Hey! where have you been, what's been happening, and when did you dip out from skateboarding?
When did I dip out? God, I don't know, 2006, 2005, it's been a while! We're talking almost 16, 17 years.
I just needed to get out of California. I needed a change of pace. It was an abrupt decision, basically within 24 hours. I let everyone know, got my car, packed it up and just came back to Chicago. Been doing odd jobs since then, currently working at a Brewery in the Chicago land area. As far as skating goes, I skate here and there and still keep up with it but I'm completely removed from it. The risk vs reward at this point in my life, at my age, is just not there for me, you know? Something as simple as rolling an ankle when you're young, it's fine, but now it's like, I can't even imagine rolling my ankle, let alone breaking a bone or something, and having to deal with that on top of working and everything else. So it's probably been probably like 18 months since I even stepped on a board, which is probably pretty shocking for someone who was that involved in skating!
There are probably a bunch of people who may not know who you are, so let's go back. How did you get into skateboarding photography?
That would've been around 1997. I guess photography came first, but it wasn't anything that I really planned on doing. When you start working when you're like 15 or 16, you go from getting like a $20 a week allowance to getting that first check for a couple hundred dollars and it's the most money in the entire world! So, back then, out of boredom you'd just go to stores, looking for CDs, records, whatever you wanted. I remember I was shopping for CDs in an electronic store and I saw a Canon Rebel. I knew that those cameras existed, right? I'd seen them before, but it didn’t seem like something that I could ever possibly have. But I saw how much it was compared to what I was making, I realized that it was something I could purchase, so I did, with my first check. I'd never shot a photo before that.
Skateboarding photography really wasn't a priority to me. I just wanted to shoot photos of anything, whether it was portraits or nature. My friends and I just happened to also skate, so it kind of came naturally. I think one of the first rolls I shot was at the skatepark. Now I'm not trying to compare my story to Grant Brittain's famous first photo of the invert that he shot at Delmar, but it was kind of similar to that! It was a photo of my friend Scott doing a front side air and a quarter pipe. And I didn't have a fisheye or anything, it was just wide angle, fisheye looking photo where you get the deck from under at the bottom and he's kind of floating in the air, and it just looked great. When I got that print back from whatever department store or pharmacy it got developed, that was the start of it. I thought it looked really cool, and knew I'd like to do more of this.
Had you already been skating for a few years by then?
Yeah. Even after that I wasn't shooting skating all the time or anything. I did a lot of wildlife stuff and outdoor landscapes just as a hobby when high school was ending. Everyone has to make a decision on what they wanna do with their lives, and I didn't have any idea. I didn't even really think about doing photography. One of my friends that I skated with was going to art school, and I knew another kid at my school that was also going there to do photography, and it just seemed like something that was suited me more rather than going to college to be a doctor or lawyer or something.
That's similar to a lot of skaters' stories. Skaters by and large seem to scramble their way through high school and then at the end of it are a bit like, em what can I do now? It’s so young to ask someone what they want to do for the rest of their life. Skaters can be really creative, so a lot of them go down that path.
I'm not sure how it is with kids coming up now, but for me, when I got into skating, it was because it was something that was different. It was outside of the norm. And so I think that kind of mentality carries through to a lot of things. I started skating, then started listening to independent music, whether it be punk rock or hip hop stuff, things like that. And then I never really wanted to conform to what everyone else was doing.
Austin Stephens, Jimmy Arrighi, Keegan Sauder, Leo Romero, Josh Harmony and Adam Conway. Ben Gilley
Did you grow up in Chicago?
It was just outside Chicago, Indiana technically. The Art college was downtown Chicago. Art school's pretty lax, we had class like two days a week, for three or four hours. I could still skate and work a job, so in that regard, it was really fantastic not being bombarded with homework and things like that.
Was there a lot of dark room printing?
Everyone starts out doing black and white, right? That's the first course in photography. You get into developing your own rolls of film then printing black and white. It's really the basics. And it is always the most terrifying thing, getting that film on a reel in the dark when you can't see anything. Then printing, exposure, things like that. The different developers and how to make everything kind of work.
Once you move on to the next semester you start to get into burning and dodging and more advanced chemistry. You can experiment with different films, different developers, different printing techniques, all that stuff too. The labs we had were some of the best in the country, they were amazing. Endless amounts of enlargers and space. I mean, you never had to wait for anything. You pretty much had the best gear at your disposal at all times. We had $30,000 Imacon scanners, a dozen drum scanners. Then all the gear that you could rent, it was a dream to have access to that stuff. I miss it now because if you wanted to get a really high quality drum scan, I'm sure you're gonna pay like 40, 50 bucks per photo and we could just do as many photos as we wanted. Having access to the free scanning, and getting super high quality scans of all the skate photos we shot, for yourself and for the skaters as well. I could give them a digital file or a really nice print of it, which was awesome. I miss it greatly.
