One of the main things I noticed when I first started leafing through riding magazines back in the glory days of WHSmiths was that a disproportionately high percentage of the people involved had exotic names. Taj Mihelich? Leif Valin? Eben Krackau? Growing up in the North West of England, at a time when everyone was either called Sean, Dave or Keith, this lot sounded more like characters from a Channel 5 sci-fi film than anyone you’d find riding a three-set round the back of a Farmfoods.
Even the photographers had cool names, and along with Rob Dolecki and Jeff Zielinski, Jared Souney was definitely up there in the rare moniker stakes. Perhaps more importantly, he also took some mighty-fine photographs. Shooting first for his own magazine, Nine-Ninety, and then for ‘the big three’ back in the heyday of the printed page, he captured a wide spectrum of riding in a highly-skilled manner—without sacrificing that all-important raw edge.
Now based in Portland, he still takes photos today, as well as riding, doing design work, making jackets and seemingly everything else. Here are a few chunks of visual gold from his archive…
Dave Muggleston, Tube Abubaca – Turtles, Boston, Massachusetts – 1998
In the 80s and 90s, if you were a skateboarder or BMX rider in the Boston area you went to Turtles. Turtles was a rusty, rundown playground along the Charles River just outside of downtown Boston. Nicknamed for two concrete turtle sculptures in a wading pool at the end of the park, Turtles was, by playground standards, pretty terrible, but the asphalt banks that ran through it created an inadvertent almost snake-run-like skatepark, in an era where public skateparks were almost nonexistent. I spent a lot of time there throughout the 90s, mostly riding, but sometimes taking photos.
By the late 90s the playground was really rundown and dangerous (from a playground standpoint) and the asphalt was cracking and falling apart. I spent about four years during college living close by and rode the park a couple times a week, until one day in 1998, I rolled up on my bike to find it bulldozed. We’d heard rumors for years that the park was slated to be ripped out, but those rumors went on for so long we never thought it was going to happen. It did.
This photo is from the very last session we had there, just a day or two before the park was torn down. We didn’t see it coming, so I’m glad I had my camera. Dave Muggleston was a regular at Turtles, for at least the last few years it was around, and one of the only people jumping the tubes, and doing abubacas on the end of them. Both of those tricks where kind of the “holy grail” tricks at Turtles, and Dave was doing them pretty comfortably. This was the last abubaca, of the last session ever, at one of the most iconic New England spots of the time.
This is the earliest photo here, but it’s a true gem of an image and far from some early-learner beginner snap. When did you first get into photography?
I started riding in 1984-ish, and probably started trying to tinker with photos in the early 90s, definitely inspired by early BMX magazines like Freestylin’. I got a hand-me-down Konica from parents, but they didn’t know much more about how to use it than I did. I wasted a lot of film with that for a few years. I got more into it in the mid-90s when I went to art school in Boston. We had a darkroom there, and though I was a design major, I tinkered around in the darkroom a lot with my own film. I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I was there so often they assumed I was a photo student. I was a student there, so it wasn’t terribly shady, but I certainly could have been asked to leave at any time.
My research suggests that around this time you were working at a magazine in Boston called Stuff. What was that?
Stuff was an oversized, free, monthly culture/fashion/literature magazine distributed primarily in Boston. It was owned by the Boston Phoenix, which, at the time, was one of the largest alt-weekly papers in the US. Through some dumb luck they gave me an internship after my first year of college. I wasn’t doing it for college credit… I wasn’t far enough along yet. I did it because all I wanted to do was learn how to make magazines, and school wasn’t getting me there fast enough.
Stuff was a small crew of people, so I got thrown into a lot of learning on the job very quickly. At the end of the summer they asked me if I’d stay and work around my school schedule if they paid me. I’d been interning for free, and working at a CVS Pharmacy on the side, so the idea of getting paid very little money to work on a magazine was awesome. Very shortly after that the art director quit the magazine, and all of a sudden I was accidentally the only one who knew how to actually layout the pages to get printed. So I went from intern to acting art director within a few months, just by default. The publisher, a writer and photographer named Robert Birnbaum, really allowed me to learn so much there.
