Spotting differences between continents, being gracefully bestowed cameras that hold skateboarding history, to the breaking point of JJ Rousseau. We recently spoke to Oliver Barton about Perpetual Motion, where to draw the line with authenticity and skating Kansas City on Halloween being the reaffirmation that skateboarding is going to be okay. Enjoy –
Photos by Oliver Barton
Let’s start off with you telling us about where you’re from.
I’m from Jersey, it’s a small island nine miles by five in the English Channel just off the coast of France.
How was life growing up there and how did you first get into skating?
Growing up in Jersey was really mellow, there’s hardly any crime and everyone knows each other so you don’t have to deal with the drama that people who grow up on the mainland do. The flip side is that if you do anything bad at all, your parents knew about it before you even get home. There’s really good surf in Jersey since it gets Atlantic currents and has the second largest tidal range in the world so skateboarding was in my life from the get go by default: my dad surfed so he had skateboards sitting around but I didn’t really get started until a friend I grew up with called Ian Battrick showed our group of friends that you could do tricks like an ollie or a boneless. Ian grew into a world-class surfer. He’s always on a crazy adventure. Check out his blog. Ian’s dad built him a quarter pipe and around the same time we got a copy of Public Domain and that was it. I still remember being mind blown by the Rubber Boys. That VHS got heavy playtime.
Do you still find the time to skate?
Yeah I still skate but I find it weird in California, it’s all skateparks or really specific trick spots that you’re not exactly hanging out at. The red curbs are amazing but London was the best place to skate for me because you could skate across the city. There was a whole journey aspect like sightseeing with skate spots mixed in and plenty of cruising. You can definitely street skate in LA but for the most part it’s driving between all the spots.
When did photography come into the picture for you?
I always used to film my friends growing up and photography came as an extension of that. I grew up with a kid called Michael Watkins and he was a really good photographer so I was really inspired by the photos he took and how he approached the creative process. I had a place to read ancient history at university in London but I took a gap year to travel and I was shooting photos the whole time. When it came to going to university the following September, my dad told me I should probably apply for a degree in photography instead since photography was where my heart was and luckily it worked out. Thanks dad.
Not necessarily a “safe” choice so to speak but some admirable advice from your father right there. How was the photography degree?
I was a bit disappointed with the technical aspect of the degree to be honest, I definitely learned what the phrase “those who can’t do, teach” is all about. It seemed like half the teachers where just there to get access to the equipment store. There were a couple of cool teachers though and the most important thing was that I was then living in London, which was a dream come true. Pretty soon I got connected with Wig Worland and I didn’t need any help from the tutors at school, I had a master to follow.
Do you think having the degree itself was necessary then? Do you think the qualification has been a factor in having a photography career?
The degree was a real help getting a work visa for the USA but apart from that there is not too much really. I don’t really work in a field that you’d expect a university degree to help in though so maybe that’s part of the reason.
Going back to Wig Worland, how did you meet and what did you learn?
I met Wig at the end of my first year at university, I’d sent him some photos and he printed a few but we’d never really talked. Will and Justin at Dope hooked me up with him on a UK tour and Wig took me under his wing. Wig taught me absolutely everything; I still use the same lighting ratios, same camera settings with the same film processing that he taught me thirteen years ago! There are some steadfast rules with photography and people don’t tend to volunteer them too freely so I’m forever indebted to him. I can say with one hundred per cent certainty that I wouldn’t be here without him.
Interesting that you say there are steadfast rules with photography that people don’t volunteer to freely.
Well now that you have the internet, I suppose that there is a lot more information out there, but Wig taught me about things like flash duration: a camera flash is like a light that is switched on and then off really quickly; for simplicity’s sake, let’s say it’s turned on for 1/500th of a second at full power, if you switch it to half power it switches on for 1/1000th of a second, exactly half the time. At 1/500th of a second you’ll get a pretty blurry photo but at 1/1000th it’s going to look a lot crispier. Without that knowledge you’ll never be able to figure out why your photos always look soft and you’ll be going crazy trying to focus the lens when actually all you need to do is turn the power down on the flash.
