Our good friend, Eric Swisher, that does the The Chromeball Incident talked with legendary skate photographer Gabe Morford for an exclusive interview here at Transworld. Gabe has a thirty-year career of shooting some of the most iconic skaters and photos in skateboarding. Here he breaks down some of those stories and legends. Thanks Gabe for all the years of hard work to get the shot! And thanks to Eric for all the epic interviews he’s done over at the Chromeball Incident. Cheers for this one boys!
An admittedly generic intro question but just to get a baseline, how did you get introduced to skating in general, and skate photography, specifically?
I got introduced to skateboarding very early on. My older brother and I both got Black Knights for Christmas one year. I was only 4 or 5, so it was more little kid style than anything else. Riding around on our knees and butt-boarding. Maybe move a big rock or something.
Eventually, a rollerskate shop opened two towns over and they sold boards. I remember my brother talking about it one day, that he wanted to get a real board, which automatically meant that I wanted to get one, too.
And this was in the Bay Area, right?
Yeah. My brother ended up getting a silver Mike McGill, the one with the plane on it, with Trackers or Gullwings and whatever wheels. But he got a legit board. I wound up with some pre-made board called “The Street Invader.” (laughs)
I still didn’t know how to stand up on a board yet—I was only 8 at the time. But because we got dropped off at this shop, which was seriously 5 or 6 miles away from my house, I had to knee-board all the way home. That’s a long way to go on your knees (laughs)!
I was just the little brother, hanging around my older brother and his friends. He’s only 2 years older than me, but that feels like such a big deal when you’re younger. So yeah, I grew up skating with him and the kids around my neighborhood. Things just went from there.
How did photography enter the picture?
My Dad shot a lot of photos. Not professionally, but he took it very seriously and always had a camera. He had night access to darkrooms at the local high school… It’s funny, my Dad and I had the same photo teacher in school. Growing up, he was always heading over there and printing stuff. Black-and-white photos of beach trips or whatever family stuff we had going on. But seeing these stacks of hand-printed 8x10s lying around really had an impact on me. Realizing that this was something he actually put work into and not just having them developed at a drugstore, even though we did that too.
Because we always had a point-and-shoot camera for quick snapshots, too. And for whatever reason, they’d always let me shoot the last couple of frames on each roll. So I’d take pictures of the cat or whatever. That was always a lot of fun.
I got my own point-and-shoot in the 7thor 8thgrade. A Canon Sureshot. That’s the one I started taking skate photos with. And once I got into high school, I started taking photography classes, which got me access to darkrooms and more equipment. I just found myself getting more and more into it.
Weren’t Luke Ogden and Tobin always in your orbit?
Well, they’re a few years older than I am and had been shooting seriously for a little while before I got into it. I actually bought my first fisheye from Tobin. An old Minolta.
Luke and Tobin worked at Fogtown Skateshop in San Francisco back in the day. I remember them always printing their latest skate photos to hang on the wall in there. I always loved that because their photos were always cool and featured current skating. Photos you either wouldn’t see in the magazine or stuff that hadn’t been published yet. That was a few years later but very impactful, for sure.
How did your photography make the jump from hobby to something more serious?
Basically once I got into high school. I had two photography classes, which meant that I had all of this lab time to go along with it. I was assisting two photographers at the time, too. A rock photographer and a stock photographer, so I was completely immersed. I was basically getting all of my film for free, so I was just shooting tons.
I was still skating a lot, too, but I actually hit my head really bad during my senior year of high school. I’d just done a little boardslide to fakie on a ledge and was riding backwards when I somehow looped out on some mossy run-off and cracked my head.
My neck hurt but I really didn’t think anything of it. So that weekend, I went snowboarding and fell really hard again. I scorpioned and my snowboard hit me in the back of the head. Same thing, my neck just hurt really bad. So I go home and fall asleep, but when I wake up, I had dried blood in my ears. I was essentially in a fog for a couple of years. I had to take some time off school and skating, so I ended up shifting my focus and then taking the whole photography thing a lot more seriously.
So SF is going off at this time, are you just blindly showing up spots?
I was lucky that my friends in the suburbs were actually shredding at the time. Ray Simmonds, Jeff Petit, Joel Wrona… these guys were skating really well. This was jump ramp days, so we’d build four-foot high jump ramps and skate those all day.
Did you ever shoot Ray Simmonds blasting over that ladder?
I never actually did shoot that! I definitely remember him doing skating that ladder, it was a thing, but I don’t think that I ever took photos of him doing it. I wish I did.
