Ed Templeton became a pro-skater in the early 90s, yet didn't necessarily seem to fit into the rock star-like lifestyle of the skate-world. Instead, he started documenting his surroundings, friends and adventures on film. Over 25 years, a long list of published photography books and gallery shows later, Ed Templeton has become one of the biggest contemporary names in the street photography scene. But still, as someone with many talents, he sometimes finds himself struggling to be truly respected in the photography establishment. We chatted with Ed about his vast body of work and in particular, the one project that sparked his desire to shoot in the first place: Wires Crossed is a long-term project, documenting the skateboarding youth culture since 1994.
Thank you for taking the time to chat with us, Ed! It’s such an honor to finally be talking to you and having you in our magazine. That’s way overdue!
Yes, thank you! I’ve seen the Lomography magazine around over the years. It’s great to be a part of it. You guys have been around for a long time. I feel like, sometimes, the fact that I was a professional skateboarder while simultaneously being a photographer has seemed to alienate me from the photography world in general. People like the categories they place you in to be clean.
That’s interesting you say that because we were about to ask you about the strong connection between the skate and film photography worlds. But, it sounds like you feel photographers don’t take you that seriously?
Well, photography and skateboarding go hand in hand, of course, because being a skateboarder means that you are out with photographers shooting all the time. In that way the two worlds are very connected.
But I feel like it happens sometimes in the photography world, or rather the photo world establishment. I’ll give you an example: I did a show two years ago with the Danziger Gallery in New York, a well-known photography gallery. James, the owner of the gallery told me he’s going to introduce my work to all his well-connected friends. At the end of the show, we had a conversation and he told me that he had brought all his friends in and most of them had never heard of me. And we’re talking about people who are museum directors or on photography boards, stuff like that. I was surprised, I said to him, "I have been doing photo books and gallery shows for 25 years! What do you need to do to get noticed by some of these people!" It was kind of funny.
Do you think that’s because of the skateboarding world you’re from, or because of the type of photography you do, that’s mostly documentary and street photography?
Yes, it could be a mix of both. Another thing I’ve noticed about people who do a lot of different things, sometimes it’s hard for others to digest that. I’m also a painter. I was a pro skateboarder for 22 years, I do graphics and design for my skateboard company and of course photography. For some people, it’s hard to wrap their head around someone doing two or three things at once. Maybe they think you’re not taking one of them seriously? Most likely they just know you as one thing, and it’s hard to realign their thinking to see you in a different light.
How did you even get into photography in the first place?
I became a pro skateboarder in 1990 and through that I had been shooting photos on my travels. Mostly as a tourist, memory stuff. I had been interested in the cameras that the magazine photographers used to shoot me, so I would always ask them questions. But around 1994 I discovered other photographers, like Nan Goldin and Larry Clark and their photography books, which opened up a new world to me. Seeing their work made me realize that my life, surrounded by pro skateboarders could be interesting to shoot as well. Clark and Goldin were shooting their own worlds and their group of friends –– very personal work. For me that was a realization: You don’t have to go somewhere exotic to shoot and you don’t have to come up with some grand issue. You shoot what’s around you. As a pro-skater getting to travel the world with this group of young celebrities in the world of skateboarding, acting like rockstars, hooking up with girls, self-medicating. I decided that I wanted to document that scene and lifestyle. And from there it was a natural progression to starting to shoot street photos wherever I was and documenting my personal life. Once you have the camera on your shoulder at all times, you see everything differently.
Do you remember what your first camera was?
At first, I started with a Canon AE-1, a very simple and cheap camera a lot of students use. But then, of course, I read about Leicas and I started thinking about using one of those. Fortunately as a pro skateboarder, I was making enough money to afford one, so I got a Leica. For me, the quietness of it, the stealth of a Leica, was great for street photography and still is. The Leica M6 is what I chose, and I haven’t discovered a camera like that since, and that is what I still use. I sometimes use a Fuji GF670 medium format rangefinder camera, that’s pretty lightweight but you don’t wanna drop it because it will explode.
We all share the passion for photography, but we all love a different aspect of it the most. For some people, it’s being outside taking photos for themselves, as a form of meditation. Others do it for the moment of getting your photos back from the lab. What’s it for you?
For me, the moment is the connection with the viewer, the sharing of the photograph. I really enjoy shooting, traveling and walking around with the camera of course, but for me that’s just the start of the conversation. The main moment though is to share the photo with the viewer. To have someone see it and go: "Wow, I see what you see. I understand, I get something from it. I am finding pleasure in the composition and in the way you got it. I am finding humor in what you noticed." That is the full connection, the aim for me.
Of course, the subject is the main component, what’s making the image. But if you’re asking why I do photography, it is to show the work, to share it with another human, because it’s about humans. That’s also why I look at other photographs, it’s because I feel that connection. That’s what I am doing ultimately. Taking a photograph, sequencing a book is all for the person who’s going to sit down and look at it.
When did you start working on the series “Wires Crossed”?
That began when I started shooting, in 1994. And that was the main reason why I started shooting in the first place, to document that group of people. And then it evolved over the years, with all the people who surrounded me in my skate-life. So the cast of characters changed. I was shooting this from 1994 to 2012 – That’s the year I broke my leg at age 40 and retired from being a pro-skateboarder. That’s 8 years ago now. But even last year, I went on a skate tour in Germany and ended up shooting some photos that might make it into the series, so really the project has been in the works from 1994 to the present day.
This coming from an outside perspective, but it seems like there are not that many youth cultures that visually stay the same or very similar as the skate culture does. Would you agree with that?
