When did you start taking photographs?
I don’t know. Sometime in early elementary school. I think my mom let me take a point and shoot to school with me, a disposable camera. At some point we did pinhole photography as a school project. I would say in the 4th grade I did a bunch of pinhole photos. That was my earliest picture taking.
Did you take photos in High School?
Definitely. I guess I just got more and more into it. I always really liked it. Around middle school I started skateboarding and I definitely liked taking pictures of my friends skating. Pretend to do tricks, skate something, take pictures. Weridly enough I lived in Hong Kong at the time and went on a field trip to China. I remember taking a lot of photos in China. That was the first time I ever thought of it as trying to take a picture to get a good picture. Not necessarily my friends; not just some skater.
Was it half tourist photography? Something exotic?
I remember trying to take pictures that were not tourist photos. More artsy. It’s so cliché now... I remember trying to take picturesof old Chinese people, somebody on a boat. I remember being really excited about a portrait of somebody smoking a cigarette under a portrait of Mao. This was the 7th grade I think. I remember thinking “Oh, this is a great photo.”
Where did you grow up?
Ohio. I mean, I moved around. I moved quite a bit growing up. I didn’t really grow up
anywhere.
So you started skateboarding in Middle School?
I skated all my life. I skated down hills and stuff. I started to learn about tricks and skateboarding magazines around the 6th grade.
Were to trying to get your pictures to look like pictures in the skate magazines?
Sometimes it was just my friends hanging out. We would pose things. You see in Thrasher “poser of the month”. It’s someone pretending to do a hard trick. You set your board up in a nose dive. Set it up really crazy and pose it like it’s real...I took a bunch of those kind of pictures. This was before we could really do anything. So it would be pictures of trying to grind a curb.
Were you looking at other photography?
In high school definitely. By the time I wasa senior I knew about lots of photographers. At least the obvious ones. Robert Frank was my favorite photographer. I took a bunch of photo classes and there would always be lots of books. I remember seeing Nan Goldin’s book, being shocked that book was in my High School.
Did you study photography in College? Art School?
I went to the San Fransisco Art Institute.
What was that like?
I think it was hard because it was a 4-year program. The first 2 years I was really inspired. After 2 years I wished I wasn’t in it anymore. 4 years is a lot of time to go to school for something like photography. It started to drag on.
What year was this?
1995 –1999.
Did you like San Francisco?
I think San Francisco is kind of depressing. Maybe because I went to school there. It’s definitely a skateboard mecca, or at least it was. I kind of went there for skateboarding. I really wanted to break into skate photography and I figured if I moved there I could become a skate photographer.
So when you were in College, being a skate photographer was a career option? That was a thing?
Oh yeah…There’s been skate photographers since they’ve had skate magazines. There were skate photographers I looked up to before I started; Spike Jonze, Grany Brittain. Then when I was trying to be one, Tobin Yelland, Skid Morford…These people shot skateboarding but they also shot their own work. I loved skateboarding, and I wanted to be involved, to go on trips and be a part of it. For me, I’m definitely a better photographer than a skater, so I thought, “this will be awesome!” I could have a job where I could skateboard, travel, take pictures.
What did it mean to be a skate photographer a opposed to a fashion photographer or a journalist?
Well you have to document the trick. You really have to be good technically. You have to set up flashes or the fisheye, show the trickthat is hard as possible, so that the magazine will use it.
Is it kind of like sports photography?
It is sports photography. That’s one of the things that can be disappointing. Your job is to make the trick look good. That sometimes is a different set of aesthetics or requirements that you would use if you were trying to make a picture that looked good or something that looks cool. Sometimes you have to get really low with the fisheye with 3 flashes and stand underneath a handrail. That’s sort of the most obvious skate photo and that’s your job. The skater and the magazine doesn’t care if it a creative photo. Sometimes you can figure out a way to make both. Make a creative photo of a trick while making the trick look difficult. A
lot of the times you’re just shooting sequences with a motor drive.
It sounds technically rigorous.
