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Editorial

The Mike Blabac Interview. A Life in Photography.

The Mike Blabac Interview. A Life in Photography.
Posted by Neil Chester9 min read
Friday, May 14, 2021

As we introduce the work of Mike Blabac to Parade, we recently connected with him, via video chat of course, as he had a down day whilst shooting up in Washington State. Listening to Mike talk in such a humble way is amazing set against the many, many amazing and pivotal moments he's captured in skateboarding through many different era's.

Check out Mike Blabac's photography work and be sure to check back regularly as we add more of his photos from his deep archive.

How did you get into photography and more so skate photography?

I’ve always been into photography, even as a kid in second grade, I took a 110 film camera on a school trip and used so many film cartridges just shooting everything, just everything. Then getting the photos back and it feeling so magical. I carried that feeling throughout my childhood and then when I was about 11 I saw a skateboard magazine and I was hooked. It was way more exciting than the Ansel Adams book I was reading or other photography magazines I would buy. So that got really into photography and to the point where I had a darkroom at home when I was 12 and was processing my own film and learning the process of printing and techniques. But they were always two separate things, I skated and loved it, but then at night I’d go out and shoot light streaks or something and use my camera when I wasn’t skating. I never really married the two until I moved to San Francisco. I was working at The Gap and I met Mike Carrol, Karl Watson, Chico Brenes and all the guys skating in the city at the time and they were like, why don’t you shoot photos of us? I was like… Ok, that’s better than folding shirts at The Gap in the stockroom at 5am! 

So I shot a photo and it got used immediately, so then that was it, The Gap was my last ‘job’ and that was back in 1994, so it’s been a minute! Haha. 

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So you didn’t move to SF just to shoot skate photos? 

No, I moved there just to skate, that was the epicentre of skateboarding at the time and I wanted to skate at Embarcadero, that’s how I met all those dudes, being off in the corner at EMB skating by myself. Karl Watson was the first someone who came up to me, I’d see them all at midnight skating down there and SF was a rough place back then, so even though skateboarding and photography were totally separate for me, had I shown up with all of my gear I’d probably have gotten robbed and had my shit taken! Haha. So they were very separate. But Karl saw me skating around and came up to me and asked what my deal was, I said I was here to skate for the summer from Michigan, he then introduced me to Aaron Meza, then Scott Johnston and from there I met everyone, that whole squad who were skating EMB every day back then. 

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I first went to SF in 1994, skating EMB and I remember getting chased out of there at night by some gang that came around the corner, and the few skaters that were there just yelling ‘run’, so I did! SF was kinda rough then. 

Not only was it rough from that type of shit, but it was rough from the skaters too! Kelch or someone would take your stuff, so you had to look out for the skaters too, they were a rowdy bunch and that was their spot. I respected that and stayed out of everyone’s way and luckily befriended everyone eventually.

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Wow, so I’m guessing your first photo got ran in Slap? 

No, the first photo was a Pure Wheels ad, they actually mixed it up with an Experience ad. It was a photo of Scott Johnston [that I took], but it said Simon Evans on it. It had the wrong photo credit, the whole nine, I was bummed for a second, but fuck it, it ran. I was in touch with Grant Brittain because I wrote him letters since I was a kid, I first wrote him a letter in eighth grade about taking photos and I just kept in touch via mail, which is insane these days to think about that. So when I moved to San Francisco I called the Transworld office and got put through to his desk and asked him some pretty point-blank questions about photography, cause he had helped me over the years, he’d returned my slides whenever I did take photos of my friends and gave me back notes on what I’d done wrong. So we started chatting and he reached out to me and asked if was friends with Mike Carroll and all these dudes, I’m like, ‘yeah, yeah’. He’s like ‘I’m going to send you film, so you can shoot these guys’. I couldn’t afford film so he sent a big-ass box of film and I was blown away, I’d shoot and he’d use them, so that’s how I started getting photos in Transworld. It’s insane because now we’re really good friends now and I talk to Grant a few times a week, we’re neighbours too, he lives less than a mile away from me now. 

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I think about this from a skate photographer aspect and new people trying to come up, I remember the Transworld one-pager that Grant wrote, which was a letter someone had wrote and he put notes all over it with advice like ‘Buy an FM2, shoot Tri-X 3200’ and since it was in the mag it served as a global tool for so many. Now that hierarchy almost doesn’t exist anymore, given there are so few magazines, the whole structure of coming up, getting your first photo in a magazine, which acts as an indication of you doing well is kinda gone. Photo and video are now thrown on Instagram and it kinda dissipates amongst so much.

