How To Steal My Job

I have a Web site (modesty prevents me from blatantly plugging myself by dropping the URL in the opening paragraph of my own article, but suffice it to say that if you were to type my name—first and last, no spaces—you’d be just a dotcom away) and there’s a link so that visitors can write their feedback. Most who bother to write something are very kind. “Hey, I really like your photos, they often write. This is a terrific daily affirmation, although I used to have another Web site eight or nine years ago when my photos were absolutely god-awful and people wrote the same thing by and large, so I don’t let it go to my head.

Nearly half the people who write me ask how I got started shooting photos and what steps are necessary to become a professional skateboard photographer. This, of course, calls into question the sincerity of the praise I receive since the complimentary words are quite possibly a generic, friendly preamble in an attempt at buttering me up in order to get free advice or some secrets of the trade.

Well, I’ve decided to spare you the bother of writing an insincere e-mail. Here’s all the information I’m prepared to divulge—and if you want anything more specific than this, you’re going to have to get out your checkbook.

So, how does one become a professional skateboard photographer?

This is actually a big question. The answer depends greatly on what your starting point is. For anyone just getting started in photography, first you’ve got to work on your game. An introductory photo course or a “guide to photography book are good ideas. Also, don’t forget that the Internet is packed with photo Web sites with some great resources for free.

When you shoot skateboarding, you have to deal with a huge variety of conditions. If the Arco rail is magically de-knobbed one afternoon and you’re there with Billy Marks, he’s going to try his 360 flip nosegrind whether the sun’s shining on the rail or not. Your job as a photographer is to make the stuff look good no matter what.

Books and courses will help, but there’s no substitute for burning through some film. It’s the only real way to improve. Shoot photos of your friends, your family, or whatever else interests you. Learn how film records light in different situations and figure out how to manipulate these situations to get the results you want. Shoot black and white as well as color film—both print film and transparency (slide) film. Shoot photos with a flash and experiment. Even if you’ve never really come into your own as a photographer, you’ll at least have a thorough record of an important part of your life—the part where you were trying to learn the skills necessary to become a skateboard photographer, but failed.

Perhaps you could assemble your photos with some accompanying prose, which details your disappointment—this might make an excellent gallery show. It’s very postmodern. So there’s a backup plan for you, free of charge—I should’ve been a guidance counselor. Even if you opt not to do the show, you’ll still have a bunch of photos of friends and so forth. And by now you probably don’t want to be a skateboard photographer any longer—it’s a fairly juvenile pursuit anyway.

Let’s say you stick with it through this early learning phase and you’re still keen to follow your childhood dreams, or maybe you’re already pretty good by the time you read this, the next step is simple: send your photos in. If your photos are as good or better than those published in your favorite, second favorite, or even third favorite skateboard magazine, send them in. If they’re nearly as good but not quite, then you might try smaller local magazines or putting together your own ‘zine first.

In order to get your photos published in the big mags, you’ll probably need to submit “red hot skate action. If you don’t have access to, say, Andrew Reynolds, you might try and enlist “the next Andrew Reynolds or the best facsimile that your scene allows. You’ heard the pros complain that every little kid is grinding twenty-stair rails these days. Find one of those kids. A Check Out in TransWorld is a good first step; though, I myself got my first break in Thrasher, where my photos (one of a child knee-boarding and another of a young Paul Otvos frontside boardsliding a wooden six-stair rail) found their way into a subscription ad. If you don’t have homegrown talent, you’re going to have to work a little harder. No one said that life is fair—or if they did, they were lying, gravely mistaken, or perhaps just being sarcastic.

In my formative photo years, I honed my skills shooting a scrawny young lad from Burlington, Ontario with an uncanny knack for switch tailsliding tall ledges and nollie flipping double-sets. He would make day-trips to Toronto from his native Burlington via the train in order to skate the big city’s granite courtyards. That young lad’s name: Mark Appleyard. True story.

But if you don’t have an Appleyard, all is not lost. Try to approach things from a different angle—moody photos of empty skateparks, an instructional article on focusing a board, your little brother bombing a hill, your buddy doing a g-turn at sunset, whatever you can think of. Once you have something good, send it in. Write a brief letter introducing yourself (have a parent or teacher check the grammar for you—magazine editors are impressed with proper grammar, seriously) telling them that you’d like to submit photos for publication. By all means, invite feedback, but bear in mind that photo editors are busy people and may not have time to write back. If you’re lucky enough to have a photo editor give you specific criticisms, pay attention. You don’t have to adopt someone else’s philosophy on photography, but if you really want to get published and someone’s telling you precisely why they decided not to publish your work, that is vital information.