I was able to experiment a lot, and do some really terrible shit, but also some of that work is my favorite work I’ve done. The job gave me a learning opportunity that allowed me to get out of a lot of courses at school, because I was already learning more on the job. I still had to pay the school for the credits, but I got out of probably six or seven classes because of that gig, and learned way more in the process. I got my first Nikon through one of the magazine’s advertisers for a very good discount, and that’s the camera I used to shoot the Muggleston photo, and the Enns photo.
And as a side-note as it’s something I’m interested in… why were the 90s so sick for magazines?
The 90s were a lot more experimental magazine wise. Design in general had a pretty experimental revolution in that period, but magazines gave designers a new design platform every month or two (depending on there frequency) and they didn’t necessarily have to visually tie together from one to the next. You could do something really awful one issue, and learn from what you didn’t like then just do something different the next time.
There was significantly less direct criticism at that point too, at least that you’d ever personally encounter. If people hated your work, you’d get some letters, but who cares. At some point along the way, creative work got sort of held back by internet comments in a lot of ways. I don’t know how many times I’ve encountered people making creative choices based upon what ‘the readers are going to say’ or what ‘the kids want,’ but that’s grown over the last 15 or 20 years. That mentality was almost non-existent back then.
There are so many factors that came together and make things very different nowadays, and thats not necessarily bad, it’s just very different. I guess you’re a lot more exposed to other people’s opinions now, and by default the magazine publishers or media companies are too. With that, things have just become a lot more repetitive and formulaic.
I’d never thought of it like that, but that makes a lot of sense. Around this time you also made a magazine called Nine-Ninety with Brian Tunney. What happened with that?
We made one issue in 1998, and then I took a job at Ride. Somehow I thought I was going to be able to work on both, but it didn’t happen. Brian was working on Dig already in some capacity at that point, and number two just didn’t get done. In hindsight it’s sort of a ‘what if?’ situation. At that point I was a designer, and the job at Ride really allowed me to learn how to take better photos. They had a refrigerator full of film, an account at the photo lab, a small travel budget, and I was working directly with people who took great BMX photos—Mark Losey, Keith Mulligan, Brad McDonald.
There’s really know way to know at this point what would have happened with Nine-Ninety. I moved to California in the spring of ’99, right after school ended, part of the way into working on the second issue. We still planned to put out number two, but at Ride, we were putting out a monthly magazine, plus a trade publication called BMX Business News. So it just didn’t happen, which is regrettable for sure.
The Muggleston photo and the photo of Jason Enns I gave you were both actually shot for Nine-Ninety issue two. That said, I’m still good friends with Brian, and we’ve worked together on all kinds of stuff since then. Issue 2 could eventually come out randomly 30 years later with slightly different content, it’s not out of the question. Brian also just made an amazing BMX zine called Larry’s Donuts is Dead which is a must for anyone who grew up in the Freestylin’ era.
Back to Turtles, I suppose the fact this is one of the last photos only adds to the appeal. Did you think about things like that at the time – consciously trying to document things – or were you just snapping photos all over the place?
At the time it was more just documenting things in the sense that they might end up in a local zine, or maybe one of the bigger magazines if it were good enough. But there really wasn’t a plan. I worked on some videos at the time in our New England scene, I contributed to some of the local zines, and we had just started doing Nine-Ninety. I was around BMX every day, so it was an obvious subject to work with.
Photography was secondary at that point though. I was always at the spot to ride first, and then, at some point I might break out the camera and take a few photos. I was still focussed on riding my bike, though, and occasionally getting in the magazines or videos myself. Once we started doing Nine-Ninety I had a bit more of a ‘reason’ to be shooting.
Any time someone that knew what they were doing was taking photos of me riding, I was taking mental notes of what they were doing, which was really helpful. I think I realized there was some level of documentation of a culture happening, but only on the level that we were going to show our friends and maybe make a zine or two. Not documentation in the sense that we’d be talking about 20 years later from separate continents.
What’s this place now?
That’s a good question. I think it’s just more of a regular city park along the Charles River. There was always a running/walking path along that area… it’s a really nice place to just hang out and picnic or whatever. The playground was actually an eyesore at the end, from a city standpoint.
