INTERVIEW BY NEIL MACDONALD (@SCIENCEVERSUSLIFE) / PORTRAIT BY PAUL GIMORE
Back at the tail-end of the 1980s when Pete Thompson started shooting skate photos, it was an entirely different landscape he was a part of. Before digital, film—and processing, and postage—cost money, and if your shot wasn’t in one of the main magazines the next month, there’s a real likelihood that nobody would ever see it. Things were moving so fast, and that wasn’t a time when skateboarding as a whole cared much for its own history, so the notions of looking back, or even of media preservation, were still a long way off. It’s slightly ironic that this was during the time of the most significant changes happening in skateboarding with tricks, spots, clothes and shoes changing and updating month to month, and with the world relying upon magazines and VHS videos to see what was happening on the other side of the country, or around the world. Media could only move so fast, and it was impossible to cover everything, impossible to run every photo, with the restrictions of monthly print magazines seriously limiting what we could see.
This isn’t to say skateboard photography was ‘better’ then, but it’s a fact that there were considerably fewer opportunities to see the results of it, so what we did get to see should really have been the best, right? Well, it turns out that for every amazing shot of Pete Thompson’s that ran in Transworld or Slap, there’s at least one more that was just as good that nobody ever saw. Recently it’s been down to the individual photographers’ organisation skills, storage methods and archival excavation inclination that dictates whether the unseen will ever be seen, and I’m pretty sure there’s a goldmine gallery of incredible skateboard photography boxed up at the bottom of cupboards, holding doors open, sitting in sheds or repurposed as kids’ toys all over the world. Life changes, people move on, things get left behind.
Fortunately, Pete Thompson’s one of the more organised. Organised to the extent that he’s been able to put together one of the most incredible skateboard photo books there is. It’s big, it’s beautiful and it’s almost entirely unseen photos. Pete doesn’t shoot skateboarding anymore, but thankfully he’s seen the value of his archive and put together an absolute masterpiece of a book. Shots of Sheffey, Penny, Keenan, Guy, Stevie and Gonz you’ve never seen before, tied together with words from the likes of Huf, Howell and Hawk? This is as much a timely treatise on stylishness as it is a stunning coffee-table skate photo book.
I called Pete up to hear about his journey from shooting visiting pros in his native North Carolina, to travelling the world shooting the people that ultimately ended up changing skateboarding.
Preview copy of ’93 Til outside our Covent Garden shop pre Lockdown. Inset below Endless Grind Mail Order ad from 1987
How did you manage to keep all this stuff undercover for so long? Had you always planned to do a book?
Oh no, no. I’d never really thought about doing a book. A couple of people mentioned to me that I should do one, but the person that said it the most, probably, was Will Harmon. We grew up together so I’ve known Will since he was 11 or 12. But no, a book was never the plan.
For the most part, when I looked at those photos over the years, I feel like the pictures that I thought people would be interested in were the ones that were already published. I figured that those were the photos that everybody wanted to see, and they’ve already seen them, so that’s that. I think that after being away from it for so long, it turned into something where I needed to see the photos through a different lens, see them with different eyes, in order to see things that might be interesting to look at in a new way. Not just for skateboarders, but for people generally.
Everything that I had was kind of spread out, like I had some stuff in New York, some stuff in my friend’s basement in Northern California, and a bunch of stuff at my dad’s storage unit. When I actually started to look at them, I realised I needed to get all these photos together in one place, to have everything with me in New York.
So from the realisation that you should do a book, to a book existing, how long does it take?
I’ve been working on it for about two years.
What’s going on during those two years? How does it work?
The first thing that needed to happen was that I needed to organise everything and understand what I had and what I didn’t have. There are still photos that are missing, that I really, really wish I had. I hope that when people read this interview that maybe somebody somewhere knows where my other photos are. Haha! When you’re putting something like this together, every frame, every photo, that you can get back from someone is like gold.
Like for ads. If you send people photos for ads, you’ll send four or five photos and they’ll use one and you don’t get any of it back.I don’t think people who shot skateboarding back then were necessarily that mindful of getting everything back.
It wasn’t about having an archive back then, it was about shooting a photo and hopefully getting paid for it?
Getting paid for it, yeah, but mostly it was about having people see it. When you shoot a great photo, the first thing that goes through your mind is that you want to share it with everybody. You want to show your work, where you are in your career, what part of the world you’re in and you want to show who you’re shooting with. You want people to see what’s going on, what’s current.
What photo did that the most? What shot were you most excited to get out there?