Tell us about your equipment choices.
I mainly shoot with a Hasselblad 203fe film camera. I had my original set up stolen in Barcelona back in 2008 and it was devastating but fortunately everyone was transitioning into digital at the time so I managed to get some used equipment without too much hassle. The body I have is Mike Blabac’s old 203 that shot all the Danny Way mega ramp stuff, all those sick old Stevie Williams DC portraits, Josh Kalis at Love – it’s pedigree far outweighs it’s current owner. The fisheye is Ryan Gee’s old fisheye which shot so much epic Philadelphia stuff that I stared at for hours, every time I shoot a photo I know that I’ve got a lot of history in my hands. I use Lumedyne flashes because Wig told me they’re the best.
Something that would be good to clear up: how much of a common occurrence is it for an ad or photo to be shot and used when the trick isn’t made?
I don’t think that it happens anywhere near as much as it used to, nowadays people expect to see the footage pop up somewhere or they’ll call it out. Sometimes you’ll get kicked out or the guy will break his board and they’ll go back with a filmer and do it but use the photo from the earlier session. It’s a lot easier for the filmers if the photographer is not there getting in the way with the light stands and everything else. Sometimes the skater won’t film tricks though, so just because you don’t ever see the footage it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a make. At the end of Extremely Sorry I was shooting an interview with Mark Appleyard. He was tripping pretty hard on filming, he only took a year to film Really Sorry and Extremely sorry was five years so by the end he was over the whole production aspect, he just wanted simplicity. He backside flipped a gap in West LA twice that was on the cover of Transworld and did a switch front board down a rail in Downey and it was just the two of us there.
Are there ever instances when the trick is made but the photo used is from a different attempt? What sort of lines need to be drawn when it comes to authenticity do you think?
Normally the make is the frame that looks the best since that’s when the stairs are aligned correctly so the make gets used, but sometimes a different frame just looks more pinnacle so I’ll use that, you really just want everything to look the best it possibly can. If you’re skating a legendary spot, you’re a fool to use a photo that’s not a make, if you run someone switch tre flipping Hollywood sixteen people are definitely going to be looking for the footage and call you out if it’s a bail, you can’t disrespect all the tricks that went down before by claiming it. Having said that I’d be lying if I said I’d never had a bail run, sometimes it’s either run a bail or have a white page in the magazine because deadlines come up and you’re running dry, you’ve just got to be sure the guy goes back and makes it. Some tricks are so gnarly I think that the person getting themselves into that situation is enough to justify the photo, would you choose to not run a photo of Gonz ollieing into the car wash bank because he ground his eye brow off his face at the bottom instead of riding away clean?
Good point. We had a long delay with this interview because of you being so busy with Perpetual Motion. Can you tell us everything about your involvement, what you have been up to during the course of the production of this film and your thoughts on it being a landmark Transworld video?
It’s amazing that this is the twenty-fifth video, Jon Holland has been making the videos since the first Cinematographer in 1997 so it’s an honor in the most genuine sense of the word to be involved in something with such a time tested legacy. It’s insane looking at a cupboard and seeing a box with “Modus Operandi Master Tape” written on it! The fact that a full length gets put together in ten months when most of the videos out there get several years speaks volumes about the commitment put in by the filmers and the skaters themselves, seeing Julian Davidson go at it left a huge impression on me, his determination is next level. Perpetual Motion has parts from Walker Ryan, Tom Remillard, Jimmy Carlin, Josh Mathews, Silas Baxter-Neal and Julian Davidson and it’s got a classic montage in the middle of it all. As far as the filming and editing of the video is concerned, Jon Holland and Chris Thiessen handle everything, I work with Keegan Callahan on the photography so that it can best match his art direction for the video box and the ads and then Brady Ferdig and I organize getting the video to global premieres that coincide with a DVD/BluRay drop and then later onto iTunes. We delay the iTunes release so that core skateshops can get the video first and hold premieres, hopefully people will buy the video from core shops.
I’m looking forward to it. I’m a big fan of Jon. What’s he like?
