How Skate Culture Birthed Its Own Photographic Genre

From Larry Clark's "Kids" to the Southbank skaters pictured in "Thrasher", a new London exhibition explores the lasting legacy of skate culture in photography.

Sam Muller, Untitled (Chris Maalouf, Montreal), 2015.

As Larry Clark once said, “If you’re going to photograph skateboarders, you’ve got to learn how to skate”. The American director did his first kickflip aged 50 and went on to make one of the most notorious teen movies of our time — the gritty, cult coming-of-age film, Kids, which traversed a day in the life of inner-city New York skaters and self-conscious school kids, and gave the world Chloe Sevigny.

Since Kids cemented its understatedly cool aesthetic, skate culture has gone from a rarefied movement to a mainstream trend, birthing the streetwear epidemic that’s seen once-underground brands like Palace and Supreme co-opted by teenage hypebeasts worldwide, and high fashion taking cues from the street. But equally it’s possible to argue that skating has always existed at the intersection of mainstream and underground, ever since its inception. On one hand, it’s a universally accessible — and free — activity, transcending class, race and geographical boundaries, with public space and the streets as its playground; on the other, it’s an “exclusive” subculture tied up in teenage rebellion, particular musical affinities and distinct aesthetic brand of baggy-cool.

Mike O’Meally, Palace Skate Team (Lucien Clarke, Chewy Cannon, Blondey McCoy, Jack Brooks, Danny Brady), Tottenham Hale, 2016.

Furthermore, since its genesis, skate culture has been immortalised on camera, lensed by indie directors, documentary photographers and skate crew amateurs from the scene’s mecca in Barcelona all the way to Lagos, Nigeria. Now, a new London, exhibition — opening tomorrow and titled Against the Grain: Skate Culture and the Camera — aims to explore the enduring photographic legacy of skateboarding. Comprising a vast body of work that spans the last half century, the exhibition aims to examine the vibrancy of skate photography as a genre, showcasing the work of Spike Jonze, Glen E. Friedman and Mark Gonzales to name but three, as well as archival imagery from Thrasher, Transworld, R.a.D and Sidewalk, the magazines that shaped the international skate scene. Conceived ahead of skateboarding’s Olympic debut in 2020, the exhibition will travel to North America in 2019, before arriving in Tokyo to coincide with the games. Here, we present a sneak peek.

Glen E. Friedman, Chuck Askerneese and Marty Grimes at Kenter Canyon, 1975.
Dobie Campbell, Palace Originals, Lucian Hendricks, 1985. Crystal Palace.
Skin Phillips, Grandma Thrasher, 1984. Swansea.
Glen E. Friedman, Hanging at Adolph’s in Holmby Hill After School, 1977.
Spike Jonze, Video Days, Jason Lee and Mark Gonzales, 1989.
Skin Phillips, Aloha, Mark Gonzales, 1998. Stadtisches Museum, Koln, Germany.

Against the Grain: Skate Culture and the Camera is on show from  7-22 July at 15 Bateman Street, Soho, London W1D 3AQ

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