That’s a tough question. There are photos that I loved when they were published that haven’t aged very well, and others that I never really thought much of and now twenty years later, they’re some of my favourite photos. I think overall the ones I like most are long lens with natural light… That’s just such an honest approach to shooting, no matter what you’re shooting.
There are photos that I loved when they were published that haven’t aged very well, and others that I never really thought much of and now twenty years later, they’re some of my favourite photos
Did you have a publisher ready, or did you have to assemble the book before that?
That part was a brand new learning curve for me. The book world is pretty crazy… But since a book like the one I wanted to do didn’t really exist, I made a really strong gallery mockup that showed what I had in mind. That was expensive… In fact the whole process of making a book is very expensive, but it was something I was passionate about and believed in.
The very early shots in your book look like they’re from Homeboy magazine, they look completely publishable…
Haha! Thanks. I would have to disagree with you on that one, but I understand what you mean.
You know what I mean; you seemed to be taking very good skateboard photographs when you were very young, so did being good help you shoot more early on, what with the cost of film?
The film thing was huge, it was kind of a running joke with me and my friends in North Carolina. IT WAS ALWAYS LIKE: “I dunno Pete, do you have film? Can we shoot photos?” Or magazines would say that they were going to send you film, and then maybe not get around to it for a few weeks. You were hung out to dry a little bit without film back then, when all the guys around want to shoot photos. They’re just as invested in you getting film as you are! At least that was my experience of it, with Chet Childress and Kenny Hughes, and Will [Harmon] and guys like that.
Will Harmon Backside Nosegrinds a handrail in North Cackalacka. TWS 1996. Photo: Pete Thompson
Every time I got film and we’d go out we’d have all these ideas that had been building up while we were waiting for the film to show up. But in terms of the quality, that’s part of the process of making a book, being able to see the evolution of your photos. Not just the technical quality, but how you’re starting to evolve as an artist. At the beginning of the book, the introduction, that’s what I’m sort of trying to say. To demonstrate that there’s a process at work when you’re a photographer.
I was also just insanely lucky to be around so many great skateboarders, even when I was really young. Back in the ‘90s, if you were in certain places at certain times, it’s possible that you could be around all the people who would end up being in skateboarding for the rest of their lives. All those people in the same place at the same time and they didn’t even know it.
I was at Golden Gate Park when I must have been 12 or 13, totally randomly because I was living in North Carolina at the time but I went to San Francisco with my mom, and we were totally randomly driving past Golden Gate Park and there was a contest on, with a jump ramp. I was so hyped, so we pulled over—and I had the point and shoot camera with me that’s featured in ’93 til—and I got out and started skating, because everybody was into jump ramps at that time, but then I shot a bunch of photos and I didn’t find out who was in those photos until around thirty years later.
Who was there?
After randomly driving past Golden Gate Park that random Saturday on a short trip to California, then jumping out with that point and shoot camera, I ended up with photos of Mike Carroll, Julien Stranger, Camden Scott and then in the background is Aaron Meza walking around with a camera, taking photos. When I talked to Meza about it in 2019 he recognised himself, then he dug his photos of that day out, and there was me in the background of his photos!
Like I mentioned, if you were in certain places at certain times, like if you were at skate camp for example, like one of those YMCA skate camps that were in Hokus Pokus, in Visalia, the group shots that they would take at the beginning of the week would have ten or fifteen people there who are still in the world of skateboarding today. The events, and the places you could go to back then, were so few and far between that everybody tried to go to them. That’s why you’d typically see all these people who are now really well-known names, back when they were 12 years old.
if you were at skate camp for example…the group shots that they would take at the beginning of the week would have ten or fifteen people there who are still in the world of skateboarding today
There are some amazing skateboarders who came out of NC, but did you have many pros visiting? What was the main shop there?
I lived in Northern California until I was 12. I started skating when I was ten, then two years later we move to North Carolina, which obviously was a huge culture shift, since barely anybody skated in North Carolina. I basically didn’t skate anymore, because there was nowhere to skate and I didn’t know anyone who skated, but after about six or seven months I discovered Endless Grind skate shop, which is still around today. There was something pretty special about North Carolina in general, during that period of time, with Endless Grind and with the vert scene there.
