Skin Phillips is one of the legends of skateboarding photography. He was the first foreign skate photographer to put a heavy mark on the US skate scene, holding it down for over 15 years at Transworld and ushering the way for many others (myself included) to follow in his footsteps. Watching Skin shoot a photo is a fucken treat. Unlike most of us who plop down on the stairs or climb a tree and then wait ’til the trick is handled, Skin moves around his subject and shoots the beast from all angles, walking away with 10 times as many photos, and always the best one. On my first international trip shooting for Transworld while he was editor, he laid it out for me like this: “Look boyo! This is what’s going to happen: you’ll get a bunch of good photos, someone will get too pissed and end up in jail, someone else will get an std from a hooker and you’ll all come home laughing. Just shoot the shit out of it and come back with the story”. I always think back to that when I’m on the road, along with some of his other memorable quotes like “Did you nail it” or “Is it popping?”. His great leadership and friendship made a lasting impression on me and I’m forever grateful to have worked alongside a legend. I still can’t decipher his Welsh accent over the phone though! 

Dave Chami

© Sem Rubio

Hey Skin, for those who might not know you set the scene for us. How did you get into skateboarding and photography, and who did you look to for influence back then?

Skin Philips: I was born in ’64 and I saw skateboarding for the first time in ’68 when that first wave of clay wheels came through. I’m from Swansea and that’s got a big surf scene. It’s always had a lot of surfers so because of that skateboarding actually hit here, we saw it, but it was quite small. We rode boards made from cut up roller skates, we did that for a long time and that was going on until urethane came along in 1974-75. There was a surf shop called Dave Friar and they had a great skate team and everyone looked up to them. They were our answer to the Zephyr Team. Then when I was about 11 or 12 a big wave hit. We were already sort of doing it in ’76, ’77 but then it really went fucking huge. Everyone rode a skateboard. When I was 18. I got a camera for my birthday and that’s when I started to photograph the little scene. These punk rock surf kids who were a little bit younger than me had a little ramp and I just started photographing them and that’s when we started travelling together to the UK contests. I went to the States in ’89, met Tom Knox and Alan Petersen and all of those guys through a skater called Brent Fellows. That’s how I got the confidence to shoot American pros and off it went. And then I moved to the San Diego in ’94, started working at Transworld, and that’s kind of it in a nutshell.

Our crew started skating in around ’88 and in New Zealand at least it was pretty full blown in the early ‘90s.

It died out in ’79, it died out in ’89, then there was the death of vert when it went over to street. It got really small, and then the shoe companies came in in ’94. DC started and that new wave of street skating took off again. Street skating became kind of mortifying for a while, it was in a really weird state, baggy pants and small wheels, lots of pressure flips, it was a really hard time to shoot photos. A lot of people see that as the glory days.

Yea everyone was skating slowly and doing small stuff. Did you stop skating and concentrate on shooting at one point?

I was keen in the ‘70s doing a little bit of vert and trying to keep up, but I was purely behind the camera from ’82.

Was there already an outlet for it, like magazines you could publish in or was it purely based on a desire to capture the tricks and the scene?

It wasn’t really to make money it was just this thing that I wanted to do. I wanted to be a photographer and I studied how to be a photographer. I really wanted to be a surf photographer as well. I had a camera housing, went in the water, shot photos for magazines then, but as the skateboarding career took off a little bit more I sorta went into full-time skateboard photography.

So you already had somewhere to put the photos?

TLB, Tim Leighton-Boyce at “R.A.D” was kind of my first mentor and helped me get that editorial process together. Stories would be packaged to Timbo’s run. We were kinda doing that through zines anyway, so we were always showing people our stuff so it wasn’t like we would just shoot the photos and put them away. It was always in zines, photos were always going everywhere all the time, but for no money.

Was there a moment you knew you had broken into the industry or was it more of a natural progression from the first published photo?

In ’91 I was in Visalia, California for two weeks on my way to live in Australia for a year and I shot this interview with Tom Knox which I send to R.A.D. I kinda forgot about it and then it came out and I made like 500-600 quid. That saved me and kept me in Australia. That was a moment when I knew I could do this, I can go shoot photos of skaters, put them into bundles for articles. That first Tom Knox interview was really the first thing I did, I shot photos here and there like everyone did, but that was the first time that I had a full proper interview run. 

