That skaters view the world through a unique and uniquely revelatory lens is no secret. Where civilians see safety—a handrail, a wheelchair ramp—skaters see opportunity. What others view as unsightly—drainage ditches, condemned motels and their stagnant pools of brown scum-skimmed water—skaters seek out.
We will drive for hours just hoping the spot hasn’t been dozed; we’ll bring brooms and buckets, torches and tents, and bags of concrete. What everyone else takes for granted—empty parking lots, the transitioned planter outside a bank, a freshly painted curb, a Dumpster beside a loading dock—skaters notice immediately.
Where the rest of the world sees limits and nastiness and the bland burden of suburban life, we see possibility; we see an invitation to construct something out of air and movement, a structure at once ephemeral and everlasting.
And it’s fairly common knowledge how the rest of the world views us. We are misfits, malcontents, punks. We are anarchists. We are drunk and uneducated and out of work. We lack skills. And ambition. And discipline. We are antisocial and insolent and we should’ve already outgrown this silly childish hobby.
This distraction. This waste of time. We should get a real job that will allow us to enjoy grown-up hobbies. Like golf. Or shopping, or hunting, or collecting model trains and setting up elaborate miniature railroad tracks in our finished basements. We dress funny. We wear our hats the wrong way. Our jeans are too tight. Or too baggy. We sell drugs. We only listen to death metal.
We are lonely, hateful, violent. We are going nowhere or at least nowhere good, and we are going there fast. We will amount to nothing, make no valuable contribution to society. We are criminals. Marginalized. Disaffected. Angry. We are, in every sense of the word, misunderstood.
Which is why Jenny Sampson’s tintype photography is so stirring, so original, so necessary. With very few exceptions, the world has only seen skaters on their boards. A skater trying a trick. A skater being chased from a spot. A skater pushing or bombing a hill or falling again and again and again.
We are in constant motion, and our patent aversion to stasis is one of the reasons why video has all but supplanted magazines and their quaint old-school photography. But even in photos, there is an implicit trajectory of movement.
Skateboarding culture is an exceptionally well-documented, and yet, the catalog of images is almost completely without portraiture, without still lifes to study and reflect upon—until now. In ghostly tones and stark, haunting relief, Sampson has pulled off the trick of tricks
She has persuaded random skaters to sit still while she photographs them with a staggeringly slow camera, and in doing so, she has captured, against all odds and with chilling nuance, the restless soul of skateboarding.
Sampson’s portraits reveal who we are. We are black, white, yellow, red, brown. We are male and female, young and old. We are calm. We are uneasy. We wear a lot of plaid, a lot of hats. We are bruised, sweaty, exhausted. We are wounded and subversive and hopeful. We suffer. We fall and fall and fall, and we try again and again and again. We will not be denied. We don’t get intimidated, and we don’t back down. We are alone.
We are together. All of this is on gorgeous, unforgettable display in these pages, in these gazes. They will lodge in your memory and they will change the way you see skaters in the future.
The irony is that Sampson uses such an outdated approach to lay bare what the most advanced technologies regularly miss: our similarities—to each other, yes, but also to non-skaters, to civilians, to you.
Individually, the portraits suggest each skater’s past, present, and future. Collectively, they grant unprecedented access to a tribe of strangers, a community of nonconformists and outliers. Maybe you’ll see an expression you recognize, a posture you recall. Maybe you’ll see yourself in these images, or maybe you’ll see the person you used to be, or wanted to be, or could’ve been if you had only stayed true to yourself.
And ultimately, that is what’s most powerfully on display in Sampson’s work: truth. As humans, we crave the truth and no matter how gritty or complex or unsettling, no matter how dark or terrifying or unexpected, the truth will always be beautiful. For skaters—for the souls on these pages, for the famous professionals and the kids skating their first ditches or draining their first pools, for the golfer who can’t bear to throw out his childhood board so he stashes it under his model train set in his finished basement, for me—skateboarding is the truth.
It’s the question and the answer. It’s the language and the story. The beginning and the end. The cure and the disease. The lens and the light and the time it takes for the portrait to emerge from the shadows, the slow process by which we come to see our ephemeral and everlasting essence.