Endless Grind was owned by a guy named Reggie Barnes, and he’s basically the biggest distributor of skateboards in the world; he started Endless Grind and then he started Eastern Skateboard Supply, and from there expanding on to being this really pivotal player in the world of skateboard commerce. He was a really forward-thinking guy, in terms of how to get these Californian companies interested in East Coast skateboarding. Not only from the standpoint of distribution, but also really trying to help the scene in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Because he was such a big distributor, all the brands on a US tour would always come through Raleigh, because not only did Reggie do distribution, but he also had the shop so they’d come through and do the demo in the parking lot, and then sometimes go skating around town.
An amazing to place to live as a kid, then.
We got to see what was happening in California in realtime. Back then, in the early 90s, having the ability to see skateboarding realtime was priceless.
In the UK we probably waited six, seven, eight months to see a photo of a trick, or shoes or clothes. And in the early ‘90s, that time counted.
Exactly. The skateboarding, the style, anything. When you think about the change that happened around ’91 to ’92, or from ’92 to ’93, you’re talking about leaps and bounds of change in terms of what skateboarding looked like. If you were outside of California, virtually everything you looked at was outdated. All the magazines were months behind, the videos were months behind and there was no social media to see what people were doing. The fact that we had this…
Yeah. With people coming through to Endless Grind to demo, that was a really, really valuable sneak preview of what was coming. We always felt like we were up to date with what was happening, at the very least. A lot of credit goes to Reggie Barnes for that, and a lot of credit goes to the culture of the guys who were skating in North Carolina at that point. We had some really talented skaters, we had the ability to see what was going on in the skateboard industry in realtime, and I—as a result of that—had the ability to show what I was seeing through my photographs, and even more fortunately, what I was seeing and photographing was something that people in California ended up really responding to.
You started shooting for Slap in 1993, and Slap was started as a magazine to show beyond the NorCal stuff that Thrasher was showing, but were you their main East Coast guy?
I think I was their main East Coast guy… If I remember correctly. I mean, Lance Dawes would come back to the East Coast quite frequently to shoot, so that was always happening. He was a guy who was just really tuned into the street stuff, to the hip-hop side of skateboarding which was happening in California, but was happening much more so on the East Coast, which was also much more ‘undiscovered’. Lance really loved the underdog, he tried to shine a light on the skateboarding that hadn’t been given its dues yet.
When I was working for Slap we would pack the car—me, Will Harmon, Chet Childress, Kenny Hughes—and just go up and down the East Coast staying with whoever and sleeping on floors, and those were some really fun times.
Bam Margera and Mike Maldonado in Fayetteville 1995. Photo: Pete Thompson
Early-to-mid ‘90s East Coast is, for me, the best era in skateboarding, and plenty of other people think that too, with good reason. Did you feel any pressure to be one of the few people tasked with documenting it? Did you try to make everything as East Coast-looking as possible, so it was clearly different from all the other photos in the magazines at the time?
Oh, no. My mindset wasn’t really to put a ‘stamp’ of the East Coast on any images, because I felt that the pictures I was taking did that on their own.
I don’t mean that you were having to get a cellar door or a puddle in there every time to make that point, more that they were discernibly different to what was happening on the West Coast anyway.
I didn’t have the luxury of knowing what was happening on the West Coast at that time. I think Lance maybe had a better sense of being able to tell those two stories differently. I think he could do that better than pretty much anybody in skateboarding at the time. I don’t know what people thought of my photos in terms of how they matched up with everything else that was out there at the time, I just really loved photography and wanted to shoot, shoot, shoot and keep shooting. That became my main ‘fuel’, I guess. To just be able to continue shooting. That was the most important thing to me.
You talk in the book about vert ramps being a secret society where you had to know the right people to get access, but in the early ‘90s that absolutely applied to street skating too, especially in the plazas. Did you ever get vibed, turning up to somewhere like Pulaski to shoot with dudes who weren’t local?
The conventional wisdom surrounding skateboarding in the early ‘90s was that it was this amazing time with so many things happening, and a lot of that stuff is true but at the same time, one thing that doesn’t get mentioned is what I think you’re saying. There was a lot of tribalism and vibing going on! It was definitely a very different time. Some people liked you, some people didn’t like you, and there wasn’t really a ‘We’re all in this together’ feeling. I think a lot of people maybe felt as though their brand of skateboarding at the time needed to be seen more, and that what they were seeing in the magazines just didn’t reflect that. There were definitely a lot of cliques.
Pete’s first medium format skate photo was this Andy Stone backside flip at Pulaski. Photo: Pete Thompson
The thing about Washington DC, was that Lance was from there, and he was always down with all those guys. When I started going up there I think he might have called up Andy Stone or someone to say that I was showing up to shoot photos, although I’d actually already met a lot of those guys previously, back when I was just a skater.