After a while, we all started taking the bus into SF together. Get off at the top of the hill and skate all the way down to Market Street and hit Embarcadero. Get back on a bus to Hunter’s Point and skate the Dish. There was a ramp over there, too. Skate all that and then roll over to Golden Gate Park. That was a good weekend, man. We covered a lot of ground (laughs).
Golden Gate Park was a big deal at the time. There would be full-on jump ramp sessions going there for hours. Every weekend. And everybody came out to those. Bryce, Tommy, Tobin…
Jim in that frayed leather jacket?
(Laughs) Yep. I remember one of the first times I ever saw Jim, he was wearing that jacket and some Powell sweatpants… I don’t even think I’d met him yet.
But you were probably too young to be City Boy Shred, right?
That was before my time, really. But my friend Joel… he’s actually the guy in the beginning of Pat Duffy’s part. The guy talking about Pat being the Terminator? I don’t think many people know that Joel was actually one of the best skaters in the Bay Area back then. From his skating at those Golden Gate Park session, Tommy started giving him boards, which is how my crew started crossing paths with those guys.
Jake Rosenberg told me that other than Ternasky, you were probably the only other person to know about Duffy, pre-Questionable.
Yeah, he lived a couple of towns over.
Back when I was a sophomore, my last period was work experience, which meant that I got to leave school early and shoot photos. I’d always take the bus down to the other high school and skate with Joel and Ray Simmonds. And we’d always borrow shit from Pat’s house. I remember him having what was basically a metal balance beam for gymnastics at his house—like a super primitive flatbar. Totally square and aluminum. We’d always borrow that and this little Ollie ramp he had and take it down to the school. Because Pat was still in middle school, he couldn’t leave early. So once he finally got out of school, he’d just meet us at the high school and skate everything.
Even back then, he was better than everybody.
So were you surprised at all when his Questionable part came out?
Well, all of the San Diego stuff he got was still like, “Holy shit!” But that stuff in the rain? I remember him Smith grinding that same rail maybe a year before that, which was even more fucked back then. And the transition stuff, he’d gotten a really nice mini ramp by that point, too. We’d skate that with him and he was already doing Caballerial noseblunt reverts. He was always so advanced. He just seemed to learn tricks super fast.
So no, I probably wasn’t as shocked as everybody else by his Questionable part. But even then, he’d progressed so much in just that nine months of filming, it was still incredible.
You shot that early two-page ad of him backside 180-ing off the overhang that Ray Simmonds Ollied in Shackle Me Not. Was there ever any footage of that?
Oh yeah! That was a Thunder and Spitfire ad, they each got a page. No, I don’t think there was any video footage of that, at least not that day. No one was there to film it.
So how’d you hook up with Lance Dawes and Slap?
I met Lance at Embarcadero one day—and I’m pretty sure that I thought he was being a dick to me. Just that East Coast speech pattern, I guess. Because I had the newest camera at the time, the Nikon F4. I remember him looking at it and saying, “Do you even know how to use that thing?” (laughs)
He might’ve not meant as an insult but that’s how I took it.
At the time, I had this binder of photos that I’d shot. I ended up showing it to him one day and he liked it. Because I had just started shooting for Deluxe around the time that first issue of Slap came out, so I was pretty plugged in.
The first time I noticed your work was “Mystic” Mike Carroll with the nose manual. How did that one go down?
At the time, I was working for two photographers in SF, so I’d always head over to Embarcadero after work. Because I knew dudes were always down there skating, I could just go whenever and skate or shoot photos.
On that particular day, I just happened to have a 180mm with me, which was a pretty long lens to be shooting with at the time. I’m pretty sure Carroll is just warming up there. I think Meza might’ve been filming him that day, maybe he’s getting ready to start trying something out of it? I don’t know… but I remember him being not very stoked when that photo came out (laughs).
Tricks were getting so tech back then. This was just a nose manual, which was already considered to be pretty basic at the time.
But why do you think that photo still stands out?
Because it’s a time capsule. With the clothes and Mike skating, it kinda freezes that whole EMB era… That and the braids. (laughs)
So how did you end up as Deluxe’s in-house photographer?
Well, they started out with Luke, Tobin and Bryce shooting most of the original ads. But, for whatever reason, I seem to remember those guys wanting to move on to more editorial stuff. Bryce for Thrasher, Luke and Tobin for Transworld. Deluxe needed someone to just shoot their stuff, so that’s how the position came about. I’d been shooting around SF for a while by then, and it just worked out. I started at Deluxe in early ’92 and have been there for almost 30 years now.
I love the mid-90s Deluxe ads and how almost all of them were one-offs. Were you involved with the initial concepting at all? For the most part, were those ideas conceived before shooting or made up afterwards?
