James Cassimus Profile

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Tony Alva, James Cassimus, Profile, V20N13

In the twenty-first century, skateboard photographers are “a dime a dozen.” There’s no lack of people running around with Hasselblad medium format cameras with the latest eBay-purchased 4,000-dollar Carl Zeiss (okay, I’m jealous) fisheye lens. There’re more clickers than you can shake a stick at. You can’t swing a dead cat by the tail without hitting (huh?) someone toting a Hasselblad. But remember, “A fancy camera does not a perfect photographer make.” What I’m getting at is that there’re oodles (a lot) of photographers, and out of those oodles, only a few really stand above the rest. Some have a “look” or a “style”-their photos are different, you know the ones. Those few photographers are the ones who beginner and intermediate photogs emulate, learn from, and bite their future style from. These present-day overachieving skate photogs are not the first-they follow a long line of greats from the past 30 years of our chosen activity (skateboarding). This little piece (at least it started out as a little piece) began as a six-page Relapse, but after Swift and I drooled over the pile of images that photographer James Cassimus shot in the 1970s and 80s, it swelled into this lengthy feature. James’ file cabinets are bursting at the seams, so we decided to expose you to the photos that inspired all of today’s great shooters-consciously or unknowingly.J.Grant Brittain
Hero Worshipper

Interview with James Cassimus by Grant Brittain

Where did the name “King James” come from?
Glen E. Friedman gave me that name sometime in the mid to late 70s-the early Skateboarder magazine days.

Why did he call you that?
I have no idea. I was photo editor of Skateboarder. I guess I was in charge of everything, so I was the king.

All right. Who kept putting it in the magazine? Like when they’d refer to you as King James.
In the early days, Brian Gillogy and Craig Stecyk.

Does anybody still call you King James?
Glen does.

How did you get into shooting skateboarding?
We were skateboarding in the mid 70s, and I just started taking my camera along with me. I took pictures of what we were doing. We were actually skating for Leroy Grannis. He was taking pictures of us skating, so I was watching him shoot stuff, and I said, “Oh.”

You weren’t a photographer at that time?
I was only probably fifteen years old or something around there. I grabbed my dad’s camera, went out, and started shooting pictures of my friends who were skating with me. Jim Mahoney had a magazine that came out before Skateboarder called Skateboard. Basically, we were skating around the South Bay, so they’d take pictures of us at Vermont and some other schools in Palos Verdes, California. Then they’d put them in the magazine. There were only two or three issues that actually came out. I got the cover shot for the third issue that they never printed. So after that, I just sent all my pictures down to Skateboarder.

When did you first pick up a camera?
I started shooting Super-8 stuff in the eighth grade, and I picked up a still camera probably in my first year of high school.

What were you shooting?
Mostly skateboarding and a little bit of surfing.

What kind of camera was it?
A Nikon F-2, I think.

Did it have a motor drive on it?
Not at that point. Later on, I bought a motor drive for it and then started shooting sequence stuff.

How did Jim Mahoney pay you?
He basically paid me whenever I saw him on the street. He’d whip out his wallet and pay me in cash, or when I had more photos in the magazine, he’d tell me to go into his garage and take whatever I wanted. He was a multimillionaire guy who had a ton of toys, so I’d go in and take a motorcycle or whatever else was around.

He wouldn’t pay you with paint thinner or a lawnmower in his garage?
No, I’d take one of his toys.

You’d just go into his garage and he’d give you something for the ptos?
Yeah, he’d say, “How much do I owe you?” And I’d go, “Oh, I don’t know. How about that motorcycle over there?” And then he’d say, “Okay.”

Did you get all your photos back?
Probably not.

How long had you been shooting before you got a photo published in that magazine?
I think I got a published photo from one of the first couple rolls I shot, actually.

There was nobody else shooting skating, either.
Yeah, there was nobody shooting it.