Here’s something that people maybe don’t understand about the East Coast at that time… If you were on the East Coast and you were skateboarding, chances are that you knew everybody else of any consequence who was skateboarding on the East Coast. You’d at least know a friend of theirs, or you’d have skated with them before, or met them at a contest or something. People would drive from New York down to North Carolina to go to a demo, or a contest. Everything was connected and I think it was because there were barely any spots or skateparks.
If you were on the East Coast and you were skateboarding, chances are that you knew everybody else of any consequence who was skateboarding on the East Coast
The guys in DC were always really cool to me, and the thing that I appreciated the most about them, and it’s something that I appreciate to this day about people, was their sense of humour.
“The Posse Patrol” – DC Crew. Slap 1993
That’s a surprise.
Yeah, those DC guys didn’t take themselves as seriously as other groups of skaters during those years. That’s not to say that the crews in other cities—in New York, Philly, Boston—were not a tight group of people who were difficult to become a part of, but I might not know that experience, because obviously me having a camera, when that was somewhat rare, usually helped me break into these crews.
As for the humour, we called it the ‘DC sarcasm’, because those guys were always so sarcastic, bustin’ each other’s balls, and I really connected with that because I think that was a little bit of an exception in terms of the clique-ness of the time.
In terms of early ‘90s plaza-culture.
Yeah, where a lot of people took themselves very seriously. And I don’t blame them, because a lot of what was happening on the East Coast wasn’t being given any airtime. There was definitely a, ‘Hey, we need to get some shine!’ feeling. Like we needed to show skateboarding, show the magazines in California what’s happening over here, and I think that taking yourself seriously in that regard is absolutely understandable. The DC guys had that, but they were just funny all the time too. They were just a fun group of guys to be around.
Did industry politics affect you at all? Like how you can’t shoot that guy for that mag or whatever?
Honestly, no. I never experienced that, but the politics of magazine publishing were much more murky. I mean there were the already-established rivalries between Northern and Southern California, so the East Coast was a little bit immune to that, unless you go and ride for a Californian company.
Like Keith and Keenan did, early on.
Yeah. But the rivalry between Thrasher and Transworld goes back to way before I was ever involved.
People are going to be hyped to see the Tom Penny shots in your book. Give us some Tom talk.
The first time I saw him skate was at Northampton, 1995. I think that his arrival on the world skateboard stage was really abrupt, especially for the magazines in the US, and for skaters in the US. I think with this new language of street skating being established in the early ‘90s, most people were really just struggling to keep up. Struggling to do tricks. You’d see people struggling all the time, people rarely making tricks, and Tom’s arrival on the world stage stunned us. He could do all these tricks, he could do them consistently, and it looked like he wasn’t even trying. I think a lot of American skaters in Europe at that time were just baffled by it.
Tom’s arrival on the world stage stunned us. He could do all these tricks, he could do them consistently, and it looked like he wasn’t even trying. I think a lot of American skaters in Europe at that time were just baffled by it
Tom Penny’s Poetic switch blindside flip in Copenhagen. TWS 1995. Photo: Pete Thompson
Europe ’95 is possibly the greatest example of everybody important in skateboarding being in the same place at the same time.
Perfect example. And they’re watching Tom Penny skate, wondering how he can do his tricks over and over again perfectly, without even lifting a finger. It really seemed like Tom was the first skateboarder I ever saw that was able to take what everybody had been struggling with for the previous two, three, four years and deliver it in a way that we had all, wishfully thinking, thought we wanted to do it. Most skateboarders wanted to skate switch comfortably and be more consistent, they just hadn’t figured it out yet. Does that make sense?
Yep. Of course.
When he first skated at Münster that year everybody stopped. Everybody stopped talking, stopped whatever they were doing and just sat there and watched him, in a state of absolute confusion. What was interesting also at that time, is that while he’s known for his kickflips and frontside flips, he was doing so much more. So many more tricks mixed in. Sometimes you’d see him try something, like he’d sort of halfway try it—some trick you’d never thought possible—and you’d be like, “Do you see what Tom just tried?!”
Half of what was so magnetic about him was that he’d try some crazy trick three or four times then just walk away from it. Like in Menikmati, he switch frontside flips this pyramid in Germany, but after that he then went up the roll in, back down switch and just kinda flings in a switch frontside 360 kickflip. He didn’t make it, but if he put his mind to it I definitely think he could have.
