Tobin Yelland Perspective

Let’s go way back to your first memories of photography. Was it a camera or a certain photograph-what appealed to you about it and how did it all come into place?

My mom’s boyfriend at the time was a filmmaker, so I can remember being around film cameras and still cameras. My mom had a Pentax that she’d let me use sometimes.

So your mom actually knew about 35mm photography?

Yeah, she had a camera that was always around-she liked to take photos-so I’d grab her camera and try to shoot. She had a lot of friends who were photographers-she was an artist-so I kind of grew up around her artist friends. She taught me how to focus and press the button, or maybe she turned it on automatic for me, I don’t know. She explained it to me. I was probably ten years old at the time.

When did you get your first camera-was it through your mom’s guidance?

I got my first camera through one of my friends who turned into a junkie in middle school. He broke into my house while I was at home sick with some sort of staph infection. So I’m in the bathroom swabbing the infection and the back door smashes open. I’m like, “Holy shit, someone’s breaking into my house and I’m in my pajama bottoms.” I come out of the bathroom, look down the hallway, and I see the back edge of a pant leg going into my parents’ bedroom. I’m freaking out like, “Holy shit, someone just broke into my house.” I go outside, out the backdoor where the guy broke in, and I’m knocking on my neighbors’ doors and no one’s home. I’m like, “Ahhh, what do I do?” I lurked around the stairs-I wasn’t sure if he was gone, but I figured he’d probably left, and I went back into the apartment, and the kid had stolen a skateboard, a jar of quarters, my mom’s Pentax, and some other things. My mom and stepdad were hard up for cash around that time and they had renter’s insurance, so they kind of fibbed and said there was more stuff taken than there really was. And in the bargain, I got a Minolta X700 with a 50mm lens-that was my first real camera.

So you grew up in San Francisco?

Yeah, in San Francisco and my father lived in Mendocino County up in Northern California. I went to his house in the summers until I was twelve. But most of the year I’d be in San Francisco, and there was this group of kids on the first day of middle school who skateboarded. I had these checkered Vans, so they thought I was cool. I was into BMX at the time, but they got me into skateboarding. Through them I got to go to the Boys Club in San Francisco when they had the skate ramp. I got to meet all my friends that I’ve known the longest during that time period. I met Luke Ogden when I was around fourteen and then Julien Stranger, who went to the same middle school, and Mickey Reyes at the Boys club ramp-Mike Archimedes also went to my middle school. After middle school, I went to high school with Julien and Luke. We all skated, and I remember Julien was the first sponsored kid that I knew.

When did you start to really study photography?

Luke and I took our first photo classes together in the summer of the eighth grade-we took a class for black-and-white photography (developing and printing), and that summer we’d just go out and take photos. We’d always be skating, so we’d just be taking skate photos. I wasn’t the best skateboarder-even though I loved skateboarding immensely and I’d go all the time, being a quiet kid I gravitated more toward photography. It was easier to express myself through photography, being silent and kind of lurking around and taking photographs.

When I was fifteen, I got my first picture published in Thrasher. It didn’t have my name on it-I was kinda pissed (laughs)-I got paid like 30 dollars for it. It was a picture of Jake Phelps for a longboard article or something. And then after that, Bryce Kanights saw a sequence I had of a guy, Mike McIntire, who rode for Venture-then they turned it into a Venture ad. I got a hundred bucks.

I was sixteen like, “A hundred bucks? Oh my d, I’m gonna be a photographer for sure!” That’s exactly what I wanted to do-it’s fun, you get paid for it at the same time. After that moment, I knew I wanted to be a photographer. I realized I could pay rent from doing this. I kept shooting and doing odd jobs like construction and was an electrician’s assistant for a long time.

Is that when you worked for TransWorld? How did you get on the TransWorld staff-how’d you become a senior photographer here?

Me and Luke, Tommy Guerrero, Mickey Reyes, Jeff Whitehead, Julien Stranger, and Rob Kamm-all these guys would always go down to Southern California and skate, take photos, and do all this shit.