Yes, that’s definitely true as far as the focus, in skateboarding, it has always been about the act of skateboarding first, then surrounding that, it’s accompanied by the usual tropes. But for skateboarding travel is a big part of it too. You want to get out to these famous spots and these cities all over the world to skate, so road trips are a big part of skateboarding’s subculture. You’re correct that the aesthetic of this culture pretty much stayed the same and at the very core of it, it’s always a young group of people going out, being in the streets, skating. There’s the constant struggle with security and cops, there’s the injuries. Everyone’s got scuffs and broken bones at any given time and like all youth cultures, partying is a big part of it. Drinking, smoking, chasing after the opposite sex. Also, the spirit of it is always the same. There’s a solidarity in knowing that other skaters go through the same trials and have similar desires, there’s a connectedness and a camaraderie between skateboarders, even if you don’t know anybody, a welcoming spirit.
Which is also very descriptive for the film photography community, right?
Yes, definitely. As I walk down the street with a Leica M6, every once in a while, you get someone who notices the film camera and comes up to you, wanting to talk film and talk gear. Which is funny because I’m not a gear-head, I barely can remember the name of the lens that I have on. For me, the camera is just a tool that I use to get the photograph I want and I never got super into the gear.
You mentioned earlier that skateboarding and photography go hand in hand, why do you think that is? Why are these two communities interwound so strongly?
I think for one, younger skaters who aren’t sponsored, who dream of being a pro-skater, so they’re out with their friends shooting photos and videos. Even if they have no chance of being sponsored. So you could go to some suburban, midwestern town in the middle of nowhere and there’s going to be skaters with video cameras documenting their skating for Instagram or YouTube. So there’s that. And I think because of that desire to document what you’re doing, it naturally makes kids learn about cameras, probably more than in other youth cultures.
While that might be true for everything nowadays, as there are YouTube stars for anything, most of them might be turning to digital cameras. But skaters read the old-school magazines and there are a lot of skaters who think it’s cool to shoot film as opposed to digital, just to do it, just to use and learn about older stuff.
I don’t know why actually. Even for me, on paper, digital seems way more convenient, but there’s something about shooting film that I really like. The slowness of it––the lack of convenience, it keeps me in the moment. I like the process of all of it, I like going into the darkroom.
Is that why you prefer shooting black and white?
There’s two reasons for me why I prefer black and white. One is a practical reason, yes. I have a darkroom here, so I can print black and white and the idea of being able to create a whole exhibition just in my own studio here at the house is pretty cool. But then the other reason is, that I have come across a lot of times when I think the color ruined the photo that I shot. Except for some rare, really beautiful color situations, I think a lot of times it can get muddy and weird. In the monochrome view, you focus on the form, shape, composition and the subject.
Wires Crossed focuses on youth culture, that you started shooting when you yourself were part of that culture. Over twenty years later, has your perspective on it and therefore your photos changed, now that you’re no longer really part of it?
I would go the other direction and say, even when I was younger, I don’t know if I was necessarily really part of it. The group I was shooting was living like rock stars and I was always the outside eye. I started the skateboard company Toy Machine, so on the tours, I did with the group of skaters I was shooting, I was always the responsible one, driving the van, making sure we got to the venues on time. I never drank or did drugs or anything. Even though I was in my mid-twenties and shooting other people in their early twenties, I always felt much older. Even as I got older and older, I think my outlook on why I was shooting youth culture stayed the same. I see the folly and beauty of it.
What’s the current status of the series Wires Crossed. Are you still working on it or do you think it’s coming to an end?
I feel like I have already procrastinated too long. In my head, it’s been so monumental that there’s are a part of me that’s scared of it. So I’ve been doing other books and projects over the years, when I probably should have been focusing solely on Wires Crossed and should have worked on getting it out there. Just the editing process of it and searching my entire archive was an ordeal. I have most of my film archive in digital form, but it wasn’t complete. So I had to make a systematic checklist of every single photo album I had and basically go through every photo in that album and then check it off the list. I think I collected something like 5000 photos that could potentially be part of the project, then every few months I would edit that number in half until now it’s narrowed down to about 300 photos. I want to be able to fit it into a 200-page book.
It would be easier to just make a massive book but that’s going to be hard to hold, I want the book to be holdable. So I just need to narrow these photos down into the story and keep it concise and that’s a tough job for me. I am kind of a chaotic editor, which you can tell if you’ve seen my exhibitions.
Wires Crossed is tentatively planned for 2021. Is there anything else in the meantime we can look forward to?
This past year was kind of a crazy year. I guess over the last two years we had a bunch of books coming out. Two years ago my wife Deanna, who’s also a photographer and I did a small book together, called Contemporary Suburbium, (Nazraeli Press) which ended up being very well received, and that work was included in two museum exhibitions, one at Pier 24 Photography museum in San Francisco, and the other at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City. Also, I did a book with Deadbeat Club Press called Hairdos of Defiance, which came out last year as well, and there was an exhibition of that work at Roberts Projects gallery in LA.
Then there’s my book Tangentially Parenthetical, which to me is sort of a sister-book to one that I had done a couple of years before called Wayward Cognitions, both published by Um Yeah Arts. These two books are about using anything from my archive to tell a story. A lot of the books I’ve done, like Haridos of Defiance or Teenage Smokers are very narrowly themed. In response to that, Wayward Cognitions and Tangentially Parenthetical are just about pure photography. As a photo book lover, I just wanted to make a book that is purely about sequencing photos together. It’s not about a particular time period or group of people. This is about photography as a language used to weave a story and take the pulse of our society as I am experiencing it over time.