We started this feature to hear from the photographers at the front lines of skateboard action. It’s they who fill our pages and screens with the stunning visual imagery we all desire. What they’ll show us is a selection of their favourite images they’ve shot, and offer us some insight into how they got their start and what gets their heart pumping. We can all take a picture, but these are some of the people that do it best and with the most though put into it. First you’ll see a gallery of their photos with extended captions, and below that is an interview with the photographer. -Jeff Thorburn
Name: James Morley
Hometown: Toronto, ON
Currently lives in: Toronto, ON
Social media handles:
Instagram – @jamesmorley
Tumblr – morleyphoto.tumblr.com
Barrier Textures, 2014 – I’ve always been interested in the nature of the spaces that skateboarders occupy. Early this year I started a project where I was looking at a bunch of visually distinctive spots in Toronto and documenting different aspects of them, whether it was a more generalized view of the spot, or a closer, abstracted view of a smaller detail within it. This was from the barrier behind the Pizza Nova in the west end. I ended up making a six-foot-tall print of this, and the textures in the cement and bondo looked awesome.
Charles Deschamps, Wallride, 2013 – Charles and I shot this photo in the summer of 2013 when he was working on a big interview. We were out of spot ideas in Montreal, so we decided to go check out the Olympic stadium to try and find something new. He started to play around on the bank to ledge, but quickly moved on to the wall a couple of feet up instead. That is something I love about Charles’ skating; he will go to a spot without promising anything, and end up doing something mind-blowing and different. He has become my favourite dude to shoot with and watch.
Colin Lambert, 2014 – I shot this photo with my Xpan in Las Vegas last winter. Colin had just bailed a trick on the rail on the right side of the frame. I was really stoked that this photo turned out when I got the film back. I think it captures one of those moments that shows that skateboarders are a special breed. To get the land, everyone will hit a low point like this at some time (or many times), but perseverance will keep sending you back to the top to try and succeed again.
Jon Cosentino, Frontside Flip, 2013 – Jon and I shot this photo in the summer of 2013. Our plans with a filmer had fallen through, so we just went out to shoot photos. We had talked about shooting a trick at this relatively untouched spot for a long time, but it was this day in particular that the motivation to get a trick was there. I wish I could say Jon had an epic battle to get this Frontside Flip, but he just put it down in about 7 tries with no problems at all. He’s just that good. This was also one of the few times that the photo came out exactly as I had imagined it before going there, which was a nice bonus on top of everything else.
JS Lapierre, Kickflip Frontside Lipslide, 2013 – This rail is right in the downtown core of Albany, NY, and because of the urban sprawl in that area, it is almost always totally abandoned on weekends. Both of the times we went to skate here, the only person to give us any trouble was an old janitor inside the building. On this day, he called the cops right when we got there, giving us very little time to get JS’ trick. Luckily, he can flip into rails like no other, and we were gone before any altercations with the police.
Kyle Nickoshie, Back Smith, 2013 – This was the first photo I ever shot of Kyle, and it was my first day of my first trip to Winnipeg. I started off shooting on the other side to try and get the “normal” angle, but it wasn’t looking very exciting. Kyle trusted me to try something new on the other side of the rail, and it ended up looking a million times better. Situations like this are the motivation for trying angles and techniques that seem a bit risky, because they can always work out better than you could ever imagine.
Sascha Daley, 2013 – I know there can only be so many good push photos out there, but I felt like this one needed to be shot while we were rolling through the Empire State Plaza in Albany. I think there is something defiant in the push towards the big government building, and I think that is something engrained in the whole act of skating itself. This one has become one of my favourite photos ever since I got the roll of film back from the lab.
Sascha Daley, Ollie to Block, 2013 – On all of my trips through the northeastern US, I have always loved the look of the buildings and homes outside of the polished downtown area. Everything looks a little bit gritty, broken, dirty, and rugged. I was really stoked that Sascha was able to handle the heavy tow-in to this high bump to bar, because I think the scene is as east coast as it could be. I also would have normally set up flashes for something like this, but I’m very happy that I stuck to natural light instead. Adding light would have made the spot look way too clean and bright.
Tom Remillard, Japan Air, 2014 – Tom came to Toronto for a Converse event in the spring of 2014, and ended up being down to street skate a bit on the day after. This spot is a bit out of the way, and as a result it doesn’t see much action. Most people just grind the top of the bank, but Tom decided to blast off the top of it instead. I really like the colour scheme of the whole scene, and I couldn’t have been happier with the placement of the lion and head in the background.
Will Marshall, Frontside Flip, 2013 – Will and I shot this photo in Albany during a trip last fall. I’ve always found frontside tricks on flat gaps really weird to shoot, just because the spot where tricks are normally caught is so close to the landing and it makes it very hard to get an angle. In this situation, the only angle put the sun in the worst possible place, and I had nothing but some light meter readings to decide if it was ok to use my Hasselblad. I’m glad that I did, because the blues in the sky and angle make this one of my favourite photos I’ve shot. I guess Will’s textbook Frontside Flip was pretty cool as well, even if he did do it more than 10 times…
An interview with James:
What came first, skateboarding or photography? How did one meet the other? Do you remember them coming together? Skateboarding came first, then photography a number of years later. I started skating when I was 10 years old, but my rate of progression was pretty low. By the time I was 15, I had basically realized that I wasn’t going to really get a whole lot better on the board, and I decided that I would get into filming to try and stay involved in some capacity. The price of a VX1000 at the time was a bit too high, however, so my next option was photography. I actually got my first camera when I was 16, and only used it to shoot skating for over a year before experimenting with other things.
