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With Free Skateboard Magazine quietly turning five years old back in July, and us recently partnering with Free to offer yearly subscriptions, we were due a catch up with Sam Ashley. Sam is one of the founders of the magazine and has been its photo editor since day one. Globally, print media has endured a turbulent time of late, but thanks to the tireless task of many individuals we still have great skate magazines that showcase the seemingly endless talent out there today.
Needing no introduction as a photographer himself, we sat down with Sam and fired him a bunch of questions whilst he picked his favourite photographs to ever have graced the pages of Free so far. Read on and find out more.
When considering photographers and their work for submission to Free, what are the outlining things you look for in the work? Is there something specific aside from the level of trick and/or skater to other photographic qualities?
I’d say when we’re commissioning features, we’re looking for consistency... Whilst I want to be surprised, I also want to be able to actually use a good percentage of the photos submitted, so if someone can do the boring stuff like getting the skater in focus, nail lighting, compose the skater away from bothersome background stuff, I’ll be more likely to ask them to shoot an article than someone that will shoot 1 amazing photo and then 9 terrible ones.
If we’re talking about random submissions in the inbox, then I’m just looking for something ‘different’, weird angles, weird spots, whatever, just something, not vanilla... Having said that, obviously ‘weird’ for the sake of it often just totally fails too, so it’s a fine line. Ultimately, I’m looking for that thing that someone looking through the mag will be like “wow, I’ve not seen this before” whilst trying to avoid things that are too gimmicky or cheesy.
From a photo editor stand-point, do you consciously balance out each issue of Free, so that it has varying styles of photography? For example, an issue wouldn’t be all just fisheye bangers.
I guess it’s like cooking: too much of one thing, no matter how good that one ingredient is, will spoil the dish, it’s a balance. Like a full-bleed DPS spread; with the right image it’s really powerful, but if we run 30 of these in an issue it loses that power, that’s why we’ll only use 1 or 2 an issue; so it hits you like “whoa!”.
What role do you think both photography and skate magazines play in 2020? As important as ever in documenting and curating the finest work or is it at a strange crossroads?
I think it is as important as ever, but the reasons for that importance have changed... Obviously, magazines fulfil a different role now compared to say the pre-411 days, but one of the things we really strive for at Free is to run photos of things that haven’t been splashed all over IG already, so in that respect, if you really want to know about what’s happening right now, the magazine is still an important piece of the puzzle. I think it also provides an antidote, and a less fatiguing change of pace compared to the relentlessness of ‘The Feed’.
Where do you see skate photography heading in the future? With the continued rise of digital media and the speed that is involved in that, alongside my previous question, do you see the art form of skateboard photography dying?
No, but I think already it has evolved a bit, you see more and more people shooting stuff where it’s obvious they’re considering “will this look good on IG?”, which is kind of depressing, as that format is a lot more restrictive than a magazine with regards to what will work.
A lot of people seem to be picking up film cameras again, albeit cooler Contax G2’s over FM2’s, and shooting what could be considered an older ‘90s style’, or even lo-fi dare I say it, but what are your thoughts on this? Does anything go in skateboard photography, since this is all a form of expressionist art?
Anything goes, but this kind of style has been kind of ubiquitous since Terry/Vice etc 15-20 years ago, it doesn’t really excite me much to be honest. Great work can be done on any camera though, absolutely nothing wrong with Contax, just that most people that buy one of those tend to shoot in that particular style “Hey I’ve got the Contax! Throw the beer on your face!”.
In terms of equipment, what do you think is needed to fully be able to produce the job at the highest level? Do you need a full-spec digital camera, a wide range of focal lengths from fisheye to 200mm and a high-end flash set-up?
You could create amazing photographs with a fairly cheap camera and one lens if you wanted to... All the other bits are really just to add flexibility. I’d love to be able to shoot only when the light is beautiful, but I have to accept that often it isn’t, and the job still needs doing, so I bring flashes to try and make it beautiful myself. Re lenses, this is a really personal thing, and lots of people think differently about what you need here, but yeah nearly everyone has some sort of fisheye, and some sort of telephoto, and usually a 50mm or ‘normal’. Just like flashes, more lenses can open up more possibilities, but they’re also heavy (at least the good ones are), so I tend to just carry the ones I’m likely to use the most (16mm, 35mm, 50mm and 105mm). Sometimes I’ll bring other lenses if there’s a specific need for them.
Re cameras, you absolutely do not need the latest digital camera, nothing wrong with them, but even the cameras from 10+ years ago (e.g. Nikon D700, Canon 5DII etc) are very very good, and I doubt anyone could spot the difference in a magazine between those and the latest whatever.
Regarding a lot of your own work and in particular, the Manchester road gap (Ben Grove?) photo taken from above, there is so much more going on in the photograph than just the trick. Obviously, composition plays a key role in any photo, but I’d say at times you shoot in an architectural way. Could you discuss this style and how it became a preferred method of yours?
This one is by Reece Leung, really good photo, I really like it because it’s shot over the street from where I bought my first board!
I certainly didn’t invent this style, but I like it because although skateboard tricks are cool, skateboard tricks in the context of the world we live in are even cooler.
Again, looking at the range of work you’ve picked out, there is a healthy balance of composure, technique, lighting and overall visual language. For anyone wanting to get into this space what would you say is the most important aspect to focus on, be it technique, composition, equipment or is it simply just a case surrounding yourself with the best skateboarders?
The most important thing and also possibly the most difficult thing is (by far) surrounding yourself with the best skateboarders, have you ever seen a bad photo of John Cardiel?
You could spend years perfecting all that other stuff, but if your subject matter is not interesting, then your photos are probably not interesting either.
I think it’s also important that you’re passionate about what you’re doing, you can have all the equipment and follow all the composition rules, but if you don’t really care about what you’re doing it’s useless. I think if you look at the photography from the very best photographers, their passion for it (and skateboarding) shows through, they’re consistently pushing themselves and the possibilities.
Finally, what photographers have influenced you throughout your career, both in and out of skateboarding and the reasons their work spoke to you?
I always thought TLB (Tim Leighton-Boyce) was great, the way he’d show all the non ‘action’ things in R.A.D. gave you a real sense of being there.
Wig Worland, just really high-level stuff, but in the UK too. I think before seeing his stuff I really just associated that style with stuff in Transworld, being able to see you could do it just as good here was a real eye-opener. I think what Wig and the rest of the R.A.D. guys did by breaking out and starting Sidewalk was very inspirational to me too, it just took a while for us to make those moves ourselves.
Dan Sturt is my favourite ever. People can try and rip him off all day long, but he was always on some ‘other’ shit, you can’t bite that.
Guillaume Périmony: @gperimony
Davy Van Laere: @dvlphoto
Joel Peck: @joelpeck
Keke Leppala: @kekeleppala
Reece Leung: @reeceleung
Lars Garta: @gartalizer
Zander Taketomo: @zandertaketomo
Max Verret: @maxverret
Justus Hirvi: @justushirvi
Clement Le Gall: @legallout
Gerard Riera: @gerardrierapalau
Alex Pires: @alexbrpires
James Griffiths: @spliffiths
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