It was a mixture of both. If the ad wasn’t just gonna be a good skate photo, they’d choose something else as “ad-worthy”… usually if it told some kind of story or had a good feeling. There were missions, for sure. But most of the time, they would retrofit an idea onto a photo. Just making up a premise behind whatever they were feeling or if it happened to capture something about a rider they liked.
But what about something like Matt Field’s “Positive Cemental Attitude” ad, where he’s just lying on the ground? You guys went out and shot that, right?
No, we came up with that concept afterwards. Because I was shooting sequences and he had slammed on something. I just liked how he was laying there in the frame. I thought it was funny so I went in for a little more. I’m always trying to capture something a little different from the typical stuff you see. That’s just part of photography, you know?
This was back when Deluxe was advertising in both Thrasher and Slap, doing different ads for each magazine. So, every so often, I’d get a wishlist of rider photos they were looking for.
“Okay, they want to do something with Shawn Mandoli.”
Take a couple of trips down to San Jose and hook up some sessions with Shawn and Salman. Tricks are always the first priority, but sometimes things just come up over the course of a session that are interesting, besides the skating. You always want to capture that because maybe something else can come of it.
Honestly, my thought was to just shoot everything and let them figure it out (laughs).
I was shooting so much back then anyway. Lifestyle stuff, portraits, sessions, spots—not just tricks. I liked to shoot a wide range of things, just to keep it interesting.
Any personal favorite ads from this period?
Cups and Jugs, a Huf photo with a bunch of contact sheets surrounding it. Just random stuff that I’d shot at the time… there were always stacks of contact sheets lying around, we just used that.
One of my favorites as well. But how’d that photo come about? With the wood planks pushed against the dumpster…
Huf and I were shooting together a lot back then. I think we just wanted to do something different that day. I’m pretty sure we’d just skated the 3rd and Townsend bump-to-bump that was nearby and were just skating around.
We ended up taking that wood from a construction site and the dumpster just happened to be there in the alley. We pushed it out and put it all together, literally just leaning these planks against the dumpster… I’m not sure I realized how sketchy it was at the time (laughs).
We only got to skate it for a little bit because the guy from the construction site saw us somehow and freaked out. I remember him yelling at us and taking the wood back, but we’d already got what we needed.
I was super into shooting long lens back then, too. I was just really into that compressed look.
That alley is such an amazing location, did you have that one in mind for a while?
No, not at all. I honestly didn’t even realize what an awesome location it was until after I saw the photo. I was just lucky to have it line up the way it did… because Mike Daher and Ethan Fowler actually lived near there. And there was a camera store over there, too. So I was in that zone a lot, actually…
Let me run through a few classic ads here: Max Schaaf’s Too Short-inspired “Born to Max?”
(Laughs) Where he’s standing on his little motorbike with the helmet on? Yeah, that was Max’s idea. Because Max is from Oakland and Too Short is from Oakland. It just made sense. So yeah, that was one where we went out to specifically shoot, because that was an album or something, right?
Exactly. Would Max have a lot of ideas? Because he had that wild “$” board ad as well…
Yeah, Max had a lot of ideas, for sure. Definitely more than most other riders. I feel like most Max ads were from ideas he’d have. And he’d have ideas for other guys, too.
“This would be cool for Mark!”
“Okay, let’s give it a shot.”
Other riders would typically have an idea of how they’d want a photo to be shot, not so much about the premise for the ad itself. But you always wanted to respect that.
The Max money board was a pretty hairy situation. I remember shooting that with Dan Wolfe one day, over at his ramp. That board was super flexible, man. It definitely was not the best thing you’d want to ride. And what did he do on it? A big kickflip indy-to-fakie? That was insane.
What about “Collaborative Creation” with Huf pointing the gun at your head?
Oh yeah! And Mat McGrath is in that one, too. He was filming for Deluxe at the time.
I don’t think that one was planned or anything. Just an idea we had while out skating one day on an LA trip.
But that’s not a real gun. At the time, there were these Japanese Airsoft guns that everybody had… which, holy shit! Other than the barrel diameter, they looked 100-percent real. I remember going on a Real trip to Japan and everybody getting one. It was either Drake or Ben Liversedge, but one of them took theirs out at customs and got immediately secondary’d. Because there’s that window where you pick up your bags before heading to customs, whoever it was got into their bag for a jacket and ended up pulling out what looked like a gun… like, “You dumbass.” (laughs)
It ended up getting confiscated and they had to go back a few weeks later to get it.
