The Influential Skate Shots of Jonathan Mehring

By Danny Wilson

Skateboarding is a peculiar beast.Its sway over broader culture is at this stage irrefutable.


One simply has to consider its influence over fashion and graphic design alongside the rise of filmmaking aesthetes – the great Spike Jonze springs to mind, -that cut their teeth within in the culture’s creative hothouse. And yet, the activity itself still bears the burden of  association with a Bart Simpson-esque brand of bratty rebellion. With these well worn clichés at the forefront of the broader cultural consciousness, the decision of an institution as venerable as National Geographic to publish a collection of skateboard photography can’t help but prompt a raised eyebrow or two.

It took a special body of work to open the eyes of powerful outsiders to the potency of the humble skate photo, and that’s where Virgina-born, Brooklyn-based world traveller Jon Mehring came in. Teaming up with a slew of international colleagues, Mehring has collected over 200 striking images, spanning six continents, showcasing some of the world’s most respected pros and native kids pushing around on their first set ups.

No mean feat, especially when one considers the familiarity, nigh mundanity, of how Mehring first developed a taste for the art form.

‘At first I was just interested in taking skate photos of my friends and shooting girlfriends in the nude (laughs).’

‘I took up a photography class in high school I guess I took the class because it seemed like it would be fun. Shooting my friends skating seemed like a pretty cool thing to start with, it kind of happened naturally I guess.’ he says ‘I definitely got into the artistic side of it pretty quickly but I wasn’t obsessed with photographers or anything. At first I was just interested in taking skate photos of my friends and shooting girlfriends in the nude (laughs).’

For Mehring, as with most skateboarders, the activity itself is intrinsically linked with a youthful desire for adventure, a sense of freedom that comes with being granted one’s first means of independent transportation. This, in turn, unlocks a world of opportunity in surroundings that would previously have been deemed banal; carparks, schoolyards, loading bays. Regardless of the far-flung nature of the locales showcased in his current work, for Mehring, it’ll always call back to these universals of the skateboard experience. In his own words his work remains ‘an extension of going exploring your local spots, it’s just a matter of the same concept being extrapolated to a much grander scale.’

Having come up working with tragically departed publications Skateboarder and Slap, Mehring has deep roots in a world with no shortage of unwritten rules when it comes to presentation.

‘One big thing early on, was the tendency of someone who doesn’t skate to crop the ground out of photos so you can’t see where the guy is going to land. I don’t know why that temptation exists but it is extreme,’

‘One big thing early on, was the tendency of someone who doesn’t skate to crop the ground out of photos so you can’t see where the guy is going to land. I don’t know why that temptation exists but it is extreme,’

he says. ‘Another huge thing that was kind of a bummer, is that in skateboard magazines it’s totally acceptable to Photoshop out the filmer. But, because of Nat Geo’s rules of journalistic integrity, you are absolutely not allowed to remove anything from the photo. That was kind of major.’

Working with a team of editors with such a wealth of experience and finely tuned nous for good work outside of skateboarding, one wonders what, if any, are the distinctions between what makes a great skate photo and a great photo in other, more traditional realms. A question that for Mehring, has no iron-clad resolution.

‘I think that a great photo and a great skate photo aren’t necessarily different. But, I think a great skate photo has more rules than just a great photo. The whole frame of reference thing, where’s the guy coming from, where’s he going to land…’ he says. ‘I feel like with skateboarding you have to make a lot of sacrifices [compositionally speaking] in order to get a “skate photo” and sometimes that won’t make for the “best photo” but for the skateboard audience it’s still great.’

In a sense, there’s a certain irony to the fact that an act that’s so often characterised through the lens of rebellious authority flouting can be burdened with so many mores in its presentation. An incongruity that is far from lost on Mehring.

‘Some of the greatest skate photos ever don’t have a frame of reference. I definitely notice it more now that I guess I’ve developed a more critical eye.’ He says. ‘For example, Matt Reason passed away recently and there was a little feature of photos of him in one of the mags. There’s this photo Ryan Gee shot of Matt ollieing off the 7 stair at Love Park and Gee is literally lying on the ground. Normally that would be like “what are you doing?” but for some reason it works and it’s a really cool photo.’

They become the unofficial gatekeepers of a localised culture we might otherwise have never seen.

Mehring’s example of Gee’s iconic shot of Reason not only serves its purpose in illustrating the flexibility of the ‘absolutes’ in skate photography composition but, in a sense, highlights one of the more interesting facets of his position in the skateboarding sphere.

Photographers like Ryan Gee and his contemporaries break into the broader skateboarding consciousness, not to undersell their considerable talents, through being in the right place at the right time. Successful photographers are usually associated with showcasing a particular scene or moment in skateboarding. They become the unofficial gatekeepers of a localised culture we might otherwise have never seen.

In Gee’s case it was the golden age of Philadelphia skateboarding in the 90s, for Craig Stecyk it was transition skating’s inception in the pools of southern California, for Bryce Knight’s and Tobin Yelland it was the raw downhill assaults of San Francisco locals. However, Mehring cemented his place in skateboarding somewhat differently.

‘I like to travel and explore I get more inspired being on the road so I guess that’s my scene in a way.’

‘I guess I kind of inserted myself in places and times where I needed to be but I’ve always kind of been an outsider. I grew up in Virginia and there was really no scene there.’ he says. ‘It all really started with Slap saying to me “you need to move to Philly” so I was like Ok, I guess I’ll move to Philly. I kind of hated it there, I always had my sights on New York but I wanted to work with these magazines and the opportunity to do so was dependent on being [there].’ 

‘I still shoot in New York a lot but people kind of think of me as the travel guy. I guess the travel stuff came about from not being particularly attached to any scene. I like to travel and explore I get more inspired being on the road so I guess that’s my scene in a way. As long as the crew was A-list enough for the magazine to be interested they were pretty much down for any location.’

Any location, indeed. From the desert nations run through by the silk road of yore to the Amazon basin’s heart of darkness, Mehring and co have plundered them all in search of untouched terrain, often with surprising results.

‘The Trans-Siberian Railway, Kazakhstan, even The Amazon.’ he says. ‘I mean, all 3 of those were pretty high risk.’

‘I would say in Azerbaijan there were a lot of people like “what is that, why are you doing that?”’

Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of Mehring’s work in Skate The World is that it showcases more than just international blow-ins but also burgeoning skateboard traditions being developed in utter isolation from the industry as a whole. People from strikingly different cultural background’s reaction to the activity being a source of endless fascination:

‘I would say in Azerbaijan there were a lot of people like “what is that, why are you doing that?” and in India for sure people had just never seen it and they’d gather by their hundreds to watch. They were definitely the two most extreme.’

 

Skateboarding as a whole is often so precious about revealing itself to those who would all to readily dismiss the entire culture as a juvenile waste of time. While at first it may have appeared a struggle to find an appropriate ‘angle’ for presenting these images to the uninitiated, when faced with the finished product the journalistic, intellectual and even emotional heft of the work is hard to deny.

We’re lucky to have folks like Mehring and his contributors showing the world at large, no matter how isolated a pocket we’re talking about, what makes ‘the world of skateboarding’ so important to so many.

 

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