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Mark Whiteley interview

November 13th, 2009 by Crossfire

Interview by Crossfire
Images by Mark Whiteley
Portrait by Joe Brook

Mark Whiteley has done it all in skateboarding: videographer, photographer, and for the last God-knows how long he has been the guiding light behind the seminal skate magazine SLAP.

As well as having launched the careers of countless skaters over the years, he has managed to keep a parallel existence as a photographer, a passion which stretches back not only through his own life but that of his predecessors too.

With a new book of his photography (This Is Not A Photo Opportunity) just launched, Crossfire tethered him long enough to garner some insights on skateboarding, the ever evolving nature of photography, and what style actually means.

I think I’m right in saying that prior to you ever having taken a skate photo you had already sold work from your college years- why didn’t you just leap into the world of commercial photography straight away?

Not exactly- I started taking photos at maybe 14 and started shooting skating immediately because skate photos are what got me really interested in photography. But they sucked, so really I didn’t shoot anything that could be considered remotely decent skate-wise until I was in my 20’s. The work I was doing in college was based in photography but very mixed-media with paint, collage, writing, heavily influenced by Robert Rauschenberg and the Starn twins.

I did sell some work from then and got some nice art award stuff, and I was intending on just applying to grad school and pursuing a fine art career, who knows how that would have gone, it’s a real tough world, but I got offered the job at SLAP because of all the contacts and friends I had made from my days as a video filmer and because skating was always my number one love I decided to take it and do it just because it seemed like a fun thing to do for a while. And also because I didn’t really know what else to do at the time, grad school seemed a little overwhelming and I didn’t have the experience to work as a professional photographer at the time. I never expected to be here as long as I have been and I didn’t think it would become as serious of a job as it became, but I also never expected I would get as much out of it as I have, either.

Right: Matt Field Ollie

I read your points about black and white photography in your Level interview, is there a danger that black and white becomes a kind of visual shorthand for artistic seriousness, in the way that Super-8 film of seagulls does for video?

Definitely. That’s a good parallel. Anything that’s become a signifier of one thing in particular is in danger of becoming a cliché. But that’s not to say it shouldn’t be used, just be aware of how you use it and how it can be perceived. With the advent of digital, black and white film has become almost strictly for “art” and that adds to the rep even more, but having been raised on shooting black and white film to me it still seems just like the basics, something that works for everything. But yeah, I get your point. I could see shooting black and white film in older film cameras becoming the next fixed gear bike craze for hipsters.

Joe Brook- simultaneously the best loved and least celebrated photographer in skateboarding?

Hmmm. Definitely in the running for best loved, I’ve never met a single person who had a bad word about Joe. It’s impossible not to love the guy, he’s hilarious, tells the best stories, works harder than anybody else, is totally reliable, just solid as it gets. Least celebrated, I don’t know, the last few years have been good to Joe, people are really recognizing how good of a photographer he is and how dedicated he is to what he does (see his new Guest model on Krooked out right now). Working for SLAP has always kept most of those who have worked here in the shadows because it isn’t a place that was in the limelight of skateboarding, nor often showing the limelight of skating.

We never had any Atibas here, but I think it’s good because I think it gives a true connection to the average skater, and it keeps us honest. A lot of amazing people have come through SLAP over the years and some have gone on to get a lot of recognition, but I always thought the underground qualities of SLAP are what made it the best mag. So, huge shout out to Joe for his beautiful work, his dedication to what we do, and his friendship.

Right: Jamie Thomas

Has the advent of digital photography created a new generation of professional amateurs in the way that the death lens did for filming a decade ago?

What I think it’s done is shortened the learning curve considerably. Massively really. It used to be when you were learning you’d shoot a roll over however long it took, save up money to get it processed, take it to the lab, wait a bit to get it back, and then see what you screwed up but maybe not remember what exactly you were doing at the time and have to guess and start again.

With the instantaneousness of digital, you shoot it, see if everything looks right half a second later and adjust on the spot. You learn real fast what works and what looks good, and so as a result there’s this huge new generation of photographers who got it figured out in a matter of months versus a matter of years. I guess you could say it’s watered down what it takes to become a good photographer if you’re bitter, but I think it’s provided an opportunity for people to become better photographers faster, and that’s good. I think my own photos have benefited from it for sure.

