‘What Charlie and Mike did was a first-ever trick in skateboarding, and from my perspective they didn’t get the recognition they deserved.’
Can you tell us something about Boston no one knows?
Hmmmm, that’s a good one… With the internet, is there anything anyone doesn’t know these days? Are people aware that former Thrasher editor Jake Phelps is from the Boston area? Or that a lot of our classic spots (Turtles, BCH volcanoes, etc. have been bulldozed?
Assuming you started off skateboarding at what point did you move to photography and why?
I started skating on a ‘70s banana board in my garage (our house was on a dirt road) but never thought I’d be good enough to be sponsored. However, I’d been bitten by the shutterbug at a very young age, so I just thought it was natural to marry my two passions and make a go of being a skateboard photographer. I used all my college photo class assignments to shoot skateboarding, which my professors were not happy with.
Is there one skateshot you wish you had taken?
Any Daniel Harold Sturt photo! There was a shot I was setting up with Kanten Russell when we were in Tampa one year, but he blew his heel out getting the double-set ollie that became the gatefold for his TWS interview that same night, so it’s still there. It’s a take on a roof-to-roof gap.
‘Nothing like trying to destroy someone’s career to bring out the best in them. It certainly wasn’t my finest moment.’
Proudest moment as a photographer?
All the people I’ve met, friends I’ve made and places I’ve been have made me happy I picked up a camera and pursued my dream.
Specifically, shooting the first ever doubles on a handrail (Charlie Wilkins and Mike Bell at the MIT rail in Oct. 1995) was an amazing achievement… It’s a great feeling to help people believe in themselves, push themselves to do what they and/or others don’t think is possible and celebrate the outcome. We actually shot the trick successfully on three separate occasions to ensure we had a B&W still, a color still and a color sequence so TransWorld could use the version they wanted. (The first time Charlie and Mike landed it I was shooting B&W because late fall in New England is not known for its sunny days.)
TWS ended up using a color sequence as a two-page spread as the lead Sightings photo, although there was another sequence laid over it at the top of the page, if I remember correctly. And even though they had a color and B&W still where Charlie and Mike are unquestionably both on the rail at the same time (as the photo you’re running shows), in the sequence they ran it looks like Mike might not be fully on the rail while Charlie is, and in the next frame, Charlie pops off, so it could be debatable whether they were actually both on the rail at the same time.
We had also provided TWS with video footage of the shoot, in part because Grant (Brittain, TWS photo editor) told me that if I sent it to 411 – where it almost certainly would have been used as a slo-mo opening trick – they wouldn’t run the photos. Collectively, Charlie, Mike and I decided to let TWS use the video assuming it would be highlighted, which it was not. It was run full speed in the middle of a montage sequence in one of their videos, and after seeing it, we all agreed we should have sent the footage to 411.
This is speculation on my part, but I think because this was done by two amateur East Coast skaters and not two CA-based pros, TWS chose to bury it. I heard that after I sent the photos to TWS – but without either skater being aware of what we’d done – Geoff Rowley and Ed Templeton were skating the square Long Beach rails and tried to double up but couldn’t make it work. What Charlie and Mike did was a first-ever trick in skateboarding (maybe akin to the first vert doubles trick?), and from my perspective they didn’t get the recognition they deserved.
What do you mean by that?
Think about the fact that it would be almost 20 years before there was another doubles on a handrail in a video — Dave Bachinsky and Manny Santiago in 2014’s “Salt n’ Pepper” — which to me is indicative of the difficulty. Going back to the vert analogy, no one even blinks at doubles on vert anymore… Triples are almost common at this point! And while admittedly I may be too close to this to be objective, I imagine that if it had been two CA-based pros doubled up on a rail, it would have been a cover photo.
Probably getting hit in the face with BAM’s board, which in and of itself wasn’t embarrassing, but the fact that it was shown in 411 was cringeworthy. Funny, but cringeworthy nonetheless. Also, after my falling out with Transworld, tempers were running high and I left a rather heated voicemail for Atiba (this call is captured in a TWS video) who at the time had been telling people no mags would run my photos… Nothing like trying to destroy someone’s career to bring out the best in them. It certainly wasn’t my finest moment.
