Grinds, manuals, and rock to fakey. Do you know these terms? If not, there is no need to feel ignorant, it only means you haven’t spent nearly as much time at the skate park as I have. Due to the passion of my youngest child, I found I was spending more and more time in the concrete and metal world of the skateboarder. Prolonged exposure caused me to accidentally stumble onto my current photographic obsession.
I will grant you that the skateboard park is a funny place to be if you think of yourself as a nature or wildlife photographer, but as my other favorite song says, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Although poured concrete and steel rails are not part of the natural environment, you can make the case for sk8rs (aka skate boarders) as wildlife subjects in their natural environment and you can use the same techniques to photograph them as you would a wild animal.
Let’s review those techniques: Pick the most photogenic subject in the best light; select your background; and learn the movements of the animal (or skater) in the environment so you can anticipate when they will be in the ideal location for the strongest shot. Easier said than done, but if you practice on a weasel or another quick moving animal an adolescent boy on wheels will be a cinch.
What initially amazed me was the fact that as I spent more hours at the sK8 park my perception of the people and the environment underwent a radical change. I was gradually less and less bothered by the graffiti and pants that magically stay on even though worn well below the buttocks; and I was increasingly more aware of the beauty and true grace of the skaters and their preferred environment.
Spending lots of time at the skate park is crucial to getting good images. You have to know your subjects: how they move, their favorite patterns, and how confident they are. Even more important, they have to know and trust you.
It’s not easy to show up as a middle aged mom in a mini van and try to integrate yourself into this world. You have to leave all your mothering impulses in the car. Yes, I hate it when they don’t wear helmets, and most over the age of 12 do not. And yes, I had to learn to refrain from asking, “Oh my God, are you ok?” when someone slides or slams their exposed flesh into the concrete. It’s their world and you need to play by their rules. Or at least try.
One rule of the park is that good skaters generally like to perform. There is a big element of showmanship involved. If you approach a skater with your camera and a promise to email them some photos that they can post on their Facebook page you are more than half way home to getting the shot.
The last, and arguably most important, step is to know where to place yourself to get a good shot, and not get yourself or anyone else hurt. Generally the best place to shoot is from right along the bowl coping, at the foot of a rail, or from down in the bowl with the skater moving past you. Always, always, ask before you place yourself – especially down in the bowls! You need to be aware of all the other skaters in the park and their line of travel. It’s your job to get out of the way and watch out for lose boards.
When you ask permission to move into your desired position don’t use too many words; nod, point, or grunt “is it ok”. Most skaters don’t want to visit, they want to skate and listen to their iPods and do a few other things moms don’t usually condone. Once they learn that you are not there to bust them, lecture them, or expect them to clean up their colorful language, they will reveal to you a world of unexpected grace and beauty.
I know that grace and beauty are not words generally associated with the often tattooed, and sometime pierced, crowd found lurking at the skate park. But just like in other areas of life, if you are willing to look past the stereotypes and your own preconceptions you’ll find a surprising reality.
I’ve discovered that the good skaters are part athlete, part dancer, and part social rebel. The very best riders possess the reflexes and agility of a cat combined with the fearlessness of a Samurai warrior. They have their own code of conduct, and although they are an often taciturn group, you’ll hear the communal bang of board decks on concrete as the skaters acknowledge a good trick skillfully accomplished by a peer.
I hope that these images convey my delight at their gravity defying feats of balance and speed; and yes, the untold grace and beauty of the sk8 park.