Jon is a good solid bloke who is really passionate about making videos. He knows what he likes and how he wants things to look. He holds himself to very high standards, which is good to be around because it rubs off on you. It’s also really cool to be around him when he’s filming because whenever you watch the trick back after someone has made something, it always looks perfect and it’s usually from a unique angle. Jon’s adapted really well to all the changing camera formats that video has gone through which isn’t something that you can say for everyone. I know for me that having the aspect ratio and distortion of my fisheye change every few years would throw me for a serious loop.
If you could only ever watch one Transworld video again what would it be?
First Love for sure. I really like the vibe and the line up in that video and Jon and Jason are a really good fit together. We did a really sick road trip from Barcelona to Malaga for that video. Stefan Janoski switch heeled the bump to bar at the waves spot about two hours after he’d got off the plane from California and everything just stayed at that level right to the end. Really good memories.
How do you feel having the responsibility of documenting skateboarding yet somewhat taking a backseat?
For me personally, I’m fine with where I’m at as far as seating plans. For a lot of the pros it’s really hard for them to go out and have a fun skate or try and learn a new trick because everywhere they skate, someone is going to be watching them to see if they’re on their A-game, that’s why they’ve all started hiding out in private warehouses. That sense of being watched seems miserable. I remember watching Live Aid with my dad in the eighties and there was a shot where you could see back stage. The commentator pointed out one of the producers and my dad told me “That’s who you want to be, you get to go to all the party’s and drive all the nice cars but you never really have to deal with anyone recognizing you”. That’s it in a nutshell.
Do you think photographers and filmers are accredited at a level they should be?
I’m definitely not worried about being accredited. If you want to be a skate photographer you’re doing it for the love, although it would be really cool to get some of the budgets that different genres of photography get. Just so you get the best equipment and travel to really cool spots all the time. Fifteen Profotos, four Hasselblad 203s and a weeklong permit for MACBA please!
Are there feelings when traveling and the like that you must be aware of everything at all times in the documenting respect? Do you ever feel like you can switch off?
The switch off switch doesn’t exist, skateboarding rattles around in my brain twenty-four seven and I’ve definitely spent nights looking at the ceiling tripping on why my Pocket Wizzard transmitter was switched off already when we were packing everything away and had I just blown the photo completely. That fear is one of the most essential parts of photography for me; it’s what drives you to keep your game as tight as possible. As much as I think about it all the time, I don’t try and shoot all the time because the camera can kill the vibe especially with out of hours activities. There are quite a few things in life that are best left as memories, not documented events.
Well said. To rewind back, can you tell us about your experiences of shooting in the UK and then the US. What differences have you come across?
Way more differences than I thought there would be; the light in California is really strong which is a blessing and a curse but either way forces you shoot differently than you do at home in terms of technique. I definitely felt like I was stumbling for a while on that one. You don’t get as many open public space spots in the US as you do in Europe, most of the time you’re climbing fences or going places that people don’t want members of the public to be in so you end up skating really late at night a lot. The biggest difference between the US and the UK that I noticed straight away is the police’s attitude to skating. For the most part the police in the UK seem to be irritated by skateboarding and they’ll tell you to grow up and move on, but some of the police out here take it seriously to the point where guns are drawn and your left sitting in a really awkward position for forty minutes whilst you get your ID run through their database. I get it though, the gang violence here is on a level that nothing in Europe can prepare you for, there have been sixteen thousand gang-related homicides in California since 1981 and non-fatal shootings are through the roof so if I was a policeman in LA, I’d definitely not be taking any chances.
Let’s run through some of your photos. Can you start off by telling us what you think your most “iconic” photo is?
I’d say the photo of Scott Palmer lipsliding the rail in Hull is the most iconic. Scott Palmer is so raw to watch skate in real life, he skates really fast at rough haggard spots and tries gnarly tricks without rolling up loads of times and freaking out. He just charges, one hundred per cent British skate or die. The ad that Dan laid out said “English rosen on t’ heart” and that really sums up Scott, everything he did had a very unique British twist.
I noticed the photo of JJ Rousseau was titled “stress” when going through your work.
