We spoke to Sam Ashley, UK-based skateboarding photographer about cold winters, how there are too many skateboarding companies and saving Jamie Thomas from being questioned about his sexuality – Enjoy
Can you tell us how you first became involved with skateboarding photography?
I started shooting my friends skateboarding in the mid-nineties, just using a crappy point and shoot. The more I shot with that the more frustrated I got with it, the photos definitely didn’t look similar to the ones in Transworld or Thrasher and there were no controls or lenses to really change that. I guess what followed was just me just trying to emulate what I saw in those magazines. When I was 18 I moved to Sheffield to do a pretty gnarly photojournalism course, I’d upgraded my kit a little bit by this stage and threw myself into shooting the local skaters there (many of whom happened to be really good) with any of the spare time I had. By the time I had finished the photojournalism course, I knew I didn’t want to do anything except shoot skateboarding.
Can you tell us about some of the skaters you started shooting?
I guess the main guys were all sponsored by the local shop Sumo. The team was Mark Baines, Scott Palmer, John Winter, Louis Slater, Dan Rees, Rob Ransford, Joel Curtis, Paul Bryant, Neil Chester, Matt Harfield and somehow Paul Shier was in the mix too, even though he was from nowhere near Sheffield. Sumo was really ahead of it’s time for a UK shop, really on point when it came to having a full team, great art direction, videos etc. I kind of learnt the ropes shooting ads for the shop, it definitely felt like being thrown in at the deep end considering the standard of the dudes on the team.
You must have seen some rad tricks go down back then? – Was getting thrown into the deep end a good thing?
Yeah it was a pretty exciting time for UK skating in general I think… It was that period before Blueprint’s Waiting for the World came out, so I think a lot of people were kind of hitting a bit of a higher standard, but a lot of people didn’t realise yet. Shooting with some of the top dudes really early was good for me, I definitely had to really think about what I was doing, having to get my shit together on the technical side of things pretty quickly, messing up photos of some of the things they were doing would mean no second chances. Having said that, I remember it was a lot harder to get any info on a lot of the technical aspects of skate photography back then, there wasn’t really anything on the internet at that time. I remember Wig Worland giving me a couple of pointers, but I, along with with everyone else had to pretty much figure it out for ourselves.
Can you tell us about your favourite UK skaters to shoot?
It’s kind hard to pick favourites out of all the UK skaters I’ve shot, I guess I’ve been in the lucky position of picking who I get to shoot with for most of my career. Some guys definitely have a knack of finding or are down to skate some really photogenic spots though, which always makes my life easier. A lot of the guys I shoot in London, I hang out with on a social level too, so when we’re out shooting it barely feels like work, which is always nice
Where do you guys hit up in London? Every go to Fabric?
Nah we don’t ever really go to Fabric, normally just pubs/bars around East London. Dudes like Rory Milanes and Will Bankhead have actually started putting nights on, so everyone will go to those.
What about the days the weather cuts the photo opportunites short? From a lot of the photographers I’ve spoken to this doesn’t seem to be the case, but traffic and security is met on the other side of the spectrum.
Yeah the weather can get pretty bad, especially in the winter. Quite often it’ll actually help a little, giving me time to sort all the non-shooting aspects of the job, which can really stack up in the summer months.
A British photographer’s hibernation -what sort of work does that involve?
It’s kind of a lot of boring stuff, backing things up, taxes, emails, or just organising future shoots or trips. Also retouching can take up a lot of time too, I’m pretty picky about that side of things and spend a lot of time making sure stuff looks right to me. It’s also good to stop and take stock of where you going with your photography now and again. I think when you’re in the phases of just shooting relentlessly you can kind of get stuck in a rut creatively, just becoming a photo producing machine.
Probably the first time I’ve heard of some advantages of the bad weather. In what ways have you got out of these ruts and moved in a new direction before?
Yeah, I mean it’s not all great, but we’ll usually get around it by doing a few trips to southern Europe during the winter, we’re really lucky that you can do that for pretty cheap these days. As for getting out of ruts, I wouldn’t say that I ever really go off in new directions, more it’s just more like steadily reviewing what I’ve done and where I want to go. I’ll look for patterns and weigh up what I like and what I don’t like. Also I think viewing other people’s work helps a lot too, whether it be photographs or paintings or whatever. On an inspiration level I think it’s important to figure out what you don’t like, which sounds kind of negative, but it allows you make a conscious decision move your own work away from those things.
Speaking of paint can you explain the picture of John Winter’s backside tailslide?
It’s a Polaroid transfer. Basically you use the old Polaroid 669 film, peel it apart whilst it’s still developing and then you use the non print side and press it onto blotting paper. It’s pretty fiddly, I remember there being a lot of messing around with hairdryers and stopwatches to get it just right. I kind of miss doing stuff like that, the whole digital camera thing can leave you a little cold sometimes.
The finished result looks well, what about magazine covers – what was your first?
It was an Scott Palmer on a really old Document mag. I think we were going through a bad patch with an old publisher (it was our last issue for them), I reckon they printed about 50 copies of it.
You’ve shot a fair amount of U.S Skaters as well – can you tell us about how you shot Malto, Carroll, Dill etc?
Malto and Carroll have been in the UK on Fourstar and Girl tours, I guess I just got lucky by being assigned to shoot them. Dill just turned up in London visiting his ex-girlfriend. He needed to shoot an Alien ad and I guess someone recommended me to shoot it. It’s pretty funny that the spot with the propped slab was on the street he was staying.
