“What kind of camera do you use?” is the most common question people ask when they see my photos or my gear—and I’m not even a REAL photographer, so I can only imagine how often photographers hear it.
It’s not necessarily a “bad” question, but more an odd one in the sense that every successful skateboarding photographer I know has the potential to, and will, share a vast wealth of knowledge and experience beyond the words “Canon” or “Nikon” to help you progress in the field of photography and the skateboarding industry.
Ryan Allan is one of those photographers.
“I answer gear questions all day long,” Ryan says. “And I’ll also reply, ‘Get better at networking.’ I swear its something I had to learn, because I’m a quiet introvert. Sometimes I’ll go to skate premieres and nobody will know I’m there and that’s what holds me back. I’ve seen people come up with next to no talent, but they’re really good at being the life of the party, and that shit goes miles. It’s both infuriating and hilarious. Like, ‘Wow, that dude is making it because he’s funny and buying people drinks.’
Did you ever see Walk the Line—the Johnny Cash movie with Joaquin Phoenix? Or the film “Pollack,” starring Ed Burns? Nearly any story about creative legends has that scene … the moment where the struggling artist realizes their place in it all. For Cash is was upon receiving hundreds of letters from prison inmates who were moved by his music. For Jackson Pollack is was accidentally spilling paint on a blank canvas in his shed and then continuing to haphazardly and purposely do so. And for almost anyone who’s “made it” in the arts, they have similar stories.
And trust me, experiencing that moment is far more exhilarating than finding out if your favorite photographer prefers film over digital.
“I can almost pinpoint it exactly,” says Allan, “I didn’t figure myself out until a Flip tour with French Fred. Hanging out with him, I realized that, for me, this has to be more about aesthetic and things looking rad and less about sports photography.
“I hit it off with Geoff Rowley shooting for Vans,” Ryan explains. “So then I went on a Flip tour and he was like ‘Come check out this stuff I have going on in the desert.’ He didn’t tell me much about it, but Fred was shooting a mini ramp thing with some Flip guys for Extremely Sorry. I’d known Fred for a while, but really spent a lot of time with him on this shoot and was watching him do a lot of time-lapse dolly stuff. Things that people are just doing now, he was doing way back then. They weren’t HD cameras, but they were HVX kind of things. He had a ladder and a dolly and was measuring the distance in sticks from trees as he was moving the camera manually—without an intervalometer. Just watching him, I was like, ‘This dude is so obsessed with creativity. It’s awesome!’ I got so sparked from him. The stuff he’s done for Cliché … if everything in skateboarding were like that I’d be so hyped.
“I’m sick of third-stair-from-the-bottom fisheye shots,” Allan continues. “I still have to do it, because I have a commitment to the skater to document them. I have to get them in the mags for both of us to make a living, so there’s this frustrating battle when I get to a spot. Like, ‘I could shoot this really weird and it might not get run, but so and so needs a cover.’ So you have to shoot it standard, and when I’m doing that I’m like, ‘Fuck! There’s some awesome shit going on with five dudes hanging by the van having a beer and I’m here sitting under a rail shooting this trick.’ And that’s more what I want to do now. I want to shoot the hang out. It resonates with me. Even as a kid, Jason Lee talking about Benihana’s in Video Days, for example … that’s the stuff I remember. The skaters are all having a good time. Kids don’t even see that in videos anymore. The personality doesn’t come through. Girl and Chocolate do a good job of showing that. A lot of brands ignore it. I’d love to be able to do that all the time but I also understand I have a job to do. I’m fully a spoiled brat now and I get pissy and bummed. That’s the inner artist in me, not the reporter that’s documenting the back smith down the 12 stair.”
And there’s a conflict in skateboarding (and beyond) that you, the reader, may not be so privy to. One far beyond that of the internal “artist” vs. “reporter” plight. And that’s the constant battle between the artists and the businessmen—art and creativity vs. “getting the job done” and selling product and ad space.
“I look back at old TransWorld mags with the “New York Minute” by Ted Newsome,” says Ryan. “Those little slices of New York life were things that I loved. Now it’s all gone. I look in mags these days and all that I see is the spot and I don’t get any sense of what the situation it really was. And that column being gone, sadly, was probably about ad space. Some president or person up top saying it’s not an interesting story or it's better to sell an ad or run a photo of a smith grand where you can see every sticker and logo on the board and what shoes the skater is wearing. I get burned out on that. I’ve worked for many companies. I’ve shot silhouette stuff and they’ll be like, ‘We can’t use that photo.’ But in my opinion it doesn’t matter. It isn’t bad that’s it’s a silhouette because it’s about the emotion. That’s what sells your product. They don’t need to keep putting more frickin’ logos in your face; that’s going to happen anyway and they don’t understand that a silhouette ad might actually stand out because it’s the only one anyone’s seen in a long time. That’s the constant battle I fight with myself all the time, but it’s also the world I’ve invited myself into.
