Considering our skateboarding roots, we were inordinately excited to work with Skin Phillips on a collection for Stance Skate. We also got to chat with him about his Swansea roots, and how he got into photography. The result was a sweet collection featuring Skin's photographs of Matt Hensley and Mark "Gonz" Gonzales, and some interesting reflections on skateboarding, past and present.
Question: Can you give us a brief history of your career?
I started getting into photography when I was around 18; before that I had a little knowledge of what photography was. The first photos I shot were for local zines, and then later for RAD magazine. TLB, the editor at the time, was a huge influence on me and my first real mentor. He helped show me the editorial process, and the money I got from a Tom Knox interview pretty much saved my ass from leaving Australia, where I was trying to work through a winter. After that, I started doing a little for Thrasher and then started to work for Transworld in the summer of '93, and moved out in January of '94, and got work in the office. I was an editorial assistant and staff photographer, and then when everyone left to do the Skateboard Mag I became Editor in Chief. In that time, I also took photographs for various companies, including DC, Vans, Sole Tech, Girl and Chocolate, Circa, and adidas, in no particular order. Five years ago, as media started to crumble, I started to work at adidas, where I was for five years. Now I’m freelancing, doing project managing with a few exciting things on the horizon.
Question: How much influence did growing up in Swansea have on your life's trajectory and your photography?
It has been a huge influence on me. Swansea will always be home no matter what. I look back on those days now especially, and the times were so different from now. I don’t want to sound like an old bastard, but back then, we didn’t lock doors on our street; kids played 'til the street lights came on and everybody knew each other. It was a much simpler time. I come from a background where you don’t get spoilt, and that grounds you. It makes you appreciate everything a little more, it gives you compassion, and most of all, it makes you grateful for everything you have. I got into a lot of trouble when I was a kid, and it could have gone either way. I was lucky to be interested enough in photos to make it work for me. I wanted to be a surfer so badly; we had no waves, so when skateboarding came around it was perfect. Later on, I had no job and no idea how a camera worked, so after I got my first camera, I was in the local library at least twice a week trying to learn. I would shoot the local skaters as much as I could and all my photos would always end up in zines. We were out there trying to make our own Dog Town, which, in a way, we did. All the help I got in Swansea from friends has always kept me grounded.
Question: What kind of cameras do you prefer shooting with?
When I first started, I couldn’t afford good gear, so I started off with an Olympus OM10 and a couple of lenses, including a Sigma fisheye, which lasted me all through the 80s. When I could afford it, I went to a Canon system. Around '93, I bought a Canon T-90 and a great 15mm fisheye and started to get way more stuff published because of that good glass. When Canon changed their lens system, it was never as good; their new lenses are just janky, especially the fisheye, so I moved over to Nikon in '99 and have been using that system ever since. From an FM2 to an F5, then on to the digital cameras. I also had a Hasselblad system in there as well. Now I use a Nikon D800 body, and I only have two lenses--a 16mm and a 135mm. A couple of other lenses got smashed in an accident and I need to replace them. I’m not a gear whore; I still like looking at gear, but it doesn’t overwhelm me like it used to. When I was a kid, I used to send away for catalogs just to look at the cameras and lenses in there, it can become obsessive, especially if you have the money.
Question: Can you give us a little insight into the day/trip in Germany where you shot these Mark Gonzales photos that are on the socks?
I’m still not sure what happened over that weekend—Mark had just got on adidas, and I guess they asked him what he wanted to do? Mark, being Mark, said he wanted to skate in a museum in Germany, and also wanted adidas to make him a fencing suit. Mark had a vision of what he wanted to do: he likes history and it came to life in December of '98. I remember it was a Sunday and all the audience were just watching, there was no clapping until the end. I don’t think Mark skated for more than perhaps half an hour. None of us knew what was going on, if it was skateboarding or art, the future or the past, or something out of Sleeper. I still don’t know what to make of it. But I do know that only Mark Gonzales could do something as amazing as that, and that’s what sets him apart from everyone else in skateboarding. There are few true OGs, and Mark is, without doubt, the main one. The photos on the socks are from another day in Cologne. We hit the streets, me, Mark and Cheryl Dunn, who shot everything in 16mm film. I only shot a couple of rolls, and wish I just blasted a bunch more. But on one roll I have a few good shots, the one of Mark in front of the Cathedral and the one of him going through the tube on his stomach are the ones people seem to like the most. I’m stoked adidas gave me the chance to shoot that stuff; to me, it’s gold. Back when there were no cell phones and nobody really cared that much about what you did in the streets, he just got some strange looks from the bemused German public. We still don’t know what happened to the fencing suit.