Going back to the U.K – Olly Todd, the fakie 360 flip cover in Scotland was a great shot
That was actually a Red Bull trip. I don’t think Olly actually rode for Red Bull, but I think they wanted to do something with skateboarding that wasn’t a contest or whatever so they just got a load of dudes in a van and we just went off around the UK on a filming/shooting mission. The cool thing about it was that there was a bit of budget to buy locations. We ended up skating weird stuff like a closed off tunnel, and this shipyard near Glasgow. I think the boat kind of sucked to skate, it had a weird gap at the bottom of the bank, but it looked pretty cool. You’re not going to get many opportunities to skate and shoot on something like that too often. Yeah Olly’s great to shoot with, he’s a really unique skater and understands what makes a good photo, that always makes my life easier.
Yeah they paid the guys in charge of the road tunnel and in the shipyard so we wouldn’t get kicked out.
Cool. So can you tell us about your experiences with magazines? Does skate photography in the UK pay well? From speaking with skaters and photographers we’ve got the impression there can often be quite a stuggle
I’ve been lucky enough to have a constant staff position for the last 12/13 years. Firstly with Document and now with Sidewalk and Kingpin. Ultimately all 3 mags ended up with the same publisher, so I just got moved across when they shut down Document. I’m not exactly flossing from the editorial work, but it’s enough to live off. The skate industry here is pretty messed up, the standard at which people get sponsored is generally pretty low and there’s about 4000 different board brands, most of whom are not really bringing anything very interesting to the table. Both these things combined mean that the best skaters and company owners, who are actually contributing a lot to the scene often can’t afford to get by, basically everything is diluted. It seems to me like a lot of people want to start companies for no other reason than wanting to start a company, rather than actually having good/different ideas and putting them into action.
So it can be solely based on money-making rather than building a team or making a video?
I’ve no idea, I guess you’d have to ask the people who start these companies. I really don’t understand why you’d bother doing a company if there’s no fresh ideas behind it. I’d just rather the scene was relatively few brands that are able to pay themselves and the pros a living wage enabling them to dedicate all their time and resources towards doing things well.
Sounds fair. So are you a Pixies fan or was that work?
Both! It was shot for Plus1 which was kind of a lifestyle supplement to Document.
So what about the portrait shots you’ve taken – Can you run us through the Cardiel, Baines -looking a lot younger – and Jamie Thomas photos?
The Cardiel one was shot in some sort of fixed gear bike workshop off Brick lane in London. I think Vans had brought him over for something or other, not sure… He’s a really nice guy, it’s just so gnarly talking to him about his accident, and how he’s moved on with his life since then, really inspirational.
The Baines one was shot when we lived together in Sheffield, that was our front door. I think he was locked out one day or something, and was just looking through the window to see if anyone was in, I just made him recreate it. It was the portrait for his Document interview.
I can’t really remember what the Jamie Thomas one was for, but I know we had to do it at Paddington station at 6:30AM as he had a plane to catch. I literally had a bout 2 minutes to shoot him, most of which was spent setting up a softbox. He wanted to wear a white leather version of that hat he’s wearing, it was the campest thing I’ve ever seen, I suggested that the black one may look a bit better, haha.
Haha – You mentioned to me about storage – how much stuff are we talking about here?
Storage is definitely a problem, I have a filing cabinet full of negs, plus several more boxes full of slides and prints etc. Magazines are by far the worst though, they’re so heavy and there’s hundreds and hundreds of them.
So are there any plans to sell prints or get together a book?
Yeah I’m open to print sales, I’m just not really sure about the best way to do it right now. As for a book, I don’t really think I’m at that point yet. I think having a book should still be something of a statement, there’s a lot of underdeveloped photographers who have done it and I think maybe it’s hurt them in the long run.
The blog is great by the way – can you tell us about some of your favorite spots you have been to?
I think the favourite places I’ve been to are the ones that are most different to where I live. Beirut and St. Petersburg are both really interesting places for me, skateboarding or not. New York, Berlin, Paris and Barcelona are always a good time, although culturally they’re not too different from London these days… I’m noticing as time goes on a lot of places in Europe are slowly becoming more alike each other.
And skateboarding aside, what do you enjoy to shoot?
Most of my work has people in it, so I guess loosely speaking it’s portraiture, but within that there’s music stuff, a bit of fashion stuff… So I guess I like shooting people. Sometimes I’ll shoot ‘things’ too though, I’ll shoot anything that interests me really, I just can’t really define what that is.
What are the short terms plans then?
Right now we’re just finishing off Rory Milanes’ interview for Sidewalk, I’ve been working on that for quite a while. Also trying to work on Chris Oliver’s interview, but yeah the weather’s got pretty bad here now so we’ll see how that goes. Other than that, I’m just trying to figure out some trips and organize my schedule for the New Year, there are a few things up in the air right now.
Can we finish up with some advice to aspiring skateboarding photographers out there and a track recommendation?
I think the best advice would be just learn how to compose pictures properly, so many people either can’t or won’t do this, if you do it well your work will automatically rise above the thousands of shitty photos of skaters with lampposts up their arses or whatever. I’ve seen guys (who have had work published) at skate spots, announce that they’re ‘going long’ and then walk away from the spot about 40 feet, turn around and then sit down, it’s unbelievable, no thought put in whatsoever. Also don’t get hung up on film versus digital, just focus on good pictures, which you can make with either. ‘The Gaslamp Killer’ by Nissim (with Amir Yaghmai) is a good song – the rest of the album sucks though
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