So how long were you there before you thought "Hey maybe I could do something with my photography"?
This might mirror some of like Bart Jones' stories because it's probably based off the same person. I met Bart in college. It was pretty easy to identify a skateboarder back then. You just looked at the shoes! That was your sign to strike up a conversation with a random stranger. The first year of college I wasn't shooting skateboarding at all. I was really into everything, fine art weird stuff. I wasn't even skating too much, I was really just focused on school and art and those sort of things. I met a guy called Rob Winter and he was a photographer. He invited me over to skate a mini ramp that he had at his house and he shot some photos of me skating. He had instant slide film, I don't know if you remember that? But it develops in like five minutes and he showed me the photos, and they looked so good compared to anything that I'd done before or what I realised was possible. I mean, he had the flashes and the slaves and all that stuff. So that kind of clicked in my head like, okay, if this guy can shoot photos that look like this, I'm sure that I can, I just need to get the gear to do it.
So pretty quickly after, I convinced my mom into spending a shitload of money! I retired the Cannon Rebel, which I was still using in college, and got a Nikon F5, which was way too much money. It didn't make any sense to have that camera to shoot stills. Great for sequences on film, but really a total waste of money. So I got that fisheye and I think Nikon SB 800 flashes or SB 80s at the time. I still didn't really know what I was doing but hanging out with Rob and seeing what he was doing, how he was using the equipment and just asking him questions, really helped me out.
I didn't really have anyone to shoot yet, my friends from high school were skating less and less. But I met Bart, and he was a really great skater, still is, he also had a huge friend group out in the suburbs that were also really, really amazing. I knew there were people that were good, but I didn't know there was a crew of like eight people who were super talented skateboarders that weren't sponsored or anything like that close by. So I started shooting photos of Bart and his friends out in the suburbs. It was just a thing that we did, I didn't really have any sort of aspirations for it at the beginning. I just knew that it was fun, it looked cool, and it was really exciting to make a really cool looking photograph. And when you have off camera flashes for the first time it's a game changer.
Were you looking at magazines back then as well? What was your first experience of looking at skate photos?
It probably sounds pretentious but I didn't really care about any of that stuff. I got a subscription to Thrasher for one year and it was only because I wanted the hoodie! I skimmed through but didn't analyse them too much. I can vaguely remember what was on some of the covers but can't remember any photos, articles, pullout posters or anything like that. When we were growing up with my crew of friends we just really liked skating. We would watch videos to get psyched for skating, but it wasn't like we really cared what was going on outside of our friend group. We didn't get too much into what was happening in the world of skateboarding outside of us.
Was there a moment where something clicked for you?
Probably when I saw the photo that Rob shot of me, I thought it looked exactly like what was in the magazines. It was a three foot mini ramp, so it's not like I'm jumping down stairs or anything particularly impressive. But as far as the composition and the look of the photograph with the lighting and everything, it just looked great. And from then on that was it. I had my mom - God bless her - buy all the equipment for me, telling her that I needed it for school, and I really didn't. I needed it to shoot fun skate photos of my friends. That was definitely the moment where it clicked, seeing someone else shoot a photo of me and realising that it didn't look that hard, and then I could do it if I wanted to.
I've referenced this so many times with photographers that I've interviewed, but I first saw your work on skateboardphotography.com. How did you find that site? Was it before or after you started trying to shoot properly?
It would've been around 2002, after that I got all the gear. I don't think anyone told me about it, I probably typed Skateboard Photography on Ask Jeeves or something. It was such a great resource because at the time there wasn't that many people shooting skateboarding, not locally, not even in this country, I don't think. Back in the film days it was hard to shoot photos. It was hard to get into photography when you're only dealing with film. I think that put a lot of people off, not having the instant gratification of digital or just all the information out there. You really had to work for it. You had to make a lot of mistakes and spend a ton of money doing it. Seeing that there were so many other people out there kind of surprised me. It was a really cool thing to see other photographs and talk with people. It was also a really good tool to measure yourself against other amateur photographers of the world, hobbyist photographers, things like that. And not to sound conceited, but I quickly realised that even though the photos that I was posting were nothing spectacular, compared to others I could tell that I was maybe above average. And I think that was really what led me to pursue like it professionally. I was thinking, I know the magazines exist, they have to pay photographers. So I don't know how to get there, but I'm just gonna start taking the steps to make that dream a reality.