It sounds like you already had a bit of an understanding of the editorial process pretty early on?

I realised early on that if you could get the right skaters there was more chance of photos running. At that time in ’92, Duffy was really hot so it was like “Get Duffy, go find Duffy!” You only wanted certain people in the magazines. Tom Knox had just won Chicago right then too so Knox was on everyone’s list. Tim had a good eye for the right people in the magazine. It’s the same thing now, if you have good photos of the right people, they’ll always get run rather than photos of the wrong people. It’s all about your crew really, or the people you can get in with, that’s the difference. 

How political is it between mags or companies? Do you have to lean towards the ones that are paying for the big advertising?

Ah, fuck man people don’t talk about this but there was a full battle between Thrasher & Transworld, like an underground little war going on. I heard about it, I didn’t take it full on because I was European and it all didn’t really matter. It doesn’t exist anymore but it was a full on NorCal / SoCal rivalry. It was definitely a real thing for sure. 

Could you have risked as either a writer or a photographer to choose sides involuntarily?

Fully people took sides, there were Transworld guys and there were Thrasher guys, talking back then I mean, not now, because Thrasher took over, but back then it was just skaters you took photos of who were your boys. Muska never really had photos in Thrasher, he was just with us all the time, because we went out shooting all the time, went out every day with him nearly.

Has your role as professional skate photographer changed?

I think it’s really hard compared to what it used to be for the freelance guys, there’s only one mag left really, no one else is paying very much. Transworld’s every six months. No one’s got an editorial budget to pay you, you’re living off scraps really. A lot of guys put their life to it and it’s in the shitter they’re just scrambling for work. Fashion shoots, a bit of skate work, whatever they can. Everyone was making pretty decent money and if you’re not staff for a magazine or on a company retainer, fuck there’s a lot of people selling prints, they’re all hustling like fuck, when before they used to have a retainer or one solid income to pay the rent every month. Now it’s going from check to check. It’s tough as it’s ever been for those main guys.

At the same time you have more and more gnarly shit happening, more and more people skating so there’s more stuff to shoot, so it’s a shame that it’s kinda siloed into either Instagram, working for a brand or that one magazine. But hey, we’re a magazine!

It’s tough. In every shoe company they have a staff photographer, so you can’t get in with the guys because they have the staff photographers with them. So the staff photographers shoot the magazine stuff and these shoe companies control the photos so you can’t get in with the riders. If it’s not a video part and not with Thrasher people don’t even want to know, so it’s fucking really hard.

Where are you now? Are you still working with adidas?

Yea still a little bit, I am doing this Gonz shoot in a month which is really good and I haven’t done for a while. Sort of in the middle of moving back to the UK and getting all my stuff back. All I’m concentrating on now is just doing shows and selling my older work. I’m trying to get all that sequenced properly and print it properly for the art world, instead of prints on Etsy. I want to do that because I want to make money, but I want to make it collectable and get it right so it becomes desirable and it’s catalogued properly when I sell it.

Would it be interesting to do a book?

There’s a big project now called “Against The Grain” I’ve been working on with Frankie Shea and Jamie Davis. Jamie is a photo historian and curator and Frankie is former skate photographer who is an art dealer in London and they’re putting together this photo show called “against the grain”. It’s all the best skateboard photographers in one show and the first one is coming up in July. We’re doing that in conjunction with the Art night in London and it’s going to the US next year, so I’ve been project managing that a bit. Independently produced, we’re looking at a few sponsors, it’s going to be really good, the photographers are going to sell prints of that so everyone can make some extra money, there’s a lot of good people involved, so that’s one big thing I’m working on.

As a photo editor and a photographer, what are some key elements for a good skate photo?

I think it’s always got to be a spread for me, I’m not ever looking at single pages. Everyone wants to vertical and shoot for the cover, but now I don’t even shoot that way, it’s always horizontal. I like it as your eye would see it. Fisheye’s fine but I always like how your eye should see it. I don’t want to search for the skater, I like it when they stand out. What’s in the negative space is as important as what’s in the positive space, it’s always about what’s going on around it. It’s more like that then it’s ever been, there’s more thought, people looking for the right angle because there always is a right angle for the photo, one perfect spot to shoot it from. I like the guy or the girl to be clean, they need to really pop out wherever they are. I don’t like any disturbances around them.