What about Huf holding the empty frame for Mandoli’s frontside shove? Was that just something lying around?
Actually, the opposite. I was handed that empty frame and told to shoot something with it… because I seem to remember another session with that frame, too. That thing was a real pain in the ass to shoot. It worked out, but I don’t think that I would’ve kept on trying to work with it if I didn’t have to.
Because you had to lug it around everywhere?
Because it was a foil frame, it would always blow out. Lighting it back then really sucked.
Which typically results in a better photo: Documentary improvisation or controlled shoots with a more thought-out idea?
I mean, it’s always better to have a plan. Some idea of how you’re going to do something. Like, if someone hands you a prop, you have some time to think about the best possible way to use it.
But at the same time, when I first started getting seriously into photography, I worked for a rock-n-roll photographer. His whole thing was that you had to be ready for anything. Because you might only have five minutes with a band, you have to be ready. And not only that, you can have the most solid plan in the world but it rarely works out that way.
I feel like I’ve largely adopted that mindset ever since. That’s why I still carry around a ton of lights and probably more lenses than I need. Because being ready is better.
Where did the Drake Jones butterfly idea come from? Was that real?
I want to say that idea probably came from Jim… maybe Tommy, but probably Jim. We had this deceased butterfly and somebody wanted to use it for an ad.
Just another case of having a prop and making it work.
What about the self-referential takes of Real ads? Where Real will come out with an ad and then put out another, maybe a year later, making fun of it? Because that Drake butterfly ad had the corresponding Mandoli glasses ad…
Yes, totally. That all comes from Jim. That’s his thing.
A good example is that ad with Huf and Ben Liversedge sitting at the diner? That’s a throwback to one of Real’s first ads with Jim and Tommy sitting at that same table.
Yeah, we’ve actually shot a few ads in there. That was the meet-up spot when I first started doing Deluxe stuff. Because Jim and Tommy lived nearby and it was a cool little place with consistent food. So that just became the spot. Whenever someone would page me, I would always head there first. Order some rice and beans as we figured out the day.
But they were cool with us. Because in that Huf/Liversedge ad, we had Tommy standing in the back, dressed as a chef. Jim’s dressed up like the owner, Helen. And that’s in the daytime, too. That place was great.
Jake kickflipping Ishod was a throwback to Gonz Ollieing over Max, which you had to shoot twice… was that originally another Max idea?
Yeah, I think that was Max’s idea for Mark. Because that spot was right close to where Max used to live. That was a fun one to do… Mark was into it. And then we had to do it again for the video because we didn’t film it the first time. We had to go back.
Jake kickflipping Ishod felt like a proper redo. And it was a cool to be able to go back to the original spot. Actually, that was the first time Ishod had ever ridden a motorcycle… which definitely made it sketchier. You gotta time it just right and Ishod barely knew what he was doing. Jake just has it like that.
Do you remember any good concepts that got shot down?
Not really ad concepts but there was definitely some product that got shot down.
I don’t know if I should even say… Sorry, Jim.
Real did a board graphic that was based on the logo of a well-known motorcycle organization. I don’t know how they found out about it but next thing we knew, some of those dudes showed up at Deluxe.
“Who did this? We have everyone’s information. We want every one of these boards.”
So there was a scramble to gather up all of these boards. Getting distributors and shops to send them back. But we did. And one of the owners at the time, he loaded them all onto a flatbed truck and went to their clubhouse to drop it off.
“Here you go. We are very sorry. Here are the boards and a flatbed truck you can have.”
Gnarly. But talk about shooting all of these riders for different Deluxe brands. Action is action but what about everything else? Tones and textures? Like, you’re probably gonna shoot Gerwer lifestyle different than Shawn Mandoli, right?
You’re just trying to capture their personality while making them look as good as possible. Or as appropriate to whatever situation as possible. But always trying to shoot something the best you can. Like, say someone cuts their hand open? Yeah, I’m shooting the bloody hand, but I’m also trying to make sure that the background is clear with no bullshit back there. Trying to keep cool enough to apply what I know about photography and not blow it.
What’s the worst you’ve ever blown it over the years?
It’s always the most recent one that stings the most. Because the wound is still fresh. Pat Prahan did a backside 180 nosegrind down a 12-stair rail. It was a narrow run-up and I had to get out of the filmer’s shot. I put the camera against a wall on a low tripod, reaching through a fence to trigger the camera…
Two inches out of focus. Not printable.
How do I tell this person who has just tried this gnarly thing for a half hour? You just have to own up to it.
“Sorry, but I completely fucking blew it. I know you got smoked trying this thing, but if you’re feeling up for it, I’d love to reshoot that.”
