Beyond The Lens: Interview with Chris Johnson, Senior Photographer at Sidewalk Magazine
Southbank has been as dynamic as ever over the past 2 years, with creatives from across the globe swinging by to shred and show support. Since we signed the agreement to keep Southbank as it is, the vibe has been celebratory. We caught up with Chris Johnson to chat about his recent visit to SB and all things skating and photographic…
Sidewalk 212 – Dylan Hughes, switch backtail. Photo by Chris Johnson
Sidewalk 219 – Harry Lintell, switch flip. Photo by Chris Johnson
Domas was an integral part of the Long Live Southbank campaign, and sacrificed his skating to be a frontline defender on the legendary table at Southbank. He’s in the new Sidewalk x adidas ‘Touring’ edit and had some sick parts in the Hold Tight London edits. What is it like to shoot photos with Domas?
Before meeting Domas I’d seen snippets of his skating through video coverage online but I didn’t know the first thing about him. We first met whilst on one of several filming trips around the UK for an adidas video project that Ryan Gray has been working on. The general idea was for Domas to get enough photos together for an interview whilst on the road around Britain and in short, he did just that. Domas’s outlook on life, skateboarding and the experiences around him, he’s very open minded so he’s a good person to shoot with as you can pretty much suggest anything and he’ll give it a go. This outlook is ideal when you’re up against changeable weather, security guards and fading light.
People always say how hard it is to shoot at Southbank because the stark contrast of light and dark. It looks like it used to be better when it was all open as the light came from both sides, but the temporary wall creates a lot of dark inside with the glow from the Thames outside. How do you find shooting photos at Southbank and how do you get around the lighting issues?
Southbank has the same issues as many other undercover spots when it comes to shooting photos; the highlights are really bright and the shadows are pitch black. Every photo I’ve ever shot at SB except for one has been lit up with flashes allowing you to get a correct exposure for the highlights and bring out the shadows and the skater with the strobe light.
The exception to this was an off the cuff point and shoot photo I shot of Johnny Layton whilst trying to shoot a sequence of Dustin Dollin on the Vans Pro Tour a few years ago. The photo of Johnny front blunting the wooden tombstone was almost silhouetted with some of the shadows brought out in post-production. The fact that so little thought went into it and it turned out so well (in my eyes) makes it a personal favourite for sure.
Johnny Layton (aka J-Lay), front blunt. Photo by Chris Johnson
What does Southbank mean for you personally and the UK skate scene?
Southbank for me is a place that I first visited aged 18 and relished in the abundance of solid, fairly mellow flat banks as at the time I would travel to Northampton with my mates and be terrified of the towering, seemingly near vertical banks at Radlands, which far outweighed my ability level. Southbank for me now is one of the few safe havens whilst travelling the country shooting photos and trying to outsmart the vindictive British weather patterns and is one of the few remaining original proving grounds that still holds its pull worldwide.
I think Southbank for the wider skate scene and for those who have grown up skating there and continue to put in the hours, is a home, an identity and somewhere that allows people to free themselves from an increasingly controlled society. Props to you guys at LLSB and everyone who pulled together both locally and across the map to stand in the face of what ‘they’ were calling ‘progression’ or as others would say, selling coffee.
Cheers man and thanks to all the support Sidewalk gave, it was a true community and collective effort! Does it feel any different now it has been protected from destruction?
I think the positive atmosphere that resonated whilst the campaign was ongoing was amazing and filtered out into the wider communities. I was there before Christmas with Casper and later on with Harry Lintell (the switch flip over the bars) and that atmosphere has remained and I guess the sense of security and triumph has added to that.
We did the campaign so that future generations can make their mark on the skate scene. What do you think the future of skateboarding looks like?
I think the future of skateboarding is always the same as at any stage of its past; there are always peaks and troughs, new trends, etc but at the heart of it is always a bunch of mates throwing themselves about all day and escaping whatever else is going on in their lives. This is arguably the same as we all get older and responsibilities of life start to pile up. I think the future of skateboarding will be as bright as it’s past and present but there will be the trends and fads along the way as there have always been.
What is your favourite quirk of Southbank?
That’s gotta be the inverted hip for bank-to-bank kickflip fakies. The bank kind of grabs you and stops you from zooming out and eating shit unlike a hip but it’s still a bit more than just and up and down flip fakie on a bank.
So where and how did it all begin for you to start shooting skate photos?
I started skating like many others of my generation during the surge in popularity in the mid to late 1980’s with the obvious out roads into mainstream youth culture through Back to the Future, Gleaming the Cube and the often-cited Police Academy 4. I got my first ‘proper’ board not long after that and from there I was hooked. Things really picked up once I left school and was able to skate more and travel around with a bunch of guys from Worcester, going to central Birmingham ever Saturday and having the mecca that was Droitwich precinct to ourselves on a Sunday (before Sunday trading kicked off) was amazing.