It’s tough for anyone to sift through everything that exists these days, to your point, there is so much and not to say it’s all bad because there are excellent photographers these days and the filming of skateboarding and level of video parts, the things that go out these days is amazing and I love where it’s all at. But because there are fewer magazines, there is no one to sort through all of it for us, it’s just all out there and you have to pick and choose what you want, which is cool in a way, but also not cool in a way in that social media gives everyone a voice and sometimes you may or may not appreciate that person’s voice. I don’t want to sound like it sucks, cause it doesn't, and it’s great everyone has the ability to put stuff out there, but it’s a double-edged sword where you don’t have a pinnacle place for things to live. It brings me to the thought of where all of this stuff that is getting posted now, how will that be consumed twenty years from now? And will it be consumed in the same way, as say the prints that we are talking about here? I still trip out, like, no way that when I was shooting Eric Koston’s noseblunt slide [Hubba] twenty-three years ago, that I’d be wrapping up a print of it now to send to someone who bought it. Obviously, it was a cover of a magazine, Girl made posters of it, the skater, the trick, the spot all added up. 

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Yeah, that’s kinda what I meant by the previous question, like you say, everything added up, it was the cover, Girl pushed it hard, an epic spot and skater and it became an iconic photo and a great moment that was broadcasted as a pinnacle and pioneering trick. What I’m trying to say is this doesn’t happen so much these days, the pinnacle moments seem less so.

Yeah, I wonder about that a lot, I learnt a lot about what I did photograph and what I didn’t photograph twenty years ago and how things are looked at now. So now, I photograph everything, all the moments in-between, portraits, I’m a lot more cognitive about what I capture now versus just shooting the trick, hoping to get it ran so I can buy weed and pay rent, haha. But I wonder about how what I’m doing now will be looked at in twenty years from now, I never used to think about this before, when I was younger you think there will always be magazines and photos will be consumed in the same way forever, but it’s obviously changed, 

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So after getting a bunch of photos ran in Transworld, what were your next steps, did you become a staff photographer for TWS? 

Well it all happened quite quickly for me, I moved to SF in Feb ‘94 and by May or June of that year I had a retainer from Transworld and I also got a job working for Mad Circle. Justin Girard was doing Mad Circle and I was friends with Scott Johnston, who said that Justin needed help. So helped there preparing the photos for ads, shooting artwork for graphics, whatever I could do to help him to keep it all moving. We were running it out of our apartment, as we became roommates. That went under in ‘97 after the Five Flavors video came out and at the time I was having my son Noah, so with rent going through the roof in SF, I moved to LA. And because the rent was going up so much, Scott Johnston, Carroll, Meza, Chico also all moved down to LA, so it became a very organic thing for me to start working at Girl Skateboards as I was already friends with them all. At this time, they had Fourstar, Chocolate, Girl, so they needed a lot of stuff done for ads, catalogs and all that. This was in ‘98, I shot a lot of photographs in ‘98, like a shit load! Haha. Just because I was in LA and I had access to all these dudes like Carroll, Koston, Guy, Gino and I was having my son, so it was my first moment when I actually needed to do more than just buy beer and pay rent. I actually have to go out and work, but my photos were getting used more and more, which made me shoot more. 

So this was the period when you shot a lot of the work we have on Parade, the Carroll back smith, Koston back noseblunt etc?

Yeah exactly.

So what made you move on from Girl, as you joined DC Shoes around this time right? 

Again, it was a natural thing, when DC Shoes came out they were one of the few brands to do double-page ads, which was a big deal and their shoes had great features with technology made for skating. Airwalk and Etnies were for skating but DC was like shoes you’d get at Footlocker at the time, so I was stoked on them. Also at the time Mike Carroll, Rick Howard, Keith Hufnagel and Scott Johnston all rode for DC, who I was friends with, so that was the transition between Girl and DC. Then Ken Block was like ‘I know you work for Girl and have a retainer from Transworld but it’s in our best interests that you do stuff for all the magazines and we’re going to keep you busy so…’ that’s how I went into DC full-time. 

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And you’re still at DC, right? 

I am! Haha. Since 1999 I’ve been at DC. 

Wow. So from your Mad Circle/SF era to the Girl/LA era and all the iterations of DC Shoes you will have seen throughout the years from the first superstar line-up to now, you will have seen so much amazing and crazy stuff. Probably a hard question, but is there anything that stands out above all? 