It fucking sucks. And it tends to happen more whenever I’m at a weird angle on a low tripod. It’s actually happened twice in the last year. Just devastating.
Or even worse, when your original film or slides go missing. Some of the best images that I’ve ever shot, the negatives are gone.
There’s a batch of stuff that got printed for tradeshows and now I can’t find the originals.
I get anxiety even thinking about it… Huf’s kickflip on Black Rock. Jason Lee’s frontside Ollie at Beryl Banks. My best photos at the time and they’ve disappeared. Because you had to send them in to get scanned for making posters. The people who were handling those exchanges are no longer around, so the trail just goes cold right there.
For a minute, there was a dude lightweight trying to blackmail me and a few other photographers. Because when DC got bought by Quiksilver, they threw any non-staff photographer’s photos into the dumpster. And this dude just happened to be back there, dumpster-diving, and found them all.
“I have some of your photos. I’d be real stoked if you sent me some product.”
“I’ll send you a box of boards, just send me the stuff.”
A little bit later…
“Hey, I found a few more photos. Send some more product down this way.”
Fuck it, I’ll send the product. I want those photos! But when I finally got something back, most of the photos weren’t even mine! And the stuff I actually did shoot… a few portraits of Carl Shipman? Not exactly what I was looking for.
Well, not to bring up a sore subject but how was that day with Jason Lee at Beryl?
He was just cracking, man.
It was Jason, Matt Rodriguez, Chris Pastras, and John Deago at that session. Someone was trying backtails on the little Beryl to curb but I don’t think we got it. And I think John Deago was trying tre flips to fakie on the big one.
Jason was just popping those giant frontside Ollies the whole time. I don’t even remember him trying anything else. But, of course, you’re gonna shoot that.
What about Dune bombing the hill on that little board? That’s posed, right?
No, he really did it! He bombed that shit on that little board!
I don’t know where he got that little board. Because he’d put the trucks on with little wood screws. Not actual bolts, just screwed on. He did it a few times, actually… he lucked out because that was super sketchy.
I don’t know how we ended up on that hill. I feel like we were on our way to Ft. Miley… Because we shot some other stuff that day, too. He was in a costume.
That ad was on the same board! Those are some funny fucking photos, man. I remember trying to shoot him like those old Stecyk Venice photos. With a Jay Adams kinda vibe.
That hill was the same day, before he got into costume.
How was shooting Mike Daher back then? You seemed to shoot with him a lot.
Mike was always fun to shoot with. So fucking good, man. So much pop. Really creative and loose. And just down, you know?
I always loved your shot of him blasting that japan grab in Chinatown at night.
Oh yeah, off the propped-up cellar door. That thing was steep, too. You really can’t tell by how high he is but that was actually more of a wallie… He just blasted off that thing. Tweaked it, too.
That’s how it was with him. Just skating around, he’d always find something cool and unique to do. Nothing planned. Just pick a spot to hit and take things from there.
Do you have a penchant for unorthodox tricks? Like Daher’s layback grind on the Big Stage at EMB or that photo of Ben Liversedge’s handplant on the fire hyrdrant? Is that stuff ever suggested or just their natural personality coming through?
I try to let people do their thing. I’m not there to judge. If it’s interesting, I’ll shoot it. But I’ve found more and more that people’s standards are so high, they don’t want to shoot an easier trick, even if it makes for a better photo.
That was the best thing about Slap, because they’d run all of that stuff. They didn’t care if someone skated a bigger rail or whatever. I could shoot anything. Because I always get stoked on whatever random ideas people came up with. It’s real. And people having fun is always cool to see.
Not to say that I don’t pressure people sometimes. I can’t lie. I’m not trying to kill anyone, but I will offer some lightweight guidance (laughs).
You always want to get the best out of someone. And nowadays, it’s not even me. Everyone’s so advanced and the bar is so high… as well as having access to all this media, people already know what everyone else is doing. The pressure is already there.
With Daher’s layback grind, he just did one at random. I saw him try it and asked him to do it again. That happens a lot. But I honestly don’t remember the Liversedge one. We were probably just goofing around. Maybe he was trying something and couldn’t get it? We still needed an ad…. so there you go. Handplant (laughs).
Do you still have your infamous binders of skatespot photos?
The polaroids? Yeah, I still have them. I had to stop after a while, because Polaroid film got so expensive. And I sorta did a digital version of it for a while, too, back when digital point-and-shoots were a thing. But once everyone got a phone with a camera and the ability to share their photos, it wasn’t necessary anymore.
Wasn’t that idea based on Bryce somehow?