It blows my mind that out of the 20 odds users that I remember, half of them went on to have careers as a skateboard photographer. How did you get you first photo published?
Oh, it happened pretty quick. Like I said, I didn't start shooting any photos for my first year in college. It happened in the second year and so then I dropped out. It all happened very quickly, seeing where I stood with it all and deciding to move to California to pursue it without knowing anybody. It happened that fast.
Oh wow. So you quit college and moved to California?
Yeah, I mean, I had a teacher in college who gave the best advice. I think in our first class he basically said you don't need this degree to have a career in photography. No one cares about a degree, it's all about your portfolio. And you know, that doesn't mean that everyone should just drop out. Like I said, the labs and everything that you have access to are perfect for putting together any sort of portfolios or just doing a ton of work through college. So it is important for a lot of people in that regard. But for me, I gave up all other photography. I was like, I just wanna do skating. I don't need to come to college anymore. I can already see that I have the skill to make it in the industry, so I'm not gonna waste any more time, I'm just gonna go do it.
Did you have any contacts in California?
So I forgot about this for a long time. My friend Steve Fouser was a really talented skater. The first handrail photos I shot, big gaps or stairs or anything like that were with him. He was like, flow for a couple companies, still living out in the Chicago suburbs, and he had some contacts and I basically just begged him for access. The first person I reached out to, and this is before I think I even realised who he was or how great his photos were, was Brian Gaberman, and this was the time that he was like – “Brian Gaberman”! Doing all the alternative processing and printing and all that stuff. It was kind of a big deal, and he was really great and he replied to me and gave me a bunch of advice. I'd ask him stuff and show him photos to critique, and asked if he could introduce me to anybody. He gave me Jaime Owen's contact at Skateboarder, things like that.
The funny thing is we probably talked for a couple months over email and eventually I actually had him write a letter of recommendation to my mom. I knew she was just gonna freak out at me for dropping out of college and pursuing something that seems ridiculous. I mean, it seemed fucking ridiculous at the time! Art school was very expensive, and for me to just drop and quit and not even get my degree, I knew that I was gonna have to have some sort of convincing material to present my argument. So he wrote a letter saying I think your son has the skills to make it in this industry if he chooses to. And I'll help him along the way if I can, I've been a photographer for this long and it is actually a career you can make money out of, shooting advertisements, editorial, things like that. He was so kind.
Looking back, that era of skateboard photography, was just number one. It was above and beyond anything else happening at the time, especially film wise. There were some people that were printing stuff, I always loved John Humphries’ black and white stuff, Joe Brook, Mark White, things like that. But yeah, when you saw those Brian Gaberman photos in a full article they were just so fantastic. So for him to give me a recommendation and to be my first contact was really special.
That was a quite a ballsy move.
Yeah! You're just naive when you're that young. I didn't have any idea that it was weird, I didn't care. I didn't realise that it was maybe a kooky thing to do, or weirdly intrusive to just call somebody.
You don't know how the world works or how people work. You just have your very small group of friends and you haven't experienced anything else. I wasn't nervous to reach out or anything. It just seemed normal. It just seemed like, yeah, you could just talk to people, like they're not gonna care. And luckily Brian didn't. He was a very sweet guy and he was very very helpful and very honest with me.
Do you remember any advice that he gave you?
I don't think so. I think it was just more of a supportive thing. He'd point things out in photos that he liked about them, no negative critiques or anything. I think that's what I would do too. If there's some random kid emailing me, showing me photos at an intermediate level, I'd just be supportive.
I'd ask him about how to make in skateboarding and if it was worthwhile? Is it possible? How many people are out there doing it? Basically he said the only way you're gonna find out is if you do it. You gotta go and you gotta be out there. You gotta meet the people, skate, shoot photos, talk to all the magazines and shoot the right people. You could get photos of kind of random people here or there but they had to be attached to a company or something that would make the magazine want to run it. At first I didn't understand why and I thought it was super lame. But when you consider that magazines are basically funded by advertisements, you start to put two and two together, and think like, okay, here's why we can't just have everyone's friends in the magazine. These companies are paying serious money to run a full page ad, so we're gonna have to get their riders exposure in here.
But talk about being naive. I was so young and dumb, I had $2,000, I’d dropped out of school, then moved to a place where I didn't have anywhere lined up or stay. I didn't have a plan. Didn't know what I was going to do, or who I was going to talk to, it was basically like, we're just going to do it.
Who did you go with?