Jason Enns, X-Up Canadian Nosepick – Impact Skatepark, East Providence, Rhode Island – 1999
Even by today’s standards, an X-up Canadian nosepick is awesome. But Jason is riding an early Kink Empire frameset in this photo — that thing was really fucking heavy, and probably should have gone straight through that quarterpipe. The late 90s was a very overbuilt time period for BMX bikes, and Kink, a new brand at the time, quickly became known for some of the burliest, and heaviest parts of the time.
Right around this time was when I was starting to figure out a vague sense of what I was doing with a camera. I had been fully fumbling through trying to learn to shoot photos, and Impact, like most of the North-East skateparks of the time, was dark. Really dark. Learning to shoot action in there, with very little light, in an era of dark colored bikes and dark clothing, using film (without the immediate feedback of digital)… it was frustrating. Every so often I’d make something happen, and this was right around the time that was coming together. I moved to California a few months later.
How much trial and error was involved in a photo like this? How much film do you think you shot on this one?
At this point I had a very loose sense of how to shoot photos at Impact because I shot there pretty regularly, so I think I only shot a roll or two. It was black and white film, which is a lot more forgiving than color slide film. There are a lot of bad photos on that roll for sure — mostly compositional disasters and timing issues. This was the best shot for sure, but there are a few on that roll that are decent. I was still working on at least 50% luck, and a little bit of ‘this worked the last time, let’s try it again.’
What was the secret for a successfully exposed photo in those conditions?
There was really no way to shoot a photo inside Impact without at least one flash, even with super fast film. I guess ultimately the secret was secondary flashes, like you see in the background. The secondary ‘slave’ flashes kicked some light into other parts of the shot, and helped pop the subject from the darkness. In this one I have a flash on the camera that’s triggering the flash in the background. Once I got a second flash, even without really knowing what I was doing, it opened up a lot of possibilities. A handheld light meter that could read flash exposure was also crucial in those days. That was probably the single most important and helpful tool along the way in the film era. You couldn’t check your exposures on an LCD screen on the back of the camera, so getting the lighting outputs from flashes figured out before you took the photo was key. You could still fuck up, and I certainly did. But it was a guide.
Just after this photo was taken, you moved to California. How was that after living in Boston? It must have been a bit of a change.
Boston and Orange County California, where a lot of the industry was at the time, couldn’t really be more different. Boston is a super old, fairly progressive city. Southern California is almost entirely new development in comparison, it’s pretty conservative, and it’s extremely homogenous… tons of strip malls, chain restaurants, everything is the same palette of beige. Through BMX I knew a lot of people there, and growing up reading the skate and BMX magazines that focused primarily on Southern California, it was in a sense the dream to at some point live there.
When you grow up in a part of the country with four very different seasons, it sounds strange, but it really wears on you when the weather is essentially perfect every day. You start to miss things like rain, and the general concept that the weather might not be perfect tomorrow. At that time, if you wanted to work in BMX or skateboarding, you really had to be in So Cal. Everything was there from the magazines to the brands. As the internet evolved, it really allowed other scenes outside that area to flourish because everything was much more connected.
New small brands around the country were able to expand their audience, and had the ability to quickly get on a larger radar. Riders from those scenes could get our attention at the magazines much quicker than in the past. Brands like FBM, Kink, Eastern, Standard, Hoffman, and others were popping up across the country, and all of a sudden people around the world could see what they were doing on the internet within days, rather than months later in the magazines. It was cool to see that happening first hand, because I really embraced the Internet, and I was an East Coast kid, so I understood the value that could have for a lot of the scenes outside Southern California… it wasn’t so much that I knew it was going to change the whole business, I just loved the idea that all of a sudden people were starting to recognize all these different little pockets around the world that were like where I grew up.
Anyway, there were some great things about living there for sure, and in some ways I had to get it out of my system. As time went on, it was getting easier to really be anywhere in the country because of the internet. I spent just over four years in So Cal, but it was getting really expensive, and it just wasn’t where I wanted to be long term. I made a lot of connections there, and ultimately that overall culture shock was pretty important and eye opening. I don’t have any interest in moving back there, but I love visiting.
I live in Oregon now, and can drive to So Cal in 15 hours, which seems like a lot, but it’s pretty mellow. We have colors outside of the beige pallet here, and houses and buildings built prior to 1970. The BMX scene here is also very similar in vibe to what I grew up around in New England, so it’s comfortable. It’s actually a really nice balance between Boston and So Cal.
