Pete Thompson: ’93 til Interview
If you picked an American skate magazine in the nineties or early two thousands, chances are you saw some of Pete Thompson’s photographs in it. Pete shot for Slap and then Transworld from the early ‘90s all the way up to 2004. Why am I telling you this? Well Pete has put together a book entitled ’93 til with a curated selection of unseen and lesser-seen images from his time shooting skateboarding. The book is filled with so many legendary skaters it’s too hard to list them all, but think Stevie Williams, Jamie Thomas, Tom Penny, Donny Barley, Kenny Hughes… You get the idea. Now full disclosure here: I grew up in North Carolina with Pete – we’ve known each other for decades. So the ‘interview’ we did really just felt like a chat about the good ol’ days amongst two old friends. Hope it’ll suffice…
Interview by Will Harmon
One of the best things about this book is the candid shots of the skaters, not even skating. It seems like you really made a conscious effort back then to shoot this stuff. Knowing that 95% of the time these photos wouldn’t get published in the skate magazines of that era, what was your motivation for this?
Pete Thompson: It was a little bit of a mishap actually, I didn’t really intentionally shoot non-skate photos, but at the same time I think it was probably just driven by my curiosity of photography. I always just wanted to be shooting something; kinda a little bit of an obsession I think. And obviously with skateboarding, back then (early nineties), the tricks a lot of times were few and far between. Including the fact that you couldn’t necessarily shoot a photo of some tricks; it was more of a filming thing than stills.
Well shooting a sequence back then on film… Film was more precious. You had to be strategic.
Yeah obviously film was expensive, but you couldn’t see what you were doing. So sometimes you’d get sequences back and they just looked terrible, even if the guy made it, ha ha. I also think that when I would leave North Carolina to go shoot photos in the Northeast I was always around people that… Well it was a different world for me, as opposed to if I’d grown up in a big city and if I had always hung around with a group of guys, the novelty of it, of being able to be around skateboarders wouldn’t have been there quite as much I think and maybe that was why. It was like ‘ok here’s my chance!’ I had left North Carolina and I was travelling for a week and I just wanted to shoot as many photos as I could.
And I remember once you told me you’d shoot a whole skate sequence and then you would have one or two shots left on the roll and then that’s when you’d take a lifestyle type photo. Kind of not really thinking about it…
This is something that just doesn’t happen anymore because most people don’t shoot with film. But when you shoot film you’re stuck with that roll of film in your camera. If you’re shooting black and white and you want to change to colour, you got to get through the rest of the roll. So you had to snap the rest of the roll away and if you were shooting sequences and the roll only had four more frames left, you’re obviously not going to try to shoot a sequence, so there’s four frames that you could shoot of whatever is around you. And I remember seeing other photographers just aim their cameras at the ground and burn through those 4-5 last frames. And I’m sure I did it too, but I also would point the camera at whatever was in front of me and then take a few photos… And looking back at those few photos I sort of beat myself up knowing that I could have made more of an effort to take a decent photo with those last few frames.
Also film was so precious. You used your film to shoot skating. And if you were shooting non-skating photos with your film it was like eating away into your ability to keep shooting skating in a way. It was irrational to think that, but that’s kind of how it felt, ‘ok don’t use this precious film for anything else because you need it for when someone is going to do something really good.’
And so putting together this book, have you used any photos that were maybe the last few frames from a roll and at the time you didn’t think much about, but know they’re some of your favourite photos?
Oh for sure, absolutely! The very first picture in the book of everybody standing around (getting kicked out) and talking to the cop, that photo… That’s the only photo. That’s the only pic of that on the entire roll. I didn’t snap off three or four frames, I just took one picture. And sometimes I look at those situations where I shot one photo and think, ‘God I’m just so glad I got that one frame!’ and then other times you see the one photo and you’re like, ‘ah if I would have just shot three or four more frames’ it could have been in better focus…
Or a better angle…
Yeah, but again that goes back to people in that period of time not necessarily being too hyped on having their portrait taken. It just didn’t seem like it was cool…
Except for in (Washington) DC though, ha ha! Remember how stoked they were to shoot ‘chill photos’?