One of Bart's friends that I met, Ben Smith. He was a really great guy, really great skater, one of my favourites and one of the best styles of all time. I drove out with him as he had plans to move in with some of his other friends, so we weren't gonna live together, but he was destined for California.
I moved in with Steve Fauser, who drove out with Ben. They met me in Arizona. So it was me, Steve, and Rick Yui, who is from Indianapolis. Really great skater as well. Then we had our friend Zach who was a fantastic filmer. So we kind of had a crew. A photographer, a filmer, two skaters, what could go wrong, right? We we're all going to make it together. I mean that was a dream. We were just naive.
So the first stop was Arizona, because we had an apartment lined up for us to live in. I took a detour with Ben, which ended up benefiting us. We drove straight down to Biloxi, Mississippi which was like 16 hours out of the way down there on the coast of Mississippi. They had an old concrete waterpark that's just basically like three intertwining snake runs of just concrete. It was a very, very cool spot. I'd seen it once before somewhere, and I knew where it was so I thought if I'm driving across the country, I'm gonna stop here, even though it was out of the way. So we drive straight through 18 hours, show up in Mississippi at seven in the morning, skate this kind of snake run thing, shoot one photo of Ben, then pack up and start driving to Arizona. That photo ended up being one of the first editorial photos I had run, which was in Skater's Eye in Thrasher, which was their little amateur photographer thing. It was him doing a front side air on a cool looking steep quarter pipe.
Did you send that to Thrasher with the intent of it going in there? Or just send it to Thrasher to see if they could use this?
No, when we ended up getting to California finally I got Burnett's contact from Steve again I think. And again, I'm young and dumb just cold calling him. I think I emailed him first and was just like, Hey, I'm a photographer, I got some photos I'd like to show you. I think we had a phone conversation and then he invited me to come down to San Diego. We were staying in Long Beach at the time, and I drove down to San Diego one day and went in his little studio and just showed him the photos that I had. He was pretty straight up with me. He was probably the first to point out things that could use little work or whatever. The photos are good, but we can't use all of them. These are your friends, they're unknown. He picked out some photos that he liked and offered to give me Skater's Eye. It's just a two page spread with a little interview and we'll run like two or three photos on there. So that was a huge help. That was really the first editorial I had.
That's cool. I guess you needed someone to be straight up with you as well.
Yeah Mike was always like that, and it's a little off putting at first because when you're young everyone just gives you a pat on the back and says, you're doing a great job and everything's gonna be fantastic. So that was a reality check for me for sure. It wasn't like I was bummed out, but it put it in my mind to where I was like, okay, I can't just skate with my friends here, I need to meet people that are sponsored who have a chance of getting my photos in the magazine.
That makes sense. What happened next?
Well I guess it was almost over as soon as it started. The first month was kind of all right and then it started to get stressful. Everyone was having doubts about if they wanted to stay. I think the day before rent was due on that third month we just decided we weren't gonna do it anymore. We were out. So I didn't have a place to live, I just dropped outta college and only lasted two months in California. I didn't have anywhere to go. We drove to Phoenix as we knew a lot of people there. It's a really great scene there and a great environment if you just like skating and having fun. So we didn't have a plans, we just knew that we needed a safe space for a little while.
I applied for a job online while I was in California because it got to that point where needed to get some kind of income. It was for a job with Homeland Security. I didn't think there was any chance that I was gonna get it, but when I got to Arizona, I get a call one afternoon from the recruiter and they basically said if I want the job I have to be on a plane at 6:00 AM the next day. So I just decided on a whim pretty late that night that I was going do it. So I drove back to California, parked at the airport, slept for two hours, then got on a plane and flew to Houston to do Homeland Security training. I did a week of training then flew back and I just had a job in long Beach in San Pedro. But I got nowhere to live. That whole era was pretty stressful. I mean, I did have my friends who lived in Santa Ana and I could sleep on their couch every now and then. But I decided to stay in my car at the San Pedro skate park. It worked out to my benefit because what I quickly realised is that it was a major attraction in the Los Angeles area because it was so unique and cool. Kind of like a renegade transition place for people would come and go. They're not hanging out there every day, but like pros would come and skate there, often at weird hours. I'd be sleeping in my car and be woken up the sounds of skateboarding. I'd peek out my window and it's Daewon skating in the park, you know, either by himself or with like two people. So through that is kind of where I was able to start meeting people and just introduce myself and ask if they wanna shoot photos. Some take you seriously, some don't. Some are just kind of, yeah, maybe whatever, but if you ask enough people eventually something's gonna click and you're gonna link up with somebody. First photos I shot were obviously of them there, but you know, then you get a photo back and you can kind of show them what the photo is and they're like, oh, okay, this person can actually shoot. I'm not just a weird dude sleeping in a car under the bridge.