Yeah, Bryce supposedly had a giant map of San Francisco on his wall with little pins for spots. I never actually saw it but always heard about it and it sounded rad. Those binders really stem from that.
I made them so when people came in from out-of-town, the binders could almost act like a menu of stuff to skate… or places for me to sleep if I’m ever homeless (laughs).
It’s funny because spots that seemed outrageous would always become “perfect” a few years later.
Describe your process of photographing Mark Gonzales over the years. I imagine it always being pretty improvisational.
It’s very improvisational and you definitely have to stay on your toes. But it always comes down to whatever he wants to do. He’s opinionated and can be a little stubborn, but he’s entitled to that. You just have to work with him and get him somewhere so that he can do what he wants. Something will happen, just be ready.
I can’t remember what video it was in, but there was a time where I went and stayed with Mark for a while. He was transitioning out of a house and it was just me and him. Because I was alone, I’d have to film and shoot photos at the same time, so I’d just let the camera run. But that’s how you get those Mark moments. Things he does either before or after the actual trick. After he slams. It’s all part of it.
What are your favorite shots of him?
That feeble grind on the handrail, I think it’s in Washington. Because he just did it so good and it was pretty gnarly for the time. But he handled it and the photo came out nice. That’s a favorite because it’s classic Mark style in a good trick and the photo just happened to line up.
Some of the portraits are really cool, too. The one where he has his arms up, like he’s boxing. That was back when he lived in SF… I think at Bryce’s old house. There was always some nice open-shade light out front, so I’d always try to shoot something of him there. Literally every time I picked him up or dropped him off, I’d try to sneak in a couple shots.
How does Mark compare to shooting with Julien?
(Laughs) Julien is not very cooperative when it comes to shooting photos. There have been times when Julien is stoked on a trick and it lines up, but definitely not always.
I remember one time when we were trying to shoot something, a bunch of us went to Ft. Miley together. I was set-up long lens and he was trying a kickflip over the hip… I guess he saw that I was trying to shoot a photo of him and, for whatever reason, he just left (laughs).
He’s been cooperative at times and we’ve got some photos. It’s just not his top priority.
Is he camera shy or just overly picky?
I think he has some walls up. I’m not gonna psychoanalyze him… I wish I knew (laughs)!
But how do you navigate those waters? I can’t imagine pushing him into something ever being the best tactic.
Well, it depends. Usually, you should definitely tread lightly. But other times, actually being bold about it is better.
“Let’s get it! Let’s do this!”
Hopefully, you get lucky.
What’s your favorite Julien photo? I always loved that Ollie of him in Louisville with the knife board.
I have a couple of favorite photos of Julien, which I’m very fortunate to have.
I remember one time, we did a concept shoot for an Anti-Hero catalog. He wanted it to be all these high-key museum-type shots, so Julien and a few guys dressed up in pretentious art world-type outfits. Julien’s wearing this crazy sweater, somebody else had on a beret. It was pretty amazing.
But I also have a photo of him and his old dog at Mt. Baldy. We’d just got done skating the Baldy Pipe and they were coming out of it. Just a shot of him and his dog on their way out of there. It’s just so natural. I really like that one.
John Cardiel at the Sunset Car Wash. Discuss.
It’s funny because that night’s honestly a little hazy for me. I know I was there, I shot the photo. But I have a hard time watching video of it because it’s almost like that footage becomes my memories in a way… Versus what I actually experienced.
Honestly, all I remember is scrambling to fucking light the thing. Because we’re at night and flashes were so shitty back then. I’m trying to get everything set up before something goes down. Trying to triangulate the optical triggers. Plus, we’re right in the middle of Sunset Boulevard. It’s pretty hectic.
Because we went there originally for Gonz. He was going to do it. John was just up there to hype him up. But somehow, it became this thing where if John tried it, Mark was gonna do it. John only tried it so that Mark would do it.
“Let’s do it!”
But, as the legend goes, John ended up doing it on that try. I believe that’s the photo for the ad. And then Mark got smoked… but it couldn’t have been too bad because we all went skating afterwards.
He lost an eyebrow.
It might’ve just been the adrenaline from the situation.
Well, what about John’s Union Square 50-50?
I just remember it being super early.
Cardiel was in San Francisco to shoot a Vans commercial with Thomas Campbell and they were staying in Union Square. I think it was the day before, John and Tony Trujillo were skating around and just happened to notice that the nobs were off that rail. So John calls me that night.
“Let’s do this!”