It is. When I was shooting it was with film, so you have to learn on a curve. You take a picture with all these flashes and all this stuff. And then you have to wait 3 days to see if it came out. And a lot of this stuff is shot on limited equipment. It’s hard to learn. Honestly, I’m bad at technical things, so I have to say my skate photography is pretty weak compared to a lot of these other skate photographers. I’m a little technically challenged when it comes to setting up stops or lighting something. I can do it, but there are people that are a lot better than I am that are shooting the technical side of skate photos. I kind of throw things together. I like working haphazardly.
What I really know you for is your documentation of skateboarding culture-I didn’t really know you were doing skateboard photography.
Well with skateboard photography, honestly I don’t really care about it. A lot of those the pictures were strictly to make money. But when I was going on those trips I just always wanted to document skaters, document my life. I think that skate photography was a means to an end. I was like, if I shoot these skate pictures then that’s why I’m on these trips but I’m really thinking about the other photography. The other experience...Usually when we were doing the skate photo I’d be bored... I really just wanted to be on the trip and take pictures.
How did you end up starting your blog, Epiclylater’d?
I was living in New York and I was working for Thrasher. I had seen a couple other websites that were like that. In college, you’re taught about photography, you’re always taught to think about it in terms of your next show or your best 20 pictures...Your portfolio. The best pictures is 1st, the last picture is 2nd best. But I would always take pictures and those pictures would sit in a box somethewere. I started seeing websites that were narrative. There was this girl named Amy Kellner that did this site called Teenage Unicorn. I really liked it. I wanted to do a website and bought a digital camera that day. I had never shot a
digital photo. I felt it was a good way to share your photography. Not in a portfolio sense but in a storytelling sense. This all seems really obvious now, but at the time...I wasn’t thinking of it from a career standpint. I just thought it was a good way to tell stories and share your experience because up until then I took tons of photos and they just sat in shelves and drawers in boxes. This was a good way to put it out there.
It sounds like a different kind of editing.
Totally. Editing before that, your photography was like…I remember in school you had to think of it in terms of your show. Sometimes I just had funny stuff. Something funny would happen. Something cool would happen. But it doesn’t fit into your career or artist statement.
I always find the more you think abou tphotography the more paralyzing it is. You have to get unconscious with it.
When I take pictures and think about photography I don’t think in broad terms. I know people that do get hung up on it. They overcomplicate their thinking. They’re like “I can’t do this becaue of that” or “I can’t do this because of this.” I remember going on a trip with someone and they were being like “I don’t want to be like Vice Magazine photography...I’m not into Point and Shoot.” They come home from a two week stay and they have 8 pictures and I have this fun stack of 100 pictures. It’s different styles. Or there’s people that are really precious about their photography. Like “I don’t want to shoot for that magazine.... I don’t want to shoot for that company.” By process of elimination they end up with nothing.
How do you feel about photography connected to one’s self?
I don’t know... It gets so personal. Sometimes I’m afraid to put things on my website, because I would be leaving myself too open... I would be leaving myself all vulnerable. There are things I won’t put up. I remember I was updating the page recently and I was almost sweating. I was like “I can’t put this up!” It’s too personal! What will they think? What will people think? I can’t expose myself like this...” It was too much information. But it was weird, because it was just photos. There was no text. I don’t do that kind of blogging where you share personal information. I don’t put up pictures of my family up very much. I keep things hidden. There isn’t much sex on it. But sometimes I’ll be feeling a certain way and I won’t write that I feel a certain way but I feel that it somehow shows up in the pictures. I worry that I’m exposing myself.
What about the front page image of your website? I saw you put up a Diane Arbus picture.
ell, you asked me to do this interview, so I was looking up Diane Arbus. That was the picture on her Wikipedia page. I thought
it was the coolest photo. I had seen other photos of her but I hadn’t seen that picture. She looks really cool.
I had seen other pictures on the front page. James Dean, Marilyn Monroe. There is always a similar vibe. How do you choose these pictures?
I just liked that photo. I like her style. She’s got, like, a pompadour, that necklace. It’s almost like she’s in a gang. I liked it.
I had a crush on her in high school.
I liked that she had cropped hair and was skinny. She was jewish.