That's crazy that you lived in your car! It's amazing how you used that to your advantage. What was the homeland security job, what did you have to do there?
It was just for the cruise ships basically. So there's two major cruise ships that go out of long Beach and then San Pedro. And it was just basically checking passengers and crew and just making sure they didn't have anything sketchy. It was full-time, and early hours so I was usually done by the afternoon, giving me time to try and shoot photos after, although I learned pretty quickly that there wasn't much going down on the weekdays as far as skating goes. Most people are skating on the weekends. That's when the missions are going down or when people are trying to do the tricks that they want to try.
How long did you end up staying in your car?
It wasn't too long. The people who built the skate park or were helping out were pretty kind too. Andy Harris was the guy who was kind of the main person behind that skate park. He was aware and was fine with me sleeping at the park. They actually liked it cause they figured like if anything goes down, someone's here, like a security guard almost. I'd say 60% of the time I was in the car the other time I tried to find a couch. I was fine in the car, drink a couple beers, get a burrito or something, just pass out and wake up. To me it wasn't a big deal. Looking back on it. I'm like, that's so insane! Sleeping in your car, not having a home. But like I said, it was so young and so many things were happening so fast. It didn't, it didn't seem odd to me to be in that situation at the time. And I mean, I'm fortunate enough to have my mom who was always very supportive. We weren't rich, but financially we were ok. I was definitely fortunate and I knew if anything went wrong I could just drive home or ask for a little bit of cash. So I don't take that for granted at all. It was not as crazy as it sounds!
Sounds like you got lucky with all the skaters that were coming through the park. How did you navigate up to the next level?
I guess the first person that I really connected with there was Daewon. He was very desirable to shoot at the time, and he was really generous with his time, but I didn't expect him to drop all of his friends and his normal things to shoot photos with me every day. He knew that I was living in my car too so he wanted to help me get some ad money which I'm forever grateful for.
I also met Al Partanen there who's just an amazing skater and an amazing person. We kind of hit it off. We'd drink some beers and then it progressed into him inviting me out to the bar or his house or something, so we just had a good relationship. At that time, there wasn't a lot of of people too interested in bowl skating, pool skating, certainly not photographers. But I always thought that stuff was just insane, much more exciting than any sort of street skating that was going down back then. I mean, just carving in the deep end of a pool is dangerous, at least for me. And to see Al and all these other guys who could just roll in and do a back smith first try in a backyard pool they've never skated - It was insane. So I just really wanted to shoot photos of him as much as I could, and he was down to shoot photos as well, he needed ads and things like that. We became pretty good friends, and at the time he was the team manager for Globe Shoes so through him I would meet other people here and there.
There was a job that opened up at Adio Footwear and Planet Earth Clothing, so he put in a good word for me and I went down to meet with Jeff Taylor, who was the brand manager at the time. And he basically said, if I want the job I have to be on a plane to Europe in like two days. So I went from having that homeland security job for six months to now being like, okay, here's my dream. I don't know if I wanna work for this company, it’s not my ideal situation. I mean, I wanna work for a magazine right, so I can't turn this down. I called him as soon as I got out of there and told him yes, but I didn't have a passport. So we had to go to the LA office the next day to get an expedited passport so I could fly out to meet the Adio team in Europe a day late.
It seems like every decision that you've made has had some kind of instant deadline!
Yes. A hundred percent. I mean, that was a fast couple years. I guess that's the way that you had to do it back then. You couldn't really dwell on the repercussions of what was gonna happen. You had to make a decision and hang on for the ride.
Was that the big money Adio days?
That was the big money Adio days. I didn't get the big money.
Was Bam on that tour?
Bam wasn't on the tour. It was actually a pretty cool skate tour. It was Ernie Torres, Nick DomPierre, Kenny Anderson, Ed Selego, Steve Nesser, Ryan Bombier and Danny Montoya. Brian Brown who was really fantastic was there too. So it was a street crew, it wasn't the superstars.
It wasn't the Tony Hawk's helicopter rides and all that shit.
Yeah, It wasn't that. It was super fun but it was super stressful. This is the time where things started to kind of get weird because I think I was okay with all the abrupt changes and everything up until this point. Something on that trip just kind of snapped and I think the anxiety of the last like year or so just really got to me.
