.

Actually, I remember this one spot where a tree had fallen over by my girlfriend’s house and created a perfect 45-degree angle curb cut. We used a photo of Julien photo from there for another one of my favorite Anti Hero ads, where the skateboard is smashing the car window really big and the skate photo is small. I really liked that one.  But as far as that spot went, I love it because it’s a perfect example of something you happen upon and realize it would be good to skate.


Kinda surprised to hear you say Embarcadero…wasn’t shooting slow and low, inconsistent tech tricks on film difficult? I know you were still able to pull out some gems though. I always loved Henry’s backside noseblunt on the C-Block for Blind USA.

Being a skate photographer before digital, you just shot a lot of film. Some tricks, especially flip tricks, take more attempts than others and you would just burn through it. This usually meant that the closer you got to getting the make, you were also that much closer to being out of film. I remember so many times being on my last roll and the pressure was really on. You only had 3 or 4 tries per roll.  

Henry’s back noseblunt fakie is one of my favorite sequences, too. The sun was just going down over Justin Herman Plaza and I was shooting with a Nikon F3. I had the mirror locked up so it would shoot faster but also meant I couldn’t see through it. Other photographers were close by who would’ve loved to get this sequence but Henry asked me so I’m super excited. He’d never done that trick on such a high ledge before. I was lying on the ground and shot a few attempts. I think I screwed up on Henry’s first make and had to ask him to do it again. He pulled it again perfectly on the next try.


You shot the infamous Andy Roy interview in Big Brother. How representative was that piece of his daily life back then?

Andy was definitely living fast. As fast as he could. I think a little of that was just to do something crazy… like having a girl put out a cigarette on his nuts. But I do feel like, for the most part, that was his day-to-day. Living out loud… he’s a pretty intense dude. I think part of him was just trying to be crazier than everybody else. It could be a bit of a Napoleon complex. He’s a kinda short kid. Maybe he just wanted some attention… like “Look at me! I’m crazy!”

The gun range stuff came from a trip to John Cardiel’s house in Sacramento. John is a big gun collector and loves to go shooting. I remember him being so excited to take us to the target range and share his love with all his friends. I don’t think Andy had ever shot a gun before or at least it wasn’t something he had done very much. But there’s just something about those photos of him that I really like.


What about Sean Young as the Unknown Asshole?

That idea came from Sean. He’s such a character. He lived in the Tenderloin for a long time and I don’t know why he had this ski mask but that whole thing came from an experience he had while getting on the bus wearing it. He did it totally just to freak people out. Just from all of the movies you see, if you see someone in a ski mask who looks a little creepy, they’re probably going to rob you. Something weird is going to happen.

That article was a pretty cool collaboration. Like I said, Sean came up with the idea and we decided that it would be great to base an entire interview or an article around it. We shot a few photos and ran it by Big Brother and they were into it. From there, I was telling Chris Johanson about it and he agreed to do the opening double page spread. He explained his concept to me as the Unknown Asshole walking down the street where the people in front of him are all happy and the people behind him have all been made sour by him. Shooting those photos was so fun. I remember him getting on a bus and sitting next to this random woman. Her reaction was so good. It was all so weird. Him skating around with that mask on, doing tricks… I took so many photos for that article.

Sean was such a good skater. He was way into chess, too. I remember him always reading books about it. I haven’t talked to him in years…


Home Sweet Home: the Cards air through the rafters for that Big Brother cover… be honest, is that a make? I’ve heard conflicting reports.

He made it. He went through the rafters and landed to backside disaster. I suppose it wasn’t a clean make but he definitely made it through the rafters up there and landed on the coping to like hang-up but whatever. He rolled away, it just wasn’t super clean.


Quintessential Cardiel: the Slayer horns. Isn’t John more of a mellow-type reggae dude? Was that photo taken as more of a joke back then?