Robbie Morales, Roof Gap – Fullerton, California – 2001
There are two in this photo: In the air is Robbie Morales, who had just started Fit Bike Co, and two floors up on the building filming you have Anthony Moreschi, the lead singer of the seminal Boston hardcore band Ten Yard Fight. Anthony also spearheaded 411 Video Magazine’s entry into the BMX world at the time, and he was with us filming for one of its early videos. Anthony adds a bit of human scale to that drop, not something I thought of at the time.
This was shot for a pull-out Primo poster in one of the last issues of Ride Magazine that I worked on.
This is a pretty wild move. How did this one come about? Was it something Robbie had wanted to do for a while, or was it just some spur of the moment act of derring do?
Roof gaps were in at the time… and Robbie was a racer, so had that gate snap that allowed him to get speed for that sort of thing pretty easily. I don’t remember exactly how this one came about, but it was definitely a little nerve racking.
There’s an infamous sequence in an early issue of Ride where Robbie tries to jump a river gap in Santa Ana, and comes up short, falling backwards about eight feet into the river. It’s an unforgettable sequence, and you better believe all three of us were thinking about that while setting up for this. I remember thinking, if that happens here, we aren’t going to the hospital, we won’t need to. It’s going to be that bad. Thankfully it didn’t end poorly. He actually did it several times, so we were both pretty confident we got the shot I think.
This one is just before you left Ride. What were you planning on doing? Was going it alone a scary prospect after having free film for a few years?
Nate Hanson and Don Brown at Etnies along with Greg Walsh at Primo made it possible to leave. I left Ride with a plan to shoot photos for both brands, which was perfect because their teams had a lot of crossover. So they were paying me to get photos for them, and I was free to shoot whatever else for any of the magazines. I gave them first pick of all the photos and then some of the other stuff often got used in magazines.
Taj Mihelich, Wallride to Downside Tailwhip – San Antonio, Texas – 2002
In the early 2000s I lived in California, but spent a ton of time in Texas. I was working for Etnies as the BMX team photographer, and a good chunk of the team lived in Austin at the time. This was the same era Dave Parrick was working on what became the iconic Etnies BMX video Forward.
Joe Rich, Ruben Alcantara, Sandy Carson, and Taj Mihelich all lived in Austin at the time, and made up a big chunk of the Etnies team. Taj and Joe both had popular signature shoes, and their small brand Terrible One was at its height. Parrick and I traveled to Austin more times than I can count, filming for the video, and at the same time shooting ads for the shoes, and photos of the guys to send to the magazines.
Wallride whips were a rarity at the time, and downside whips out of wallrides were pipe dreams. Taj is an anomaly though. He sees things other people don’t, and this wallride to downside whip became one of the bangers from his part in Forward, as well as an advertisement promoting his shoe, the Roscoe. If you look closely, you can see Sandy Carson’s camera lens poking through the fence just under Taj’s front tire. Sandy’s photo from that angle ran in an issue of Dig Magazine at the time, and the video ultimately became one for the ages.
Definite peak Taj era here, especially with them beige cargo pants. What was a usual day like riding with him in this time?
Taj is a very mellow guy. Pretty quiet and really friendly. So it was just like any other session with your friends, but that friend happened to be on another level. He’d do a bit of work at Terrible One in the morning, and then it was sort of down to whatever everyone was feeling. He always had some spots on his radar when we came to town, just like anyone else. A lot of times we’d just session the T1 ramp in its early days. I always went down there knowing I should be coming back with something, but we didn’t necessarily have a plan for what that would be. Sometimes just hanging out on the ramp for a regular session evolves into a photo used for an ad.
Were the rumours of him and Joe Rich riding around Austin and hitting handrails blind true?
I never saw that first hand, but both those guys are more than capable. Joe was dealing with pretty bad knee injuries that lasted a good portion of the time Forward was being filmed, so most of that time I was down there Joe wasn’t riding, which was a bummer.
Paul Buchanan, who passed away a couple years back, rode for Terrible One and definitely rode around Austin as you’ve described, though. Paul is rumored to have done the infamous Austin Church Gap just cruising around town one day. So I wouldn’t put anything past those guys.