(Laughs) Yeah chill shots! Yeah but I think that speaks more to the scene in DC having this underlying sense of humour… They didn’t take themselves as seriously as a lot of other scenes that were happening in big cities.
Yeah those guys (Andy Stone, Eben Jahnke, Pepe Martinez, Jim Gordy, Pooch, etc.)… I think that’s the reason I had such a connection with them ‘cause they had such a rad sense of humour. Everything was funny and that was the goal of the group: even if you weren’t that great of a skater if you cracked jokes at the perfect time and made everybody laugh you were part of the crew.
Ok well moving on, the photo in this of Ricky Oyola, you somehow managed to get a pic of him at what looks like a skatepark and wearing a helmet. How did this come about? And can you tell us about your experiences shooting Ricky?
The photo of Ricky is actually at the Encinitas YMCA for the NSA Am contest in 1993. What was interesting about that particular contest was that it felt like it was the first contest where the best skaters from the East Coast, that were able to make the trip to California, all came out there. I think 1993 was the breaking out point for East Coast street skaters. I mean before that there was (Kris) Markovich and Andy Howell, but ’93 really felt like East Coast skaters started to figure out a way to get to California.
I think Huf (Keith Hufnagel), Keenan (Milton) and Gino (Iannucci) all went out there that year.
Yeah and they were getting attention from what was happening on the West Coast. And then later that year was the Triple Crown contests (in New York and Connecticut) where all the West Coast pros came over to the East Coast. So it was weird at that particular contest at the Y… I was in California and I knew 20 or 30 dudes there, which was weird as every time I’d go out to Cali I didn’t really know that many people. So I think that was the first time I’d ever met Ricky. He was one of the names that guys on the West Coast sort of knew. He was one of a handful of East Coast guys at the time who’d made a lot of noise and had gotten a lot of recognition.
He had a little part in the first Spitfire video sometime around then. I dunno if this was after this comp, but anyways he was skating around a contest in that part and you could immediately tell his skating stood out.
Yeah he was consistent too, which made him stand out. So when I saw him at the contest I asked him if I could shoot a photo of that backtail… And it was a point in time in skateboarding where just being able to shoot a still of someone not trying to flip their board or do some type of technical thing was a little bit rare. Everyone back then was trying to double flip and triple flip…
Yeah doing all this hard stuff and then here comes Ricky and he’s just got this solid, clean fast backtail. He did it like every time so I was like, ‘ah cool I can just shoot this quick photo and give a little love to the East Coast while I’m on the West Coast.’ Everyone had to wear pads back then in contests, so it’s not that weird that he’s wearing a helmet.
It was just the rules of contests back then.
You had to. You know a lot of people would just take an elbow pad and wrap it around their ankle like, ‘alright I’m wearing pads!’
Ha ha! I seem to remember someone strapping a kneepad on top of their hat and calling it ‘a helmet’!
Yeah exactly, just goofy stuff. But that in itself encompasses where skateboarding was at back then. You had skateparks, but they were extremely rare, and they made you wear pads. And the pros and all the skaters that were at these contests wore pads… That was it, there wasn’t a battle or a fight to not wear them; that maybe came a few years later, but it’s pretty crazy today that there are all these parks and you don’t have to wear pads. But yeah it was like mandatory back then. You weren’t skating that course unless you were wearing pads and a helmet. And the fact that Ricky is wearing pads and a helmet goes to show you how seldom it was that you had an opportunity to skate a skatepark. There was no alternative.
It was really a different time in 1993.
Yeah and you couldn’t be like, ‘well screw this, I’m going to go skate a plaza in Encinitas, California, or I’ll go skate this park that won’t make me wear a helmet,’ there just weren’t those options. And in order for you to take that trip to California and really make it matter, you had to skate. So there was really no choice. And at that point I don’t think that Ricky and that street skating movement from Philly had really started to gel yet. You know that rebellious tight-knit group of guys in Philly that were really breaking all the rules and doing things their way… I don’t think that rebellious side of Ricky had been seen yet. I don’t want to judge whether he was rebellious or not at that point, but it didn’t seem like the Ricky that a lot of people ended up becoming familiar with. I don’t feel like he was quite that guy yet. He was still trying to come up and make the most of it…
I mean he was an Am. This was an Am contest after all…
Yeah he wasn’t pro. I feel like he may have had a lot more to prove at that point, and wearing a helmet in order to prove it wasn’t a big deal then.