It seems like lately, people have been trying to make it a more artistic, architectural thing. It feels like there are more and more unique styles getting away from that fisheye down the rail photo.

With a fisheye I like it when you get in really close, when you feel like you’re in that photo, I like that too. I like when you take a risk and it looks like you’re going to get hit. It works best when you feel like you’re really in that photo when you feel like you’re in the fisheye not back looking at it. The Hasleblad worked really nice for that too and that got really close, it almost adds another dimension to it.

We never ran a fisheye photo, until we did.

The fisheye is the easy option. Fucking bang it in there and you’re going to get a photo, it’ll make everything look good. It can also go the other way and make everything look small. I don’t like anything 16mm to 50mm really, I don’t like any of that distortion. All have in the bag is a 16mm fisheye and a 135mm, I don’t really fuck around unless I’m doing street work. If it’s guys hanging out I might put a 28mm or 35mm. I don’t like any curves in the photo, I like it straight or straight fisheye. 

You were the photo editor at Transworld, so you were obviously very clear about what you like and didn’t like. Would you be put in positions where you had to choose a photo you thought maybe the readership liked but you didn’t particularly like to show the span?

I always had the final say in the photos so that was one good thing, but for the cover, I always tried to pick what I thought would pop, but I think that was a crap shoot, too. I think there was no actual stuff that I thought would really work that would sell a lot while other stuff didn’t. I think it was more about the fonts and colour and captions. That fucking cover secret is a hard one to crack. We were censored pretty heavily in Transworld—no drink, cigarettes or drugs. A lot of skateboarding lifestyle was definitely not portrayed in Transworld, it was all censored down. A lot of the real stuff that was going on, kids wouldn’t go fucking near it, it was pretty wild at times but in a different story in the magazine.

Was there a point over the last 30 years where you got tired of shooting the same stuff? How do you keep it fresh and interesting? 

I was just always being passionate about doing the work and I always wanted to shoot photos but when you turn into a manager or an editor you lose that, and you have different priorities. When you’re a team manager you’re not really shooting that much, so you lose that urge you know? But now I’ve sorta gone back to the start in a way, I found that passion and desire again. That’s what I’m known for. No one knows me as an editor, everyone just remembers me as a photographer.

So how do you go about it now, just go out with the right people, find new spots?

You’ve gotta be a good photographer. You gotta have that right personality. You can’t rub people the wrong way. You can’t be pushy. You can’t burn bridges, you gotta check so many boxes. I think that not just to be true for the skateboard world today but maybe in general. You gotta walk the line a certain way. You gotta be careful with words and you gotta be able to play that game enough to stand out. We can all be different but you got to toe a certain line otherwise you’re just going to be fucking out in the desert. No one wants to be there, you got to play the game to a certain extent for sure. 

People are fucking privileged and delicate these days. It’s velvet gloves the whole way through.

It’s so much worse with socials as well. Everyone’s got an opinion and everyone’s having a moan either on their fucking Facebook or Twitter or fucking Instagram, I can’t even read it. I don’t even look much anymore. 

The word legendary is often used to describe your body of work.

Maybe in my lunchtime.

Who is a true definition of a legend to you?

I’m not even in that league, but from a media perspective, if it wasn’t for [Craig] Stecyk we wouldn’t be here, because if he hadn’t bundled the Dogtown scene into a marketable thing, skateboarding could have been like the hula hoop. But because of his vision and the way he portrayed the rawness of Dogtown. I think that rawness was in every city it just wasn’t captured, but the way Stecyk captured it made it something every kid wanted to do. I say Stecyk is the godfather of it all without a doubt. After that Grant Brittain is the number one skate photographer ever, his Instagram and the amount of amazing stuff that he has in his library—it’s just—not a week goes by where I don’t see something from Grant I’m not amazed by it. So those two guys I’d put them up on a tier. Tommy Guerrero said ‘You should never meet your heroes,  you’ll always get disappointed because they’re always different from what you think.’ They might say something to you, it might be the first impression when you meet them, they might not know who you are. I’ve met them all and the three people who were exactly how I thought they were are Matt Hensley, Lance Mountain and John Cardiel. Everything I thought about them and wanted to be true is true. A lot of other friends too, but those guys are really on a pedestal. 