As someone who was hired by a brand to actually take a photo which was then used in marketing and stuff, how did that affect how you shot things? Did you still have your bike with you, or was it ‘business time’.
In those days I always had my bike partly to ride, and partly to get from spot to spot. On those trips, getting photos was definitely the priority, but any time you get to a new spot, there’s usually a warm up period where the person or people you’re shooting is feeling it out and getting comfortable, so I’d get some time in then. You do have to draw a line and put the bike down for sure, sometimes you have to remind yourself to do that, but at this point it wasn’t much different from the time at the magazine.
In this instance the brand is paying for the trip, so while I’m hanging out with my friends on one hand, we both have a job to do. Taj is one guy who was enough of an adult and a professional to understand that you’re not only there to hang out, and something has to get done. At the same time, if you put pressure on someone to do something, they’re gonna get hurt. So there’s a fine balance, and that’s why to really shoot something like BMX, it has to be part of it, because you really do have to be around it all the time. You can’t just show up and take a photo of someone. There’s a lot of waiting, not to mention they have to be comfortable with you.
In a way, hanging out and having your bike to ride is part of the business time. You just have to know when to put it down. There’s a lot of hanging out and waiting involved in shooting BMX, so it helps if you’re there to ride too.
Gary Young, Tabletop – Las Vegas, Nevada – 2002
This is the summer of Gary Young. He had just landed on the covers of three major BMX magazines at the same time, one of them, being a Dig cover/interview I had just recently shot with him in San Diego. Gary rode fast, did big tricks, and carried with him a Dirt Brother’s approved style that included tabletops even Vic Murphy would approve of.
In the summer of 2002 Mat Hoffman and crew were putting on one of their Crazy Freakin’ Bikers events/contests in Joliet, Illinois, just outside Chicago. Gary, myself, Aaron Nardi, and Ryan Sher made a road trip out of it, and shot photos at a bunch of skateparks and spots along the way, which ultimately became a feature in Ride UK Magazine. This photo, from Pro Park in Las Vegas, Nevada was used as the opening spread of that story, and a similar photo ran as a pull-out poster in the mag as well.
A day or two later on this same trip, Gary lost his wallet somewhere in Colorado, but didn’t realize it until the next stop hundreds of miles away. He didn’t have any other ID or bank cards (they were in the wallet where they belong) but he happened to have a copy of the Dig Magazine that had just come out with his interview in his car. We found a branch of his bank, and Gary, being the nice guy that he is, was able to sweet talk the branch into letting him make a withdrawal using the magazine interview as identification.
On the two thousand mile drive home to California from the contest, he managed to find the same gas station he thought he’d possibly left his wallet at a couple weeks prior, and sure enough, he got it back. Nice guys always win?
One thing that really stands out in this is that classic slide film blue sky, which fits with that crisp concrete… and I suppose if I read too much into this, Gary’s ‘nice guy’ image. Did different styles of photo fit different people or riding style? This is quite different to that Ralph Sinisi car feeble photo, for instance.
I guess you could make that choice based on personality, but in a lot of cases it’s probably more the scene you’re shooting than the rider. On a nice bright sunny day like that, black and white would look fine, but it’s going to communicate a totally different feeling than the bright blue does.
A lot of those slide films are really slow speed, and have really saturated colors, lending themselves to sunny days… the Ralph Sinisi photo was shot in an almost pitch black alley, so color slide film would have ended up super dark, and pretty monochromatic anyway. The faster black and white film gave a little more exposure latitude, and ultimately has a “grittier” feel. A lot of times we’d use black and white in those super low light situations, or for sequences because you could shoot at a higher shutter speed with the faster film.
Black and white does inherently have a grittier, more ‘punk rock’ feel to it though. It is something you had to think about more than you do now. These days you have a digital raw file full of color information you can either use or not use. If you shoot black and white film, you can’t really go back to color, unless you do some sort of hand coloring. So you did have to be conscious of the scene for sure. As a designer I tended to think a lot about how it might get used later, when it was laid out. In this instance it was a conscious decision to shoot in color, but probably less because Gary is really nice, and more that it was such a nice sky and a simple overall scene, it just made sense.
