mike o’meally on documenting the raw evolution of skate culture
House of Vans London celebrates one of the world’s greatest skate photographers with an exhibition of 40 intimate images.
Mike O'Meally first started skating when he was six-years-old, after he and his brother were given skateboards for Christmas in their native Australia. But it wasn't until he received his pink board at the age of 12 that he began to really take the sport seriously. He found photography during high school, when he started taking pictures of all his friends skating. A course at New South Wales University furthered his interest, and he had his first skate photo published by the end of his first year at school. Twenty five years later, O'Meally is one of the most seasoned skate photographers in the industry.
To celebrate his decades-spanning career, House of Vans London is staging a mammoth exhibition dedicated to O'Meally's work. From meandering through the pyramids of Egypt to out-skating security guards in Japan, Mike has traveled the world capturing the magical moments of some of the greatest skaters on the planet. In a touching tribute, the show is dedicated in loving memory of Van Wastell, who tragically died in 2006, and Dylan Rieder who sadly passed away just two weeks ago. Here we meet the man of the moment, Mr. Mike O'Meally.
How did you get into skating?
My brother and me got boards one Christmas in Australia when I was about six. I didn't really get into it until I was 12, though, when I got a pink skateboard, which I was stoked about it. It was 1985. I've been skating about 30-odd years.
What about photography?
I did a bachelor of fine arts at the New South Wales University, but I was majoring in studio art which is drawing, painting, screen printing, and etching. I ended up taking a course in photography. I'd been collecting skate mags at the time, so I began to shoot my friends skating. I got my first published photo in my first year of university. It was $75 for a full page, and I was like, "this is alright." I basically chomped at the bit ever since.
Would you skate at the same time as shooting your friends? How did it all work?
Well you have to be able to skate in order to keep up; we didn't all have cars in those days. I had to carry my tripod on my back. Now I have too much kit to carry.
How would you describe your overall aesthetic? What kinds of things do you look for in terms of composition?
I'm definitely a fan of the rule of thirds, but then I also like to break it. I'm a fan of cropping, or violence in the frame — a bit of drama and side-to-side action. People say I'm intense, but life is intense. Skating is intense.
The whole skating culture includes much more than the actual sport; it's also about the music, the clothes, the atmosphere. Was that one of the main things that drew you in initially?
Absolutely. As a photographer, you're not just shooting gymnastics where it's all routine. The moves can be the same, a lot of skaters skate the same, but the spots are different or the gear is different or the weather is different. I've been to Egypt where there are camels in the background or Brooklyn where there were a lot of Hasidic Jews. The situations are always different, people throwing water on you in Barcelona because you're making too much noise, or Japanese security guards wearing gloves and trying to move you along but really politely.
What do you think is the most significant change in skate photography you've witnessed over the years?
A lot more people are shooting digital, but then there are those still shooting in film which makes the images that much more iconic. But digital is more convenient, it's cheaper, you can produce a greater volume. And now people have so many outlets: blogs, Instagram, social media, skate mags, photo exhibitions. I wasn't quick to jump into digital but that's the way it is now. My photos still feel the same; they still have that same grit and grime to them. The medium is just the medium.
Skating today has become much more mainstream, less underground, especially with big commercial brands getting more involved. What do you make of that?
That's a great question. Skating has now been accepted as part of the Olympics so it's definitely more commercial. Skating is something that has come out of hard times and fear; it's people who haven't had an affluent upbringing. But then people also want their talent to be appreciated. Skating is an outlet to express the human spirit. You can put different clothes on people, play different music, but the essence is still the same. They want to be heard and seen. I respect anyone who stands up and gives it a go, no matter where they're from. There are too many armchair critics.
How do you stay energized?
Sometimes it's hard, you can peak really hard and then after the laughter comes tears. It's peaks and valleys. I've been very lucky to have a career from it; it's about timing and being able to catch the right mood. My photographs are all about capturing a feeling: how do you feel doing that trick? Are you scared going down that hill? Is someone chasing you?
How does 25 years feel?
It doesn't feel like 25 years. It's a real honor. I don't think I'm ever going to stop photographing skating.
Text Tish Weinstock
Photography Mike O'Meally