Beyond The Lens: Interview with Sam Ashley, Photo Editor at Free Skateboard Magazine
LLSB caught up with renowned London-based skate photographer, Sam Ashley, who found time to talk to us ahead of launching the new pan-European skateboard magazine, Free Skate Mag. Sam has been a staple in the UK skate scene for over a decade with his photos gracing a great deal of magazine covers. He also was an integral part of the Long Live Southbank campaign.
Thanks for taking time out to chat to us Sam, we know you’re always super busy! Let’s crack straight into it and start at where it all began… how did you first get into shooting skate photos and what camera did you first start working with?
Getting into skate photography just came from reading skate mags in the late eighties. If I wasn’t skateboarding I was obsessively reading these things. I figured it would be cool to shoot my friends and try and make it look like the stuff we saw in magazines. My first camera was a really crappy plastic point and shoot, it really wasn’t capable of achieving the results I wanted, which at the time would’ve been something that looked like it was from R.A.D. or Transworld. I probably wasted quite a bit of film through this thing before finally giving up. I didn’t really shoot much again until the mid-nineties, by which point I’d managed to persuade my school to let me use a darkroom, that kind of changed everything, as it allowed me to understand how the physics of photography worked. Soon after that I bought a Nikon FE2, and ended up using that camera for about 15 years after.
Nate Jones by Sam Ashley (2004)
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it eh. Some readers might not know about your photography outside of skating. Do you think you would have been a photographer were it not for skating, or do you think that skating as a creative outlet opened your mind to this sort of career?
That’s kind of hard to answer, as I never really expected to make a career out of it. I actually trained as a newspaper photographer, and after my training had a couple of offers to join local papers, but by that point the skate stuff was kind of paying me a bit, I thought I may as well run with it and see what happened, I could always join a newspaper later… It’s now been 16 years. To be honest, the newspaper industry has been struggling pretty badly since about 2001, I think I kind of dodged a bullet really.
The newspaper industry’s loss is skateboarding’s gain. What was it like the first time you saw a photo of yours in print?
It’s the best feeling, one that I doubt most photographers ever really replicate ever again. After all the covers, photos in US mags, 20 page features etc etc, that first B&W half page photo in Sidewalk remains the one that I was most excited to see.
Chris Jones backside lip by Sam Ashley (2012)
You’ve done a fair amount of documenting Southbank over the years, cheers for letting us use so many of your images throughout the campaign! What are the major challenges of shooting in a space full of light and dark spots?
I think the secret is not to try and fight it, use the contrast to your advantage, it can be very dramatic. Personally, I think the main challenge is actually the history of the spot, all the great skaters and photographers that have produced stuff there; how is this photo going to stack up? How are you going to light it differently? How are you going to find that new way of seeing it
it showed everyone that standing up for something like this is worthwhile
Well you’ve come out with some gems over the years mate. Both skate shots and documenting the space in general. Does shooting photos at SB feel different after putting in so much effort to conserve the space?
Not really, I’m always just amazed that it’s still there, but I often thought that before the campaign.
LLSB Objection Delivery Day by Sam Ashley (2014)
We were blown away by how many people care about the place and what it represents and wanted to contribute their bit. The fact we all skated the UK’s largest number of planning objections the 3 mile journey from SB to Lambeth Town in Brixton was a real pivotal moment. Great to have had you there with us to document that. What do you think saving Southbank meant to the UK, and worldwide skate scene?
I think for the skate scene, it showed everyone that standing up for something like this is worthwhile, I think before this happened a lot of skaters would assume that these battles are pointless, as the money always wins.
On a wider cultural level, I think it highlighted that there’s been a general shift in attitudes towards skateboarders, people just understand it better these days.
Yeah we’re seeing that shift and a move to understanding and appreciating skateboarding and our ethos and values. What’s your favourite Southbank shot you’ve taken?
I was stoked how Vaughan Baker’s fakie flip came out.
It’s a sick shot, the perspective angle and the shadow of Vaughan on the concrete backdrop are so rad! What about your favourite SB shot taken by another photographer?
There’s so many other good photos that have been shot there. I really like Curtis McCann on the bank to wall by TLB, The Gonz hippy jump by Skin and Ben Jobe’s back tail on the beam by Wig.
Vaughan Baker fakie flip by Sam Ashley (2001)
print mags are actually more important than ever
Rory Milanes back smith by Sam Ashley (2012)
That’s a rad selection of images right there! Feel an exhibition coming on haha. Given Sidewalk’s recent shift away from print, do you feel that there is a long term decline in print skate media, and if so, is this bad news for photographers, and our appreciation of skateboard photography?
