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Tintypes of “the Restless Soul of Skateboarding”

In her new book Skaters: Tintype Portraits of West Coast Skateboarders, Jenny Sampson focuses on people rather than action. The book collects close to 80 tintype portraits, made during the past seven years at skate parks throughout California and in Portland and Seattle. As pro skater-turned novelist Bret Anthony Johnston writes in the book, published this week by Daylight, “Skateboarding culture is exceptionally well-documented, and yet, the catalog of images is almost completely without portraiture.” Made with a large format camera using the wet plate collodion process, the images are by nature too slow to record the action that brings her subjects together—the unrelenting drive to skate. But in focusing instead on individuals, Sampson has, as Johnston writes, “captured, against all odds and with chilling nuance, the restless soul of skateboarding.”

In the book, Sampson describes the beginning of the project—for years she looked longingly at her local skate park as she rode her bike to work. She writes, “I wanted to photograph the skaters who hung out there—they looked so connected, like they were having so much fun. I thought of skateboarders as a rebellious crowd and I wanted to be a part of that, but I didn’t know how to enter their world.” Her chance came later when, after learning the wet plate process, she went directly to the Berkeley skate park to test out her new darkroom. Sampson says she found it challenging to make herself  approach these groups of strangers, but writes that “When this boundary is broken, the reciprocal interest is clear and I often learn they have been as curious about me as I them.”

The result is a collection of images of men and women of various ages and races who are clearly part of a loose tribe. They are marked by the graphic logos that adorn their hats and boards and t-shirts, which are reversed by the wet plate process. But they also share a certain feeling in their gaze at the camera, sharpened by the long exposure it requires—focused, flinty, a bit skeptical of this outsider taking their picture, and ultimately self-possessed. As Joel Rice writes in the book, Sampson “affords the unknown skaters a dignity they clearly deserve.”

Related Stories:
Today’s Soldier, Seen In Ambrotype
Tintype Surf Photography
A Skateboarding Wet-Plate Photographer’s Year-Long Cadillac Project (for PDN subscribers; login required)

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