WARNING: The following content focuses on ’90s skateboarding, but it is NOT just a bunch of boring stories from an irrelevant old pro.
Instead, these words from Pete Thompson, former SLAP and Transworld photographer, are pretty insightful about the goals and meanings of skate photography in any decade. There’s also some fun tidbits about flipping over cop cars and setting them on fire.
Pete stopped shooting skateboarding around 2004 to pursue all other kinds of photo interests, but he left some insane covers and photos in his wake. The kind of stuff you’d plaster your bedroom walls with, for sure.
He’s about to release a book sharing over a decade of his skate photos and portraits, so we talked with him to get behind the scenes stories on some of his photos and remind ourselves what skateboarding was like before it was shot, viewed, and lived entirely on iPhones.
Some people glorify skating in the ‘90s by saying pro skaters lives were more “raw” or reckless to some extent. Do you think that’s true?
Most of these kids come from families that are dysfunctional in some way. Doing research and interviewing people for my book, that’s the main theme. Danny [Way], no dad, Mike Ternasky dies, father figure, whole thing. Stevie Williams, same thing, no father figure. Jamie Thomas, fucked up home life. Chris Cole, single mom. Mark Appleyard, dysfunctional family life.
You think about it, the DNA of a skateboarder back then was that you gotta be ready for everyone to hate you. You gotta be ready for girls to not talk to you. And privately by yourself, obsess over skateboard moves, when everyone around you is like, “What the fuck is a skateboard? My six year-old brother rides a skateboard.” So what kind of a kid does that?
I hope the book shows a little bit of that rebellion and self-destruction. I mean, Jamie Thomas would never have jumped the Leap of Faith if he didn’t have that self-destructive DNA in his body. It’s also a real interesting thing dealing with self-destruction and fear in that the reward or the punishment is instant. I think that makes people feel alive when you chuck yourself down something, it makes some kids feel like they’re alive. And if you come from a home that your dad wasn’t around and you never got what you wanted emotionally, you’re gonna go out and try to prove it in another way.
When did you start putting your book together?
About a year and a half ago. I just started looking through photos and was really excited about being away from it for 15 years. Because it really helped me reset my mind in terms of what made a good picture and what doesn’t.
When you shoot for a skateboard magazine, you’re so attached to shooting a photo that you know will get published. That’s the whole goal. You wanna make everyone look as great as possible, and a lot of times you play it safe because you’re like, this worked before and everyone expects this. Fisheye from underneath, the bottom of the stairs. You do that, the chances of the photo getting run are really good. But looking back at those images, I completely disregarded all the stuff that had been published.
Why were you less interested in your published skate photos?
You’ve seen Stevie [Williams] do a switch crook, you’ve seen Mike Carroll kickflip something, you know what that looks like. But what got me hyped as someone who’d been away from it for 15 years was, who are these people?
Every skate photographer is blessed with this opportunity that throughout most of your career, you’re photographing kids who are living a period of time that will be completely unlike any other time in their lives. It’s this special window where you’re on top of the world, anything’s possible, anything you’re doing from a day to day basis is based on passion, and this love of skateboarding. That doesn’t last forever. It’s actually, for some guys, like a year long.
There’s an interview with Stevie [Williams] I watched not long ago and he talked about this time like, “Dude, I was sleeping on floors, and just tryna get by, didn’t know where I was gonna eat. But it was literally the happiest time of my life.” For a lot of people, that is a really exhilarating place to be. That’s why the portraiture is so important to me. Because this moment is never gonna happen again. He’s sitting there rolling weed with a fucking grenade necklace around his neck.
The book title is a nod to Souls of Mischief, yeah?
Yeah, “‘93 ‘Til Infinity” is a song by Souls of Mischief, and their style was similar to the philosophy of skateboarding, in my opinion. Because there were all these other hip-hop groups out there, and these guys in northern California seemed like they were like, “If anyone’s done something, we’re not gonna do that,” which is the philosophy of skateboarding.
Also, ‘93 is the year a lot of people think of when they think of the golden age of skateboarding, and the first photos I got published were in ’93. That was in SLAP.
In late ’91 or early ’92 there was a contest in North Carolina where I met Lance Dawes. He was just about to move to San Francisco to do SLAP Magazine. He was like, “Here’s my info, maybe send me some pictures.” So I started sending him more photos and they started sending me a little bit of film, and it was bulk reel film.
That went on for a while and then I left SLAP and started working for Transworld, which was this huge bunch of drama.
“1993 is the year a lot of people think of when they think of the golden age of skateboarding”
What was the drama around you leaving SLAP to work at Transworld?
If you know anything about Transworld and High Speed Productions [the publisher of Thrasher and SLAP], back in the day, there was this crazy rivalry. There was bad blood between Transworld and Thrasher mostly, and it really wasn’t based on anything. SLAP was like the red headed stepchild of Thrasher.