“Luckily I get to shoot with people like Tom Karangelov, for example, who are down to do weird stuff and aren’t worried about whether goes in an mag or not. He gets it. I need more people like that. One of my personal favorites of him is in Laguna Beach at this handrail into a gnarly hill bomb. And I was holding my camera way above my head so you could see down the hill. I shot one and it was only his feet and board grinding down the rail … with his Zero socks on. I’m don’t feel you need to look through the camera for the position of a photo. So naturally I was so hyped when the photo ran in Color.
Ryan’s built relationships with some of the most photographically iconic skaters in the world … guys like Arto, Dylan, Rowley, Stefan and more—as well as newer, yet equally photogenic individuals like Tom Karangelov and Ben Nordberg. Similar to that of, say, Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, these relationships between Ryan and his subjects can literally be seen through years of magazine and web documentation—and they are symbiotic.
“Lets take Dylan, for example,” says Allan. “I was introduced to Gravis and met Dylan through Arto because I was shooting for Flip and followed Arto to whatever program he was a part of. But the way it really blossomed between Dylan and I was with this kickflip photo at a sculpture in Sydney. I shot it pretty weird … down below. I’d shot with him before but I played it really safe because I didn’t want to say, ‘Sorry Dylan I blew it.’ Back then he didn’t talk. And I fully thought he hated me. It turned out that he was living in a coma, but I didn’t have a read on him. But I won him over by easing him into these weirder photos. He’s really into things looking good and I knew that about him. We both like fashion magazines. We just started to feed off it all and I think it started to click for him. He knew I worked a certain way and I’d throw ideas out and he’d be like ‘Fuck yeah; we’re going to do that! People are going to think it’s gay, but lets do it.’ And that was kind of the beginning of the Dylan look that people recognize now.”
“Ryan’s photography is top-notch,” says Geoff Rowley. “He enjoys the moment and is a pleasure to be around. He’s calm, collected and motivated. He shoots classic shots that are timeless, technically crisp and with good variety. He is well versed in different photographic approaches, from studio product shots to portraits to available light black and whites. Whatever it is he can get the job done. He also isn't afraid to get on the road and explore. He’s an easily-pleased team player that adapts to his surroundings well.”
“Rowley is my number one guy,” says Allan. “He gets it. A lot of skaters are like, ‘I have this spot; it looks so cool; it’ll be so great for a photo.’ Then you get there and it looks like total shit. But when Geoff says it, you know it’s going to be amazing. He’s the first dude that I learned about relationships and understanding each other with. He knows spots and how they’re going to work. He recommends how to shoot things and I totally shoot them that way. He goes to great lengths, like getting mini ramps built in the woods. He understands that if it’s a mini ramp in a parking lot, you would film a part on it and everyone will hate you. But if it’s in the woods and you do some crazy voiceover with the footage, it makes it rad.”
So can a photographer indirectly and inadvertently learn from another photographer through a skater—the skater working as “medium” so to speak? Legendary skate photographer Daniel Harold Sturt spent a lot of time shooting Rowley; Rowley spent a lot of time shooting with Allan; Allan learns from Sturt …
“I grew up with Sturt photos,” says Allan. The Sturt / Hensley combination was amazing. Like, that’s me and Geoff. That’s what we want. A lot of people think that my container photo of Geoff is a Sturt photo. I didn’t even do anything Sturt-ish on it. And I feel honored when people think it’s a Sturt photo. I’m just like, ‘Fuck yeah!’ I always wanted to pick up elements of him. Arto used to send me all these little videos that Sturt made of himself longboarding and getting caught by cops. They were crazy. That’s kind of what you want—a tweaked brain. Look at the Markovich Carlsbad water gap photo that Sturt shot. It’s just Markovich’s knees down and you can see Sturt’s shadow using a half-lens fisheye, pre-Atiba. It’s just the craziest looking photo and there’s so much information about Sturt and photography in that photo. It’s so awesome. Sturt showed so much in that photo; that you can cut peoples heads off and it’ fine if it looks cool and that you can shoot on two different cameras and not have to hide anything.