Ok well I want to jump to the following year, 1994, where you went to Philly for the first time to shoot Ricky and his crew. Can you tell us about that experience?
So by that point in 1994, things had changed drastically. From ’93 to ’94 or even ’91 to ’92, like what was happening was changing so fast. It didn’t matter if you looked at videos or magazines, you were still behind if you weren’t in California. Things were changing by leaps and bounds so by ’94 I think that Love Park Philadelphia scene was really heating up. And people were looking at skateboarding in a much different way when you talk about Philly. What the philosophy of street skating and what street skating meant and what was important were different, much different for the guys who were in Philly at the time. And I feel they really tried to band together and form a movement, and they definitely did as history has showed us.
Yeah I agree.
So before I went up to Philly I had seen maybe one article in Thrasher about Love Park and the article was definitely Ricky heavy. I think he had more photos in that article than anyone else and he had quotes and stuff like that. It was him and Fred Gall, Jerry Fisher, Serge (Trudnowski) and guys like that… So when I saw that article I was like, ‘I’d love to go up there and shoot photos,’ that was what my philosophy was: I had to go wherever I had to go to shoot photos. And so I remember calling Ricky up, obviously on the landline phone, because there weren’t any cellphones, and I said, ‘alright well I’m gonna come up and I’ll be there on Saturday blah blah blah…’ and he just kinda goes, ‘alright well leave your car on the outside of the city and just skate in.’ and I was like, ‘what?’ ha ha… I was like, ‘is he serious?’ I couldn’t actually tell if he was joking or not, but then when I got there it was like, ‘oh shit, I’m going to have to figure out how I’m gonna keep up with these guys!’ (Laughs)
Ha ha, so good…
It’s sort of like an athlete that trains and does the same thing over and over again and everyday, and then if you’re not used to it, it’s torture. And it’s especially torture if you’re on the East Coast in the summertime: it’s like a swamp! I mean even if I didn’t have this big heavy camera bag on my back I still would have had a hard time keeping up with these guys. It was like skate the city… Hit this spot for five minutes, get kicked out, cruise over this way, slappy a curb, pole-jam, weave in and out of traffic, and it was a language of skateboarding that I hadn’t really seen before and I was completely unprepared for.
Unprepared as somebody who rode a skateboard, because I skated for all those years, and then also unprepared because I’m carrying all this gear around and then, ‘how do I shoot a photo of this?’ Nothing against those guys, they were doing something that was so new and so different than everybody else. And I got halfway through the day, drenched in sweat, completely out of breath trying to keep up and I remember Ricky looking at me going: ‘Dude, do you need all that gear?’ Ha ha… It was a huge backpack and looking back, he was right. For this type of skateboarding there was no opportunity to use all the equipment that I had. You just didn’t have time to set it all up.
Yeah because they would hit spots pretty quickly and then just keep going right?
Oh yeah you had no time to set up. Even if someone had something they wanted to shoot immediately I couldn’t set any lights up, we would be kicked out and then be 15 blocks away in like five minutes. So that was pretty disorienting for me, because I had always done things in a specific way when it came to shooting photos. In addition to that, a lot of the stuff they did was stuff that looked really sick on video. Video did their style of skateboarding the most justice. And I think those videos that Dan Wolfe did, the Eastern Exposure videos; those vids really drove home the brand of skateboarding that they had cultivated.
Yeah totally. It was just too hard for you to capture that in stills.
Yeah I didn’t think I was able to do what Dan Wolfe did for that particular group of guys. Stills just didn’t show the energy and the rawness, the speed, etc.… Not to say that people didn’t do that type of skating before, you know you look at Julien Stranger…
Yeah well the Philly guys connected spots across the street from each other, around a corner and then down another street…
Yeah the whole attitude of those guys and that brand of skating can be summed up with: just keep moving.