Early the next morning, we’re out there. I’m shooting and Tony is filming on my video camera. It was crazy to watch. Because it wasn’t easy for John, but he was just so fired up. He basically jumped all of those stairs a couple times in the process of trying it. And then he just did it.
As a photographer, how does it feel after you shoot something like that? You have to know that you’ve got some gold…
No, because it’s film. You gotta cross your fingers and hope you didn’t blow it. Because you still have to get the photos developed. You’re walking around with this roll of film like a fragile egg. Just put it in a film canister and get to the lab as soon as you can.
What about the shots that were never filmed? We talked earlier about the first Gonz/Max Ollie and that Duffy backside 180, did you just not have a camera? Or is that where skateboarding media was at the time?
Yeah, because of how big magazines were back then, photos were the priority. Video was kinda secondary, because it was still being figured out. Obviously, it’s not that way anymore. It’s actually the opposite.
For the longest time, I was shooting video and photos at the same time… and there’s all these funny video clips where you can hear my motor drive in the background. But it’s not like we didn’t care about video. Typically, things would get filmed. It was rare for something not to get filmed, but it did happen. That was just the time.
Did you just not like shooting video as much? Your passion is in still photography?
Video cameras were just so shitty back in the day. I was already creating still images on film… shooting some Super-8 stuff, too. I would shoot video to document tricks, but it just looked so gross in comparison.
I would have fun with it, though. And there was a time where I really liked shooting video. When I finally started to like the cameras and the batteries lasted longer than 15 minutes. I even made a bike video, which was fun to do… but all of the post stuff drove me crazy! The editing and all of the fucking tapes everywhere. It was a nightmare! (laughs)
I guess I only like doing the fun stuff.
You famously chose Gil Scott-Heron’s Gun for Nate Jones in Real to Reel. How much input did you have with videos over the years? Any other examples?
Yeah, Real to Reel was the one for me. That was the era where I really enjoyed doing motion stuff. I don’t know if this is my ego talking, but I think I actually started that video on my own… before my thought process quickly went to, “Let’s just have fucking Wolfe do it. He’s way better at this.” (laughs)
That Gil Scott-Heron song just comes from filming Nate. I listen to all kinds of music and the groove of that song just seemed to fit his skating perfectly, so I brought it up to him and he was down.
Talk to me about filming your part for Chomp On This. How seriously did you take that project? Because your part is pretty gnarly, man.
I’ve always skated, I guess I was just a bit more motivated for the video. I don’t recall making any lists. Because I was pretty limited in what I could do. I had pretty gnarly tendonitis in my ankles, so the mobility is fairly limited.
A lot of that stuff is seriously my mind tricking my body into doing stuff.
How did the other guys react to your part? Because I don’t remember anybody else going that hard in their part.
(Laughs) Fuck… I honestly kinda self-cringe at a lot of that stuff. Because those guys were only trying to make this fun little video and here I come, like an asshole. But back when I really skated, whatever that means, that’s how I would do it. I’d basically kill myself. Skating until I couldn’t walk. I’m not a naturally-gifted skateboarder so I’d have to try everything 100 times. Like, that Wallenberg shit, I must’ve tried that 50 times (laughs).
You’re not supposed to do that. My hip was totally destroyed afterwards.
Yeah, did you ever get that? You were so close!
I actually did it when I was younger, but I never got it for the video. That’s like 15-years later.
But still, a front 50 down Clipper is no joke, especially in early 2000s.
It’s weird because I’ve shot tricks like that so many times before, it’s like I already knew the process of what goes into it. I’ve seen the groundwork being laid, I should be able to front feeble a rail, too. And I was actually able to walk away with a few things.
That was a fun project to work on. Filming with Ty and those guys, it was super motivating. Because I see what riders have to go through for tricks, now I’m putting myself in their position.
What’s your favorite cover that you’ve shot?
I really like the Cardiel noseblunt down a rail for Skateboarder. And there was another Skateboarder one with Huf Ollieing off two pieces of wood at a construction site. It has this nice green background. I always liked that one, too.
I mean, I’m stoked on all of them. Just to get a cover is a great feeling. As a photographer, that’s kinda what you’re going for. Like, I remember getting the cover of Slam Magazine a few years ago and it worked out that I had the back ad as well. I was happy to see that.
What’s a popular photo of yours that you personally don’t like?
Fuck, that Liversedge one you were talking about sounds pretty shitty. (laughs)
I can tell when I’m simply getting something shot, versus making the most of the opportunity. Sometimes you’re forced to shoot something due to time constraints or whatever. Maybe something’s super spontaneous or you’re getting kicked out. Those are the shots that can be painful to look at later. Like, why did I crop his fucking hand out?