I actually got asked this yesterday, I’m on an automotive job right now and someone asked what was the most epic thing you’ve ever seen or shot and it is a very difficult question. My fondest memories from being at DC specifically is a lot of stuff with Josh Kalis, cause we’ve shot photos since we were kids, we’ve both been doing what we do for over thirty years together, since 1989. The first photos I shot of Josh were on the Target sidewalk curb, I think he was 14 at the time, I was 16, I’d just got my license and I drove to Grand Rapids to shoot photos of him. So to do what I do and what Josh does for this length of time we have is obscure, but to do it together for this long is pretty amazing, with someone you’ve known since being a kid. So that to me is special. Then getting to work on the DC Video and seeing Danny Way push skateboarding like no one has ever before, getting to capture it.

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Yeah, I figure the first Mega Ramp stuff was epic. Again to my point earlier, how this was all kept under wraps and then this epic video part of Danny doing next-level stuff was released creating such a big, iconic moment. I can’t help but think this wouldn’t happen now?

Yeah, I remember shooting him at the Mega Ramp, which no one knew about it, then there was the rainbow rail, I thought he was outta his mind to want to front crook the rail at 45mph, I didn’t think it was possible but… he did it. I had this couple inch thick binder just filled with slides and contact sheets that no one had ever seen before, I remember telling my lab that no one could see this shit, they have to keep it under wraps. I just kept filling it up full of film with stuff like the noseblunt slide on the rail and all this crazy stuff.  This is how the noseblunt got on the cover of the very first issue of The Skateboard Mag. I took that binder and had a meeting with Grant and all the guys that were running the magazine and we were like, ‘here we want to be part of your first issue’. They were all blown away seeing this stuff, they didn’t imagine this stuff was possible. And to your point, today it would nearly impossible to keep something like that under wraps with everyone having a camera in their pocket and wanting to share their daily lives and experiences, which didn’t exist back then. 

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Do you think wider photography has also gone through similar changes to skate media with fewer magazines, film to digital, Instagram becoming dominant etc. 

To a certain extent yes, I think the Madmen days of commercial advertising just for a two-page spread in Time Magazine is gone, but there is also the advent of brands needing stuff socially all over the place. Print still exists in that space more so than it does in skateboarding because there is more money and more need, like if Honeywell advertises in the airport, there is still a need for print in that regard so it exists a little more outside of skateboarding but it’s still mirrored in the need for social stuff everywhere, all the time. So it’s a good thing in that photography is still in demand but it’s just consumed differently. 

What do you think the direction and future of skate photography is, do you see people going on crazy journeys, experienced what you have and having twenty-plus year careers?

I can’t honestly, and not for lack of thought, cause I have thought about it. It goes back to the question of will what we see today be consumed in the same way we do older images. Will the magazine covers be poured over in twenty years time? When the magazines came out way back, I used to tear out the page and pin it up, hence consuming it differently.  So I wonder what the longevity is of what is created today, which we’ll just have to wait and see. But for me, when making prints of my work, the demand mirrors how much something was consumed back when it was created. Like Eric’s back noseblunt on Hubba, it was the cover of the Photo Annual so it lived on newsstands longer, Girl did posters so people kept it, it was up in skate shops and in your homies apartment, it lived in a lot of places, you didn’t just see it and swipe on. It became ingrained in your memory, which doesn’t really exist now, so I wonder how things will be for better or for worse. But that said, there are excellent photographers out there, I am a huge fan of Free Skateboard Mag, all of their photography on their Insta and in the magazine is incredible, it reminds me of a 1986 Transworld Photo Annual, very creative, very well thought out and composed better than anything you’d see outside of skateboarding. So it gives me hope that people will have careers and carry-on shooting, whether this is in or outside of skating. I’m so thankful I still have my toe dipped in skateboarding and can still shoot skateboarding, part of this family we’re all part of. So whatever I do, commercially or otherwise now, I still very much value my place in skateboarding and happy I get to do it, so as long as this feeling exists then I think people will have careers shooting skateboarding.

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To wrap this up, what was the last skate photo you shot? 

Evan Smith was in town, so for DC I just went skating with them, he had some shoes coming out, so I just rolled along in the same way as I did twenty-five years ago. We went out for a few days and got a bunch of stuff. I still do some work for Girl too, Sam Smyth reached out a few years ago, specifically stuff for the new younger guys they have. One of them was looking at the Carroll back smith photo and was stoked on how close-up it was shot and how you don’t see the start or end of the ledge. He said it, photos like that don’t exist anymore, they are all just so gnarly and less so the person just skating, so I shot some stuff in that Carroll style and it grew into more. It’s still fun to just go out and skate with dudes, I’m actually going to Chicago soon to meet Kalis, and some of the young Philly dudes to shoot with them for a few days and see what we get. 

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All photography by, of course, Mike Blabac.

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