The best feedback I ever got was from Lance Dawes of Slap who told me (several years ago, I might add) that the photos I’d sent in “sucked!—which, to be fair, they did. He told me that the focus wasn’t sharp enough, I was too far away with the fisheye, and the shutter speed was too slow to freeze the action on the available-light stuff. When I got off the phone I was crushed and a little angry. “I’ll show that Lance Dawes, I said to myself, and the next package I sent away was much better. Of course I sent it to TransWorld, but the point is that Lance’s harsh criticism helped me to become a better photographer, and if that’s your goal, then there’s nothing better than having someone tell you that your work is terrible (unless you are a young child and the comment comes from an abusive parent—in that case, it can be very harmful indeed, and you should seek counseling).

Here’s the last and most valuable piece of advice. Send your photos along with an article. Paradoxically, it’s easier to get ten photos published than one all by its lonesome. Magazines usually have a backlog of single, random photos but only a relatively small photo feature in which to fit them. To get a photo run in the “photo section of a magazine, you’re competing against the top photographers who’re shooting with the top riders. Photographers and riders are each pestering the editors to get their photos run. Your unsolicited photos are by definition the last priority. The solution is to put together a small feature—a park review, a scene profile, or a how-to-build-a-quarterpipe article (if you’ll notice, I’m not giving you my top-shelf ideas—you’re going to have to have a brainstorming session to generate some fresh ideas of your own). Team up with a writer if you don’t write that well. The standards aren’t unreachably high—you don’t need a masters in English—but for the love of god, please avoid writing these words like you would the black plague: “I’m more of a photographer than a writer, so I’m going to let the pictures do the talking.

A few words on presentation: If you send in a package of incredible twenty-by 30-inch masterfully printed black and white prints that capture exceedingly difficult maneuvers performed by top-level skateboard all-stars, then feel free to scrawl some vague captions on a cereal box and don’t worry about the self-addressed stamped envelope, the mag will absorb the cost of that one for you. So long as you leave a number you can be reached at, then that’ll do just nicely—we’ll be in touch. If, however, your work is fair but far from earth-shattering in terms of content or execution, then heed this recommendation: Clearly label all your slides and prints! If you handwrite a note, make it clean and legible—better yet, type it out. While it seems irrelevant to the photos you’re submitting, I assure you it’s not.

Your initial submissions say a lot about your personality. You are essentially bidding for a job. You want the magazine to think you possess the basic skills they look for in an independent contractor. You want to give them the impression that you’re organized, reliable, and competent. It’s not necessary for you to be organized, reliable, or competent, but you should at least maintain the facade until you get a couple of gigs under your belt.

Here’s the inspirational ender: The most important thing to becoming a professional photographer, or for that matter a professional anything at all, is to go out and do it. How did I get my start? I sent photos in. How did I get a job at TransWorld? I kept sending my photos in. How will I keep from getting fired once your packages start showing up? I will continue to send my photos in.

That’s it—I hope that helps. Well, sort of. Actually it’s probably better for me if it doesn’t help—there’s too much competition already as it is. I guess what I mean to say is that I hope that it seems like I’ve helped. Good luck!

Illustrations by Andrew Pommierntation: If you send in a package of incredible twenty-by 30-inch masterfully printed black and white prints that capture exceedingly difficult maneuvers performed by top-level skateboard all-stars, then feel free to scrawl some vague captions on a cereal box and don’t worry about the self-addressed stamped envelope, the mag will absorb the cost of that one for you. So long as you leave a number you can be reached at, then that’ll do just nicely—we’ll be in touch. If, however, your work is fair but far from earth-shattering in terms of content or execution, then heed this recommendation: Clearly label all your slides and prints! If you handwrite a note, make it clean and legible—better yet, type it out. While it seems irrelevant to the photos you’re submitting, I assure you it’s not.

Your initial submissions say a lot about your personality. You are essentially bidding for a job. You want the magazine to think you possess the basic skills they look for in an independent contractor. You want to give them the impression that you’re organized, reliable, and competent. It’s not necessary for you to be organized, reliable, or competent, but you should at least maintain the facade until you get a couple of gigs under your belt.

Here’s the inspirational ender: The most important thing to becoming a professional photographer, or for that matter a professional anything at all, is to go out and do it. How did I get my start? I sent photos in. How did I get a job at TransWorld? I kept sending my photos in. How will I keep from getting fired once your packages start showing up? I will continue to send my photos in.

That’s it—I hope that helps. Well, sort of. Actually it’s probably better for me if it doesn’t help—there’s too much competition already as it is. I guess what I mean to say is that I hope that it seems like I’ve helped. Good luck!

Illustrations by Andrew Pommier