Skin Phillips Interview
In skateboarding when a professional skateboarder makes it to a certain level of fame and notoriety often times his shoe sponsor will offer him a signature shoe. These are skaters we’ve all heard about and can list their feats and achievements on the skateboard. But what about the people who document these pro skateboarders? The ones that follow them around and point a lens at them for hours on end until they can land their trick… Don’t these people deserve recognition? Well adidas thought so, and after three decades of photographing skateboarding’s best Skin Phillips is the latest member of the adidas ‘Respect your Roots’ crew to receive a signature trainer. To coincide with the shoe’s release Skin returned back to his hometown of Swansea for an exhibition of his photography from the past 30 years and an auction of his prints with the proceeds going to the local skatepark: Exist. The day after the exhibition, and just after attending the Swansea/Leicester football match, we caught up with Skin to hear about how he started out, his move to America, his favourite skaters to shoot with and more.
Interview by Will Harmon
So what first attracted you to photography and shooting skateboarding?
Skin Phillips: I was obsessed with skateboarding. I saw it first in the sixties and then I followed it really closely and skated in the mid-seventies. Then in my teenage years I got into punk rock and I got into a little trouble and I was trying to find myself. But all during that time I would go bird watching on the weekends with my friend named Andrew Reynolds. And when we went bird watching through that I learned about optics. I learned about Leica and Zeiss and this teacher at my school had a Canon A1. My mate Andrew got a camera first and then my teacher let me borrow her camera sometimes. I was really into art, but I couldn’t draw and I always thought photography was for artists that couldn’t draw. They can see it, but they can’t put it onto canvas. And then when I was eighteen I wanted a camera for my birthday and my mum and dad bought me a 35mm camera.
So the first skate photos I shot in the early eighties were with this camera and a 50mm lens. So after I got that camera I decided that I wanted to be a photographer… It took forever, but I learnt in libraries… I tried to get into college but I couldn’t get in, so I learnt by talking to people and reading manuals. I made my own darkroom… It was a long process, but that’s how I got into it. The more I did it the better I became. It was a lot of trial and error.
Growing up in Wales, how quickly did you realise you needed to travel to shoot more skateboarders and where did you decide to travel?
Well we had our Swansea crew, there were like four or five of us. And my friends would travel and go to contests and demos and I would go with them to shoot photos at these events. So that was the first time I saw other people skate and I took photos of others than just my friends. And through this I’d meet travelling pros and I’d shoot them like Kevin Staab or Adrian Demain. And then in that process I met Bod (Boyle) who was a G&S pro and Nicky Guererro. There was a good European vert scene in the mid-eighties. And then in ’85 my friend and I decided to go to the second Münster comp and that’s where I saw Gonz (Mark Gonzales) for the first time and I saw Cab (Steve Caballero), also I shot Lance (Mountain)… That was the first time I shot a lot of famous American pros on the deck of the ramp.
And then in ’89 was the first time I went to the States. My friends and I were travelling a lot. We went down to London and then up to Scotland… Even though we were in Swansea we travelled a lot.
Can you tell us about the move to California, how did that come about?
Well I was kind of working for RAD and TLB (Tim Leighton-Boyce, former editor of RAD magazine) was helping me out, but I was just doing bits and bobs really, not making a living. And then in 1989 when I went to America, I went to the Visalia skate camp and there I met Tom Knox. At that camp I also met Karma Tsocheff, Alan Petersen, the Paez brothers and I just got a little foot in.
So after that I was back in Wales and I was saving to go to Australia. I wanted to go to Australia for six months and I got the visa and everything and then I thought I’d stop in Visalia and shoot Tom Knox on my way. Two weeks in the States and then I’d go to Australia for six months was the plan. So I went and shot Tom Knox, did the interview, shot the photos, and also I had just gotten my first sequence camera and so I shot all this for RAD. Then I went to Australia and then my money went way down and I was down to £2. I had no money left and then I called my mum and she said that Tim had been trying to get a hold of me and that the Knox interview had come out and that I’d made £600. That was a fortune back then! Also that was the first time I put an editorial package together: I wrote the words out, I shot the photos, I did the printing and I sent it all out. So after doing that I realised: ‘I can do this; I can do it!’ Also after that I got some good glass so my photos started looking better.
So also when I went over in ’89 I went to see Grant (Brittain). Even though I went to the skate camp in Visalia we went down to San Diego and made a point to see the Transworld guys. So we went to McGill’s skatepark and we saw Danny Way when he was 14, we saw Jason Jesse, and then we went to see Grant and he gave us a little tour of the place and we met (Dave) Swift as well. So in ’89 I became friends with Swift so we knew each other and kept in contact. And then in ’91 and ‘92 street skating was really getting big. And then in ’92 or ’93 Tom Penny arrived. Also (Geoff) Rowley was getting big, (Carl) Shipman was getting known and so Transworld wanted someone in Europe to cover these guys. So I was freelancing and I did a Shipman interview for TWS in 1993. And then I was doing some stuff for Thrasher, freelancing for everyone and then I came out to California in January 1994 and within three or four months I’d gotten a job at Transworld. They helped me with a visa, they paid me well and they really looked after me. Grant also gave me a lot of tips and pointers about my photos.
