Anybody seen Taken 2? Dan Muchnik is to skate photography what Liam Neeson is to Albanian human traffickers. This is a man whose particular skill set is to get the crispiest of skate images, while his place of residence is a $10-a-month tent pitched in his good friend’s backyard. What impressed me initially about Dan was that when he said he’d have an image for you, within the hour it was sitting in your inbox. In hindsight, I realize some of these demands would have entailed a trip outside the tent and over to Starbucks for the free wifi, which makes it that much more heroic. Did I mention that he’s got a penchant for Tokyo Drifting that ended with him walking away unscathed from a total wreck?! Or that he’ll jack a car up because it’s in the way of that perfect angle, then have it slip from its perch directly onto his face and live to tell!? Rest assured, this man will let absolutely nothing stand in the way of him documenting a trick. Albanians, you’ve been warned!—Joel Jutagir (Metro Skateshop)
How long have you been shooting skating and what got you into it?
It’s been 2-3 solid years of shooting skateboarding with the intent to publish. I’ve been skateboarding since ’99, and got into photography due to my understanding that I won’t ever make it to professional skateboarding myself, and a fascination with the chemical processes of photography. Before ever taking a camera on a skate mission, I built a pinhole camera and made contact prints in my bathroom for an entire weekend. The smells got me hooked! I progressed within skateboarding and photography in parallel for a while, and eventually I just started bringing gear on the filming missions to teach myself some aspects of photography that I had yet to learn, and have never looked back. It’s always a new set of challenges at every spot, and figuring out how to make the best image possible in a new environment is so much fun!
Is there one photograph or photographer that inspired you to take up photography?
I can’t pinpoint any single image that put me over the edge; the passion came about more internally. However, there are definitely photographers to whom I look for inspiration. I grew up reading a lot of mags from the late 80’s, and Daniel Harold Sturt’s images always stuck out to me before I even knew who he was. His shots of Hensley during the early Plan B years are raw perfection. Patrick O’Dell‘s photo of Chet Childress in the half-demolished pool is another one of my favorites. I love the stuff that shows that energy which is so inherent in skateboarding. At the same time, I’m consistently floored by Brian Gaberman‘s work; especially the large format stuff. Skateboarding is beautiful and deserves that sort of meticulous attention. There are plenty more—I love this stuff.
What’s the best and worst advice you’ve been given on photography?
Once, after several months of submitting images to various magazines without any feedback, I wrote Dan Zaslavsky an email asking for advice. Dan is from roughly the same area outside of Boston where I grew up, and although we were never super close, I admire his work and his work ethic. I don’t remember his exact wording, but his advice was basically that, “That’s how it goes, and all you can do is keep trying.” It was curt, but I found it inspiring because I took it to mean that it’s really just all up to me to make it work. Hard work always pays off—I believe in that firmly.
I think I’ve mostly given myself my own worst advice. A couple years ago I was shooting what I would consider my first coherent photo project, and was shooting it on a 4×5. I would continuously convince myself to trek far away, during the winter, carrying that unwieldy camera on foot, to shoot what I envisioned to be an epic photograph. By the time I would be ready to set up, meter, and shoot something, my fingers could barely feel what they were doing. It was worth it, but I’ve since grown to appreciate good weatherproofing and good gloves much more.
Do you have a favorite photo of your own?
I always come back to this ollie photo. It was the first time I had ever shot a skate photo on 4×5 film, and I shot it weeks after my hometown park was ruined. The wooden four-stair (behind frame) had been burned down, broken glass lay all around, and somehow, this concrete funbox had been destroyed. I loved this place—skated there every single day for years, and I had to pay it the respect it deserved. This photo was a funeral of sorts, and if I had to pinpoint a time when I started taking skate photography seriously, this is it.
What’s the most interesting story behind one of your photos?
In the summer of 2011, this spot popped up across the river from a frequently-skated Boston ledge spot. I would skate the ledges and constantly glance over at the construction site across the water. It looked pretty sketchy to go there—blatantly trespassing—but after a few sessions, I couldn’t take it anymore. My friend Figz and I went on a mission to check the spot out. We spent a good 30 minutes skating there without any contact, and I figured that we’d better quit while we’re ahead. Throughout the next week, I spent so much time thinking about how to best shoot there that I knew another session was inevitable. I went there with Matt Lane to shoot a few photos, and before we knew it, a couple hours had gone by. I went back to the spot several times that summer, and it somehow developed the record for most bust-free spot I’ve ever skated—despite the fact that it was right in the middle of a major state construction area. I guess that’s bureaucracy for ya.
What advice would you give to up and coming skate photogs?
Number one: Be reliable. After you’ve nailed that, I’d say, just let your passion guide you. If you’re genuinely curious about making great images, you can’t go wrong, and people will want to help you. Like in all other aspects of life, just be you, and if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.
Do you prefer digital or film?
Digital photography is a godsend for skateboarding. That said, I’ve built a darkroom or at least set up a little film developing area almost everywhere I have lived, and shoot film for all my personal projects. Luckily, Hayward, California where I’ve been living has a publicly subsidized darkroom called Photocentral. They’re only open for one five-hour block every week, but it’s an amazing facility run by people who love what they do. The topic has been beaten to death, but I do find that the analog process yields more significance to the image. It forces you to think about what you are doing because you are using up physical matter and space. I really like large format, especially—you have just one photograph to shoot with each piece of film, so unless you’re 100-percent certain that you want the image, there’s no reason to press the cable release. It forces perfection upon you. I’d really recommend starting with a film camera and a separate light meter for anybody looking to take up photography.
What’s in your camera bag?
Nikon d300 w/ grip
Nikon primes: 10.5mm f2.8, 35mm f2, 50mm f1.4, 85mm f1.8, 70-210mm f4
2x Nikon sb 28’s, Lumedyne p4xx action pack
Sekonic l558r and Pocketwizards
Tripod, light stands, super clamp, swivel bracket, CTO and 216 diffusion gels, black wrap, loads of AAs, cables, gaff tape, painter’s tape, skate tool, leatherman, blower brush, microfiber cloth, Panchro
Technically not in the bag, but bondo, a broom and a saw are crucial.
On special days, my Hasselblad or 4×5 might come out to play. Or, if I’m skating a city, I might just say screw it, and just pack an FM2 with a 50mm so I can skate fast. Gear is fun, but sometimes it’s best to keep it simple.
Your photography website if you have one:
I’ve been blowing it on this. I don’t have anything I’m proud of yet, but it’s in the works for sure!