What’s good about the industry in 2018?

The shoe and soft goods companies put a lot of money back into skateboarding. They make a lot of money, but they put a lot of money into paying the riders and the community, they support all the magazines. I know what the adidas budget was, what they put out just in free shoes to give to everyone to keep people in shoes, it’s a lot of fucking money. I know a lot of them get a bad rep, but without that, I don’t know what would have happened. Unless they had that big money coming in I don’t think people would get supported. No way would people get paid the way they are without them. The industry is in a really tough spot, but I think it’s always been a bit of an up and down. I think as an activity it’s really good, there are more parks getting built, there’s a second generation of skateboarders coming through, so Mums and Dads are becoming part of skating. The women’s scene is going off, that’s a huge thing that’s happening. I think it’s in a really good, healthy spot right now.

Do you have a specific memory in skateboarding that you are especially happy to have been a part of?

I think the main one was when Danny did the first mega ramp in ’97. Mike Ballard put it together, but I was the liaison between Transworld and DC. I got the whole story together and was behind that from the early stages. When all that finished on the weekend I remember driving back on a Sunday night thinking something special had just happened and when it all came out people were just blown away by it all. The megaramp went on to change skateboarding. Two days where the world changed. That was it. Everything else changed gradually, but I saw the big rail and big jump stuff coming back with Penny, Rowley and Reynolds and Muska, I was involved in that too. That was an easy thing to shoot. You got the rail, bang, you got the stairs, bang, and it’ll get printed. That fucking act of the pain people were going through, jumping and smashing, getting fucking killed on the rails. That was a gradual thing, but something I was aware of. 

But Mike Blabac was the main guy to document the megaramp?

No, he just shot one thing for the ad. We were the principal guys, I got the cover, all the editorial. Thomas Campbell was down there, Dan Sturt was off in the distance doing his sneaky photos for Thrasher. So many stories attached to that it’s pretty funny.

I have a question here that just says ‘cunt?’.

It’s used as a phrase of endearment, but it’s frowned upon, it’s the word you don’t say in America, but being back in Britain it’s an everyday occurrence. I say it all the time and it gets such a shock in America but it just means nothing to me. You can use it in so many different ways.

We use it with probably the same amount of frequency in New Zealand.

I’m terrible, I’m so bad. Women swear the same amount as men and they don’t say it. In Australia it’s like mate, it’s like the word dude, you don’t think about it. It’s a fine line, you either find it funny or you find it offensive, really.

I heard the British Olympic team lacks some funding, would you be up to coach them pro bono?

Absolutely. As long as I get a free tracksuit out of it I’ll do anything!

Thoughts on the new generation of photographers like Zander Taketomo, Jake Darwen, Jacob Messex?

I think they’re great, they got a little bit of everything about them, they’re new. I find it so hard to keep up with skateboarding especially in the independent scene. Especially Zander and Sam Muller as well, they just know so much of what’s fucking going on. They’re the ones spotting the next generation of skateboarders. Those are the guys that’ll bring in the new kids to us, otherwise, we wouldn’t really be seeing them. The filmers as well. I love those guys. They’re interested. They all went to universities, the studied proper theory.

Did skateboarding save your life?

Absolutely. I don’t know what I’d be without it. I’d be—I said before—dead or in jail. I was lucky, especially that life in California, being stable there for a while, having a family. I’ve been lucky to be at the magazine and taken care of that for so long, nearly 20 years at Transworld and then going to adidas, doing all that travelling and meeting all those guys. It was a privilege. Even that couch surfing and those rough times in the ‘80s, early 90s, those were dear times to look back on. I’d be painting houses or working as a… I don’t know if I’d be dead, I just wouldn’t be as happy. Seeing the world, travelling, meeting the people that I have it’s just been an honour and a privilege. I feel fucking lucky. To be at the right place at right time, I’m really fortunate. It’s been an absolute privilege to be honest.