I was actually more into Slayer at the time than John. He liked Slayer but was also just listening to some crazy music, too. Crazy ass rap music. Reggae wasn’t his primary music at that point.

That photo came about from just driving down the street in San Francisco together and stumbling upon all these Slayer posters. Like I said, John liked Slayer but it really came about because I wanted to try and take one of those posters off the wall. I never got one, though. But I had my camera and for whatever reason, John just got in there and threw up the horns. I took the photo and that was that. I’d never have guessed that it would have the staying power it has. 


Who is a skater you personally thought was incredible but, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks and never quite got the shine they deserved?

I think the act of what you’re doing is the reward and if your able to get free boards and paid on top of that, it’s even better. But for every successful pro, there are countless other talented skateboarders that maybe weren’t in the right place at the right time to get their photo in a skate mag or turn pro.  Brian Ferdinand was someone I shot photos of a lot. He’d often be at a session with pros and be ripping just as hard.  And although he didn’t end up having the dream pro skate career, he was able to get one pro model.

What's your favorite cover that you've shot?

The Jason Lee one for Transworld. 


Good choice. Last question: name one classic skate photo that you wish you shot.

There’s too many to name but I think this Kevin Thatcher photo of the guy doing a frontside grind in a pool while drinking beer captures the fun that skateboarding is. 

It really does. Thanks for doing this, Tobin.

6.08.2015

chrome ball interview #82: mike blabac

chops and blaze sit down for conversation.


Starting off with an easy one, Mike: What was your first published skate photo?

My first ever published skate photo was a Scott Johnston Pure Wheels ad.

The one in Big Brother where they screwed up and put the Simon Evans Experience shit on it by mistake?

Wow, that’s insane that you knew that! Yeah, that’s the one! That was the first published thing I ever got paid for.

Were you bummed they fucked it up?

(laughs) Not really. I was more stoked it was actually used and I made money shooting photos of my friend.

My first editorial photo was of Joey Bast doing a nollie front noseslide at Black Rock for Transworld, which I thought was insane at the time.

Shot from underneath, I remember that one. So I know the story goes that you came up in Michigan shooting Kalis as a young dude. How seriously did you take your photography back then?

Yeah, I moved to Michigan from Ohio when I was 12, which was around the time I first started picking up a camera… but for whatever reason, I always tried to keep my interests in skating and photography separate. I didn’t usually shoot skating back then. I was always out taking photos of the dumb shit I saw in photo magazines that I was trying to copy. Shooting trees like I was Ansel Adams or whatever.

But once I’d gotten to know all of the dudes in the Michigan scene through skating, I did start taking my camera out every now and then to shoot. Sean Sheffey was around, in his transition from Santa Monica Airlines to Life phase and Kalis was already sponsored at the time, too. They all needed photos and I had a camera so I figured I’d give it a shot but it really wasn’t this big thing for me.

The same thing basically happened all over again a few years later when I moved to San Francisco. I got to know everyone in the city through skating way before I started taking photos. Nobody knew I even took photos except for my close friends. It just so happened that one day while I was working at the Gap, Scott Johnston came in wanting to shoot an ad because his photographer flaked on him.

That’s really how all of this came about. That’s when the lightbulb came on. As much as I didn’t want to mix skating and photography, it’s a lot better than folding shirts for the Gap at 5 in the morning.

You were never even thought about becoming a skate photographer for all those years? Even after shooting with Sheffey and Kalis back in Michigan?

No, never. But it wasn’t like I didn’t take my photography seriously, I was super into it. I just never thought that there was a career as a skate photographer. I’m not sure why that was, it seems so obvious now. I think it had more to do with being such a skate rat at the time, I couldn’t imagine taking so much time away from skating just to take photos of it.

It’s funny because I regret all those years that I wasn’t out there taking photos. I remember skating the DMV curbs with Jim and Tommy after I had moved to SF. Natas would come through, too. It was insane. I’m shooting myself in the foot for not ever thinking to capture those moments. Skating down at Embarcadero with the dudes rather than documenting things with my camera like I should’ve been. You take that stuff for granted when you’re young. I was just more into being a part of the moment and skating back then.