You can see that he could do tricks that had never been done before but he’d just lose interest in them, and move on. And that’s the stunning part. He had that much talent, so I think he was this window into what could be possible on a skateboard, had he stuck with some of these crazy fuckin’ tricks. Even the stuff he didn’t make, you’re like, “Wow. How did he even manage to come close to that?!”
Andrew Reynolds and Geoff Rowley. Copenhagen 1995. Photo: Pete Thompson
What else stood out about Europe 1995?
The other thing was being aware of the amount of pros, in their prime, who played really instrumental parts in how skateboarding evolved, all in the same place at the same time. Being able to see guys like Mike Carroll, Gonz, Eric Koston, Kareem Campbell and so on and so on, and being able to see them in their prime during a time when there wasn’t really that much money in skateboarding. From my perspective, it created a mixture that let skateboarding shine in a way that sets that period apart from other times in skateboarding.
Funny story… I remember after the contest at Münster, with Jeff Taylor, shooting footage of Eric Koston walking around outside the arena with no t-shirt, no shoes and just jeans on. Everything else has gone. His t-shirt, his shoes, his hat, his board… Everything is gone. He had sold something to a kid, and the kid and his friends weren’t satisfied and they wanted more, so Eric ended up selling literally everything that was attached to his body except his pants. I’m sure he a had a lot of cash in his pocket, but still. That’s how it was back then. Kids would buy anything off of you if you were pro, but especially if you were Eric Koston. I hope I can find that tape at some point. There’s a lot of old, lost stuff being pulled out of boxes right now!
Anyone who saw Kareem Campbell in his prime at radlands is forever blessed. Superhuman Backside flip. Photo: Pete Thompson
Pretty much everybody looks great in your book, whether skate shots or chill shots. How important is a good outfit to a good photo?
Sometimes you could tell, back then, that someone was a good skateboarder by how they dressed. If your clothes were wack and you were in Philly or DC or New York it would reflect badly on you. The way you dressed reflected who you were as a skateboarder. I don’t know if it’s still like that…
There were definitely people who were great skateboarders but they had weird fashion sense, you know? Maybe not ‘weird’, but just ‘different’. For all the amazing memories and amazing anecdotes from that era, along with the vibing and cliquey-ness, your wardrobe definitely mattered. If you rolled up in slightly-tight pants, or even just not-huge pants, you’d get clowned.
Sometimes you could tell, back then, that someone was a good skateboarder by how they dressed. If your clothes were wack and you were in Philly or DC or New York it would reflect badly on you
I’m glad that went on. It that made sure we all looked good.
Yeah, but then again you could argue that in skateboarding there’s meant to be no rules and you can do whatever you want, and here there are trying to put everybody into a very small box. ‘These are the cool tricks’. ‘This is the way that you wear your jeans’. ‘These shoes are what’s cool’. If you showed up at a spot with, say, a yellow t-shirt and some slim cargo pants, wearing weird shoes and doing bonelesses, you wouldn’t be embraced.
I think we did a pretty great job of dressing well after the big pants small wheels era. But then things split anyway, and there was the punk rock vs. hip-hop era.
You do have to give Reynolds and Greco credit for drastically expanding the spectrum of what was acceptable, in terms of style. And of course those guys were also the best skateboarders in the world, so you couldn’t really deny them. They inspired people to open their minds a little bit, at a point when skateboarding really, really needed it.
How important to you is it that the shot that runs was the make? I think it’s fine if the best photo goes in, as long as the trick was made, although I did hear about people getting a pass if they promised to go back and land the trick at some point… I think that’s a bit of a stretch.
That’s something that I was guilty of. Sending in photos of stuff that wasn’t made, that wasn’t rolled away from.
But the trick had been rolled away from at some point?
There were times when that did happen, but the photo you’re looking at in a magazine is almost never the one that the guy made. It was tricky back then because there were so many tricks that weren’t being done clean, and so it was like, “What is the proper point to show a kickflip? What’s the proper point to show a 360 flip?” All that stuff had to be figured out from the standpoint of photography, and what looks best aesthetically.
And then when people started catching kickflips properly, a good kickflip photo could look like an ollie.
Exactly. Like Rick McCrank’s Transworld cover, in Paris.
Rick McCrank advancing the evolution of the kickflip catch. TWS 1999. Photo: Pete Thompson
How much of a skateboard photographer’s job is being a hype man?