If the first rule of journalism is ‘write yourself out of the story’, what is the deal with visual journalism? Should filmers have magazine columns? Should photographers have signature backpacks? Or should they strive to be invisible and keep the message distinct from the medium?

It goes back to what I was saying earlier about us staying out of the limelight. I think our job as chroniclers of skateboarding is to make the skaters look the best they can, or provide the most honest look at things, not to get in the picture ourselves. It’s nice to be recognized for doing something well or that people appreciate, but it’s the skaters who should be the focus. I don’t think many people got the lesson on writing yourself out of the story in the last decade. And I think it would be awesome if more people subscribed to the Lance Dawes philosophy of ever-evolving pen names.

I’m guilty of writing a lot from my own perspective and presenting it that way but I’m not trying to draw attention to myself in particular, but to present the experiences I have as a representative of the average skater. My book of photos is certainly something that points directly to me as well, but it’s presented as a collection of work separate from the skate mag itself, so I think it’s in a different realm. All that said, photographers and filmers have some of the best stories to tell from being out in the wilds with the weirdos for so long that they do deserve some attention from time to time.

Right: Modest Mouse

Slap more than any other title is synonymous with style, and yet you dress like a destitute crab fisherman- what are the rudiments of style?

Fuck you very much! Style is an ephemeral thing with countless definitions, but regardless of if you’re talking about skating or fashion or what have you, personally I think it’s about making whatever you have to work with your own, rocking it with pride, and developing it over time so that it becomes simple, refined, and even more natural to you.

I love skaters like Kenny Anderson or somebody with undeniably “good” style as much as the next guy, maybe more, but some of my favorite skaters ever have weird style by most conventions, Paulo Diaz is a prime example. I love his style, and it’s far from smooth or clean, but it’s so unique and powerful, and I guess that to me is style: being unique and powerful.

TINAPO is noticeably light on action photography-is there a second tome to come, or do you feel that all your best stuff has already seen the light of day via Slap?

A good chunk of the photos of the book saw the light of day in SLAP before the book, so that’s not really the issue. There’s only one “skate” photo in the book, and I chose it more as an artistic photo than a skate photo. I purposefully left all the skate stuff out because I wanted the book to be able to exist and be seen on a more universal plane. Everybody can understand a nice portrait, but very few people can appreciate a good 360 flip photo. I feel like my stronger work is the portraits and “lifestyle” stuff anyhow. I think I took some decent skate stuff over the years, but I do think I’m better at the kind of thing in the book. That said it has crossed my mind to do a skate collection of my stuff but I haven’t moved on it yet. Maybe I will, I’ve really enjoyed the whole process of making the book and it might be fun to do again with a different focus.

Right: J Mascis

Slap held an exhibition at the Lausanne Grand Prix (Switzerland 2002) which was very well received- would you consider another as a way of breaching the digital divide?

Consider another SLAP show? Definitely. We’ve actually done several since the ones in 2002 and they’ve all gone over really well. Right now we’re working on a small book of the best, of type from the first year on the web, to put the strongest photos from the web era in a more classic photographic presentation, to remind people that we still have banging photography going on even though it’s not on paper every month, to give the photos their due and to give people something to hold in their hands from time to time. That’s still important even in this new realm we exist in.

Is it possible to take an abstract digital photograph without tweaking it subsequently? At what point does digital ‘re-touching’ become outright cheating?

I’m not sure I follow. Are you asking if it’s possible to take a digital photo that has abstract qualities to it without using photoshop to change it after the fact? Sure it is. Using photoshop is a choice, you can shoot digital and just print it or post it directly as is without any manipulation, that’s easy. But why? Was it cheating when photographers would manipulate a photo when printing in a darkroom, via burning and dodging, or toning? It’s just improving an image, whether it’s via printing or via photoshop, but yes, only to a point is that true. Where that line is is vague, and I think it’s up to each person’s own conscience to know when they’ve crossed it. There’s one photo in the book that I feel like I crossed the line on, but you’d probably never guess it…

Some people are more comfortable about having their photograph taken than others, does that say something about them as people, or is it purely shyness?