I’m sure there was an overall lifestyle improvement from Michigan in there as well.

San Francisco was the epicenter of skating back then. It just so happened that a friend of mine was moving out there at the time and I just went with him. I’d never even been there before but I moved out anyway and got that job at the Gap, which still allowed me to skate everyday. It wasn’t like I was trying to go pro, either. I just wanted to be a part of everything and not be in Michigan. I think the windchill was -35 degrees when I left that February. A few days later, I’m in a place where I can skate everyday and possibly even see dudes like Mike Carroll and Jovontae Turner. What more could I ask for?

I definitely didn’t plan out this whole thing where I‘d be shooting skate photos for the next 20+ years of my life. It never once occurred to me.

So you basically owe your entire career to the fact that Scott Johnston’s photographer flaked one day.

(laughs) Yeah, kinda. I mean, I had so many friends around town who were always asking me why I wasn’t trying to shoot skate photos… people like Meza, Karl Watson and Joe Brooke. It was all so obvious to them! But it  did work out. Going back to what I said earlier, I could’ve shown up one day at Embarcadero with all my camera gear, got robbed and that would’ve been it. Just some kid from the Midwest trying to point his camera at everybody probably wouldn’t have been good.

Was your move out west at all coordinated with Kalis? SF seemed to be the prime of his most gangster phase with the Tek-9 earrings and everything. Were you down with all that?

Honestly, Kalis and I didn’t link back up again until I was walking out of the Gap one day for my lunch break and I saw him sitting on the ground next to Jamie Thomas.

"Woah! What are you doing here?"

"Dude! What are you doing here?"

It’s funny because I definitely remember making a few comments about those earrings at the time but I still didn’t really know him super good. Like, if I saw him wearing some crazy shit like that now, I’d fucking let him have it. But back then, not so much.

I do have a couple of photos of him with the earrings and a Sophisto jacket. That switch crook down mini-Hubba where he’s fitted to the 9’s with super baggy clothes. Tek-9 earring in one ear and a pot leaf in the other… and he didn’t even really smoke that much weed! (laughs)

It was awesome.

So good. You were also shooting a lot with Drake Jones during this time, too. 

Yeah, I remember the first time I saw Drake skate was at Wallenberg. He was skating the ledges and I remember thinking just how fascinating he was to watch. It was insane how effortless his style was… which is probably why people still talk about him all these years later.

Did you ever get the impression that he was going to fade out like he did? Possibly being overly picky or maybe even not at all?

Towards the end, yes. Drake is one of those guys who’s talented at anything he tries. Therefore, I think it’s difficult for dudes like that to keep with something once the thrill of learning it is gone. Once you’ve figured something out and it’s wired, it’s kinda over for them.

During the tail end of his career when he was about to ride for 23, you could tell he was over it. I was going to a pool hall everynight for a while there and he started going, too. He ended up getting really into it. I know that he’s super into golf now but in-between skating and that for him was playing pool.

I remember literally dragging him out of a pool hall to shoot one of his only 23 ads. Pleading with him to manufacture this thing for me with the promise that we’d go back and play some more pool afterwards. Luckily, there was a spot directly across the street from us. I think that might’ve been the last skate photo he ever had. He was just over it.

You shot a few of Lennie Kirk’s classic photos as well. What was he like to shoot with? And was this before or after he hit his head?

It was mostly before but I knew him after as well. I always kept Lennie at an arm’s length. I’m a pretty mellow dude and the thing with Lennie, he’s always causing a rukus. He was causing a rukus before he hit his head and even after he hit his head and got all into religion, he was still causing a rukus. I’m not the dude to stir things up. If he’s sitting in the back of the bus, I’m up front. I wasn’t trying to be with that dude. But I will say that I loved shooting him. The way he charged, such an amazing skater.