A lot of people at Thrasher didn’t want SLAP to exist. But I think the thinking behind that was, Thrasher has a certain brand and identity, hardcore rebellion, they do articles about punk rock bands and stuff like that. But then this new type of skating was happening, everyone’s going down to Embarcadero, Henry [Sanchez], Mike Carroll, Jovantae [Turner] and all those dudes. And Thrasher, I think, was a little reluctant to cover that, so from my understanding, that was the idea behind SLAP. We’ll make this small magazine, see what happens.
I really wanted to shoot all the time and SLAP didn’t have much room for growth. So when I left for Transworld, High Speed Productions was not very happy about that. But within six months of working for Transworld they sent me to Europe for all those contests, and that would have never happened had I kept working for SLAP.
Was there anything else about Transworld that drew you to it back then?
Transworld at the time was super thick and everything just leapt off the page. For me, that was something I really connected with. There were other guys shooting then who loved the grittiness of Thrasher and SLAP, but to me, because I was so into photography, that’s why I was so psyched on Transworld.
“You’re photographing kids who are living a period of time that will be completely unlike any other time in their lives.”
Are you glad you learned to shoot photos on film, or do you wish you could have started with digital?
The grumpy old man in me says yeah, I’m glad. But at the same time it would have been a lot easier to learn like that. If you were experimenting, you couldn’t do it on the spot. You would have these notes and then take your stuff to the lab. Then you’d look at the film and look at your notes so you could be like, OK, that’s how you do a double exposure, or whatever. There’s a photo in here of Cairo that’s a double exposure, and definitely an experiment that turned out pretty well.
One of them is a picture of him doing the backside noseblunt, and then you basically set the camera to expose the same frame of film, but with the second exposure, I took the focusing ring and threw it completely out, so that’s why all of this looks so glowy because this is two exposures.
One of your photos is of guys stomping on a cop car at a contest. Was that actually a cop car?
I think it’s a cop car that was taken to a junkyard and they were gonna demo it. But this was like the “destroy the cop car” ceremony at street contests. That was a fixture of street contests at the time.
The same thing happened after this contest in London, which is they moved all the ramps and the skaters just picked the car up, flipped it over, and tried to light it on fire. This is indoors at Wembley Stadium.
So this is where Tom Penny did the hippie jump where his board went through the car and then he landed back on it down the ramp. But that was just a thing people did. Flip the car over and try to light it on fire. Smash it with your board, do whatever. But that sums up skateboarding back then.
“You gotta ask yourself, do the rivalries and the beef in hip-hop make hip-hop better?”
Is it easy to flip a car over?
No. But when you got 50 dudes it’s easy. But that just symbolizes how rebellious of an act skateboarding was. That’s what makes it so rad, there are no rules, you can do whatever you want. I mean, there were eras where you couldn’t do whatever you wanted. The early ‘90s had some of that. There were some fucked up parts in the early ‘90s. Just vibing and territorial and shit-talking, rivalries between people.
Do you think those rivalries made skating more fun?
Yeah. You gotta ask yourself, do the rivalries and the beef in hip-hop make hip-hop better? Up until Tupac and Biggie were killed, probably. I think that definitely added to it because you had the hardcore punk rock dudes, you had the fresh guys that were like “don’t step on my white shoes,” so there were two warring camps of skateboarding. That still exists in skateboarding, but back then it was the basis of more fake conflict. People fought, like fights at the trade show, which always happened, but at the end of the day, everyone was a skateboarder.
You also have this photo of Peter Hewitt doing the loop. When you shared it online you said it captured how skateboarding felt at that moment. What do you mean by that?
No one’s got cell phones. To me, that’s the most amazing thing about it. You’re seeing this hunger for something to go down. Sort of like in the 17th century when you wanted to hear music you had to go to an orchestra in order to listen to the opera. There were magazines then, but watching something in person and feeling like it’s actually there, there wasn’t much substitute for that.
And there’s a couple hundred kids watching. Just knowing if you went down, there’s an entire audience that would be like “Oh!” Which is what happened with [Brian] Schaeffer. The Colosseum, ancient Rome, the carnage in front of all these kids.
I think the fact that they’re all skaters makes you feel like, whether you’re Peter Hewitt, the guys in the foreground, or the guys in the background, you’re all part of one family, and you’re all rooting for the one guy to ride away from it.
Is there anything from the ‘90s that you wish would come back to skating?
I can rephrase the answer a little bit, which would be like, there’s something special about less people doing skateboarding. When fewer people are doing it, the cauldron of ingredients you’re throwing in there is so much more condensed. When everyone does something, it’s harder to be mindful of the path that it’s taking. Maybe it’s just being around during that time, having people do things leaps and bounds ahead. There’s shit going on today that I’m like, holy shit, but when you see something in its infancy, if you were around in ’95 in Northampton and you saw Tom Penny, you never forgot it.