Me and Luke got hooked up with Steve Sherman (TWS, senior photographer)-he came up to San Francisco, and there was no SF correspondent at that time. He’d drive up and shoot photos with Mike Archimedes and Tommy and all those people, and he’d give us film and tell us to catch some good photos. I think Luke may have worked in the Thrasher dark room and shot photos for them at the time. I started shooting photos for TransWorld-just contributing. Some of my first photos published were in TransWorld, so I just started sending you (TransWorld) photos all the time.

What was the point when you felt like you knew what you were doing and made a living out of it? Who helped you out?

I got bits of information from everybody, like maybe Grant (Brittain) said, “Don’t ever shoot at full power when shooting with a fill flash.” Or just through trial and error, ya know. I’d think, “Oh, what was that shot at? That looks cool.” For a long time I didn’t have a camera that could sync at 250th of a second.

There must’ve been a point when you went from being a skateboard photographer to a more documentary style. You changed your style a little bit-you were going through a transition as a photographer.

Yeah, I’ve always liked black and white, and it’s always been less expensive, as opposed to color. Luke and I were roommates in three different houses, so we always had a darkroom. Black and white just seemed the most cost-effective, so that was my chosen medium. Then I figured out that by shooting color you get like 150 dollars a page, as opposed to black and white where I was only getting 80 dollars a page. So I tried to shoot more color, just to pay the rent and everything. As far as documenting goes, I always like documenting and taking snapshots and catching cool funny moments of people doing their thing.

Where did that come from? Is that from other photographers that you saw in books-where did Larry Clark come into it and those kinds of guys?

Definitely reading a lot of books and different accounts of different photographers and what they would do. When I was seventeen I took a documentary-photography workshop, which was really the only schooling I had besides the darkroom classes.

The documentary workshop had William Klein, Larry Clark, Pedro Meyer, and other people like magazine editors. Every day there was a different workshop that had different photographers speaking-it was a three-day workshop.

I didn’t know what to do and I knew I liked skateboarding, but I was just in skateboarding. I grew up in it and it was where I was, but I looked at other magazines and thought, “Maybe I want to do fashion photography, too,” things like that. There were a lot of people there who were doing stories on the homeless, stuff like that. One thing I was turned on to was documenting my friends. That’s probably the most obvious, and I thought, “Wow, I can probably take better pictures of my friends, and I take pictures of them all the time anyway. I should take advantage of the fact that I’m so close to these people that are interesting.” But at the same time they were just my friends, and I didn’t think about them as an important subject. I kind of changed my focus from maybe doing fashion photography to really photographing my friends. So that was a big turning point for me and helped me focus on what my best option was in photography. I tried to read as much as possible about photography, talk to as many people about different techniques and chemistry for developing your film and getting different looks-printing has always been very important to me to try to get really good photographs.

You were in a good place and time in a way, because you had gnarly street skateboarders who were really gritty, and you caught a time that skateboarding was going through-it kind of went back to the streets in the 90s. You were there to document a really innocent time compared to what it is now.

Yeah. When you’re a kid, no one’s thinking about making a living. You know your parents are paying the rent and everything, so it was fun and I’m glad I had that time in my life where I could just skate all around San Francisco, take photos, and really enjoy skateboarding. After I moved out of my parents’ house, I started trying to shoot photos, and it kind of continued on. A lot of my friends didn’t make that much money, even the sponsored kids would make like 250 or 500 dollars a month, and everyone was pretty poor. And even though it sucks to be poor, I think it makes for a lot more fun with skateboarding in some respects. It’s because people don’t take it so seriously, and the unseriousness, the goofiness, and the childlike atmosphere make it really fun.

You’ve seen it go through a lot of changes.

It’s just a natural thing, it will continually expand and contract like everything else. It’ll have its popularity phases and less popular phases.

Were you just freelancing through all that time as well?