One of my favorite sequences ever is that drop 50 Workshop ad we worked on. The trick itself and then all the frames after where he’s carving around the car in the forground. So sick.

Lennie would always preach out front of the liquor store across the street from my apartment. I would have to time my getting beer to when he was busy preaching to someone so I could sprint over and duck inside. I remember the dude working the counter would always start yelling at me.

“Dude, get your boy out of here!”

“He’s not my boy. I live across the street and I’m here to buy beer. I know this dude from skating but that’s it. I’m sorry, man. I can’t help you.”

What about that back 50 photo of his past the tree? Such an amazing shot but I always wished there was video, too. How’d that one go down?

That was on Oak Street right by my house.

Skating was so different back then. We’d just go out for fun. I remember bringing it up to him while we were skating one day. He just saw it and charged. That was it. He didn’t even really think about it. Grinded through it all sketchy, didn’t take him long at all.

That photo actually got ran through the wrong chemicals. That’s why it’s cross-processed, the lab I went to put it through the print film C41 chemicals. I remember picking them up and totally losing it on them. I was so pissed. But later on after I got a print of it, I started to realize that it was actually kinda tight. (laughs)

How did Mad Circle enter the picture?

Mad Circle was seriously just a one-man operation. Justin did everything. He did the ads, he did the team, everything. I feel like I got in there because he basically needed an assistant and a photographer… just anything, a voice of reason maybe? I ended up living with him during those days so I saw it all firsthand.

Scott is really the one who got me the Mad Circle job. I was doing random things for Deluxe at the time but they already had Gabe and there really wasn’t a need for extra dudes shooting photos for a company back then. But through that, Scott brought up the possibility of working for Mad Circle instead and, of course, I was down. It was an amazing company and plus, I’d get a paycheck every month. So that’s how that happened.

Coincidentally, Justin also needed a roommate at the time so that’s basically when I began waking, eating, and sleeping Mad Circle for the next 3 years.

Were you more than just photos? Probably helping out a little with creative direction alongside Justin, right?

Yeah, I mean, by no means do I take credit for that stuff as it was all Justin and Scott but I did help out wherever I could. That was the dope thing about doing everything of Mad Circle in the house: we’d work on stuff all day and then Wing Ding, Scott and everyone else would come over to hang out and look at stuff. To look at what all we did that day. It was so sick.

Justin was really mindful and ahead of his time as far as giving the company a direction. Plus, one of the original art directors for the company who actually drew the logo was Barry McGee.

Yeah, that’s not bad.

The company just had such a heavy foundation and always looked strong. I remember Justin having this huge box of Barry’s artwork, all these mad balls and random screws and things he had drawn. Justin asked me if I wanted to take any of it and I didn’t.

“Nah, maybe later…”  

I wish I had that artwork now! (laughs)

One thing I always liked about Mad Circle was that the ads were never just a skate photo. There was always some kind of premise behind everything, like little photo essays. SJ’s Uncommonly Smooth whiskey glass and Pontus Alv throwing Caution with the orange cone. Was that stuff planned beforehand or retrofitted afterwards with the photos?

It was a mixture of both. It’s funny you bring up the Pontus ad because he had kickflipped over that cone and just from working with Justin for so long and knowing how he is, I knew enough to grab the cone and take it home. I knew I’d need it. It was really close to my house so I just grabbed and shot it with slide film later.  I remember thinking how sick it would be to have a black-and-white ad with this crazy orange cone. Justin liked the idea and that’s what we did. I really like how that one turned out.

What’s your favorite Mad Circle ad?

Fuck, that’s a tough one.

One that immediately comes to mind is that Scott Johnston sequence of him doing the 180 to switch backside 5-0 at Brown Marble the hard way. That’s one of my favorites, for sure. Definitely ahead of its time. I like a lot of the black and white stuff, too. Justin had an ad of an ollie at Santa Rosa park that was nice.