Yeah I remember there was a thing where everyone would meet up at Sub-Zero (old Philly skate shop) off South Street and there was a line to take all the way to Love Park and they knew all these things to hit on the way. So it was one continuous line from Sub-Zero to Love.
Yeah it was almost compulsory. It was like, ‘here’s how we start the day. You can either try to hang with us and try and push yourself or you can do your own brand of skating.’
So the run would be from Sub-Zero to Love, and when you finally got to Love it must have been nice to finally stop pushing and take your heavy bag off for a bit.
Yeah you have no idea! By the end of the first day with Ricky and those guys I was a disaster. I was wiped the fuck out. But I’m sure a lot of people had that same experience, it wasn’t like I was the only one that couldn’t hang. What they were doing was really intense and I was really unprepared for it, but when we got to Love I was like, ‘oh here’s that spot that I’d seen in Thrasher’ and a bunch of other dudes were there and that’s the first time I met Stevie (Williams).
Yeah Stevie was in a totally different crew than Ricky’s right?
Totally. I think Stevie’s crew was much more in line with what I knew and the culture of street skating that I was familiar with.
Well it was similar to the scene you knew at Pulaski in DC.
Exactly. Guys show up, they start to trickle in shortly after noon and people skate and chill, grab a bite to eat, drink a 40 and sit there and kinda just talk shit. And obviously to me that felt more familiar and like I said that was the first time I met Stevie, the first time I met Jimmy Chung, Bam (Margera), etc. And Stevie was like little, like 13.
He was Lil’ Stevie!
And so did you shoot photos with Stevie then or film stuff?
I did a little bit of both and that’s kind of what was different about Stevie. I thought, ‘here’s a guy I can concentrate on and shoot specific tricks’ and it was much different to what Ricky and those guys were doing. So like I said when I left North Carolina I just really wanted to shoot photos so with Stevie, when I would show up on the subsequent trips up to Philly Stevie was always like, ‘yo, you wanna shoot a photo? Let’s film a line; let’s get some stuff done…’ It always felt like he had specific tricks he wanted to shoot, he had focus and he wanted to take care of business in that way. So I would end up spending more time with Stevie, Jimmy Chung, Bam and those guys in like ’94 and ’95. So that led me to having more photos of Stevie and Jimmy Chung than the guys that put that East Coast Philly style stamp on skateboarding like Ricky, Fred Gall and Matt Reason. I don’t want it to sound like I was abandoning those other guys, but they were so dedicated to documenting their skating with Dan Wolfe and I think their skating then really lent itself better to video.
Ok going back to the book, you have a lot of Tom Penny photos from 1995, which was a really incredible moment in his career. What was it like shooting him then?
Tom was just cruising along to his own internal rhythm. I think when you watched him skate you sort of had a glimpse of what was to come. You couldn’t deny it, you were like, ‘this is what everyone is trying to do with street skating: do tricks, catch them, be able to do them on different kinds of terrain and be consistent.’ And I think most people looked at him like, ‘goddamnit, how did this dude figure this out?’ (Laughs) And to top it off he made it look like he wasn’t even trying.
Well the old story goes that him and (Geoff) Rowley would look at videos from the US and thought all the pros were doing all this tricks first try, so they got so consistent.
Yeah Geoff mentioned that to me…
So when they came to the US everyone was shocked they could do all these gnarly tricks so quickly.
Yeah and I think to build on that, and this happened on the East Coast too, when you opened a magazine during 1991 to ’94 there was definitely moments where you would stop, pause and look at a trick and just be confused. ‘Wait a minute; hold on, how did he get his board there? How did he land this? Which direction is he going?
Yeah that happened to me the first time I saw Kris Markovich’s interview in Transworld.