The photo of JJ is from Cliché Apero tour in 2006. In the French Connection part in Fully Flared JJ hangs up ollieing up a curb and slams into some stairs, this is from right after. Jeremie is trying to ascertain if JJ has broken his hand but I feel like JJ’s spirit was broken more than anything, he’d been really unlucky trying to get tricks on that trip and taking such a bad stack on something that he was just doing for fun was salt in the wounds. The pressure of being in a video with everyone on Lakai and knowing how high the bar was set really weighed on JJ and I feel like this photo summarizes where he was mentally at that time. After Fully Flared JJ stepped away from skating for a while and moved to Reunion Island off the coast of Madagascar where he surfed everyday and took a breather, I’m always hyped to see clips of him from Lucas Puig’s Toulouse videos online.
Where was the Anthony Pappalardo photo taken?
The photo of Pops is at a university to the north of Barcelona from the very first Fully Flared filming trip back in March 2004. He already knew where all the secret spots were. He’s really into cruising around and looking for his own things to skate. The bump looks really perfect to skate but the up and down ramps are at funny angles so you have to drift your ollie, that’s why most people you see here just shoot off the side.
Have you spoken to him recently?
I wish that I had spoken to Anthony recently but it has been a really long time. I know that he speaks to Shier and he says he’s doing just fine. I like every single Pappalardo video part. I’ve watched them all as much as any video parts out there. His part in Mosaic was such a go to for a while but recently I’ve been watching his Fully Flared part a lot, it’s a good one to watch before you go and skate.
The old John Rattray Blueprint ad is great.
John’s photo is from one of my favorite times in skating. The energy that everyone on and around Blueprint had during the filming of Waiting for the World was incomparable to anything else I’ve felt since. It was an amazing moment watching the projection and sound check with Dan at the cinema in Sheffield before the premiere because no one at the time was really expecting anything on that scale, it was a really proud moment for everyone and I think that video was a huge turning point for British skateboarding and British videos. It was a really sad day when John left for Zero, but the way his cards were dealt to him, he was put in a position where he didn’t really have much of a choice but take the offer. I’m really conflicted about the new Blueprint.
Did you see the ad they put out the same day Isle had their unveiling?
I think that sometimes in life there are coincidences that seem to mean way more than what they really do it’s just the cosmos throwing out a bizarre moment of alignment from all the chaos. It’s a bad choice to drop anything the same day as another company whether you’re in competition or not because you’re limiting the amount of attention you’ll get, so I’d be surprised if someone at the new Blueprint thought that it would be a good idea. I’d rather just assume coincidence and wish them all the best. I think Isle is headed in such a different direction that in a years time it’ll be something that isn’t even an issue anymore, but I do wish for Paul and Dan that people would relax on the antagonism, they put everything they had for almost half their lives into that brand so it’s really weird to see it go in a direction that they’re not comfortable with. If anything I hope it reminds people how much of a positive impact Blueprint had across the map. I’m really excited to see what Paul, Nick and Chris bring to the table with Isle, it’s going to be an epic time and at the end of it all maybe a fresh start was what everyone needed.
At the end of it all how would you like to picture yourself as having been a part of skateboarding and having contributed to the progression of skateboarding photography?
The most important thing would be to feel that you’d helped people achieve their goals in a way that’s fun and creative for them. Having a skater you’re really down for tell you that they really like a photo you shot of them is the best feeling. It’s also really cool when one of your pictures gets posted somewhere online by someone who is really into skating, having a photo uploaded on a Chrome Ball thread feels really cool because you know he’s taking his time picking from the cream of the crop of skaters. I guess this goes back to the question about accolades. There are photographers like James Nachtwey, watch the documentary War Photographer. Once you’ve watched this and you realize what he goes through just to tell the stories of disadvantaged people and get them out of their situation by bringing light to what is happening to them, you realize that jumping fences and shooting frontside flips is pretty frivolous so it’s weird to think too deeply into it. I really love the people who filmed the BBC Planet Earth series; they went to insane extremes to get the best footage possible but they’re not cocking and crowing about it afterwards, they just want to have the shot that everyone remembers because it was a shot that captures the audience’s imagination.