In that photo she looks really strong.
She looks fierce.
Do you think you have a certain style or aesthetic in the way you take pictures?
I don’t know. Sometimes I use different cameras...I have a Hasselblad, and I had this one photo and it was hanging on my wall and my friend said “Did you take this? It doesn’t look like you at all!” Because with the Hasselblad you only have 12 photos. You have to be really careful. I took it, and I’m really proud of it, but you’re waiting for the perfect picture. With point and shoot and 35 mm you’re like “whatever.” I don’t know if I could grab 30 pictures of mine and say “this is my work”. I feel like I’ve gotten into this thing of narrative photography, like making a big mosaic, this long story. People can come back to and follow up on the story. It’s hard for me to say what my photography is or what my aesthetic is. I had to do a lookbook for somebody recently
and I realized it wasn’t really my style. These fashion photos...I don’t know why. Maybe it was the clothes, the fact that I didn’t believe in them. I wanted the pictures to look like a real experience. Not just here’s this outfit... here’s this outfit...People thought they were good photos but I wasn’t convinced that it was a real experience. My favorite photos, even in fashion, or celebrity portraiture in the past are the candid moments. I like the things that look like a natural experience.
You did a show at the gallery in the back of the bar Lit. What was it like making those editing decisions?
I wish I could have chosen more. There were financial restraints; framing and printing was expensive. I feel like there are thousands of pictures on my site, tens of thousands and there are those that rise to the top. My memory of them being good means a lot to me but hopefully they transcends that. I don’t feel like I’m that good at gallery shows. I don’t feel like I have been too successful at having any kind of show that sums anything up. Before I started my website, I was kind of lost, in terms of photography. I started my website and I found my groove, I found a rhythym, a way to work. Whenever I go back
to my old way of thinking I get a little bit stunted again. When I make a webpage and it just goes out, I don’t know how many people are looking at it, I don’t know what anyone thinks of it, I don’t know whether it’s good or bad. It’s beyond me to know. When I have a show I have to put it up and validate it. “OK you’re here for this reason.” It’s hard. Almost every time I have a show I vow never to have another show.
How do you make money?
I don’t really make money as a photographer. I shoot some things. I started to do video, these skateboard videos. I’ve just been producing a lot of skateboarding television stuff. I feel better about photography, like “I don’t need to have dialogue about photography.” The hard thing about photography is you can’t really throw a rock at a photographer, and a photographer that takes themselves seriously. Editorial jobs don’t pay, everyone is so competitive...There are all these guys out there that are serious. They’re manly photographers...Competitive guys. They’re trying to get these Levis campaigns, trying to get this ad, trying to get chicks to take their shirts off. I felt like I was a part of that rat race... like “I gotta shoot this thing for Nylon for 0 dollars, and then I gotta shoot this thing for Vice for 0 dollars and maybe I can land something.” It’s competitive. I don’t pursue photography jobs.
You’ve always had an ethnographic slant
in your photography. The niche you fill is
pretty specific.
Yeah, but it’s hard to find work. You know there is so much photography I’m not capable of doing. I have a thing I do. I used to be like “I have to carve out a name for myself...I have to try.” I would look at other photographers and get jealous or think about myself in terms of them. Now the pictures don’t have to have a place in photography. It doesn’t matter.
Sometimes I feel like skateboarding is a difficult thing to understand-nobody has really laid it out.
Skateboarding is hard to talk about. You’ll get pro skaters talking on camera and they can make it sound really lame. It’s hard to sum up skateboarding or give it a manifesto. Like when people talk about graffiti and they try to intellectualize it into something stupid. When people talk about skateboarding and they try to turn it ino artspeak or sum up what skateboarding means it sounds kind of fishy.
Do you think that photography helps to understand skateboarding?
Definitely. If there’s not a photographer nobody’s going to know what somebody did.There is so much photography in skateboarding that is as important as the trick. It captured it. I think that without photography skateboarding wouldn’t be the same at all. I like the magazines more than the videos. It froze these moments. Sometimes you couldn’t even tell what trick a person was doing, but you really see the art of it, the finess of it. The way their ankle was bent, or the way they were turning, or even the way their hair or their clothes look. Wherever it was, who was in the back was photographing frozen in time.