"Mark, being Mark, said he wanted to skate in a museum in Germany, and also wanted adidas to make him a fencing suit."
Question: What can you tell us about these two Matt Hensley photos?
Matt and I met in the summer of '94, and we just hit it off because of the British thing. he loves ska and all things to do with the UK, and over the years, he has become one of my dearest closest friends. There are not many skaters who turn out to be exactly like you think they will. Matt is just a gentleman--a true scholar. He lives in Carlsbad, so we would hang out and shoot a lot. Kevin Wilkins was editor for Stance at the time, and he assigned me this Matt Hensley interview. One Saturday, we made this set and shot it in the canteen of Transworld. It's influenced by Irvin Penn, who shot this way all the time. Grant Brittain turned me on to Irving and this is an homage. It’s natural light coming in from a skylight above, and again, it's only two rolls. Matt did about four dress changes for this, and they all look amazing. It was right when Flogging Molly had started and nobody knew Matt then as an accordion player. Matt could do anything he wanted. When he gets something he wants to do in his head, he goes in 100%. He made all the frames for the show in his garage; he has great carpentry and joinery skills, he paints, plays music, and is one hell of a pool shark.
Question: Who in skateboarding inspired you growing up?
I saw this movie, Skater Dater, at a local cinema in the early '70s, that blew me away. When the '70s boom took off, a lot of the locals around Swansea were a big influence. Con and Frenchy from the Dave Friar Surf team, our answer to the Zephyr Team. The London scene was popping off then too, so skaters like Jeremy Henderson (who later went on to be pivotal in the early NY street scene) John Soblosky, Marc Sinclair, and a lot of the London Locals. Then your usual suspects from the '70s, Alva, Jay Adams (RIP), Tom Inouye, Bruce Logan, Henry Hester, Ty Page, and the list goes on and on. In the '80s, I was hyped a lot on our local and UK scene, some of my favorites were Team Boyo, Bod Boyle, Phil Burgoyne, Lucien Hendricks, Davy Phillip, the Abrook brothers, everyone that skated the ESA comps. I was blown away when I first saw Nicky Guerrero skate. Then on the U.S side it was the usual suspects again: I loved Lance Mountain, Neil Blender, Jason Jesse, Matt Hensley, skaters who had a little edge and didn’t hide. I saw Gonz at Munster in '86, and witnessed something special, though at the time I didn’t realize quite the influence that he would have on the future of skateboarding.
Question: Who in skateboarding inspires you now?
It’s really in a good place right now. It may not be doing the numbers it once was, but it’s still always evolving. I like skaters who seem to be going on their own path, and don’t follow the norm. I'm into all the new breed of skaters that can ride anything, it’s also nice to see the new crop of girl skaters who have really put themselves on the map. It took a while to happen and skateboarding definitely felt like it was in the dark ages there for a while, so they really came through. As for specific skaters, there are way too many to mention. If you ride a skateboard, then I’m a fan.
Question: Any advice for aspiring photographers?
Learn everything that you can and never give up. It’s going to have to be a passion that one day you will hopefully make money out of. At the start, you are going to have to do it out of love. Shoot your local scene and help make it grow. If you can’t go to school, learn what you can from YouTube, nearly everything you need to know will be on there. Learn how to write, be polite and don’t burn any bridges. Skateboarding is a close-knit community, and and it’ll come back to haunt you. Teach yourself all the programs; they are as important as the photography itself. Don’t get caught up in all the gear, you can make do with the simplest of equipment. I’d seriously consider learning to film and edit as well. The more you can do, the more chance you have of finding work.
Question: What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
More photo shows, selling prints, and hustling as much as I can. There’s a couple of good projects in the pipeline. Just still being in the game and and the fact that people still want to see my photos makes me happy.
Skin's collection for Stance Skate, which contains three styles featuring the photos examined in this interview, is now available on Stance.com. To keep up with Skin's current adventures, follow @skinphoto on Instagram.
Skateboarding Artist Collection
Featuring original Skin Phillips photographs of Matt Hensley and Mark Gonzales.