I don’t really see it as a long term decline at all. Right now coming out of the UK we have Grey, North and obviously we just started Free. Obviously there could always be more magazines printing more often, but would it really be any better? There were definitely times when Document and Sidewalk were printing 12 copies a year, it’d get to the winter months and both mags are both covering the same comps at indoor skateparks, and I’d just look at it and think “What’s the point?”. I think there’s a great opportunity for the remaining mags to really raise the bar with regards to featuring the very best UK skateboarding in print, all killer no filler!
I think print mags are actually more important than ever, as skate photography on the internet is basically a sea of shit. How are you easily going to find the good stuff? Even when you do, it’s usually a square measuring 640 pixels wide; there’s a whole world of photos that look great printed as a double page spread but absolutely do not work as a tiny photo on Instagram.
The smartest photographers, and brands, realise that magazines still provide the easiest and best way to elevate what they’re producing above the aforementioned ‘sea of shit’ on the internet, as long as that’s the case I think magazines will be fine, as long as the quality of the editing is high.
Nick Jensen by Sam Ashley (2004)
it took me a long time to figure out what I really needed
Over the last few years, there’s been more and more youngers and new heads shooting photos. Do you think there could ever be an over-saturation of skate photographers and people simply adding to the ‘sea of shit’?
It depends, I think if they were all really good, and they were all going after the same work, it could be a problem, I don’t think that’s really the case though. I’m generalising here, but I think most skate photographers don’t really get very good until they’ve been shooting for 4 or 5 years, Henri Cartier-Bresson famously said “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst” and that was in the film days, so there’s a good chance you’re not going to get much published for a while, maybe a lucky shot here or there. The upshot of this is that most kids just get frustrated and give it up after a couple of years, so their potential is never fully realised.
So do you have preferred camera and lenses to work with for your skate photography?
This is a bit a weird question for me, because I know that when people begin to shoot skateboarding it’s very easy to fixate on the gear instead of the photography… I honestly think you can make amazing, magazine worthy skate photos with any DSLR you can buy right now, even the £300 ones.
Having said that, I’m not trying to keep any secrets about this stuff either, so if people want to know: I use Nikon digital cameras, mostly just because I’ve always used Nikon stuff, and I’ll usually carry these lenses: 16mm, 35mm, 50mm and a 80-200. Lenses are a really personal choice though, it took me a long time to figure out what I really needed.
Southbank Seven by Sam Ashley
we should get the little banks at SB back!
Ahh yes, good call… the creativity is in the eye and the mind and the instrument and accessories are the enhancers of the vision and ambition. Looking at the new chapter and toward the future, you’re part of the crew who have set up Free Skate Magazine, how has it been getting that up and running?
It’s been great. Obviously it’s been a lot of work, and there’s certain aspects of it that have been a very steep learning curve, but I’m just really looking forward to getting the first issue out.
Even though skateboarding is enjoying real popularity, it still seems it’s hard for skate media to stay afloat, as we have seen with Sidewalk and Kingpin. So what can we expect and look forward to from Free Skate Magazine.. how much will the new magazine differ from Kingpin and other skate mags?
Well I think the main issue with regards to Sidewalk and Kingpin remaining in print wasn’t really about them ‘staying afloat’, but that the print aspect of their whole business wasn’t an area that was likely to grow very much. The publisher of those magazines had investors, and generally speaking most investors only really care about how much their investment is growing.
With Free, we’re coming to it with a different set of goals. Whilst it’s important that it works as a business, and that the photographers and staff get paid for their work, we have have no aspirations for any financial investment to ‘grow’. Artistic growth is much more important to us.
That’s rad. The last 2 years was about us talking about creativity over commerce. There is an alternate way! Are there any spots you’d be hyped to shoot a photo at?
Yeah, we should get the little banks at SB back!
Ha, now we’re talking… that would be a banging shot in skateboarding history! We showed that the seemingly impossible can be possible so never say never eh.
Joey ‘Southbank Crack’ Pressey wallride by Sam Ashley (2004)
Cheers for chatting with us Sam… We’re hyped about the first edition of Free Skate Mag.
Nick Jensen Backside Flip by Sam Ashley (2013)
For all things Sam Ashley and to purchase prints head here
And to keep up to speed with Free Skate Mag head here
Celebrate the first issue of Free Skate Mag – Saturday 4th July 2015 from 8pm at Bardens Boudior
36 Stoke Newington Road, London, N16 7XJ, London, UK
Grab a copy of the zine, have a drink, watch the premier of the Sour skateboard solutions video, and swerve to PWBC DJs.
Interview by Louis Woodhead and Paul Richards