I was going from shooting photos of random people and things that didn't really matter if you fuck it up, so when you're thrown into a trip like that, it was a different world. You get to a spot and these guys are ready to go in a minute, fourteen stair handrail and they're already jumping down it and you're not even set up. And they're doing tricks that you couldn't believe and I have no idea if I got the photo. You didn't have digital back then to test the light or anything so you're just shooting film blind, you have no idea. Then you go to the next spot and you're doing the same thing 30 minutes later. I was used to skating with one or two people and it was always really casual, so compared to that it was a very stressful situation.
There was a point where I really had a breakdown. We were in France, and I guess I was just a young American kid who had no idea about how the world worked. I was feeling really stressed out and I just wanted to drink a beer or something and I couldn't find one. Europe doesn't have the convenience that we're used to in America, where everything's open 24 hours and you can get whatever you want. You can go to the gas station, grab a beer, drink on the street, things like that. And I just remember in France you couldn't buy a beer at a restaurant unless you ordered food. I don't know if it's like that anywhere else in Europe, but where we were in Marseille, I just remember going to a couple places and freaking out and having a meltdown. I eventually went to McDonald's and bought a cheeseburger and a beer and just threw the cheeseburger away. I tucked myself away into a dark corner and drank the beer alone. I needed a little bit of alone time. I'm an only child. I'm used to having my own space. It was a stressful situation with a lot of people and I just didn't know how to handle it, there was no preparation for it. I was just kind of thrown into it. So that was a weird trip for me, even though it was a very cool experience. Looking back on it, I didn't realise what anxiety was. I don't think a lot of people did. Mental health awareness is really big now, thankfully, but it didn’t really exist back then. Actually that first trip ended with doing something very stupid. The last day I think I had one too many shots and just kind of went nuts. The classic kind of party scenario. Go back to the hotel and throw shit out the hotel window. I take full responsibility for my actions, but I think the stress and anxiety definitely led to me acting out, which wasn't a great first impression. Luckily I didn't get fired directly after that!
You went a lot of tours, is the anxiety something you learned to deal with or was it always there in the background?
I think I dealt with it but not in the greatest terms. Alcohol is probably the only way that I knew how to back then. There was just a ton of money in skateboarding so I travelled a lot. This was before we had Monster and all these other companies sucking up all the money out of skateboarding, back then, all the core skate companies had all the money, and the travel budgets were huge.
My tenure at Adio was very short-lived. Probably wasn't the right fit for me as far as the overall vibe of the crew. They also had a friend Ian O'Connor who shot photographs out of Florida. So I think they wanted to get somebody in there that was kind of friends with those skaters at the time. I understood and didn't take it too bad, but overall I think I lasted three months.
It was a cool three months. Got to meet a lot of people, shoot some cool photos, do some traveling, but then I was back in San Diego with nowhere to live. One of the main benefits of that job was they introduced me to one of their filmers Russell Houghton. He had a room for rent, so I moved in the day after I met him, it just kind of worked out. It was a beautiful apartment in Solana Beach just two blocks from the beach. And it was only like 300 bucks a month for rent. It was like a dream come true to have someplace to live with a solid foundation to build the rest of my life. It's kind of hard when you're just taking opportunities as they come and kind of going with the flow. Russell grew up skating with all the people in San Diego, all the up and coming kids. Everyone was still really young then. So there was endless opportunities to skate with people. Back then every company had a skate park in their warehouse so you'd meet people through that.
Did those photos turn out all right from the tour?
Mostly everything turned out fine. There was no placement for a lot of the stuff, so I held onto a lot of it. Nick Dompierre had a couple photos in The Skateboard Mag for his interview. Some of the other stuff just kind of got sprinkled into ads here or there. I guess that was the benefit of being freelance. You can do whatever you want with your photos and shop 'em around. If you give a whole pile to this magazine and they only want two, you just take the rest elsewhere. You probably shouldn't tell the other editors you're giving them the scraps - I let that slip sometimes just as a naive kid. But yeah, that was a good experience for sure.
Was that good for your confidence?
I think so. Shooting a photo and seeing that it turns out is great. Not every photo you're gonna shoot is going to be fantastic. It has so much to do with the spot more than anything. The time that you're there and the lighting, all these things that you don't have control of. We try to control everything with flashes and fisheye lenses or different kind of angles and things like that. But at the end of the day, the reality of the situation you can only do so much with it. I think I realised that too.
It was definitely a confidence booster living with Russell going skating with the younger kids who weren't necessarily like big name pros or anything, but were still fantastic skaters and would turn out to be later on. The overall vibe in San Diego was much more relaxed than in LA or that area. So I really fit in down there and I really liked it. My stress levels definitely went down, being close to a beach, like an actual beach and more greenery.