And that speaks to how much street skating was changing then. Today when you look at Instagram or a still you know what’s happening. There’s no confusion. And this is maybe the best way to explain it to kids who weren’t around back then: everything was so new that you could literally open a magazine, see a picture of a guy doing something, and not even know what he was doing. I mean imagine that. That experience is gone. And not only is it gone it only lasted a few years.
And on that same note, some of the skaters that were the biggest guys of 1992, someone like Chris Fissel, by the time ’94 or ’95 came along they were gone.
By the time ’93 came along they were gone, ha ha! It’s good that you bring up that name…
Sorry Chris… (If you’re reading this)
Yeah and understanding that that’s how things were unfolding, you have to then understand how many skateboarders there were who really made huge contributions to skateboarding and you could even go so far as to characterising it as sacrifices made for skateboarding. These guys made contributions, but their sacrifices were even more profound. Like you said, a lot of these dudes were hot in ’93 and gone in ’94. They helped lay the groundwork of what street skating is today, but the side effect was that they were rendered obsolete fairly quickly. And it sucks for those dudes and maybe there’s a few like that in the book that I sort of had that thought in mind with. Like maybe this guy broke through a lot of boundaries that needed to be shattered and unfortunately they became casualties of those years. Skateboarding shed its skin multiple times through ’91,’92,’93 and 1994. Along with the Ricky Oyola’s and the dudes that established these new movements in skateboarding there were guys that were equally as dedicated who have been forgotten in large part.
Yeah I always think about a lot of the H-Street guys. A lot of them didn’t make it through to 1995.
The conventional wisdom then was that your career was going to last three years. And if you were lucky, like a Mike Carroll or a Geoff Rowley and were still around…
That was rare.
Super rare. And I was thinking about the guys that transitioned out of that ‘89/’90 and into ‘91/’92 that were really pivotal and there’s only like three dudes that really helped bridge that gap: Danny Way, Colin McKay and Alphonzo Rawls. They were the first vert dudes that did street tricks on vert and also they were the first vert dudes that skated street and looked good doing it.
Yeah that’s true.
I mean I’m taking the Bones Brigade out of this equation completely because they were on another planet, those guys don’t apply because they are beyond legend status. But Alph, Danny and Colin deserve a lot of credit for carrying skateboarding through 1990. That was the breakoff point in my opinion. That was a big jump to get to where the rebirth of street skating occurred in a lot of ways. But anyways I’m rambling…
But even regarding that, we can bring it back to Tom Penny who could actually skate vert as well. He could skate everything… I mean he did kickflip indys on vert! And isn’t there a special edition of your book with extra Penny photos?
All of the photos in the special edition version of Tom were all taken in 1995. So the special edition version of the book is the first run of the book, which is 2500 copies. The limited edition version will be available in Europe and 20 other countries, but you have to get it at a skate shop.
So not in a bookstore?
We’re keeping the book out of the traditional book trade for 30 days. So the best way is to get it at the skate shop. After that it’ll be in bookstores, but not the special edition with the extra Tom photos.
And let’s talk about Penny!
The photos of Tom from that time, I was also filming too at that point, so I have Hi-8 tapes of him skating in ’95 as well. I think Tom at that period of time was just showing everyone what was possible. He was showing everyone what the next chapter in skateboarding would be. Hanging out with him was a complete blessing and I was so lucky to be a part of not just Northampton, Amsterdam and Munster in ’95, but being able to get in the van with the Birdhouse and Flip guys and cruise around Germany and Denmark.
Yeah we’re going to upload the semi-raw edit from your old Hi-8 tape from that trip to coincide with this.
One anecdote from that trip that I can remember was that (Andrew) Reynolds was with us, and he may have been maybe 18 or 19, and to this day Reynolds just loves Penny. But at the time, being in the van with both of them, Reynolds was just sort of, like, you could just tell how much in awe he was of Tom. I mean we all were, but Tom would do something just random, maybe someone filmed it or maybe no one filmed it, but he would land stuff and Andrew would just stand there looking completely baffled going, ‘he… He’s the best! He’s the best!’ I can visualise and hear him saying that still because he was just so excited to be able to see Tom skate and be around him.
