Mike Blabac has been shooting photos since the late 80s, has been DC’s photographer since the late 90s, and now has a photo book due out soon that’s dedicated to a life’s work in skateboarding. Read on to see where he got his start, how he came up, and get a sneak peak and some of the iconic photos to be included in his book.
How did your book come about?
Two years ago Ken Block hit me up about it. At that point I’d been at DC for eight years and I’d been involved in so much stuff, whether it was Danny jumping the Great Wall or the Mega Ramp stuff, plus there is a lot of photos of people who are really important in the history of skateboarding—people like Anthony, Stevie, Smith and Colin. It’s an honor for me to be part of skateboarding and to do this book. (Interview cont’d below.)
But this book is not going to be just DC riders.
No, that’s something that Ken didn’t want. It’s naturally going to be a DC thing because that’s what I’ve done for two thirds of my career, but he wanted the photos I shot of Kalis and Danny when I was a kid, plus all the Girl, S.F, and Mad Circle photos.
How did you get into skateboard photography?
I started skating in the mid 80s and I was interested in photography and always intrigued by cameras as a kid. I’d shoot a whole roll of film trying to get one perfect photo. It didn’t really click with me until I started looking at skate mags—that was ’86/87. I had this uncle who knew about photography, so I’d dog-eared some pages and asked him, “How they did this and how they did that? Why was this so bright?” He explained to me what fill flash was and what a fisheye did. So then I was really intrigued, because not only do these guys get to see the best skateboarding, but they also get a chance to make all these awesome images. That’s the most important thing to me. If I get too old to hop a fence and end up doing commercial work… but that stuff doesn’t mean anything to me—when you’re looking through a Wired mag and you see a Sony ad, you don’t give a shit about it, but as a skater, when your flicking through a skateboarding magazine you do. Being able to shoot guys like Danny and for people to be stoked, then that means more to me than anything. I think that’s why we all do it.
When did you get your first break?
I moved to San Francisco at the beginning of ’94. I knew that there was a lot of skating going on at the time, but it wasn’t until I went to EMB and was like holly shit, there’s Mike Carroll, Jovantae [Turner], and Scott Johnston, all these guys. I didn’t even shoot photos, all I did was skate. I didn’t carry a camera ’cause I couldn’t skate. I ran out of money and started working at the GAP folding T-shirts at five o’clock in the morning—that was a little hard on me after partying all night. So Aaron Meza and Scott Johnston introduce me to Mike Carroll and Karl Watson, so fortunately I wasn’t one of the guys that [James] Kelch would clown. So gradually I became friends with those guys ,and Scott clued me in and was like, “Why don’t you shoot photos of skating?” I’d shot this Pure Wheels ad of him and got paid two-hundred bucks, which was way more than I was making at the GAP, so that’s when it all started. I knew some of the Deluxe dudes and would skate the DMV curbs with them, but it was Scott who helped me get a job helping out Justin Girard at Mad Circle—I worked for there for three years. They’ve always kept it real up there. Sometimes areas are hotter than others, and I was really lucky to be there and be friends with those guys. I got to see rad skating and got to skate every day. I didn’t have a car for four years, all day on the buses.
Then you moved down to Los Angeles.
My wife Tricia and I were having a baby and her family was down in L.A. But once again I got lucky because after I moved down, just through sheer coincidence, Mike Carroll, Chico, and Scott moved down too. There weren’t a lot of people shooting in L.A at the time and I was out with those guys every day, which led to starting to work for Girl, which was amazing. That’s a big reason why I’m here today talking to you.
Would you say that L.A is now the forefront of skateboarding?
Yeah absolutely, it really is. I wish that I was up there more, but I’m down here, trying to put S.D on the map.
San Diego has had a great resurgence in the last couple of years?
Yeah, hopefully we can help it more. In L.A that’s where everyone is at, there’s a lot of companies up there too.
Plus it never got shut down.
Yeah, if you see a sequence at Lockwood, you get the same feeling you did when you saw it eleven years ago—it’s a rad L.A school. The kids that go there every day are real skaters and that’s sick.
What year did you start working for DC?
In ’99, that just naturally happened. At that time a lot of guys I shot rode for DC. It was a rad opportunity for me. When I first hung out with Ken Block I was impressed. Mike Ballard had left and Bird called me to see if I wanted to work for them. I wanted more than anything to stay in skateboarding, and they gave me the opportunity to grow with them and do some crazy shit over the years.
What’s the difference between working for a magazine and working for a shoe company?
It’s tough, when you work for a mag you can go out and shoot with whoever you want to shoot with, but with a company, love it or hate it, you have to deal with those ten dudes or how many guys are on the team. It’s good because you do get really close to the team dudes.
So your role is broader than just a photographer—you’re like the dad.
I do get called that from time to time. I’m a little older now and I have a family, and I only want what’s best for all the guys on the team. I’ve been around long enough to see people take a hard left, and I want to see the guys grow as a friend not a guy who works at DC. So they have to do their job to help DC, but they also have to do their jobs to help themselves and that in turn helps me. It helps me to get the best shit, and when they aren’t doing that, I have a problem with it.
Do you have to have the little sit-down talk now and then?
Yeah I have, even though it’s not in my job description. I’m trying to help them as a friend. Sometimes I’ll look to other people in the industry to help out. I’ve had the opportunity to do other things at DC, but I think I do best in the streets doing my thing—trying to do cool stuff and being with the team.
The DC skate team is still the core of it.
It started as a skate company and it doesn’t matter to me if they start a bowling team, skateboarding is still the number one thing at DC. I don’t care what anyone has to say. That means a lot to me. I still want to shoot ads and I still get a buzz when people like them—that means more to me than anything.
What does it take to be a good skateboard photographer?
Number one is that you have to be a really good photographer. I’ve learned a lot over the years and I’m still learning. Number two is that you have to have the patience of a saint, whether it’s dealing with the team or dealing with the people who are trying to stop you from skateboarding—those are two of the main traits you’re gonna need.
Whose work did you look up to while growing up?
Luke Ogden, Spike [Jones] and Grant [Briiain]. At that time in the 80s, they were doing cool shit—like Grant’s Miller pole cam shot was incredible. Those images made me want to do it. When I was a kid in Michigan I had no idea that things would work out like they did. I was shooting Bill Danforth at a demo and it was awesome.
Whose work do you like these days?
Ollie [Barton] is one of the main ones, his work is fucking amazing—he’s by far one of the best dudes out there. Obviously Atiba [Jefferson], [Jon] Humphries, Mike O’Meally—I have respect for anyone who dedicates their life to going out and shooting skateboarding photos.