But if I had to pick one, it would be that Scott sequence… or that one of Karl doing the switch backtail where we put the sticker on there that everyone thinks we photoshopped.

That’s one of your classic shots.

Yeah, I love the belt. But those ads are definitely up there for me, for sure.

I know SJ has said that he kinda held back at first when shooting with you, just in case you blew it. Could you sense that at the time with him and possibly others?

I think Scott was the only one who really felt like that. But it’s not like he kept that a secret from me. He always thought I was way too stoned to shoot photos. (laughs)

He’s so meticulous at everything he does, which is why he’s good at everything. But we worked well together. He’s such a wound-up dude and I’m definitely not, especially in those days.

There was one time when he had a Droors ad due and we were out trying to shoot it. He just kept asking me over and over again, “Dude, do you got this? Are you sure? Are you sure you got this?”

“If you keep on worrying about me, you’re not going to even be able to skate!”

“I don’t know, man. I mean, I know Ballard is coming up…”

“Well then fuck, dude! Go shoot with Ballard then. I don’t give a shit.”

I remember turning around and seeing Bobby Puleo and Brad Staba over in Union Square, thinking to myself, “Fuck this, I’m gonna go shoot those guys instead!”

And that’s what I did. We went and put food all over the ground and I shot them rolling through pigeons. That’s how that photo came about. I was supposed to shoot a Droors ad with Scott and shot a bunch of birds instead.

I love Scott. That’s just how we worked. And after a while, he did start to trust in that I knew what I was doing.

But that SJ Parking Meter shot is a classic! Did you go out that day looking try this technique or did the idea just pop in your head at the spot?

We were just out skating. We were skating the Pier and had gotten kicked out. That ledge was just up the street so we always ended up skating there a good bit. That particular parking meter looked like it had been hit by a car and caught my eye. I didn’t even notice it had a Deluxe sticker on it while I was shooting. Scott was skating that ledge and that’s just how I decided to shoot it that day.

Did Scott even realize you were shooting it composed like that?

No, he had no idea. He was worried that I was even shooting something so basic like a back smith.

“Dude! Don’t shoot a photo of this!”

“Scott, trust me, man! You do your thing and I’ll do mine.”

Did you see the end of Mad Circle coming?

No, no one did. That was something where Giant just pulled the plug on it. I don’t even know to this day what I’m really comfortable saying about all that but it was definitely not the best how it went down.

We had just put out the 5 Flavors video only a couple months before. It was still firing on all cylinders so nobody expected it to come to an end like it did. I know that Justin had some differences with the people there and I think it was just a situation where they wanted all of their brands under one roof. I mean, Mad Circle was basically just this one dude out in SF. But I do feel Mad Circle could’ve gone on for several more years. It could still be a board company to this day.

Agreed. I know it was after that when you moved down to LA and got hooked up with Girl for a bit before your current gig at DC. Granted, you only shot there for a year or two but it was that legendary Chocolate Tour-era where those dudes were absolutely killing it. Do you have a particular favorite memory that stands out from your time at Girl?

It’s hard to pick out one moment. It was such a great time to be a part of all that and be friends with those guys.

If anything, I’d have to pick this trip we all took to Vancouver for Slam City Jam that year. Just all of us in a van: me, Gino, Sheffey, Keenan, Chico, Carroll, Rick, Koston and Meza smashed into this van like sardines. It was the funnest drive. I have so many great photos from just being in the van on that trip. I remember Meza giving Eric shit the whole way up from LA to SF about how he’d better back noseblunt Hubba when we got there. Just talking shit for hours. He’d bust on Eric and then do shit like tap me on the shoulder in front of Eric to ask how I was planning on shooting him do it. All with that classic smirk that Meza always has. So good. But, of course, he ended up doing it.  

So Koston’s back noseblunt down Hubba basically came about through peer pressure?