Just being there to witness that greatness in person…
I think in a lot of ways being around Tom and Andrew during that summer for two weeks… I think Tom in some funny way sort of turned Andrew back into a skate rat. Like Andrew was just as excited as a kid is to see their favourite pro skater at a demo today.
Even though he was sponsored and on the same trip with Tom…
Yeah and at the time Andrew was super sick as well, but watching Tom inadvertently turned Andrew into this kid… It was rad to see Penny’s effect on Reynolds, especially considering how huge and prolific of a skater Andrew turned out to be.
Yeah so I wanted to bring up the fact that often in the ‘90s the skate photographer that shot the photo would then take out a video camera and film the trick after. I mean that’s how you have the video footage from that Birdhouse/Flip tour. You were there filming but also shooting photos; that’s kind of unheard of these days to have the filmer be the photographer as well. How important did filming become to you as opposed to photography?
Well filming was a little different to how it is now because street skating was at the point it was at. There were still a lot of kinks being worked out with street skating, so having the still photo was great, but you needed the video as well. There were video grabs (in magazines) happening back then as well. And for some reason I don’t feel like there were that many dedicated filmers back then. I’m not sure why… I don’t even think there was a filmer with us on that Birdhouse/Flip tour.
You became the de facto filmer!
I mean I may be wrong and this is terrible, but I honestly can’t remember there being a filmer there. But I was fortunate to be able to film Tom and Andrew because those guys landed shit all the time. Also I’d hand the camera to someone and have them film it while I shot the photo, which kind of had a cool look in itself if someone doesn’t exactly film it perfectly. It sort of lends itself to that kind of voyeuristic, amateur, secret footage kind of feel you know?
Yeah! Ok so for the majority of your book, the photos were shot on film. Can you talk a little bit about how you archived all these photos and the process of scanning them in?
The archiving process is in some ways part of the motivation for actually doing the book. That’s part of it, the other main part of it is while you’re archiving and you’re looking at images you shot, some that are 20 years old, you start to look at these images differently. You see stuff that you didn’t see before and things that you didn’t think were important back then, you sort have this different point of view today. You look at a portrait after 20 years and sometimes for me I’d realise that it was a really powerful image. It’s a powerful image of someone that went on to do X, Y and Z. Or it’s a powerful image of someone who passed away who’s no longer with us. Or it has some kind of quality to it that captures people’s imagination in a way that you didn’t really have that objective 20 years ago.
Yeah I see.
The objective 20 years ago was just to take a sick skate photo that will get skaters excited. And that became the goal of shooting skateboarding. Like shoot a photo and make everyone who sees that photo a) understand what’s happening, b) feel like they’re there and c) just be excited and want to go out and skate. So you take that formula for what you’re trying to do as a photographer in the beginning and you contrast that with how you feel about photography today. And that’s where I think this book starts to sort of materialise in terms of what the intention behind it is and how you want to communicate that era in a different way.
So archiving all these photos years later inspired you to make the book?
I think the main thing was my perspective changing, but it was also just getting everything together. Because I had some of my stuff in New York, I had a bunch of stuff in my friend’s basement in Northern California and then I had a bunch of stuff at my dad’s house in North Carolina. Everything was all over the place and as I sort of started to have that shift in perspective in the images I became more and more motivated. I was also interested to see what I was missing getting all my hands on that stuff and sort of digging through and starting to pick out imagery that said something – besides just: oh this is a great skate photo.
The thing about skate photos in terms of looking back like this is that you have to be careful… You have to be careful which images you choose because if there’s a 20-year-old looking at this book, they might not immediately understand why a photo is important, because if it looks too much like a photo that exists today, it doesn’t register. It can’t register; they weren’t a part of those years. So I was careful in choosing skate photos that were either simple: no flash, black and white, long lens and sort of a nod to a reportage feel. I felt like those images were the ones that would sort of transcend all of the years, all of the shifts and all of the ways skateboarding has adapted and changed. So that was really important to me in terms of the skate photos and the portraits were trying to show some sort of energy there. Those are the photos (the portraits and incidentals) that I wish I would’ve spent a little more time shooting a couple more frames of.
