Mark Whiteley, skateboarder and Leica photographer, provides us with the next installment of his interview series “Rolling Through the Shadows.” This series takes a closer look at the seemingly unlikely collision of skateboarding and M photography from the perspective of the skaters and photographers themselves.
Name: Claudio Majorana
Hometown: Catania, Sicily, Italy
Sponsors: Enimol Skateboards
Q: How did you first get into skateboarding?
A: I was thirteen years old and I was watching TV in my bedroom. It was late at night and somebody from a local Sicilian TV channel had the crazy idea to broadcast Jeremy Klein & Heath Kirchart’s part of the video “The End.” Seeing those guys skating in that way impressed me to the point that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So I started telling everyone I met about what I saw on TV in the hope of finding somebody who could tell me more about skateboarding. I seriously had no idea of how it worked. I just wanted to be a skateboarder. It wasn’t easy at all and I guess that’s why my relationship with skateboarding strengthened. Watching that video still gives me goose bumps.
Q: How did you first get into photography?
A: I got into photography during my first year of Medical College, as I didn’t have time to do art school as well I started studying photography by myself. I remember when my friend Antonio called me up to say he had found out about a reportage photography course in town. That sounded great so we called to get some information and the guy gave us an appointment for a few days later.
When we got there the man started explaining that it was actually a war photography workshop. At the time I dreamed a lot about being a war photographer. The idea of documenting hell on earth was incredibly attractive to me but the idea of a war photography workshop held in Sicily just sounded really weird. Anyway we were there to listen to his offer so we let him talk. He also said that it was the best chance in our lives to become photographers. We finally convinced ourselves that he was just trying to steal our money when the guy told us about the best part of the workshop. He said he was going to organize a simulation of an ambulance transportation so that we could feel like real war photographers.
Basically I found out it wasn’t easy to find good courses in my hometown so I just kept doing my own stuff, getting most of my inspiration from books.
Q: How have skateboarding and photography influenced each other in your life and work? Meaning, what has skateboarding done to the way you see photography and vice versa?
A: Photography got me much closer to skateboarding and made me discover things I used to take for granted about skateboarding in general and about skateboarding on my island.
Most of the pictures featured here are part of my project “The Recent History of Sicilian Skateboard Tours” about the international skateboard tours that have happened in the past four years in Sicily. This project represented a process of discovery about skateboarding in my homeland.
On the other side, skateboarding influenced my photography because I think that trying a trick is often just a matter of confidence and it’s the same when you take a picture of somebody you don’t know or of a situation that is none of your business.
Despite the fact that we are moving towards an incredibly high technology-influenced society, approaching somebody you don’t know with a camera will always be something not completely accepted.
Photography requires good self confidence and the ability to relate to someone who may be unpredictable just like how in skateboarding you need to relate with a new spot or trick.
Q: Where do you generally find your favorite images coming from? Portraits, on the road, skate action scenes, etc.?
A: I like to seek people with stories to tell and places where you can feel human presence.
One thing I really love is the fact that you can easily identify a skateboarder even when he’s not skating or holding a skateboard in his hand. You can even guess the stance of a skateboarder from the scars on his elbows or guess what tricks he recently tried by looking at the scratches underneath his skateboard and trucks. It’s in skateboarding’s nature to leave a mark on people, bring them into a vortex of experiences and eventually condition their lives. I like to think of skateboarding photography as a way to reveal everything connected to skateboarders.
I also make a lot of sketches of the pictures I wanna take, so often photography represents a research of things I imagined before.
Q: What first drew you to Leica cameras?
A: My great-grandfather, grandfather and father used Leica cameras before me. When I got my Leica I actually wasn’t aware of how long this family tradition was. Various research allowed me to find a part of their photography equipment and specifically a big box of negatives shot by my great-grandfather and grandfather between 1940 and 1959. One roll of negatives in particular documents the First Mission of the Sicilian Government to the United States. The pictures taken in New York City by my grandfather during that mission were just published on this blog along with my article.
Q: Why do you like them? Do you use them for particular kinds of work or specific scenarios?
A: I think they have most of the features a reportage camera should have. They are light cameras, they are silent and when you hold them you can feel how solid they are.
I use my Leica for most of my projects. I like the fact that it’s discreet aspect doesn’t represent a big influence on the subjects I’m shooting.
Q: What makes Leica cameras a good fit for documenting skate life?
A: Documenting skateboarding, especially when you’re not working on a specific trick, means that you often have to foresee the actions of skateboarders.
The large viewfinder really helps you to predict what will then enter into your frame and that will also help you to compose your image.
Q: What bodies and lenses have you had or used most frequently?
A: I have a Leica M6, a Summicron-M 28 mm, a Summicron-M 50 mm and a Tele-Elmarit-M 90 mm. I’ve spent the past three years working hard with my M6 on a project called “Mustarjancu Kids” about skateboarding in a small Sicilian village.
These kids created a unique skateboard scene starting from nothing. Most of them are part of families with various economic and social issues. They spent the early years of their youth building their little skatepark with the things they would find (or steal) in the streets.
Every skate ledge or manny pad would be made with scrap wood and then covered with carton paper and duct tape in order to make the surface as smooth as possible. One of the flat bars they had was made with the legs of a mannequin. I really admire their determination.
The lens I used the most was the 50 mm. Doing all of the work with a film camera was very challenging but eventually a good exercise for me.
Q: Are there similarities between skateboarding and Leica cameras in your mind? Get philosophical.
A: If I think of skateboarding and Leica cameras, there’s a specific idea that comes to my mind: the skateboard design has gone through an incredible number of changes over time. In parallel, they started designing things similar to skateboards I guess to try to improve some specific aspects. Eventually the kind of skateboard that gives you the best range of possibilities in terms of tricks and use is the one made with the simplest design and materials.
What happened with camera design is pretty much the same thing.
Leica cameras are based on an essential design. That’s why I think they are great cameras that allow you to unconditionally interact with them and let you control the photography process you are getting into.
Q: Who are some of your favorite Leica photographers, non-skate or skate-related?
A: Non-skate related: Italian Gianni Berengo Gardin for his iconic images, Sicilian photographer and friend Giuseppe Leone, the truly inspiring young Venetian photographer Renato D’Agostin, Serbian photographer Boogie, Czech photographer Josef Koudelka, French photographer Gilles Peress for his strong conflict images, and my friends Ramon Zuliani and Alessandro Zuek Simonetti.
Among skate-related: I have to say that, for me, being part of “Rolling Through the Shadows” is an honor and at the same time an encouragement to continue working hard and progress with my photography. I really appreciate the work of the photographers involved in this project.
In addition I really like J. Grant Brittain’s photography.
Q: Do you have a favorite image or memory from using a Leica?
A: Right now I’m spending a period in NYC working on some of my photography projects from here. The same city where more than fifty years ago a special person I never met documented with his Leica the First Mission of Sicilian Government to the United States, my father’s father who I’m starting to feel closer to than ever before.
Thank you for your time, Claudio!
– Mark Whiteley
Mark Whiteley is a photographer, writer and life-long skateboarder hailing from the San Francisco area and currently living in Portland, Oregon. He served as the editor-in-chief of SLAP skateboard magazine for 13 years and now works on all things digital for Nike Skateboarding. His work has been published and exhibited internationally, and his monograph of photography, This Is Not A Photo Opportunity, is available from Gingko Press. For more information on Mark Whiteley, please visit markwhiteleyphotography.com.