You knew the basic workings of the camera?
Yeah, what you learn from shooting movies, too. I learned from working with Super-8 already before that.

So you learned mostly out on the streets, just trial and error?
High school photography class and trail and error. Just shooting stuff and looking at the photos when Skateboarder came out. Studying those photos and figuring out how they shot them-what they used for lenses.

Who was shooting for Skateboarder when you started getting stuff printed?
The majority of the stuff was Warren Bolster’s. Art Brewer had a couple shots in there, too. That’s about it.

Was Craig Stecyk around?
Yeah, Stecyk was shooting stuff. And then Wynn Miller came along.

And then Glen came later?
Yeah, Glen came later.

So then one day they asked you to be the photo editor?
Actually, they asked me to be their first staff photographer in ’76. I was still in high school at that point, and I was their first person on staff.

How old are you?
I’m 44 right now. I was their first staff photographer, and they gave me free film-all the film I wanted to shoot-and not much of any assignments or anything, but just go to a contest. It was kind of an exclusive thing. I worked that position for a while, and then Warren left the magazine for unknown reasons-maybe it was to concentrate more on surfing stuff or something else. Then they asked me to be photo editor.

When you were first shooting skating, did you see it as capturing a piece of history?
I didn’t think of it as capturing history until the first Old Man Skate Jam in 2001. That was 25 years after I first started shooting. After that I figured, “Well, there is a lot of history there.” The only bummer is that there’s a lot of stuff missing.

That’s what I was going to ask you next.
Well, when we were twenty years old, things were handled differently back then. A lot of times, when you sent your stuff to the color separator, they didn’t think any of the stuff had any value, either, and they’d lose it. Then you’d say, “Well, okay. You guys lost a picture. Now what?” The corporate people from the magazine are going, “They’re our supplier. We can’t tell them they owe us 1,000 dollars for a lost picture.” And I just let things slide. Unfortunately, the majority of the stuff lost was probably my stuff. But there’s still a lot of stuff around. What’s funny now is that you can go back and look at shots that weren’t A-plus-they were A-minus shots-that are still pretty classic shots. You know, stuff that we never got to publish in the magazine. The photos that Glen published in his books are classic images that were never even published in Skateboarder. They didn’t make the cut then, but that’s how history goes-those photos are now classics.

When you were first starting out, did you have any mentors who you looked up to or who helped you out?
The people I looked up to were whoever had photos published in the magazines. Mostly Warren Bolster’s stuff, and Surfer magazine-a lot of Art Brewer’s stuff. Stecyk’s stuff was always just incredible, too. And Wynn Miller’s stuff was different.

I know that Glen said in his interview that you were more on the technical side of photography. I think what he meant by that is that you use lights and he’s pretty bare bones. Do you consider yourself more of a technician? Yeah, I’ve always been really technical and a perfectionist. I hate it when things go wrong or are a little bit out of focus-when something’s not right.

Are you addicted to gear?
I think every photographer is addicted to gear at one point. Then as they get too much, it gets too heavy, so they start going backward to simplify things. I’ve probably overdone things with too much equipment. Now I feel that sometimes you’re better off with simpler setups. It’s really easy to fall into that trap and overlight things. I’ve done it. I still do it at times. But some of the best photographs are simple ones.

With one or two lights.
Yeah, you really do need shadows to make things dramatic. If you overlight things, you tend to lose that. Anyone can put four lights on a subject and take a picture.

Do you think you’ve laid the foundation for future skate photographers? Did you even think about it back then?
No, we were going out and having fun. Even though I was shooting for the magazine, I’d still skate every day. I’d go out, shoot some photos, and we’d skate for a while. When the light was good, we’d shoot, or we’d wait ’til twilight. Then when it got too dark, we’d put the cameras away and skate all night long. I mean, I actually skated first and shot pictures second.