Something like that, yeah.

I heard he didn’t even like it when he did it.

No, he wasn’t overly thrilled about it. Not at all. But I certainly was.

I remember having so much anxiety over that photo, not knowing what it looked like. It was insane. I thought about it everyday for the whole two weeks until I finally got home. I walked around with that roll in my pocket the whole time because I wasn’t about to go to some random lab in Vancouver. I wasn’t going to a place that I didn’t know but then I started to worry about possibly losing the film as well. What if something happened to it? It was psycho but it all worked out.  

Talk a little about how you started coming out to Philadelphia and Love. Did it feel like some new golden era for the city at the time?

To be honest, for the first year I went out there, it wasn’t that readily apparent to me, even though I was definitely still tripping on all the stuff that was going down. Granted hindsight is always 20/20 but knowing what that place means to skating now is insane. Kalis and I were just talking a few days ago about what it was like to be there at the time and be part of it. Something that people look back on 15 years later and it still holds up. It’s still people’s favorite.

I was lucky. Kalis was getting a shoe and I had just started working for DC… I remember Kelly Bird telling me straight-up, “Get ready. You’re going to be spending a lot of time in Philly.”

I was down. Kalis and Stevie had this super shitty apartment together and I’d go stay on their couch for weeks at a time. Hang out with all of Stevie’s homies, go skate and grab a cheesesteak on the way home. Go out everyday, shooting everything that was going down at Love that day… and if there wasn’t much on that particular day, going up to Stevie or Josh to make something happen.

“Hey man, can we shoot a photo? I’ve been sitting here all day.” (laughs)

That’s actually how that switch front nose went down of Stevie’s. Clear everyone off the ledge and boom! Just like that.

Two of Love’s most iconic shots gotta be the Kalis tre over the can and the Wenning switch heel off the ledge over the can. You can’t tell me those were also shot of out boredom, right?

No… well, the Wenning one was kinda like that. We were skating at night and the idea just popped in my head. I thought it would be dope because we were always there during the day. No one had filming lights or anything like that back then. Definitely not in Philly. You never saw night photos at Love back then so we thought we’d gave it a shot. There was no production whatsoever…. which is kind of the cool thing about it. We just did it one night.

The tre flip was a little different. I remember being at Dyrdek and Ave’s apartment in LA when Kalis told me about it. I couldn’t even believe it. I can’t remember the name but somebody had already shot a photo of it. The problem was the angle they shot it from was straight-on. With all due respect to whoever that was, that was not a good photo. I remember seeing it for the first time and telling Josh, “Fuck that. We’re going back to do it. We have to get that one right.”

That’s something that had to be shot from the side so you can see the distance. So you can see the catch and the can.

So we went back the next week and I got a sequence of it. I basically flew out there almost specifically for that trick.

Was it difficult shooting Danny Way and vert skating at first after so many years of being out in the streets? Did you go back and study old photos or possibly even hit up some older photogs for pointers?

I definitely looked at some older photos for inspiration and I’m constantly asking Grant questions anyway. Even back when I was just starting, I’d write him letters to get his two cents on things and he’d write me back. But yeah, I’d ask Grant a lot of questions prior to the session and then just be figuring things out on the fly with whoever was skating.

“What are you doing again? Where are you going?”

Unfortunately, Danny gave me a lot of practice because when he was filming for the DC Video, he’d be out there for up to 7 hours sometimes.

But you had to be terrified at first with all that Mega Ramp stuff, right?  Then probably strangely comfortable with the whole scenario… 

Honestly, at this point, I feel like I almost have as much confidence in Danny’s skating as he does. I remember in the past doubting certain things he’d say but I’ve learned over the years to not ever do that. Take that rail, for example.

“You’re going 45mph straight at this huge uncapped piece of steel and you’re going to front crook it? Really? … Alright.”

But then he does it.

How involved were you in the planning?