Forever-I’ve never had a steady job in skateboarding. The closest I got was a retainer for Big Brother-500 dollars or something, and that only lasted for a year or so. For Anti-Hero, too, I had like a 500-dollar retainer. I did ads and video work and whatever publicity they needed. I think being freelance, although it’s a little bit less stable financially, has allowed me room to try different things like doing movie stills. I kept in contact with the documentary photographer Larry Clark and got to do still photos of a feature film, and it was really interesting-and I’ve since done two other films. Not that it’s the most glamorous, well-paid job, but it offered me an opportunity to look into a different photography career, and I learned a lot about filmmaking-just watching everyone do their jobs and talking to them about it.

You’re selling more prints? Did you sell through Beautiful Losers? That must’ve helped a lot.

I think that book helped out a lot. Just recently Rich Jacobs put me in a show called Raw Dogs at New Image Art, and I sold a picture there. I’m having a show with Chris Yormick on the twenty-sixth (of February), which I made these big prints for and hopefully I’ll be able to recoup some of my (costs)-basically it costs a lot of money to print and frame photos. It’s really one of the most enjoyable things to be able to do-to make photographs that you really like and to have people want to buy them. That’s nice.

Do people just buy prints or do you have a dealer?

Aaron Rose has helped me the most as far as selling my photography-and Marsea Goldberg at the New Image Art gallery in L.A. And any show that I’m in. But no, I don’t have any arrangement with a dealer, just shows and word of mouth.

Do you actually shoot photos every day?

Not every day, today I framed all day. I started out going to the framer, picked up some prints, went down and made crates to put the prints in, did the construction on the crates, tried to go to UPS, and then didn’t make it. I try to bring my camera around as much as possible, because I think that that’s the best way to get really good photos. So many of my favorite photographs have happened out of the middle of nowhere. Either you’re just hanging out with friends and someone does something funny, or you have the camera and you’re ready for something to happen. Thn what my best option was in photography. I tried to read as much as possible about photography, talk to as many people about different techniques and chemistry for developing your film and getting different looks-printing has always been very important to me to try to get really good photographs.

You were in a good place and time in a way, because you had gnarly street skateboarders who were really gritty, and you caught a time that skateboarding was going through-it kind of went back to the streets in the 90s. You were there to document a really innocent time compared to what it is now.

Yeah. When you’re a kid, no one’s thinking about making a living. You know your parents are paying the rent and everything, so it was fun and I’m glad I had that time in my life where I could just skate all around San Francisco, take photos, and really enjoy skateboarding. After I moved out of my parents’ house, I started trying to shoot photos, and it kind of continued on. A lot of my friends didn’t make that much money, even the sponsored kids would make like 250 or 500 dollars a month, and everyone was pretty poor. And even though it sucks to be poor, I think it makes for a lot more fun with skateboarding in some respects. It’s because people don’t take it so seriously, and the unseriousness, the goofiness, and the childlike atmosphere make it really fun.

You’ve seen it go through a lot of changes.

It’s just a natural thing, it will continually expand and contract like everything else. It’ll have its popularity phases and less popular phases.

Were you just freelancing through all that time as well?

Forever-I’ve never had a steady job in skateboarding. The closest I got was a retainer for Big Brother-500 dollars or something, and that only lasted for a year or so. For Anti-Hero, too, I had like a 500-dollar retainer. I did ads and video work and whatever publicity they needed. I think being freelance, although it’s a little bit less stable financially, has allowed me room to try different things like doing movie stills. I kept in contact with the documentary photographer Larry Clark and got to do still photos of a feature film, and it was really interesting-and I’ve since done two other films. Not that it’s the most glamorous, well-paid job, but it offered me an opportunity to look into a different photography career, and I learned a lot about filmmaking-just watching everyone do their jobs and talking to them about it.

You’re selling more prints? Did you sell through Beautiful Losers? That must’ve helped a lot.

I think that book helped out a lot. Just recently Rich Jacobs put me in a show called Raw Dogs at New Image Art, and I sold a picture there. I’m having a show with Chris Yormick on the twenty-sixth (of February), which I made these big prints for and hopefully I’ll be able to recoup some of my (costs)-basically it costs a lot of money to print and frame photos. It’s really one of the most enjoyable things to be able to do-to make photographs that you really like and to have people want to buy them. That’s nice.

Do people just buy prints or do you have a dealer?