What was your first camera? How did you acquire it? Do you still have it? My first camera was a Nikon D60. I split the cost with my parents and got it for my 16th birthday. Going into photography with no prior knowledge of how things worked, I thought that camera was so rad for a while, but I ended up selling it about 16 months later so I could buy an old D70 instead.
Early on, how did you figure out shooting skateboarding? Did someone with more experience help you? Was it books, the Internet, school? At first, I spent a ton of time on skateperception.com to try and learn about composition, lighting, and other technical stuff. That was a pretty big help for a while, but at a certain point it became evident that the more knowledgeable people were greatly outweighed by the other beginners. Once I got the technical stuff down, I just looked at a ton of magazines and other photographers’ sites to try and mimic the photos that were already out there.
Who was the person you had the earliest success shooting with? Someone you got along with on a personal level that also happened to rip. I bounced around between a lot of different crews when I started shooting, but I was always really stoked on photos I shot with my friend Max Fairley. He was killing it at the time, and we would go out and shoot a few times a week when I was in my last years of high school. Only a couple of those photos ended up getting published anywhere, but a lot of them were the first pictures that I was really proud of, and they were largely responsible for getting me motivated to go out and shoot more.
What photos jump out at you in a skateboard magazine? Can you pinpoint something that the best photos all have in common? Which ones get you excited? The photos that stand out to me are usually the ones that look the most “real,” if that makes sense. I love photos that look like perfect snapshots of skating. I like it when the whole scene and the lighting looks natural, as though a photographer just happened to stumble upon the spot and snap the perfect photo of the trick as it was happening. I’m all for using lights and killing the background and stuff like that, and many times it is necessary. I just don’t like it when that is overdone and the photographer’s hand in shooting is way too evident. I’m way more blown away by stuff that is (or looks like it was) shot natural light. Lately I’ve been drawn to Mike O’Meally and Ryan Allan’s photos more than ever before.
Tell me about a skate photographer that first caught your attention. As in you noticed something about their shooting style, beyond just capturing the trick. I started to pay a lot more attention to photos around the time that Andrew Norton was getting his work published left, right, and center. His photos always stood out because of the technical precision in every frame; everything always looked so perfect. I also really liked his lighting technique. He used a lot of heavy side-lighting that created really harsh shadows and a lot of texture. It seemed like it would have been an awfully risky technique to use, but it always came through just right.
What is your approach to skateboard photography? Do you try to be right in the middle of the action, or watch from afar and document it without disturbing? Do you like more emphasis on the skateboarder and trick, or the overall environment? It all depends on the spot and trick in question. My first order of business is generally to make the trick look as impressive as possible. While there are many visual options to explore in any situation, I’ve always thought that the skateboarding action-photo wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the trick, so it is worth it to make it look as gnarly as possible if it is worth shooting. From there, however, I like to put a lot of emphasis on the environment. For the most part, I’ve always thought that a photo grabs my attention more if the angle and environment makes it relatable to the viewer. I try to shoot photos in a way that you could almost image being in the scene, watching an epic move go down in front of you.
Outside of shooting action, are there other things you like to photograph, either related or unrelated to skateboarding? In the past couple of years, I have become much more interested in shooting stuff that helps to visually capture the act of skateboarding as a whole. I’ve found that a lot of my favourite photos over the past little while have been behind-the-scenes documentary photos of skate sessions and trips, or abstract close ups of skate spots and the materials that compose them. I like being able to look through my film archive and see a bunch of photos from every place on the skateboarding spectrum.
Aside from skateboarding, I enjoy documenting things that I come across in day-to-day life. I don’t really have a mind for coming up with weird, conceptual ideas for photos; everything I shoot stems from objects or situations that are very much real and would exist for anyone there at that time and place. I shoot a lot of landscapes and scenes where there are weird interactions between people and objects in them. You might classify it as “social critique,” but I don’t know if it is all the way there.
Is photography your primary occupation? If so, what does that involve? If not, what else do you do, and how do you balance it all? I’m currently finishing my final year in Ryerson University’s photography program, so my daily routine revolves around being on campus, shooting and scanning photos, researching projects, and being in class. When I’m not there, I’m always trying to get out to shoot skate photos or pick up any freelance work that I can. I would say photography is my primary occupation, but both sides are always interfering with each other. School always has to take priority over skating because the deadlines there are much firmer, and I’m only wasting my own time and money if I ignore them. There have been a bunch of trips and opportunities in skate photography that I’ve had to turn down so that I could fulfill my obligations at school. As much as it really does suck at times, I have noticed a big difference in the way I shoot skating since I started school, and I know balancing them properly now will pay off in the end.
Are there some photos you see that make you want to go skate, and others that make you want to go photograph? What’s the difference or similarity? Both definitely exist individually, and they do overlap occasionally. I find that the photos that get me the most stoked to go out and shoot have very interesting visual content. Things like rhythm in the composition and interesting lines and shapes get me really psyched to go out and use a camera. Unique spots also leave me in awe a lot, and they often take up a lot of my headspace for quite some time after seeing them in photos.
Photos that get me stoked to skate are usually pictures of tricks on transition or huge gaps and rails. I don’t actually skate any of that stuff, but seeing photos of it makes me imagine what it would be like to blast out of a quarterpipe, or what it would feel like to grind a long handrail. I might never get there with either of those things, but seeing photos of them always gets me stoked to get as close as I can with smaller obstacles at the park or in the streets.
Name one photo that we should all see right now.
Mike Blabac’s photo of Josh Kalis 360 Flipping over the garbage can at LOVE Park. It always reminds me on an iconic time period in skateboarding, and gets me just as stoked as I would when I was younger.