I wasn’t there for any of the building. That was kept under wraps because Ken didn’t want a lot of people knowing about it. I just remember Greg coming up to me and saying, “Hey dude, this is going to be fun. There’s something gnarly going down.” (laughs)

I remember going there and just being blown away. I think I’m actually the one who came up with the name “Mega Ramp”, even though it’s long been trademarked. But I remember seeing it and thinking that it was literally bigger than a building.

But I was there the first time he skated it… he slammed and slid on his stomach all the way down. It was obviously sketchy but he just powered through and figured it all out. It’s amazing that the dimensions were  right considering he just eyeballed it as it was being built. Build it here, this high with this certain amount of transition and it should be good.

That’s crazy.

There were definitely some trials though, for sure. That box-type ledge thing he skated for a while before the rail? That thing was psycho. He just looked at like a big ledge but imagine going 45mph into a front feeble accidently when you’re trying a 50-50? That’s scary even on a curb going regular speed!

The slams he took on that thing were insane but he’s like a cat. He’d just spin around and knee slide on his elbows backwards. He never goes into anything blind. He always knows what he’s doing.

How do you even go about figuring out angles for that thing? It’s gotta be easy to get lost while trying to shoot something that huge…

Greg and I talked a lot about that. I mean, it’s almost next to impossible to convey how truly gnarly that stuff is. The average person can’t possibly wrap their heads around it.

I think we lucked out that it was built in an area where we could get really far back and give it a sense of scale. We could use long lenses and show it for what it really was, the best we could. When you shoot something long of that enormity, it’s the same thought as to why you don’t shoot a 20-stair rail with a fisheye lens. It’s 20-stairs, you don’t need to polish that turd up. It’s already gnarly. You just try to show it for what it is.

The Dyrdek Big Brother Cover and subsequent DC campaign with all the stuffed animals… what the hell was going on there? Was that just being purposefully over-the-top for fun’s sake? Were the skaters into it?

Those ads were nuts and I think about half of the skaters were really into it. But it’s funny because people still to this day talk about wanting to redo those.

Most of that came from working with Ken. I remember doing the one with Dyrdek and the wolf and Ken talking to me about how these really weren’t so far out of the realm of what could actually happen.

“You know Dyrdek probably will end up having a Lamborghini and hell, he’ll probably buy a wolf, too. That’s funny. These are supposed to be funny. But at least make that Lambo yellow, you dumbass! That way it’ll show off more at night!”

The original idea for Dyrdek’s cover was him just wanting something outrageous, which we definitely succeeded at. But originally there were supposed to be 3 girls in there, only 1 showed up. Gnarly b-grade porn chicks we hired through Flynt.

We got the cheetah from this taxidermy spot nearby. I’ve actually seen those exact same animals from there over and over again at different things…. even at the DC 20-Year party! Those same penguins are still making money for that place 20 years later.

But what was it like shooting the DC team in the early 2000s in general? A booming time in skateboarding as a whole and that team in particular was almost like a rap group. I mean, you’re shooting Rob Dyrdek with a face full of diamonds…

(laughs) I was just making the most of it. It was an insane amount of fun but I do feel that so much of it was done well enough to where even your super-cynical Jason Dills could still appreciate it on some level. They got the joke. Some of that stuff was so insane that it’s really no surprise people are still talking about it. So much of that can be attributed to how smart Ken is. He really knows how to get people’s attention. DC was smart enough to recognize what was funny, sick or just looked cool.

I truly miss working with someone as brilliant as Ken. It just goes to show that you can have a ton of amazing photos but unless you’re working with the right people, they won’t know what to do with them. They won’t get used in the right way, if at all. It’ll come and go like a fart in the wind.

The Nick Dompierre backside noseblunt on the cover of Transworld… be honest, was that a make? 

No, it’s not. He was basically landing and starting to roll away but he never fully made it. The ground there is so slippery and he kept sliding out. But he was so close. I could’ve used a sequence of it, that’s how close he was. He just wasn’t making it well enough for footage. There was no question of whether he could do it or not, it was more about him actually going back to do it.