Moving to So Cal as an outsider, was it hard to get into the US skate game and adjust?
Well I already had that leg in, but I was an outsider because I was British and I had this different take on things. But that worked to my advantage because there were a lot of American photographers at that time so that set me apart from them. And being there at TWS, every day I was going to shoot photos and I got to shoot some really key people back then so I built some great relationships early on.
Is there a particular skater that you’ve really enjoyed working with?
That’s tough, there’s so many. (Chad) Muska was a big favourite as I got to shoot Chad when he was a kid and then he became this big superstar. That was really nice to see someone develop like that. Mark (Gonzales) has always been a pleasure to shoot, (John) Cardiel, I love shooting him. (Matt) Hensley has been a friend and an inspiration to me for sure – and then of course Lance Mountain. It’s funny because now I get to see Dennis (Busenitz), Silas (Baxter-Neal) and Lucas (Puig) and these others guys skate and I’m like ‘Fuck!’, now is the best time. And with Miles (Silvas) and TJ (Tyshawn Jones) and all the adi guys it’s really great. And getting the job at adidas has rejuvenated that feeling.
And so you were with TWS just before this new adidas TM position, what did you think when all the guys left to do The Skateboard Mag?
It was tough. It was like a girl leaving you; it was a kick in the balls. I remember talking to (Jim) Thiebaud and he was like: ‘You’re down mate, you’re on the floor. What are you going to do? Are you going to jump out of the ring or are you going to fight?’ I had no option it was either fight or go back to Swansea so I was like ‘Fuck it! I’m going to give it a go.’ And so we rebuilt the staff and did it. It is what it is, you do what you’ve gotta do – I don’t hold a grudge. At the time I was devastated, but actually in hindsight it was great for me. I moved up a tier so it was a good thing. Change is good.
Is there a particular photo you’ve shot that is your favourite?
The favourite I have now is Mark (Gonzales) coming through the tunnel in Cologne. He’s on his belly and he’s paying tribute to Hawaii and it looks like he’s surfing. It’s like we were always taught ‘action, action, just do the craziest trick, the biggest rail,’ and none of that… That’s not important really. If you can get that one thing… When you look at Tobin’s (Yelland) stuff, all his famous stuff, the Cardiel photo, the Julian (Stranger) portraits, all of it is lifestyle and Tobin captured a time in skateboarding. Not in his skateboarding photos, but in his portraits and he captured that ‘skateboarding life’. If you can get that in a photo… All my photos aren’t… It’s not the craziest stuff right, but it’s that certain little moment you know?
Yeah. And speaking of Gonz, do you have any memorable Gonz stories?
The first time I properly met Mark was the early nineties. He came over for New Deal UK (former skate distributor) with Ron Chatman and they rode for ATM Click at the time. So they came over and I remember he had a carpet suitcase. A suitcase made of carpet that he carried on his shoulder. This is when he went underground and when he first moved to New York. This was right when the Beastie Boys were big and the term ‘Old School’ came out and Mark was wearing adidas trackie bottoms. I’d never seen a skateboarder wear trackie bottoms and he was really quiet. The first day he went out he boardslid this rail, and (Pat) Duffy was there by accident, and in the photo Pat Duffy’s in the background. That only exists in one photo I had, Thomas (Campbell) lost the negs and it wasn’t filmed. It was only a few years after Video Days so Mark was warm. Then he hippie jumped into Southbank and he was just ripping and destroying it. That’s the first time I really met him. And I didn’t shoot Mark a lot, but we got on. And he liked me because I was British. Mark loved coming over to Britain and he loves London. Mark’s travelled all his life.
You’ve travelled everywhere too! Do you still love it?
Yes and the cool thing about all the travelling that we do… OK when people travel they always go and do the tourist stuff, go to the tourist places, no matter who you are. OK if you are a news reporter you might go into different areas to do a story, but we, us (skateboarders), we just go to the most obscure places all around the city. We see the world like no one ever sees it. We actually go in to all the suburbs and we really get an idea of what each city is about. And when you add all the cities up you get a really good idea of what’s going on in the world. You can’t teach that anywhere. It’s an awesome thing about skateboarding, but we don’t realise it’s happening. We are out seeing it getting that education as we go through it day-to-day and week-to-week throughout the year.
And can you tell us about your ‘Respect the Roots’ shoe with adidas? How did this come about?
It was definitely a surprise. I was blown away. I always wear leather adidas… I always wore the Gonz Skate shoe, especially the Black ones with the yellow stripes. I liked it because it looked like a gazelle… It looked like a shoe you’d wear on the terraces. That shoe was made in France by adidas in 1977 and it was called the Skate. Back then each country used to make their own shoes. So it was made for skateboarding in 1977 and it’s exactly the same shoe. They have one of those shoes at adidas that they bought on eBay, the actual shoe from ’77. And when I go up there I’m always looking at everything and I always geek out on that shoe. So they (adidas) just did it as a one-off for me. They’ve done it in my favourite shape and in my favourite colours: black and white. That’s the classic UK Samba soccer shoe. It doesn’t get any better than that. It’s a simple, easy trainer that looks good with everything. And it looks good on the terraces as well! And it’s got ‘Skin’ on it; you can’t go fucking wrong! (Laughs)