Aaron Rose has helped me the most as far as selling my photography-and Marsea Goldberg at the New Image Art gallery in L.A. And any show that I’m in. But no, I don’t have any arrangement with a dealer, just shows and word of mouth.

Do you actually shoot photos every day?

Not every day, today I framed all day. I started out going to the framer, picked up some prints, went down and made crates to put the prints in, did the construction on the crates, tried to go to UPS, and then didn’t make it. I try to bring my camera around as much as possible, because I think that that’s the best way to get really good photos. So many of my favorite photographs have happened out of the middle of nowhere. Either you’re just hanging out with friends and someone does something funny, or you have the camera and you’re ready for something to happen. Then something happens and you’re ready to shoot a photo of it. That’s my favorite kind of photo.

I’m just looking at your Web site (tobinyelland.com) now, and there’s a photo of the World Trade Center right when all that went down.

Adam Wallacavage called me from Philadelphia around nine (a.m.), woke me up, and said, “Turn on the TV, something’s happening to the World Trade Center!” I didn’t think it was anything big, so I just went back to sleep. And then I heard a big explosion, and it was the second plane hitting. So I went up on my roof, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I live in South Brooklyn, which looks directly on the World Trade Center, so I could see it out my kitchen window. It was just there in front of me burning, and it was so surreal. I went down and told my roommate, and being a photographer, I started taking pictures immediately. Then me, my roommate, and our neighbor went and tried to give blood in downtown Brooklyn, but they were all filled up, so we just kind of wandered around in a daze. That was the most intense day living in New York.

When I look at your stuff, it always seems really kind of timeless. What do you think when you look back at your photos? Do you see transitions in your work or phases you’ve gone through?

Yeah, definitely. I have a lot of influences, and I remember a time when I was really into Edward Weston. I would read those great books, The Day Books Of Edward Weston, and I tried to emulate his style. All I had was a medium format, I didn’t have an eight by ten like he had, I’d just try to photograph clouds and print with warm tones. I did some nudes of my girlfriend-trying to emulate Edward Weston as well. I found different influences, and I still pick up influences from different people. I’m constantly trying to pick up on a new way to look at taking pictures and trying to gather influence, because I think it’s constant thinking about what you’re photographing and each next thing that might be interesting for you and to try to do-landscapes, different cameras to use, etc. I’m constantly thinking about using different cameras.

What sort of cameras do you use?

Mostly 35 millimeter. I think 35’s the best for me. I’ve had the most luck with it, and it’s the most spontaneous. That’s my favorite type of photography at the moment. I’ve gotten a chance to use some different formats the last couple of years. I’ve gotten to use a medium format, panoramic camera-it’s the Fuji GX617. They make a couple of different lenses for it. I got a couple of good photos with it, it was really fun. I think one of the best formats for medium format is a 645-that’s such a little camera. I’ve been borrowing it from my girlfriend and using hers-she has a Contax 645, and there’re tons of lenses that you can get with it or rent for it.

For 35, I grew up with Nikon FM2-it’s a small camera to carry around. Awhile later, I got a Leica through Earl Parker-and the lenses on those cameras are amazing. It really does make a difference in a lot of situations, but sometimes you can’t really tell the difference between a Leica or a Pentax K-1000, but sometimes you really can. I like little point-and-shoot cameras, like Olympus XA and half-frame cameras.

What was the last movie you worked on?

I did a short documentary on Bobby Puleo and his artwork, but it’s not all the way done yet. We did that last summer and some of this winter. I’ve been collaborating with friends and making small documentaries, and also working doing camera work on some films and TV shows-trying to keep busy, trying to keep going.

Photography’s gone through a lot of changes since you started. What do you think about digital photography? Have you used it or thought about it, or is it something that you’re going to stay away from?

Yeah, I’ve used it for a couple of things, but not that much. I haven’t had the opportunity to, but I think that my ideal situation would be a digital back. And if I had to do someething that I needed a digital camera for, it’d be great if I had a digital back, but otherwise, everything’s going in that direction and maybe eventually it’ll be comparable to film, but it’ll never be the same. I know film best-I’m just kind of sticking with it.