Yeah like we talked about earlier…
Yeah there’s a photo of Jaya Bonderov in the book, just a portrait of him looking over his shoulder into the camera, and when I found that photo digging around in the archives… I feel like that photo is really honest, but it’s just him looking into the camera. And looking back I wish I had spent a little more time shooting portraits.
Ok regarding archiving as well, I wanted to ask you about lost photos. Were there any photos you wanted to include in this book that are just M.I.A. now?
Oh yeah there’s lots of stuff I don’t have. There’s even stuff that I don’t have that I don’t know that I don’t have. When I worked for Transworld Grant (Brittain) would send everyone their photos back after they were scanned and in the magazine, which I’m really grateful for. Sometimes a photo by Atiba (Jefferson) or (Mike (O’Meally) or something would slip into my file when they got sent back. So when I was going through all these images I found maybe a dozen or two images that belonged to somebody else. And knowing how important having all of my photos is to me, I was like, ‘dude I gotta send these back!’ I sent stuff back to Lance Dawes, Gabe Morford and a bunch of these guys because once you start digging through and you organise stuff, which is a really arduous process, you get this feeling of like, every sheet of photos that is missing or hidden could just have a goldmine on it. And so in realising that I knew I had to really get these photos back to these guys. These photos need to get back to the people who shot them, and this is something I’ve recently learned how important that is.
Do you keep up with skateboarding photography in 2020?
A little bit, on Instagram and stuff… There’s some really strong imagery going on in skateboarding right now. And I think there’s a little bit of a push to incorporate certain parts of architectural photography… You know when you talk about stepping back and seeing a sense of place, looking at patterns and the way lines convert or the shapes of your surroundings…
Yeah there probably wasn’t much of that in the ‘90s (skateboard photography)!
Yeah that wasn’t part of it much at all, but just the way that the shapes of the architecture and the buildings and surrounding elements fill the frame… I think it’s the obvious reaction to having all those years of the fisheye up in everyone’s face, which was a really great technique, but years and years of that being predominantly what you’d see, there had to be a break. A shift in that was inevitable. I think people like (Jonathan) Mehring sort of embraced that perspective in a really impactful way. I mean the guys today have an advantage, which is they’re shooting digital, ha ha. And they can shoot at higher than 250th of a second, in terms of the flashing speed, which you have no idea how liberating that probably is. Sorry for being technical, but there’s a lot of images that I see now where people are able to shoot 1500th of a second outdoors with a strobe and it looks fucking insane! And I’ve definitely had a few moments where like, ‘fuck! I wish I could have done that back in ’95!’ The technology just wasn’t there for that.
But at the same time that’s what gives photos from then that special look because there wasn’t that technology.
Yeah, you had to know your craft to get photos back then. I think knowing your craft today is also important, because skateboarding photography has changed so you can’t really compare the two, but yeah not being able to see the picture for a couple days after you shot it… That’ll make you lose your mind! (Laughs) That’ll add some stress to your soul.
So do you want talk a little about stopping skateboard photography in 2004?
I think the thing about leaving skateboarding that needs to be said is that although I did have a period of time where I was like, ‘fuck skateboarding; get it away from me,’ I feel like that was sort of like the way you would think of an ex-girlfriend. You’re just so at your wits end with it and something that was really great has then sort of soured and doesn’t work for you anymore. And I think that experience was rooted in personal evolution, personal change and personal growth. And with that personal growth came the motivation to just stay away from skateboarding so that I could make room for other things to come in and fill that new space. Toward the end of shooting skateboarding I knew that I wanted to communicate something different with my photography. I wanted to take more responsibility for the impact of the images I was creating and the nature of skateboarding, when you’re photographing it is: you go, you shoot, you try to get a photo in before you get kicked out… In terms of being able to really simmer in it and take a picture to a place it didn’t start out as: it’s really limited. You just don’t have that ability to sit with it and ponder.