Do these sort of thoughts ever make you want to move on from skateboarding photography?
Definitely not, especially not anything like what James Nachtwey does. I don’t have the balls to be bullet proof. Skateboarding will have to take some serious turns for the worse for it to change how I feel about it. It’s constantly evolving so it always stays fresh, there’s no constraints on who, why, where, when so it has so many more options for expansion than so many other things in the world. That’s what sets it apart from sports. I’m also really down for the new generation of skaters, I think that they really get it on a level that they don’t always get the credit for. A couple of years ago I went to stay at Sean Malto’s house in KC. He lived in a tumble down house with maybe six permanent residents and six rotating guests, skate videos running on every TV in the house except the one that had the new Call Of Duty. The first night I arrived a group of about thirty of us skated two miles downhill to a party in the city and then after the party we carried on skating late into the night. A few days later it was Halloween and the whole crew skated in their costumes all over the city, I had the dude from the Big Lebowski with his bowling board tre flipping on my left and a surgeon covered in blood flying past me on my right. It was like skateboard heaven. Everyone in Kansas City is pinnacle and I thank them for showing me such a good skate time. With people like Sean Malto and Escapist involved at the top levels, we’re going to be fine.
In what ways do you mean they get it on a level they don’t deserve?
I think that people are always telling them, “oh you don’t understand what it was like in ’96 and ’97 with Mouse and Penal Code and Eastern Exposure, those were the golden years”, just ramming that stuff down their throats when they themselves represented the exact same thing to the vert skaters who hated on them for skating the bottom of the ramp like a manny pad because they’d been watching Love Child. When you talk to Julian Davidson about what his version of what ’97 is, he’s all about Baker 2G and the Sorry video and the levels of skating in those videos are so ballistic it’s no wonder that they end up getting as gnarly as they do.
Can this be applied to the hatred of perfection perhaps?
I think that the perfection thing has always been there, Andy Mac can drop a perfect contest run, but these days the people who are robotically perfect are doing tricks that are really cool that we’d all want to be able to do, so seeing someone do a trick in the must perfect way and yet it seems to evoke absolutely no emotional response in them is really weird. For me it’s not the perfection thing that is a turn off, it’s the lack of emotion that they put into the trick that ends up making your style look boring.
Let’s finish up with the most extraordinary experience you have had while shooting a photo.
Getting shot at in Peru on an éS trip was pretty extraordinary. That wasn’t the funny part although at the time my body released the endorphins it saves for near death experiences and it felt amazing! I felt so energized; it was as if I had wind blowing in my face even though the weather was totally still. Anyway, when I got back home the first person I went out skating with was Kyle Leeper and he backlipped over this pipe in a ditch that was an Etnies ad. The spot is right next to the San Diego Police firing range so the whole time we were there all you could hear was gun shots from hand guns, shot guns, rifles, there was even a small explosion at one point. Kyle brought me back to the streets with a baptism of fire!
What’s next post Perpetual Motion for 2013?
We’re getting started on the new video this week, we’ve had a really diverse group of people hit us up wanting to do parts so the new video is shaping up to be really cool already. I can’t say any names yet but I think that people will really like the line up. It’s exciting to start a new project but sad that the time of going out with the group from Perpetual Motion has come to an end, we’re not ready to give up Julian yet though, maybe we’ll just make him do another part! Youness Amrani has been working on an online part that is going to drop with an Am Spotlight in our Am issue. Him and Thiessen just got back from filming in Morocco where they seem to have skated nothing but perfect skate spots so there’s going to be some heavy skating of Youness coming out soon. O’Meally has been stacking photos for a while so there is going to be an explosion of epic visuals from him very soon, I can’t wait to see that, there’s so much cool stuff going on with online and video but the pinnacle for me is seeing a nicely laid out well photographed feature in print; Keegan Callahan and Mike O’Meally are an excellent combination for that.
Perpetual Motion is out on DVD and BluRay on the 5th April and iTunes the 11th April.
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