“There’s so much craziness and awesomeness in his work. I’ve studied it for years. He made me realize that you don’t have to be up really close to see the action, but rather, step back and see the bigger picture. Think of the photo of Hensley doing the frontside ollie on the hat, if he shot that photo from the edge of the hat it would have been terrible and you’d never even experience what Matt was skating. Sturt is one of the best people that ever happened in skateboarding. You have to embrace the weirdos. These days, skateboarding hates out everything that is weird and different, yet we unconditionally love someone like the Gonz. It’s such a conflicting message. You have to love those people. There are a million generic, personality-less contest skaters. I love the Gonz and Ed Templeton and Jason Lee. The fact that Lenny Kirk went crazy and all religious is epic. It enhances the bigger picture. Ed talks about books and art and that helps with creativity. I’m lucky I’ve met all those people and grew up in a time in skateboarding when it was encouraged. It’s important to do that now. There are going to be all these kids who grow up at the skatepark and become like washed-up quarterbacks instead of learning a trade or art and all these other things that can help them beyond skateboarding down the line. They’ll blow their knee out and work in a factory because skateboarding didn’t bring them past that.
“Photographers are almost as popular as the skaters these days,” Allan continues. “Look at Atiba, he’s a celebrity in his own right and it’s cool. There are more and more kids realizing that there are careers and a fun life to be had in skateboarding in any capacity, not just being a pro. And I think photographers have the better deal because I’ve seen some pros get old and the world gets harsh really quick. Their bodies are destroyed and they have no skill sets. They’ve traveled the world and been catered to but when it goes away their world becomes a dark place. And I feel really bad. Sometimes I think I’ve got it easy. So all you kids out there who think that they want to become pro skaters, you might want to try something longer-lasting.”
The iPhone has quickly become the most popular camera in the world. Everyone has a camera in their pocket at all times and everyone’s a so-called “photographer,” or wants to be. Instagram has become a real-time skate magazine of sorts. Skate ads and photos in magazines have been shot on iPhones, and we’re not talking silly enjoi ads either, we’re talking actual tricks. But how does a true and professional photographer feel about this shift and how does it affect things going forward?
“It’s weird and has made me pull back a lot,” say Allan. “Because I see it so much now, I’ve avoided being the guy who has a camera around his back at all times. I think if you have good taste, know what you’re doing and are willing to sit back and not join the herd, but rather, more strategically decide what you want to do instead of just throwing it out into the sea, that’s when you will stand out.
“What you can do on an iPhone now is insane, and the whole thing has proven that anyone can shoot a generic photo and get it run in a magazine. Even the kid down the street has a 16-mm fisheye. Back when I started, a Canon fisheye lens was $800. If you had a fisheye in your city, you were the dude. Hopefully, people will eventually want a change, but I’m not worrying about that. For now I’m just doing my best to be really good at what I do and focusing on portraits and behind-the-scenes stuff.”
Most recently, Ryan got a gig as team manager (and photographer) for Asphalt Yacht Club. Like so many other creatives in our industry, Ryan knows it’s difficult—near impossible at times—to make a proper living without a full time job or multitasking.
“I’ve done this my whole career,” explains Allan. “I’ve always used another outlet to get to where I want to be. I started SBC because there were no places to sell my photos and because Appleyard was a rising star in Canada and we couldn’t get his photos published anywhere. America didn’t know about Mark yet, and Concrete was pretty west coast-heavy at the time. So I was like, ‘Okay, lets do something east coast promote Appleyard.’ From there, Mark got blew up and got me a graphic design job at Circa, so I moved down to California. I’d already done four years of design working for the mag, so I started designing T-shirts and Circa catalogs, then became their photographer.”
After Circa, Allan freelanced for various companies over the years … Gravis came next.
“It’s always been photography-based, but the pitch was always, ‘I can shoot all your photos, but I’m also a commercial photographer and can shoot product and save you guys a shit ton of money.’ In skateboarding that’s the clincher every time.
“AYC came about through Ben Nordberg, which is crazy because I pick on Ben all the time. He was like, ‘They’re looking for a team manager; you should talk to them.’ Team managing isn’t my favorite thing, but I did it at Gravis because they were my friends. AYC is real team managing for me—a lot of time on the phone and emailing. But I’ve got to do it, you know? My creative photos don’t make the bank. But it’s cool … the team is awesome and everyone is rad. I really want to help. It’s a gnarly uphill battle and a social experiment for me. Like, ‘Can I bring an aesthetic to this team that, on paper, looks crazy?’ Aesthetically it’s not my style, but I think I can do something with it. That’s what’s nice for me. I’m not stressing if this comes or goes. It’ll be interesting for sure …”