Did skate photography help you with other forms of photography like sports and commercial advertising?
I always thought that if you could shoot skateboarding and surfing, you could shoot anything because they move so much faster than most other sports. Your peak moment was so quick that if you had the timing down for skateboarding and surfing, you could shoot anything else. Actually, when I first started shooting other sports, I took some of the stuff I learned from skate photography, like the fill flash, and used it for other things. People didn’t use it at all back then.

Has skate photography stuck with you through the years? How do you look back on that era of your life?
When I look back to when I was shooting skate photography, the only thing I wish I could’ve done was shoot a lot more photos and movies. I did shoot a lot of movies during that period of time, though. They used some of my live footage in the Dogtown documentary. I just wish I would’ve gone out and shot with a lot more of the riders for my own personal use now. Back then, being photo editor for Skateboarder, I could assign things to Glen, Fineman, Goodrich, and Stecyk. Looking back, I really wish I would’ve gone out and shot more. I had the opportunity, but I just didn’t do it because I was in a position to assign work for other people to do.

Are you impressed when you look at skate photos now? Has it come a long way from its original roots?
Skate photos back then were more or less documenting things. Now they’ve turned into little works of art. I mean, for the amount of effort put into lighting some of the shots I see Atiba do, they’re basically works of art. It’s come a long way from our days when we’d just go out, shoot, and bail light, or we’d use one or two strobes at most. I think there’re two different looks-you have the super technical, multi-light setup shots that are really, really nice. And then you’ve got the super gritty street look, too, which is a whole different way of looking at things.

o wrong or are a little bit out of focus-when something’s not right.

Are you addicted to gear?
I think every photographer is addicted to gear at one point. Then as they get too much, it gets too heavy, so they start going backward to simplify things. I’ve probably overdone things with too much equipment. Now I feel that sometimes you’re better off with simpler setups. It’s really easy to fall into that trap and overlight things. I’ve done it. I still do it at times. But some of the best photographs are simple ones.

With one or two lights.
Yeah, you really do need shadows to make things dramatic. If you overlight things, you tend to lose that. Anyone can put four lights on a subject and take a picture.

Do you think you’ve laid the foundation for future skate photographers? Did you even think about it back then?
No, we were going out and having fun. Even though I was shooting for the magazine, I’d still skate every day. I’d go out, shoot some photos, and we’d skate for a while. When the light was good, we’d shoot, or we’d wait ’til twilight. Then when it got too dark, we’d put the cameras away and skate all night long. I mean, I actually skated first and shot pictures second.

Did skate photography help you with other forms of photography like sports and commercial advertising?
I always thought that if you could shoot skateboarding and surfing, you could shoot anything because they move so much faster than most other sports. Your peak moment was so quick that if you had the timing down for skateboarding and surfing, you could shoot anything else. Actually, when I first started shooting other sports, I took some of the stuff I learned from skate photography, like the fill flash, and used it for other things. People didn’t use it at all back then.

Has skate photography stuck with you through the years? How do you look back on that era of your life?
When I look back to when I was shooting skate photography, the only thing I wish I could’ve done was shoot a lot more photos and movies. I did shoot a lot of movies during that period of time, though. They used some of my live footage in the Dogtown documentary. I just wish I would’ve gone out and shot with a lot more of the riders for my own personal use now. Back then, being photo editor for Skateboarder, I could assign things to Glen, Fineman, Goodrich, and Stecyk. Looking back, I really wish I would’ve gone out and shot more. I had the opportunity, but I just didn’t do it because I was in a position to assign work for other people to do.

Are you impressed when you look at skate photos now? Has it come a long way from its original roots?
Skate photos back then were more or less documenting things. Now they’ve turned into little works of art. I mean, for the amount of effort put into lighting some of the shots I see Atiba do, they’re basically works of art. It’s come a long way from our days when we’d just go out, shoot, and bail light, or we’d use one or two strobes at most. I think there’re two different looks-you have the super technical, multi-light setup shots that are really, really nice. And then you’ve got the super gritty street look, too, which is a whole different way of looking at things.