Skateboarding photography is really quick I guess…
Like what I do now (commercial advertising/lifestyle/portrait photography) is much more of that: you’re shooting tethered to a computer. So you can shoot a few frames of what you’re doing, put the camera down, stand back, look at the computer, think and say: ‘what is it that I want to communicate differently?’ And then you can go in and actually make those tweaks, whether it’s different light, or changing the fall off of the depth of field, or we need to do something different with the person we’re photographing… And I really wanted that and I craved that with photography. I didn’t know what kind of images I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to be more involved.
Yeah I remember you saying to me in the last years of your skateboarding photography you were really getting into shooting portraits and you wanted an outlet for that kind of thing. And you said you started to enjoy that more than actually shooting skate photos.
Yeah back then there was something there, but I wasn’t really sure what it was. I was trying to chase a feeling. I was trying to develop an understanding of what you want to feel when you look at the picture and what you want other people to feel when they look at that same photo and sort of trying to make those two things come together and be as similar as possible. And I didn’t realise that was what I wanted or that’s what I was pursuing, but the process of shooting more portraits towards the end in 2002, 2003 and 2004 I think definitely was driven by that. It was also driven by the fact that I just always wanted to shoot photos.
So it was like, ‘ok if we’re not going to shoot a skate photo then I got this cool wall over here, or there’s this cool lighting thing happening and let’s see if we can do something…’ I just wanted to continue creating and skateboard photography can be somewhat limiting in that, although I will say that there are skateboard photographers today who I think have really taken the limitations of trying to be out there and getting a good skate photo and turned them into really, really good exercises of understanding the craft and expanding on what notes you want to play with the people that you’re with. I also think people today realise how important it is to shoot everything.
Indeed! Ok so obviously the title of your book ’93 til, is a nod to Souls of Mischief and that era of skateboarding in the nineties… My last question is: why do you think ‘90s skateboarding is so significant?
I think for a lot of these guys my age who look back at that time period in skateboarding, there’s something about life where you grow older and things evolve and you have responsibilities and people have expectations of you. You might be married, you might have kids, and I think that when people my age who lived through that era of skateboarding, I think for them that time represents a moment in their lives where nothing really matters. And you have this deep camaraderie that’s sort of encompassed by an activity that most people didn’t understand. It wasn’t accepted…
Yeah this is before Tony Hawk’s 900 at the X-Games, his video game and before Street League…
It was like these bonds and these friendships that you formed were based in this thing that was sort of a secret to just you and your friends. People didn’t get it, and there’s downsides to that, I mean everyone hated you if you were a skateboarder in the nineties…
Yeah we got in our fair share of fights with jocks and pedestrians…
Oh god everyone hated us! But within that experience of being marginalised by everyone and hated by everyone that only served to create tighter bonds with people. So when you get older and you look back at those years, like, you’re not going to live years like that ever again. And the DNA of skateboarders back then was a lot of rebellion; a lot of angst and a lot of ‘fuck the world!’… I mean you had to have that attitude in order to skate and so I feel like there is an affection that people have when they look back at those years… Because skateboarding was something that gave them a sense of community, when a lot of those kids in their own angst struggled to find a community to accept them. These kids weren’t the kids that were going to go out and join a football team, or like go to keg parties with a bunch of kids from their high school, we were on a completely different template. And if you were one of those kids, finding skateboarding was like the best thing that ever happened to you. It was the thing that gave you an identity and connected you instantly with all these other kids who’d had similar experiences… And you were just immediately like, ‘oh you’re a skateboarder? Well you’re like me.’ Like you don’t want to be a part of all the conventional bullshit; you want to do something that is different and something that can’t be measured and your worth as a person is not tied up in how well you can skate. You were accepted as long as you loved skateboarding. And there were guys back then that weren’t really great skateboarders, but they were just as much part of the crew as anybody else.
And when you think about conventional activities back then for kids that were in their teens, it wasn’t like that. Your worth was based on a completely different set of criteria. So I think skateboarding in a lot of ways ended up saving these kids’ lives and I think that really plays into the bigger picture of the camaraderie and the affection that people still have today.
Pete Thompson’s 248-page ’93 til book will be available at skate shops this September.