There definitely is that. Trying to help push people to break through whatever mental wall they’re trying to break through. That’s the important part about having a crew, having a tight group of dudes that you know well enough that you can push each other along. It’s part of it, and even more so with film. If you’re shooting film and you’ve got three rolls left, and the guy’s struggling, and you both want to get the shot but maybe you’re getting kicked out the spot, or there’s a broken board… There was so much stuff happening back then that isn’t happening now, even just in regards to equipment and the fact that you’re not shooting film anymore.
Have you ever been concerned for the wellbeing of somebody you were shooting?
Sometimes, if you’re around a kid who’s hungry and trying to come up, and they’re looking at the opportunity to shoot a photo with me as their chance to shine and maybe get themselves on the map. When you watch somebody skate, you can pretty quickly figure out whether they have good board control and whether or not they’re going to be able to do what they set out to do. But then, some kids are so hungry that they’ll overshoot their level of talent, and there is concern there, but it’s also good to see someone who really wants it. When someone really, really wants it I’m more thinking about not getting in their way.
If it’s something they’ve been thinking about for a long time, you don’t want to shut ‘em down, you don’t want to rain on their parade. You want to be concerned for them, but hey, if they set out to do something that they’ve really dreamed about doing for a long time, and they roll away, then it’s amazing.
That’s the interesting thing about skateboarding… The conversation that you’re having with fear is one that happens every time you push yourself at skateboarding, and the reward for that is almost immediate, but the punishment—if you don’t make it—is also immediate. There’s the exhilaration that happens there, that I think is the primary reason for why skateboarders feel so alive when they’re skating. Do you know what I mean?
The rest of the world does everything it possibly can to avoid even contemplating fear. Fear is paralysis for the rest of the world. It can be paralysis for skateboarders as well, but the ones who are pushing themselves are the ones willing to engage with that internal fear, and that’s what sets skateboarding apart from so many other things. There are other things that have that element to them, but most of those things have a financial reward as well.
Fear is paralysis for the rest of the world. It can be paralysis for skateboarders as well, but the ones who are pushing themselves are the ones willing to engage with that internal fear, and that’s what sets skateboarding apart from so many other things
If you’re a sprinter then the worst thing that could happen, probably, is a tweaked ankle, but if things go well you could walk off with a million bucks. If you’re trying to back lip a fifteen, you could end up crippled for the rest of your life…
…and no-one’s gonna give you a penny. Skateboarding is the purest demonstration of passion that I can think of. That idea of the fear, the reward and the punishment is the main example of that.
Have you ever feared for yourself, or your gear?
Oh yeah. I got mugged in San Francisco in probably about ’98. I was shooting photos at Hunter’s Point, which is fucking sketchy, with Jake Rupp, Hanzy Driscoll and Justin Strubing. This guy just walked up to me and started talking, and as soon as I turned away he punched me and tried to get me on the ground. I had my camera strap wrapped around my wrist, which is what I always did, so I’m holding onto it and he was dragging me along the ground, then Hanzy Driscoll comes running up with his board…
Of all the people.
Yeah! Hanzy’s definitely a peaceful, kind person. That was interesting! The camera didn’t get stolen but it got smashed, and it was a brand new F5 so that sucked.
You’d stopped shooting skating when digital came in, but how did that affect the way you did things?
I stopped shooting altogether for two years. I just needed to reset, but I missed the first two years of digital, which was probably good because when I started to shoot again all of the digital equipment had got really refined. You don’t want to buy the very first version of something like that. I mean I think the very first digital camera cost somewhere between eight and ten grand. Haha!
And probably lets you take photos as good as the film camera you’d been running anyway.
Oh, for sure. On the first digital cameras the files were so small by today’s standards that you’d be better off shooting with film anyway.
Who did you always enjoy shooting with? Who always got photos that could be used?
To name a few, Cairo Foster, Kenny Reed, Stefan Janoski, Penny, Reynolds, Stevie, Reese, Strubing, Jose Rojo and Tony Hawk obviously! Haha!
Kenny Reed with a picture perfect San Franciscan frontside nosegrind. Photo: Pete Thompson.
Did you ever miss a shot that could have been a banger? Ever fuck up something that could have been a cover?
Tony’s X-Games 900.
Oh man. I thought you’d maybe tell me about a Carlos Kenner fakie nosegrind at Pulaski or something. That first 900 is probably the most famous skateboard trick ever.