I have this idea with my photographs that I want them to last forever. I’ll probably take hundreds of pictures and maybe get one good one, but I want that one good one to be in the right format that will last forever, and so I’m not convinced about digital. I don’t know where it’s going, you know-if it’s on a CD, you don’t know how long CDs will be around and then media changes so quickly, and I don’t really trust it. But if it’s a job or something that requires it-I hate to shoot jobs where I don’t care about keeping the negatives. I feel like the best magazine jobs or commercial jobs are the jobs that I actually want to keep the photos after the job. I take much better photos when I think I might want to keep them for the long run. You know, try to make something really exciting happen while taking photos. That excites me, so yeah, I try to shoot film.

What’s in the future for you now-what do you have planned for the next five to ten years?

I want to do more film work, and I’ve been working for the last year on making this darkroom/studio with a desk, a computer, and all of my negatives in one place. I can see a lot of films and continuing doing photography. Hopefully a skateboard book that will include my skateboard photos from ’85 to ’95 from Northern California. I’m working with Cleon Peterson-he’s done a lot of skateboard graphics and is a really awesome artist. So we’re working on the book together, and after we get the dummy together, we’re going to shop around for publishers. Hopefully this book will be photographs that document this group of people that I grew up with, and hopefully I’ll be able to incorporate a lot of stories and maybe even some of their photographs as well. I want to put kind of a time capsule together of that time. And what I hope is that I can use this as a portfolio for some other project that involves documenting something else that’s interesting.

something happens and you’re ready to shoot a photo of it. That’s my favorite kind of photo.

I’m just looking at your Web site (tobinyelland.com) now, and there’s a photo of the World Trade Center right when all that went down.

Adam Wallacavage called me from Philadelphia around nine (a.m.), woke me up, and said, “Turn on the TV, something’s happening to the World Trade Center!” I didn’t think it was anything big, so I just went back to sleep. And then I heard a big explosion, and it was the second plane hitting. So I went up on my roof, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I live in South Brooklyn, which looks directly on the World Trade Center, so I could see it out my kitchen window. It was just there in front of me burning, and it was so surreal. I went down and told my roommate, and being a photographer, I started taking pictures immediately. Then me, my roommate, and our neighbor went and tried to give blood in downtown Brooklyn, but they were all filled up, so we just kind of wandered around in a daze. That was the most intense day living in New York.

When I look at your stuff, it always seems really kind of timeless. What do you think when you look back at your photos? Do you see transitions in your work or phases you’ve gone through?

Yeah, definitely. I have a lot of influences, and I remember a time when I was really into Edward Weston. I would read those great books, The Day Books Of Edward Weston, and I tried to emulate his style. All I had was a medium format, I didn’t have an eight by ten like he had, I’d just try to photograph clouds and print with warm tones. I did some nudes of my girlfriend-trying to emulate Edward Weston as well. I found different influences, and I still pick up influences from different people. I’m constantly trying to pick up on a new way to look at taking pictures and trying to gather influence, because I think it’s constant thinking about what you’re photographing and each next thing that might be interesting for you and to try to do-landscapes, different cameras to use, etc. I’m constantly thinking about using different cameras.

What sort of cameras do you use?

Mostly 35 millimeter. I think 35’s the best for me. I’ve had the most luck with it, and it’s the most spontaneous. That’s my favorite type of photography at the moment. I’ve gotten a chance to use some different formats the last couple of years. I’ve gotten to use a medium format, panoramic camera-it’s the Fuji GX617. They make a couple of different lenses for it. I got a couple of good photos with it, it was really fun. I think one of the best formats for medium format is a 645-that’s such a little camera. I’ve been borrowing it from my girlfriend and using hers-she has a Contax 645, and there’re tons of lenses that you can get with it or rent for it.

For 35, I grew up with Nikon FM2-it’s a small camera to carry around. Awhile later, I got a Leica through Earl Parker-and the lenses on those cameras are amazing. It really does make a difference in a lot of situations, but sometimes you can’t really tell the difference between a Leica or a Pentax K-1000, but sometimes you really can. I like little point-and-shoot cameras, like Olympus XA and half-frame cameras.