Have you been speaking with Atiba ever since?
I don’t believe I’ve seen or spoken to anyone from TWS since I sued them. The whole situation left a bad teste in everyone’s mouth.
What is on your wishlist?
I’ve got a pretty good setup right now. Be content with what you have, buy anything you need.
I’ve seen a few spots in my drives around the country that still haven’t been shot. Now that skateboarding seems more socially acceptable, perhaps one day it’ll be possible to get permits, etc. to pull those off. For work? If I could snap my fingers and all my slides magically became pristine, dust-free digital files, that would be a huge help. Other than that, being a National Geographic photographer is still a dream job!
What work do you do now?
Now I primarily work in digital marketing, helping companies improve their websites, optimize their campaigns and develop the stories they tell. Some of this falls back on my journalism studies; others are skills I’ve picked up over the years.
‘Boston skaters are persistent and don’t back down from a challenge.’
What is your connection to the Boston skateboard scene?
Along with Jeremy Traub, Kris Snibbe and Ben Colen, I’m one of the skate photographers to emerge from and support the local skate scene.
How would you describe the Boston skateboard scene and its community?
Local skaters make the most of what they have: you have to have a unique eye to see some of the atypical street spots people skate here so there’s a lot of creativity, and being forced indoors in the winter generally makes people well-rounded skaters. Boston skaters are persistent and don’t back down from a challenge.
How is the local skateboard community seen from someone in California?
Although in the 1980s and 1990s Boston was largely under the radar, since the 2000s the city has produced and exported a few high profile skaters to California – PJ Ladd, Jereme Rogers and Alexis Sablone probably being the most well known – so I imagine a bit less of a backwater reputation than it used to have. Cell phones with still/video cameras have led to the democratization of skateboarding and it’s great that more people from the city (and around the world) are getting recognized. Talent is everywhere you look.
What are the skaters in Boston most proud of?
Making the most of what we have in the shortened time frame we have to skate, and being part of the global skate scene in general.
What are some of the underground heros?
Sloppy Sam, who would host BBQs/skate jams at Turtles, Eastie, Ram, Dougie Death… Anyone from the MaxiCraze (aka Z.T. Maximus, our indoor skatepark) era. That park was vital to keeping the scene alive in the winter and the vert ramp offered people the opportunity to hone transition skills and become all-terrain rippers.
‘I imagine that if it had been two CA-based pros doubled up on a rail, it would have been a cover photo.’
What are some of the challenges skateboarding in Boston faces today?
Winter, although that one’s not new. This is probably a better question for Armin, since I can recognize that online sales of skate gear makes running a shop difficult, yet a local skate shop is the nexus for your community. That said, many of our sidewalks are brick, and with each winter comes a new set of frost heaves so terrain out here will never be as smooth as what they have in CA. Still, quite a few new skateparks have been popping up over the last few years, so we may be witnessing the rebirth of the all-terrain ripper as a result.
What are some of the challenges people in general face in Boston today? (This question is not so much about skater but the general public living in Boston).
Boy, am I going to sound like a grumpy old man here… Our public transportation leaves a lot to be desired (I’m jealous and amazed at the efficiency of the L every time I visit Chicago); affordable housing is disappearing; neighborhood gentrification is rife and some of the city’s charm is disappearing as a result; winters can be tough, but summer and fall remind you why you put up with it! In the face of all that, you might wonder: What’s the draw? Good friends, strong communities, a thriving arts/music scene, being close to nature (White Mountains, Vermont, easy access to the ocean) as well as New York and Montreal, a major international airport, and our role in American history and the potential we have to shape its future.
Last question. If you could interview a person, who would it be and why?
Sturt. How did he start shooting skateboarding and why? And what is his life like? He’s a photo genius and the stories I’ve heard are legendary… There must be so many others, and to hear them straight from the source would be amazing.