I was there, I was shooting in the sun all day, on this really gorgeous day, and it was in 1999, when you really had to battle with ESPN and people like that to get on the deck. If you worked for a skateboard magazine, Thrasher or Transworld or whatever, you’d get the same press pass as some photographer coming in to shoot photos for a local newspaper or something like that. You had the same credentials as they did, and so once you got into the event and they wouldn’t let you past the barrier to get to the vert ramp you had to get all the pros that were there to tell security to let you in.
They’re not going to do that for some newspaper photographer. Mike Frazier and Bucky Lasek were the guys who got me in that particular day and I got onto the deck to shoot photos, but some co-ordinator or someone would always try to come up and kick you out. So that was basically happening all day, which gets a little bit tiring, and plus I was all sunburned. After the vert contest—or maybe the street contest, I can’t remember— but the sun was going down, and I lived in San Francisco so I’m like, “Fuck this, I’m going home”. So I left, then a couple of hours later he did the 900.
the sun was going down, and I lived in San Francisco so I’m like, “Fuck this, I’m going home”. So I left, then a couple of hours later he did the 900
But all things considered, I might not even have been able to shoot it anyway. Whitey McConnaughy, who’s I think was a snowboard photographer, shot it. Ultimately I think the network realised what was happening; I mean there’s Tony Hawk, he’s trying a trick nobody’s done before and everybody in the crowd is still there, it’s not part of the contest and it’s going on longer than it’s supposed to but they need to let it happen.
I can imagine that the people from the network would most likely be trying to make sure that no-one else was filming it and no-one else was photographing it, and I think I actually heard somewhere that Whitey had wrapped his camera in a jacket and he’d pull it out each time Tony came up the set-up wall, stay super still and shoot without anybody seeing him. I’m bummed I wasn’t there but in all honesty it would probably have been pretty gnarly to even have gotten a photo or a sequence of it. It was also at night, so lighting conditions weren’t all that great.
You shouldn’t feel bad about leaving.
Honestly, I’m such fan of Tony and of vert skating, so just to even be there and watch it for the first time, without even shooting it, would give me goosebumps. I would have done almost anything just to be there. To be sitting next to the vert ramp amidst all the energy that there was. Just being there to witness such a monumental achievement.
Pete was on hand to document other Tony hawk moments like this tweaked slob at Woodward in 1997. Photo: Pete Thompson
What do you like about vert skating so much? The glamour? Is it easier to shoot, or more rewarding?
I actually just grew up in a time when vert skating was the dominant style of skateboarding. I think everybody in that era aspired to be a great vert skater, plus you had all these superstars like Hosoi, Tony, Cab, Miller, Lance Mountain and Jeff Kendall who sort of made it this heroic, untouchable thing. Shooting it was something I enjoyed from the standpoint of being a fan, or even personally just a giddy kid around vert skaters, but also because it allowed me to set up for a photo without getting kicked out and gave me the luxury of placing lights more strategically.
There are a lot of photographs of skateboarders who have passed away in your book. Was that a conscious decision or did it just come out like that?
That was definitely a component of the editing process. Definitely a consideration. I think there are eleven guys in the book who have passed way.
It’s great that you’re still able to show people photos of, say, Keenan Milton and Pepe Martinez that they’ve never seen before.
I wanted to be able to commemorate all those guys. There’s an affection for not just that era, but for all the people who collectively made up that era. I thought it was important to specifically celebrate those guys. Not all of them passed away during their skateboarding peak. I mean, Phil Shao… Phil was a sign of what was to come and it took a good ten or fifteen years to have that style of skateboarding become realised and embraced on a mainstream level.
Phil was a sign of what was to come and it took a good ten or fifteen years to have that style of skateboarding become realised and embraced on a mainstream level
Power and grace. Phil Shao backside disasters a plywood extension at Jim’s ramp . Photo: Pete Thompson
I’d say the same for Jaya Bonderov.
Yeah. Phil and Jaya fit into that category. Those guys could adapt skateboarding and make it beautiful. Skating in San Francisco challenges you, it’s like the proving ground for skateboarders. Can you go to SF and adapt? Can you skate all these gnarly things, and deal with the rough ground?
Those guys in particular embodied that attitude—but also Dan Drehobl—have made such a raw contribution to the progression of skateboarding. It’s about taking your surroundings and using them, no matter what, and they’re not the first guys who did that but they did it in a modern way.
Who have you shot that should have been ‘bigger’? Whether they dipped out or just couldn’t be bothered, or for whatever other reason.