I didn't really plan on this but I went into The Skateboard Mag to just show them some photos that I had laying around. Matt Price worked there at the time. I knew him through skateboardphotography.com and we would chat in real life and text and talk on the phone and things like that. He was a good skateboard photographer friend. I think that he just brought something up to Dave Swift that I got let go from Adio and I was looking to do something. So Swift reached out to me and asked if I wanted to be on staff, kind of outta nowhere. I had a conundrum because Mike Burnett at Thrasher, he was the first person to help me out. He was always there for me, and I kind of felt an obligation to him because of that. I didn't want to upset anyone either, I just didn't expect to be offered a job out of nowhere.
The Skateboard Mag said that if you wanna work here, we got a trip lined up for you to go to the Cayman Islands in a week. And I'm like, okay this is gonna be a hard choice. So called Burnett and laid it out for him. And although I felt obligated to work for Thrasher, and I love Thrasher and I love Mike Burnett, something just felt more right about The Skateboard Mag.
Thrasher had said they would match the amount of money that they were gonna pay me. And when I decided that I wasn't gonna do that, even though there was an offer on the table, there was some bad blood there. And I totally understand. I mean, I wouldn't go so far as to say I stabbed him in the back or anything, it was a difficult choice to make and I had to make one. And that's the choice I made. And it was no ill will towards him, Thrasher or anyone else. It just felt right in my mind at the time.
At that time The Skateboard Mag was relatively new and fresh as well.
Yeah, my thoughts were that this was a new magazine that we can be involved in that's gonna evolve with us and we can have input on the future of the magazine. That didn't really turn out to be a case, but at the time it just felt right and I just liked the direction that they were heading and the freedom that we had there too. It had a lot of content. Less ads than probably any other magazine I think at the time. So a lot of photo content, photo features every issue, things like that. So I just liked what they were doing and I liked all the staff there as well. It was just a very welcoming environment.
Did you pitch some ideas to them straight away?
I think the first one that I did, I probably stole from Burnett which was probably a dick move on my part. I wanted do a ditch article. We had ditches around Chicago, but they were rough and few and far between. But when you go to California or Arizona there are ditches everywhere. It's so crazy how many they are. I was like, let's just do a hundred percent ditch article, like all ditch photos. So that was a fun one to shoot travel-wise.
So you've been shooting for only a year and a half and already have a staff job at a magazine and doing all these crazy tours. Did you get labeled the tour guy?
There was just one year where it was crazy and I was definitely that guy. I was the guy who was up for whatever opportunities presented themselves. The big tour I went on was an Analog trip to Amsterdam, Italy, and Belgium. Then I got an email from Dave saying he's got another trip lined up and that I'm not coming home. This was with Quicksilver going to Prague and then on to Copenhagen for their bowl riders competition and then staying in Sweden. We actually ended up in Finland at the end of that trip. Then I got a message that he has another trip lined up for me in two weeks after that! So I have to figure out what to do in Finland for two weeks. This is where these Ali Boulala photos come from. I was basically stranded there but Ali lived there at the time. Kyle Leeper decided to join us too and talked Etnies into renting us an apartment and we skated there for a week.
I had to figure out what to do for another week before I came home. Luckily I met Jani Laitala there and he was a super cool guy. It was one of the best weeks I've ever had. He allowed me to stay with him and his girlfriend on their couch for an entire week. We skated a little bit but he took me fishing and we went to some graduation parties. I got the full Scandinavian experience - jumping in the freezing lake and hanging out with a bunch of naked dudes in the sauna and drinking.
It was a really cool way to just actually experience Finland. When you're on skate trips there's really no time to experience what's happening around you. It's cool to be there and see the spots and things like that, but it's bizarre to go to somewhere like France and you're just like, eating fast food and skating all day. Don't even have time to see any sites or take in any of the culture. You're in some dirty alley in Paris and it's like, this is not experiencing France, this is just skateboarding.
Then it was over to meet the Cliche guys, that was really cool too. No pressure, just hanging, drinking at night, skating during the day and just wherever they wanted to skate. Pretty mellow skating, cool spots. Then I came home was supposed to go right to the Wild Ride that was starting in Chicago. So I fly home for a day, to my original home Chicago, and was supposed to shoot the photos on that too. I was so burnt out from being in Europe for eight weeks. Mind you, I was only prepared to go for a week. So I didn't have enough clothing, I was dirty and smelly. I would wash my socks when I could, barely enough film to get by. I was buying film out there with my own money just to try to get by.
