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Skate culture and the camera

Edited text published on CNN 13 July 2018

by Jaime Marie Davis

When skateboarding first captured the media’s attention in the mid-’60s, journalists reported with a mixture of feverish excitement and perilous warning.

In its May 1965 issue, Life magazine reporters condemned skateboards as a “menace to limb and even to life,” and cautioned readers about boarders who “take over the paths made for peaceful strollers.” “Too much moxie,” they wrote, “breeds mayhem in the streets.” This commentary ran alongside photos of national skateboarding champion Patti McGee in an acrobatic handstand, and brazen college boys wrestling for position, as they rode what was absurdly described as a “slippery banana.”

Now that popular culture has broadly embraced skateboarding - and you can no longer distinguish a skater on streets paved with Vans, we see skateboarding differently. The distanced portrayal of the craze has practically disappeared, but the best photographs of the scene remain intrinsically journalistic. However, far from Magnum members being sent out on assignment for a winning image, photographers who shoot skateboarding are fully immersed in the physical act, producing material from - and sharing imagery within - an engaged audience.

Timing is everything in skateboarding, and also photography. This has a history: Cameras were occasionally passed at early skate sessions during times of flat seas, and California surfers practiced carving paved banks and empty backyard pools, or raced downhill slalom courses on cleared stretches of concrete. As skaters began establishing their own imprints, like now-defunct SkateBoarder, and later RaD (Read and Destroy), photography became integral to circulating information about new tricks and styles, as well as bridging different skate scenes internationally. It also helped tell the stories of a nascent sub-culture, announcing contests and establishing independent brands and organisations made by skaters - with underlying themes of urbanism, identity and self-representation.

Skateboarding photography has an inherent level of intense, creative appeal. Capturing a decisive moment - often in forbidden, dangerous situations – invariably leads to remarkable mistakes, technical manipulations, and inventive experimentation. It’s no surprise that the skate scene has boasted its share of cross disciplinary artists.

Glen E. Friedman, after shooting the Southern California Z-Boys in the ‘70s, turned to music production and continued photographing radical musicians, and artist in their own right, like Black Flag and Suicidal Tendencies, and early hip-hop legends like Public Enemy and Run-DMC.

Or, consider the work of filmmaker Spike Jonze, whose early visionary outputs were photographing and filming skateboarders and BMX riders as a teen in the 1980s and 90s. These crossover progressions run in parallel to skateboarding’s journey from a public menace to an endearing underdog.

If timing is everything in skateboarding and photography, it seems right to pause, and draw out some of the most significant moments of their cultural impact. beyond the humble and immediate intentions of documenting a flurry of monthly activity.

In 2020, skateboarding will mark a new milestone when it makes its debut at the Tokyo Olympics. As this massive commercialization and mainstream exposure approaches, the archives of these photographers in the exhibition – and countless others not included, such as Giovanni Reda, Mofo, Otis Bartholomew, Lance Daws, Daniel Sturt - become compelling, and essential documentation of histories and movements seen through multiple lenses.

At a time when communities are questioning the impact of grassroots, self-organised efforts, some invaluable feedback might be found within an unlikely and intensely prolific group who formed a vibrant inner world amongst a crazed, and menacing madness.

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