Yeah, I think it does, but on a case-by-case basis. The people who I think are the most together as people are the ones who are comfortable in front of the camera but aren’t overly hungry when in front of it; they don’t mind being photographed but they don’t put on a show or make a spectacle of themselves, and they don’t put on the big, fake auto-pilot smile that most people put on when a camera comes out. They just show themselves as who they are, and that’s what I’m trying to connect with as a photographer trying to make a portrait of a person- their true self, and to show window into that.

People who are overly shy in front of the camera might sometimes have either low self-esteem or are too image conscious, both of which are hard things to deal with for them and for me. Shooting portraits of people is my favourite thing to do and each person is different in terms of how to approach them and make them feel at ease enough to show themselves in a way that I get a feeling for who they are if I don’t already know them, but that’s my goal. I want to get the feeling of the person in a picture, to go deeper than their surface appearance.

You have seen all the great generations of SF skaters- who is (or are) the best of all time?

It’s hard to deny the Carroll/Sanchez/Jovantae/Kelch/EMB era, those guys were so innovative, influential and raw. It’s pretty much gotta be them, they ruled the world at that point… BUT I really love the mid-90s SF era, when the Deluxe guys were destroying: Huf, Daher, Fowler, that whole era is where my heart’s at. Skating and filming with guys like Drehobl, Shao, Field, etc was a treat for me. AND you can’t skip Tommy Guerrero. He put SF on the map.

Best of the current breed?

Let’s say Busenitz. But there’s a lot of rad skaters in SF again.

And who is the best guy who never did anything in the limelight with it?

I really hope Brian Delatorre gets more notice.

Years ago you did an issue where you tipped Rupp, Selego, Appleyard for future stardom which all came to pass. You ran the earliest Janoski coverage (that Sacto grass gap switch flip) …who today is the guy who you think is destined for greatness?

I don’t know if I can say there’s one guy destined for greatness above everybody else, but I can say Nestor Judkins makes my personal all-time Top- Ten list amongst the likes of Gonz, Jason Lee, Julien Stranger… I really love the way ‘Tor skates.

The musical odyssey with Guerrero and Barbee: was that the best trip ever? What are your memories of it?

One of ‘em, for sure. I have tons of great memories from it… waking up and realizing I was on tour with TG and Ray Barbee. Recording them playing in hotel bathrooms in Mississippi. Doing a guitar duet with Ray Barbee on a song I wrote. Getting my ass handed to me by Ray in a game of all no-comply SKATE. Getting to skate with Matt Rodriguez every day. Going on the guided tour of Graceland with everybody except Matt, because he didn’t want to support the oppressive legacy of Elvis Presley. Matt’s commentary to signs on the sides of the roads. Watching TG shred so hard on what might have been the last trip that he really was going for it on. Being in New Orleans pre-Katrina. Eating alligator. Skating Duane Pitre spots. Just on and on. Yeah, maybe it was the best trip ever.

Lets end up with some old favourites: favourite companies?

Ever?

Yes.

Wow. Chin-era Powell Peralta, H-Street, Early World, Video Days-era Blind, Alien Workshop, Virtual Reality-era Plan B, Real, Stereo, Illuminati… Metropolitan wheels, Habitat, and Enjoi.

Favourite videos!

Video Days, Memory Screen, A Visual Sound, Eastern Exposure III, Man Down… I really like this new video from Japan called Night Prowler.

Favourite forum posters…

Gipper, MexicanSpaniard, Kamltoe, Star Whores, Nancy Chin The Manicurist, Grim City, Nick Dagger, Kilgore, Tarquin, Sleazy, SFblah, Upgrayded, My Penis Is On My Forehead, Forks/Knives, Vegan Shawn. 1992… there are too many to name them all. I really enjoy the whole situation on there.

OK final number. Bring back Forties: Discuss.

Forties was a state of mind. Julien Stranger, Reese Forbes, Karma Tsocheff, Ray Barbee, Jerry Hsu, Bobby Puleo, Ethan Fowler, Tommy Guerrero, Mike Daher, John Cardiel, and on and on. Just quality at every step. Anyhow, I seriously doubt DLX will resurrect the Forties carcass, but it could STAND for something in these trying times. A lot of the purity from that era is gone, and the Forties name would bring some of that feeling back. But given how the return of many other previously deceased companies has gone, I’m gonna vote for letting it stay done. It’s probably one of the only logos I’d wear, though…

This Is Not A Photo Opportunity is available from Gingko Press or on a limited run of discounted copies via the Slap online shop

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