Mark Rainha, Tabletop – Portland, Oregon – 2011
Mark is an adventurer. He lived on a houseboat when I moved to Portland, and after that he moved into what could best be described as a tiny, hilltop, jungle-treehouse, hidden amongst giant apartment buildings and mansions owned by basketball players, in Portland’s exclusive North-West hills. The treehouse bungalow was up a large staircase, at the top of a very steep hill, overlooking downtown Portland. Just behind the house, Mark carved a trail/staircase, through some bushes, up what was essentially a cliff, until he found a spot where he thought, ‘Hey, let’s build a ramp here.’
After some digging and awkward lumber carrying, the ramp was built into the hillside, and into a few existing trees. There was a big drop off the back of one quarter-pipes into thorn bushes, and another side had a drop off so steep that you would definitely be dead if you shot off the ramp in that direction. It was sketchy, fun and everything a ramp should be. It was small and quirky, but you could find some fun lines, and we had some really great sessions on that thing.
You can see Ryan Barrett lurking in the background of this shot. If he were to take a few steps back, he’d be dead. These sort of imperfect, somewhat dangerous, DIY set ups, tucked into places they shouldn’t be… that’s the BMX I love. I also love that Mark is wearing his keys on his hip in this shot.
Even though this one is digital, with that fisheye and the back-ground blur it doesn’t feel too ‘clean’ or anything. Is that important with a raw act like riding or skating?
I definitely think motion is important. I also think there are imperfections that happened in the old days that made photos really great, and today people might see those same imperfections and reshoot things. There’s often perfection in imperfection and a lot of spontaneous imperfection gets lost with digital immediate feedback. A lot of people strive for tack sharp photos, that are crystal clear and perfectly lit across the board. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it stylistically has a very different feel. To me, too much perfection can look like a fairy tale scene.
I look back at a lot of my favorite photos I saw growing up, and almost all of them would probably get reshot if they had digital feedback at the time. They’re spontaneous, and that’s what makes them awesome. They might be cropped in a crazy way, or you might not see the obstacle like someone thinks you should, or maybe the photographer’s foot is in it. All these little quirks are what makes them great. These days the rider sees the screen too, and might have their own opinion on how it should be shot. Then there’s the worries about what the viewer is going to think in the comments. The spontaneity is gone.
20 years ago, sometimes motion blur was a little bit inadvertent — a bi-product of fast movement and slow films. There’s something about motion blur to me that adds an element of reality to an image, though. These days I find myself going back to shooting that way… more movement, less ‘perfection,’ and a bit more raw. That said, BMX and skateboarding are different now, too. They’re not necessarily as gritty as they were 20 years ago. Skateparks these days resemble family fun centers more than the dark, dirty warehouses of the 90s. So there’s no right or wrong, but I certainly prefer the raw, gritty imagery over perfect fairy tale scenes.
One last question… nowadays it seems you do a lot of different things, from making jackets to graphic design (which I suppose goes back to your early magazine days). Does it all come from the same place, if you get what I mean?
I never saw myself as just a ‘photographer,’ but through BMX I got a lot of photo work over the years, and for a long time, that’s most of what I did. I still do lots of photo work, and I love photography as a medium. I also see photography as tool that goes along with my design work. I love to get my hands into all aspects of a project, so being able to shoot photos for a design project was a motivation for me learning photography.
With things like making jackets, it allows me to take that desire to get involved in the whole process a step further. Photography and design are both very digital mediums nowadays. When I started they were both very analog. I started to miss the idea of making tactile things and getting my hands dirty. So the ability to have an idea, like a jacket that I want to design, and then be able to make that jacket, designing all the little elements of it, and then taking the photos of it myself… it combines a lot of the things I like into one. I like screen printing, I like design, I like photography, I like making stuff on a sewing machine, so the small brand Ransom Six that I do… the whole idea is take all of those elements and make something out of it that I like. I get to do every aspect of it, without any other cooks in the kitchen. It’s as much a photo project as it is a design project.
So for me, it’s all one and the same, and really it all comes out of BMX and making BMX magazines. A lot of that DIY mentality comes from watching small DIY BMX and skate brands, and working with small brands on a shoestring budget. Those low budget projects are the most fun for me, so Ransom Six started as a way to just take all that, put it together, and if people want it, awesome. Half the motivation of making that stuff is ultimately driven by taking photos of it in use in the end.