This was right when Nick got on DC but it just so happened to be right before his career took kind of a downturn and he never went back to film it. Even though I’m not one to normally use something that gnarly if it’s not a make, there was no question in my mind at the time that he could and would go back to do it.

Most extreme lengths you’ve gone to in order to get a photo?

The first thing that comes to mind is AVE’s nollie crook backside 180 out at the USC ledges, a sequence for his shoe ad. I was living down in San Diego at the time and had to drove up four days straight to get it. It became this crazy battle where AVE got in a fight with some random dude at the spot and the guy ended up coming back that night and smashing the whole ledge out with a fucking sledgehammer! He just smashed it to pieces.

Holy shit!

Yeah, so we went there the first day and didn’t get it. AVE gets in a fight. Drive up from San Diego the next day to find the ledge totally smashed and unskateable. I turn around and go back home while AVE goes out on the hunt, trying to find this guy. Drive back the third day after Greg and those guys bondo’d the ledge but there was still something wrong with it and we still didn’t get it. On the fourth day, we got it.

Remember that I’m still shooting film at this point and every single try was a roll of film. It was such a long trick. He’d nollie crook the whole thing and I wanted him rolling in and out of the frame so it was a full roll sequence. I probably went through a 100+ rolls of film for that one.

So much of what makes early skate photos great is a lack of rules and a sense of exploration, something that still shines through in your photos over the years. How do you feel about skate photography as a whole in the digital age of 2015? And how does print media dying affect this?

It’s kind of a two-part answer. As far as photography is concerned, you have to keep searching. Keep trying and learning so you can get better. Even tonight, I’m shooting this In Transition thing and we’re going to a fucking skatepark. But I’m excited because I went to Grant’s and borrowed some stuff. I’m gonna be using 10 flashes to line up the park and shoot into them. Just having fun with it. That’s how I keep myself psyched on skate photography.

I’ve been guilty of digital magic. It’s easy. You have everything right there and you can just keep making photos technically better and better. At one point in my career, I had a digital Hasselblad and a studio strobe to shoot skating… shit they use to shoot fucking Vogue covers with. You don’t need that for skating. You can get just as rad of a photo with one flash and a fisheye lens. Seeing the back of your camera and knowing how everything could be that much better through this or that, that’s what people get in the cycle of doing. I’ve been guilty of it and had to take myself out of that space. Going back to thinking about things as they happen. Pushing stops. Because no matter how technically perfect a photo is, it’s all about the end result anyway. Some of my personal favorite photos were shot with really shitty equipment. I mean, Koston’s back noseblunt down Hubba was shot with Konica 3200 speed print film that I bought at Walgreens. Rick and Eric were skating both sides of Hubba during that session so I couldn’t set up flashes. I bought print film instead. That’s what I had to do.  

I think some of the magic gets lost with all of this technology. Just by leaving the shutter open and exploring the unknown of what something could look like is so important. Those experiences are what made it all so magical to me. That’s why I keep trying to push myself with different techniques, having fun. Throughout my career, the things I’m most stoked on are the things that I was just having fun with. That’s what I feel ends up looking the best.

Not to wax poetic or anything. That’s just how it is.

As far as print media dying, I like Instagram and I post things regularly there but there is a sense of things becoming less special. That sucks. Too much crap floods the brain and doesn’t let the significant stuff really shine. Same thing with videos. Getting a photo in a print magazine is still a very special thing but that just might be my own antiquated view.

The internet puts more pressure on the magazines, which is tough. I think some are doing a better job than others as far as reacting to it. I think what the Skateboard Mag did recently was smart. Making something tangible that you want to hang on to… that is exactly what every magazine was when we were younger. Something you want to keep that is significant. There needs to be more of that.

big thanks to Mike for taking the time.