Skating itself is such an unusual type of activity that it requires unusual types of photography to document it accurately.
As part of our skateboarding mini-series, we spoke to LA-based photographer, Mike O’Meally, the man behind some of skate’s most iconic images. Starting out shooting his friends on an Olympus OM-1n, he has gained global attention for his intuitive approach and dedication to preserving an honest image of the sport. With a career spanning a quarter of a century, he is best known for having his images featured in Thrasher, Slap, Skateboarder and Transworld magazines.
The day the town went quiet: I shot this on Broadway on September 12th, 2001, the day after the World Trade centre came down in New York, there was an eerie quiet and smell of destruction in the city that day, but resilient New Yorkers were beginning to get back out and about on the streets.
It really helps to have skated and know the feeling of what it is to catch the thrills.
I try to bring in elements of the environment and the skater’s character into the image. My aesthetic is more on the documentary side, maybe a little gritty. One of the most interesting things about skate photography is that there are no set rules, you just have to experiment. I like shooting skaters who are willing to try something a bit risky or unusual, someone that has an eye for those kind of things. You really get addicted to their adrenalin and passion, it really comes across on camera. There was a time when you could pinpoint styles but now the style is more distinctive to the individual skater themselves. You can’t pigeonhole people so easily.
Having a skater’s eye makes you look at cities differently. We have a completely different eye on the architecture. Looking out for whether a street is smooth or not or if there is a T at the end of the hill. It’s basically looking for ways to navigate the city. Skateboarding has become more accepted. For some diehard purist skaters they find that a bit disappointing because it used to be a bit more renegade, a bit more underground. I guess the spirit itself hasn’t changed too drastically in the way that it is still people riding boards, meeting up with their friends and looking for new skate spots.
When I lived in New York in the late 90’s, the architecture and the way people utilised it was really distinct. It was just such a big city, with such a gritty look that made for some iconic locations; anything from freeway underpasses to a cellar door going down to a basement to pieces of construction there one day and gone the next.
“The real thrill and art form of skateboarding is doing it in public spaces.”
Having said that, travelling to other countries it’s really great to see things that you have never come across. In Brazil there is some interesting architecture and Barcelona is known for having architecture that lends itself to skating really well.
(Left- Anthony Van Engelen and Omar Salazar take a steep drop in Texas back in 2007, shot while filming for Alien Workshop’s video – Mindfield)
Skaters aren’t really your usual kind of guys, you know the crazier they are the better.
I’ve been really lucky in the past twenty years to travel around the world with different magazines and brands. The tricks have changed and where people ride is getting more adventurous but, when it comes to the culture itself I don’t think it’s really changed too drastically. Its essentially still kids trying to have fun, looking for an adventure.
I think the actual act of riding a skateboard down a ramp or a smooth, steep hill, there’s something so simple and enjoyable about that. Once you factor in tricks, it’s constantly evolving. There is a real adventurous spirit to skateboarding. The simple act of riding a skateboard, its an experience and I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.
Skateboarding is not going to disappear, it’s future is just unknown.
Some of the big influences for me were the Magnum photographers, particularly their documentary style of shooting. They would go to the far reaches of the earth and try to include the local people and culture in the picture. Some of the great skate photographers that were already shooting when I started like; Daniel Harold, Grant Britton, Spike Jones, Tobin Yelland.
These are the guys that pioneered the look of skate photography in the late 80’s. They were a huge influence on me as a young teenager reading skate magazines. That’s where I got the passion to pursue it. That was before the internet and it was such a surprise to get something in the mail. You’d only get them once a month if you were lucky and it was a real thrill. When I started skating as a kid in the mid 80’s, when it was a really cult thing, you could name maybe ten to twenty pros in the whole world. Now there are so many good skaters that you have to be really consuming at a rapid rate to know them all.
Skating is a universal language. Its is something that can really break down barriers. You can see a kid from any part of the world step on a skateboard for the first time they are gonna have a huge grin on their face, or they will fall but it’s a real privilege to see all of that.
mike O’Meally’s Skate Playlist