Documenting 50 years of skate culture

New exhibition Against the Grain explores skateboarding and the camera. We speak to curator Jaime Marie Davis about skating’s transformation over the past five decades, and why there needs to be better representation of women in the sport

Skateboarding began life in 50s California, when a bunch of surfers decided to create a new activity for when there weren’t any waves around: sidewalk surfing. Since then, skating has grown to encompass so much more than just a sport, spawning countless cult magazines including Thrasher and fashion empires like Palace.

A new exhibition opening in London is looking at the work of people behind the lens of the movement all over the world, many of whom also happen to be deeply ingrained in skate culture on a personal level. Spanning five decades’ worth of material, the show includes works by director Spike Jonze and photographer Mike O’Meally. Here, co-curator Jaime Marie Davis discusses skating’s status as an outsider sport and why photographing it is about so much more than capturing the ‘peak action shot’.

Skin Phillips, Grandma Thrasher, 1984. Swansea

Creative Review: How did Against the Grain come about?
Jaime Marie Davis: The term ‘against the grain’ suits skateboarding’s attitude pretty well – skaters have always resisted authority, or pressures to conform – but the exhibition focuses on photography and film’s development alongside the evolution of skateboarding. It’s also about the unique relationship between the photographer and the subject – it’s an intimate and intuitive one that knows the signature style of the skater because of the close friendship as well. The exhibition is also about the culture that has surrounded skating through the decades and the different backgrounds, interests, and styles that intersect within it.

The title fell into place when my favourite book of essays by Allan Sekula, Photography Against the Grain, was reprinted by MACK Books. Sekula was formative in thinking about the social aspect of photography, and he opened up new ways of seeing something that I was so close to, growing up in southern California. The skate industry was built by skaters and has always rubbed against outside pressures to co-opt it. Skateboarding’s history runs in parallel with the evolution of analogue to digital film, video and the commercialisation of the subject in very interesting ways, which I think need to be looked at more closely.

Dobie Campbell, Palace Originals, Lucian Hendricks, 1985. Crystal Palace

CR: Why is now the right time for the exhibition?
JMD: Timing is everything in skating, there is no doubt about it, and a historical perspective spanning several decades has been my approach to gathering all of these artists together. Craig Stecyk (also known as C.R. Stecyk III) wrote a history of modern skateboarding that draws from 3000 BC for the introduction to the book Dysfunctional, which has been included as an installation. I’m always a little sceptical about approaching subjects that are tainted in terms of trends or being relevant because of their currency, but I do think it feels like the right time to look back on the subject. Skateboarding will be in the Tokyo Olympics for the first time in 2020, and I think it’s important to offer a space where skateboarding, with all of its compelling aspects, can be seen through multiple lenses.

CR: Why do you think the imagery associated with skateboarding has been largely ignored as an artistic form up until now?
JMD: The importance of capturing the ‘peak action trick’ and the representation of skating as a sport could be one reason, or a general impetus to categorise subjects and people is possibly another. The photographers in the exhibition, such as Dobie Campbell, often have their hands in multiple creative outputs across visual art and music. They were completely ingrained in the groundwork that launched and sustained skate magazines in the 70s and 80s, and later in moving image outputs like 411 Video Magazine. As photography was increasingly shown in galleries or art contexts, these photographers maintained their commitment to the photographic tradition of the printed page and coverage of progressing and evolving forms. Skaters are probably the most critical group of individuals you could meet. They are absolute perfectionists, and each of them have extensive bodies of work as artists. A number of approaches and styles have been developed out of the laborious and at times dangerous restrictions of their shooting conditions.

Glen E. Friedman, Hanging at Adolph’s in Holmby Hill after school, 1977

CR: Tell us about some of the work included in the exhibition.
JMD: There are classic, iconic shots by J. Grant Brittain which show three different disciplines of skating – street, freestyle and vert. Dobie Campbell – an incredibly dexterous visual artist and musician – is showing photography from the 1980s skate scene in London and the notorious original Crystal Palace ramp. You can also see where Spike Jonze’s early inspiration and love of movement could have evolved from; he’s showing his photography for the first time as a collage installation of photographs dating from 1989 to 1993. Glen E. Friedman, who self-publishes much of his work through photobooks, is working on a follow up to the Dogtown book he published with Craig Stecyk, and is showing some photographs he has found in his archive.

CR: How do you think the interpretation of skateboarding through the lens has changed over the last 50 years?
JMD: So much has changed. When skateboarding first captured the attention of the media, it was the Life magazine reporters such as Bill Eppridge or local broadsheets that documented what was considered a dangerous or menacing device. It was often the typical, distanced portrayal of an outsider culture. Today, that distance doesn’t exist in the same way. Photographers who shoot skateboarding are completely immersed, and the imagery has been created from within and circulated or shared within the culture. That is something very unique about skate photography. If you think of other outsider art or other cliché-termed genres, interpretation has essentially come from outside of the subject. These photographers have maintained that self-representation, and by extension most of the magazines and film companies developed to create a media culture.

Mike O’Meally, Palace Skate Team (Lucien Clarke, Chewy Cannon, Blondey McCoy, Jack Brooks, Danny Brady), 
Tottenham Hale, 2016

CR: Most of the photographers included in the exhibition are men. Do you think the representation of women in skate culture still needs to improve?
JMD: Jenna Selby, who is really active in London shooting women skaters, is a contributor to a programme we are organising in partnership with Art Night and the Hayward Gallery in July. For the last few years my work has been about visibility and women’s histories, so this challenge has been at the forefront of my mind when working on the exhibition. The gender balance behind the lens is heavily tipped, but I see that changing very quickly and being reflected as the exhibition is able to expand during its tour. There is some great work out there by women photographers like Zorah Olivia, Sarah Huston, and Nam-Chi Van’s Ladies of Shred series.

Against the Grain: Skate Culture and the Camera is on display at 15 Bateman Street in London from 7-22 July. The exhibition will tour to the US in 2019 and Tokyo in 2020 to coincide with the Olympics. Find out more here

GROUP GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Bedford, Bedfordshire