It sounds like you’re talking about more than just tricks.
I grew up in Ohio. So I have one other skater I’m friends with, there’s nothing to skate, it’s winter...With the magaines, it’s like a fantasy life, like watching a western. You see these kids skating in New York or skating in Los Angeles or skating in San Fransisco and you see what they wear and who they hung out with, or the band they like. You’re dissecting the photo. It was a fantasy for me. Skateboarding in these places for me were really exotic. Somebody would be doing a trick and you would see the hollywood sign. Or they’re skating in kind of a slummy part of hollywood. Those pictures are still in my mind. I could draw those pictures from memory.
Is there anything that’s getting lost in the pictures?
The pictures look far more epic than the reality of it. Sometimes skating can be frustrating. Boring. You get kicked out and you’re just skating and walking everywhere. It’s hot. It’s not that fun. You fall for no reason. You look through these photos and it looks like some kind of big vacation. I even look at photos from my own life from trips I thought were annoying. You’re somewhere cool but you’re in Barcelona or something, but you’re like “fuck... it’s hot.. this sucks.” Then you look at a couple of pictures and that exhaustion looks kind of romantic. Sometimes I think that photography elevates these moments.
The image separates itself from reality.
It’s something else.
There are these skaters that I look up to because of the photography. I think they are doing awesome now. Even if they only had 3 photos in a magazine I still think that person is the coolest person ever. And must be doing great. They must have this great life. But they are really only a legend to me and a few people. These obscure skaters. It’s funny how I could really romanticize certain people. Even in New York you will see some legendary skater from 15 years ago and certain skaters will get excited. There is this skater Sean Young...to me he is a legend. You definitely can create this persona for somebody. It’s like they’re a cowboy or a pirate or an astronaut. They could be kind of a bum.
What do you think of skater art?
A lot of skaters make really bad art. Crappy stuff. Skateboarding’s full of crappystuff. There are certain people that were part of the Alleged thing that are awesome. But I don’t think it has anything to do with skating. I don’t want to say it’s nepotism. It’s more like community. “Oh, this is our friend”. I don’t know much about gallery art, like who makes really big money with collectors. I’m always surprised. Someone will seem really popular to me. They might sell some work to some skaters, but not some art money.
What about Mark Gonzales?
I’m such a fan of his skating that I think it rubs off onto his art. It’s like when you know something about a singer and so you like their music but maybe you wouldn’t like it.
I was listening to Judee Sill today, this singer I like. I’m not sure if I would like her if I didn’t know she had such a tragic story. She did all this Christian music and weird overdubbed folk music, then later she was a prostitute, did drugs, died of an overdose. All this other tragic stuff. It’s so tragic, this story. And when I listen to the music, I hear that. I hear her desperation because I know her story. Maybe if she didn’t have that story I’d pass over it. With Mark Gonzales, I know a lot about Mark Gonzales. He’s a cult personality. When I look at one of his drawings that’s what I see. There’s a lot of art that I like that I will hear a lot of people criticizing and I’ll like because I like the person. I’m always going to like Dan Colen. I’m always going to like Dash Snow. I remember when Dash died everyone was laying into his art. I knew him and really liked him. I always liked him. He’s one of those people that were infectious. A great person. You can’t help be fascinated by them. He’s going to have a crappy Polaroid, and I’m going to say “That’s Dash. He’s the best.” I can’t say objectively, I just like him. I bought a Neal Blender painting. It’s not that awesome of a painting. My girlfriend wouldn’t even let me hang it at the time. She thought it was crappy. I was like “I don’t know…Neal Blender painted it. He invented nose stalls. I love his skating.”
Is it a good painting?
I have it hanging in my room. And I have a poster of Darby Crash in my room. Who I love. Do I really like The Germs that much? I like 5 germs songs, but his story is…there is something about Darby Crash as an icon that I like. I’d go so far as to say the same thing about Elvis Presley. I like Elvis the icon more than the music.