Luckily John Humphries actually wanted to go on the trip as well, so I got to just tag along on the Wild Ride trip from Chicago to LA just as a writer. I wrote the article and I just shot some random background photos. I just kind of hung out. It was a really nice break to be on a skate trip and meet all those people. That's where I first met Leo Romero, first time that we actually really hung out and got to be friends.
Our personalities just clicked, and when I got back I started coming up to Long Beach more often from San Diego, staying on his couch, going out skating, hanging out with him. And then I think it was maybe a couple months after that he asked me to move in with him as he was buying a house. So that was kind of the next step in my transition from moving from San Diego back to Long Beach where it all started for me in California.
That whole experience start to finish was three years or so. There was a lot of unaddressed anxiety that I didn't deal with. I felt terrible physically and mentally. My home was so far away and skating to me originally was about hanging out with my friends, the skating almost came secondary. It was just something that we did while we hung out with each other. Skateboarding had changed from something that I used to something with all this professional pressure. Not making a ton of money also had something to do with it. Some thoughts started to creep into my head like, what's my future here? Is this gonna work? I don't want to have roommates for my whole life. I especially don't want to have like three roommates for my whole life. I don't think I'm gonna be able to afford a place on my own in this area. Do I want to live in California and work another job that's not skating? Is that worth it? It all came on pretty fast. Like I said, it was years of small amounts of anxiety that weren't dealt with, other than drinking alcohol and acting out, which is the most unhealthy way to treat it. But I didn't know that at the time.
I was really missing home because that felt like a safe space, you know? It's like that was the only escape that I knew. I didn't know anywhere else I could go or anything else I could do. I just knew that if I was back home I would feel so much better, and all I had to do was get in my car and drive. So it got to a breaking point to where I couldn’t wait another month, or even a week, and I left, a week before my 24th birthday.
Wow. Did you tell anyone or just deal with it later?
I had to tell Leo obviously, and you know, it sucks. We are great friends and I love Leo. I still love him to this day. I miss him. I miss a lot of parts of it. Obviously I told Swift and my friends back home that I was coming home. I told some people that I was close with through skating that I was gonna do it.
There were some things I was working on with people, interviews etc, so I had to contact those people and let them know. Ethan Fowler was one, that would've been a big one. That kind of sucked, it was a dream of mine to do something with him as he was a childhood hero, but I was just focused on myself and getting healthy. There was a point in time where I thought there might be something wrong with me physically, like cancer or some disease. But it turns out I didn't, I just had extreme anxiety that I wasn't medicating, I wasn't taking steps to improve it through diet or exercise or meditation or counselling. I was suppressing to the point to where it was unbearable. So I just had to bail.
That's quite a young age to be able to identify what was going on and make that decision to leave. Starting out and trying to make a good impression in the skate industry can definitely take its toll on you.
I'm fortunate that I could do that and I had somewhere to go back to, and family and friends that were supportive. I think skateboarding was stressful, not just for me or other photographers or filmers, but for the skaters too. I saw it firsthand. You'd have the ams that would stay in the warehouses, skateparks or things like that. And they're skating all day and they're trying to make their mark and they wanna be a pro skater, but it's hard. And they're sharing a room with four people and not eating right and not having clothes or a washer or dryer, they're away from home and away from their friends, and it’s really tough. I think when you get into skateboarding you develop a friend group pretty early on, which then develops into a community, so when you leave that, it can totally throw you. Some people handle it better than others, but for myself it's like you said, you want to impress constantly.
You wanna make a good impression. You want people to like you. So for me it was any new group of skaters or friends that I'm in, I'm kind of adapting my personality to better suit that situation, you know? It's hard to be yourself a hundred percent when you're in that situation, especially when you're that young. You're kind of like a chameleon and you kind of lose a sense of yourself after a while.
Did you try to shoot skate photos when you got back?
I knew I still liked skateboarding, photography, everything like that. But I just wanted have fun with it. It only took about two weeks of me going to shoot photos with people around the city and suburbs to realise that I didn't want to be in a van anymore. I didn't wanna be driving around looking at spots, watching other people skate. When you're a photographer, you're not skating at all. So imagine going to Europe and seeing all these marble ledges, banks, famous spots that you've been dreaming of seeing and you go there and you can't even skate it! You have to immediately get your camera out and watch other people have fun on these spots that you would love to be skating on with your friends. It made me realise that I just wanna skate. I don't want anything to do with watching other people skate. I've done that for too long. I just want to go hang out with my friends, ride my skateboard that's it. I put the camera down and stopped shooting photos of skating kind of altogether, I haven't shot a skate photo since.
It was an amazing experience and I got in at the right time, but for me, I think I got out at the right time too.
Published in North 36