Around the time I went to Uni I managed to injure my back and wasn’t able to skate for a year or so and I found myself at a total loss as all my mates were always out skating. The only way to keep involved was to pick up a camera and kind of create a role for myself with that group as just watching was like having a carrot dangled in front of me. At this point I was just messing around with an Olympus point and shoot camera and the results were pretty terrible but I was ultra stoked regardless.
What was your first photo in Sidewalk and what did you feel when you first saw it in print?
My first photo in Sidewalk was within a single page feature on my local skate shop, the sadly now defunct Spine skate store in Worcester. It was a portrait of shop owner and artist Chris Bourke and some overviews of the shop. The first skate photo I had printed in the mag was a sequence of Worcester local and Spine shop rider Alex Fage doing a nollie bigspin at the iconic, rough as a dog’s ass, Pitchcroft stairs for an ‘At The Altar’ feature reviewing the Spine Video A Little Bit Country’ by Will Howden. I think this was around late 2006. Both of these pretty much blew my mind and enforced the addiction of photography that’s now truly gotten out of hand.
Shout out to Chris Bourke who did the artwork for our limited edition tee! His sick designs can be seen at his website http://chrisbourkeart.com/
LLSB x CHRIS BOURKE limited edition T-shirt design Ed Templeton rocks the T!
Were you ever taught photography formally, or did it all come about through just getting outside and shooting skateboarding?
Whilst at Sixth Form College in the mid 1990’s I met a mate through skating and he was heavily into photography and video production. He would always shoot photos of our mates as well as jump down a bunch of five sets with the rest of us and over time he moved on to documentary work at Newport Uni. Randomly, he was on the same course and pretty good mates with Richie Gilligan so he had access to the knowledge of the intricacies of the then dark art of skate photography.
When I first got an SLR in 2004, I would pester Rob for any information he could give me or potentially find out from Richie. Around 2005 I really began to want to shoot photos that looked like the ones in Sidewalk and Transworld so I bought a DSLR to try and speed up the process of trial and error through immediate gratification and knowing whether or not I’d messed it up, this helped a lot. Around this time I contacted anyone who I could get an email for whilst scouring the mastheads of the magazine, Leo Sharp was kind enough to get in touch and things progressed from there. So no formal training and just trial and error, just like skating itself; keep trying, make loads of mistakes and at some point it will just click and come together naturally. The advice of both Leo and Andy (Horsley) were and remain to be both my reality check and yard stick. Thanks both!
There’s a big world out there, some of it yet to be explored. What are the raddest or most out of the ordinary spots you’ve shot photos at?
The first trip outside of the UK that I ever went on was a self-funded trip to Istanbul with some of the Death team. Having only ever been to the standard, heavily Westernized holiday destinations with friends and family prior to this lead to a massive culture shock when we arrived in the City was pretty mental. I don’t think many of Istanbul’s residents had seen skateboarders before and I’m sure none of them were ready for Dan Cates and the rest of us.
I went to Brazil with Quicksilver a few years ago which was another major culture shock for sure. Skateboarding is massive out there, which is amazing and people are so welcoming when you turn up at a spot or a ramp. But the divide between the haves and the have-nots is totally polarized. We travelled down to Rio from Sao Paulo to skate the iconic Favela da Rocinha mini ramp, which was hands down the most insane day of my life. We were taken into the Favela by a few local guides and were investigated at every stage of our journey by masked motorbike teams with machine guns until we finally made it through. It was terrifying but well worth it.
Despite my travels abroad and the opportunities that skateboarding and working as a skateboard photographer has opened up for me, my favorite type of location of ‘look’ to a skate photo will always be a domestic one. The grim, looming rain clouds over a run down forgotten part of a British city always presents me with the best backdrop.
You can’t beat that backdrop. What things in skateboarding get you most hyped recently?
The things that get me hyped now are the same things that have always gotten me hyped on skating even before I picked up a camera; creative people breaking the rules and not doing what the average person who grows up watching football, Eastenders and following the supposed path that everyone else seems to follow through life. Skateboarding and skateboard culture is far bigger and way more diverse than when I was a kid but at its heart it’s still exactly the same thing. Meeting someone like Domas is a reminder of exactly how rad our community is.
Big up everyone at Sidewalk! You know what’s up…
Conversation by Louis Woodhead and Paul Richards
Check out Domas in the Sidewalk x adidas ‘Touring’ edit:
Screenshot of Domas Glatkauskas from ‘Touring’