What was the last movie you worked on?

I did a short documentary on Bobby Puleo and his artwork, but it’s not all the way done yet. We did that last summer and some of this winter. I’ve been collaborating with friends and making small documentaries, and also working doing camera work on some films and TV shows-trying to keep busy, trying to keep going.

Photography’s gone through a lot of changes since you started. What do you think about digital photography? Have you used it or thought about it, or is it something that you’re going to stay away from?

Yeah, I’ve used it for a couple of things, but not that much. I haven’t had the opportunity to, but I think that my ideal situation would be a digital back. And if I had to do something that I needed a digital camera for, it’d be great if I had a digital back, but otherwise, everything’s going in that direction and maybe eventually it’ll be comparable to film, but it’ll never be the same. I know film best-I’m just kind of sticking with it.

I have this idea with my photographs that I want them to last forever. I’ll probably take hundreds of pictures and maybe get one good one, but I want that one good one to be in the right format that will last forever, and so I’m not convinced about digital. I don’t know where it’s going, you know-if it’s on a CD, you don’t know how long CDs will be around and then media changes so quickly, and I don’t really trust it. But if it’s a job or something that requires it-I hate to shoot jobs where I don’t care about keeping the negatives. I feel like the best magazine jobs or commercial jobs are the jobs that I actually want to keep the photos after the job. I take much better photos when I think I might want to keep them for the long run. You know, try to make something really exciting happen while taking photos. That excites me, so yeah, I try to shoot film.

What’s in the future for you now-what do you have planned for the next five to ten years?

I want to do more film work, and I’ve been working for the last year on making this darkroom/studio with a desk, a computer, and all of my negatives in one place. I can see a lot of films and continuing doing photography. Hopefully a skateboard book that will include my skateboard photos from ’85 to ’95 from Northern California. I’m working with Cleon Peterson-he’s done a lot of skateboard graphics and is a really awesome artist. So we’re working on the book together, and after we get the dummy together, we’re going to shop around for publishers. Hopefully this book will be photographs that document this group of people that I grew up with, and hopefully I’ll be able to incorporate a lot of stories and maybe even some of their photographs as well. I want to put kind of a time capsule together of that time. And what I hope is that I can use this as a portfolio for some other project that involves documenting something else that’s interesting.

do something that I needed a digital camera for, it’d be great if I had a digital back, but otherwise, everything’s going in that direction and maybe eventually it’ll be comparable to film, but it’ll never be the same. I know film best-I’m just kind of sticking with it.

I have this idea with my photographs that I want them to last forever. I’ll probably take hundreds of pictures and maybe get one good one, but I want that one good one to be in the right format that will last forever, and so I’m not convinced about digital. I don’t know where it’s going, you know-if it’s on a CD, you don’t know how long CDs will be around and then media changes so quickly, and I don’t really trust it. But if it’s a job or something that requires it-I hate to shoot jobs where I don’t care about keeping the negatives. I feel like the best magazine jobs or commercial jobs are the jobs that I actually want to keep the photos after the job. I take much better photos when I think I might want to keep them for the long run. You know, try to make something really exciting happen while taking photos. That excites me, so yeah, I try to shoot film.

What’s in the future for you now-what do you have planned for the next five to ten years?

I want to do more film work, and I’ve been working for the last year on making this darkroom/studio with a desk, a computer, and all of my negatives in one place. I can see a lot of films and continuing doing photography. Hopefully a skateboard book that will include my skateboard photos from ’85 to ’95 from Northern California. I’m working with Cleon Peterson-he’s done a lot of skateboard graphics and is a really awesome artist. So we’re working on the book together, and after we get the dummy together, we’re going to shop around for publishers. Hopefully this book will be photographs that document this group of people that I grew up with, and hopefully I’ll be able to incorporate a lot of stories and maybe even some of their photographs as well. I want to put kind of a time capsule together of that time. And what I hope is that I can use this as a portfolio for some other project that involves documenting something else that’s interesting.