There was a guy called Sean Payne, who was 6’6”, so I think an inch taller than Ron Whaley, and he was just ridiculously gifted. Ridiculously. I predict that in the next five years, people are going to be digging up every photo and every bit of video footage of that guy. People won’t believe what he was doing in 2002, 2003. He could do anything. He could do things that most people didn’t even think were possible. He was like Tom Penny in that way, except I think Sean made more of an effort to do those sorts of unique tricks. He was incredibly talented but I think that when skateboarding is really easy to someone there are instances where that person just gets bored. The struggle just isn’t the same and some people need something that’s going to challenge them and sustain them more.
Sean Payne frontside kickflip tailslide. Photo: Pete Thompson
I remember shooting with Silas Baxter-Neal in maybe 2003 or 2002, when he was just some kid from Oregon on this Powell amateurs trip, and he was a really nice guy who would just skate any spot we went to. He was hyped, but wasn’t the ‘go out and try the hardest trick’ type guy at that point, he’d just skate it the way he wanted to skate it. At the time he was just coming back from a knee injury. He was really good, and really calm on a skateboard, but I felt a level of concern for him because of the knee injury.
I’d broken my leg in half, skateboarding, so I know that feeling and how it fucks with your head, but he was ripping and nobody knew who he was. I mean I didn’t know who he was when I showed up to go on tour. Great kid, super nice, but I never would I have imagined that he would go on to do what he went on to do.
Wow. Just because he wasn’t desperate to get photos?
I mean he was down to shoot photos, and he would roll away from shit after a handful of tries, but it wasn’t the crazy shit people ended up seeing from him later. I’m guessing it was just him coming back from the knee injury and trying to get his feet underneath him again, but after that tour I knew what a rad guy he was. Just a really down to earth, chill guy that you could just be around all the time. I was out of skateboarding when he really exploded, but I remember thinking, “Is that that kid Silas?! Holy shit, he’s destroying everything!”
Do you have any interest in shooting skateboarding now?
Not really. Haha! Although saying that, I’d be curious as to what I’d do differently if I did, but I think that overall I’ve gotten used to having a bigger voice and influence in the images that I want to create now. Skateboarding is amazing and all that stuff but it’s tricky because you’ll go out to shoot and try to get a photo when the cops aren’t there, and only when the person is feeling it, so you don’t really have the control over what you’re doing as much as what I do now.
The guys that shoot skateboarding today are amazing and it’s come on in leaps and bounds from when I was doing it but I like to have a little more of a plotting/planning approach to what I enjoy shooting.
Maybe you’ve completed skateboarding. Like Tom.
Yeah. It’s not to say that all people, whether skateboarders or photographers, reach a stage where they just go, “Fuck this, I’m over it”, it depends on the window you have. For some people, like Mike Carroll or Koston, that window lasts decades but other people don’t have any control over it. You can’t do it the way that you did it when you were a kid forever. At least for most people, anyway. People grow and they get older, and their priorities change, and the things that you’re passionate about evolve, and that’s totally understandable and normal.
I just think that having that window where you’re just on fire and you’re giving everything that you have to it, whether you’re a skater or a photographer, is kind of the intention of the book. To show that window, I mean. Look at how many crazy, unforgettable things can happen in the time that you really give everything you have to what you’re most passionate about.
I just think that having that window where you’re just on fire and you’re giving everything that you have to it, whether you’re a skater or a photographer, is kind of the intention of the book
Better to dip out than to try to fake it. One last thing, what trick is Stefan doing in the photo at the end of your book?
It’s a two-wheel slide. That’s funny, I actually put that in there because I knew that people wouldn’t know what it is. I wanted it to be that way, I wanted to cause a certain level of curiosity. That photo, in a sense, is a little bit of a nod to what skateboarding was like in 1991, 1992, where you would see a magazine and you’d see a trick and you didn’t understand what it was. “How did he get his leg there, why is the board pointing that way, did the board flip..?”
Even when people would shoot sequences then, you’d still be puzzling over how the guy turned his body that way or something. That’s the whole thing behind that photo, to bring back that experience a bit.
Stefan Janoski’s first look at his ender. Photo: Pete Thompson
Got you. When I first flicked through I just thought it was a perfect back tail.
And then you’re like, “What the fuck?!” Haha! I had a sequence of it; he did it four or five times just as a joke.
Thanks to Pete for taking the time to speak to us and reaching out to us about stocking the book in the early days.
93′ Til is available now from Slam City Skates. These copies are all special first edition versions available only from selected skate shops. They feature 6 extra pages of Tom Penny Circa 1995. Buy your copy of ’93 Til HERE.