Some of my older shots on film, they’re not as crispy as I’d like them to be. I’ve had to blow up a few really big for shows or whatever… that can be embarrassing.
What’s your biggest pet peeve on shoots? Like, how many times have you been hit in the face with a board on a shoot?
Yeah, I’ve been hit more than a couple times. Probably 15, 20 times… at least. But the worst one was back in the Bob Gnar days. He was doing switch frontside inverts at Max’s house and I was shooting him with my head laying on the deck. For whatever reason, maybe he was going too fast, he spikes his board. And on the way down, it hits me in the head. But because my head is already on a surface, it doesn’t give at all. It’s all impact. So it splits my head open and I had to get a bunch of staples.
But that’s all part of the game. It doesn’t really bother me. It’s the not being able to shoot stuff or not being able to get the shot that I see, that’s the kinda shit that drives me crazy. Technical stuff, like the triggers not working. Not being able to balance light when in the shade.
…and honestly, having to take a backseat to filmers these days is kinda frustrating, too.
I can imagine. What’s the most film you’ve wasted on a single trick?
I think the most film I’ve ever used on a trick was with Ed Templeton. 24 rolls of film. A front blunt kickflip out. Early 90s, I think it was even on a curb.
That’s a lot of film, but I would shoot as much film as I could. If someone is trying something, I’m all in with them… I can’t imagine how much money that must’ve cost, holy shit.
What would you say has been your sketchiest experience while shooting?
There’s been a lot. People getting hurt. Cardiel in Australia. Raney Beres’ situation.
Getting a gun pulled on me and having all of my camera shit stolen. That fucking sucked, man. It honestly made me dislike San Francisco. Because I was shooting photos of Jamie Foy down near 3rd and Army. He did a kickflip backside wallride on this bump-to-wall. There was a bunch of us there, actually. But it was one of the first cold nights of the year, so after he made it, everybody kinda rushed off to their cars as I was taking my stuff down.
So I’m loading all of my gear into the back of the van when a car pulls up right next to me and a guy gets out.
“Give me all your shit!”
I actually thought it was Ish, so I just kept putting shit in the van, like “Fuck you.”
Next thing I know, dude from the backseat is out of the car and has a gun in my face. All I can do is step out of the way and let them take two of my bags. It sucks, too, because I was shooting studio stuff earlier that day and had all of my lenses in there.
So yeah, that kinda fucked me up. And I’m still pretty traumatized by it, actually. I wouldn’t say that was entirely why I moved to LA, but it definitely helped expedite the moving process a little.
Which brings us to the present, how is Glendale treating you?
Glendale’s terrible. Nobody should move here. (laughs)
Honestly, I’m stoked on where I’m at.
Other than the driving, what’s the biggest difference between shooting in LA versus SF?
It’s cool. People are really motivated down here and the weather’s almost always nice. It’s weird, though, because I basically grew up in the Bay Area, I knew all of the nooks and crannies and spots-by-other-spots there. So it’s strange that I’m a little limited on spots these days… which is a terrible feeling. For me, that’s actually worse than the driving. Just not knowing spots.
That and not knowing what all has been done at spots, too. Like, we thought we got a great trick last weekend until finding out that somebody else had done the exact same trick there 19 years ago (laughs).
Franky Villani did a switch flip boardslide down the same rail that McCrank did one in an éS video in 2001. That actually happened. Nobody knew (laughs)!
Amazing. So as we wrap this up, with all your side hustles in the bike world and everything, what are you working on currently?
Well, I’m about to go head over and shoot Dan Mancina today. He wants to do something gnarly so we gotta figure that out.
I imagine that being pretty complicated.
Definitely. And I’m currently getting my digital archive organized and putting a website up, too… it’s been shuffled around so many times, it’s been a bit of a task. But honestly, other than that, I’ve just been trying to get my shit together. Trying to grow up and be an adult.
I’ve actually been assisting some here and there, which has been pretty fun. Being an extra set of eyeballs for someone in a different field or industry is cool. I assisted a car photographer a few weeks ago and got to drive the new Dodge Challenger all over Joshua Tree, doing doughnuts all over the desert. It’s something totally different and has made me open my eyes a little more.
What would you tell someone looking to make a career out of being a skateboarding photographer in 2020?
Photography, and skateboarding photography especially, is completely different from when I started. It’s hard to give advice, but obviously make sure that you’re having fun and it’s something you’re passionate about. A big part of it is building relationships and trust with riders. So being available, committed and patient is really important. Other than that, it’s a pretty niche field… so maybe have a back-up plan, too. (laughs)
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