Interviews / Speedway

In Good Company with Chris Johnson

(Featured: Speedway Magazine, 25th August 2015.)

While the title of CJ’s current exhibition, In Good Company, refers to the skateboarders he’s photographed over the years, it’s also a fitting way to describe the man in question. Having covered a handful of events this past summer alongside him, Chris has provided laughs, booze, (some) structure to the occasions and always made for a more interesting and amusing time. Ranging from what was supposed to be quick interviews spanning into intense hour long discussions, to spending a taxi ride with Mike O’Meally narrated by his MCing skills (much to the driver’s displeasure and Chris and myself being in absolute stitches) it’s been a pleasure getting to know the guy who’s shot some of the most iconic images of UK skateboarding over the past years.

Following on from a trip to Liverpool early in the summer for the launch of Geoff Rowley’s new shoe, Russ Weasel at Bold Street Coffee approached Chris in regards to hosting his own exhibition there which has been on display since the first of this month. It seemed a fitting time to talk all things skateboarding photography related so read on for a few thoughts on the UK skate scene, cover stories  and more from the rad dad with a bad back and Sidewalk Magazine’s senior lens pointer.

CJ at Bold Street Coffee alongside Rick Howard kickflipping for Sidewalk's Issue 217 cover and Geoff Rowley popping a backside ollie a few years back
CJ at Bold Street Coffee alongside Rick Howard kickflipping for the Sidewalk Issue 217 cover and Geoff Rowley popping a backside ollie on a Propeller filming mission a few years back.

As often the case with skateboard photographers and filmers, you picked up a camera when you got injured. Did you pay a lot of attention to skate photography prior to when you started taking photos? Obviously you come from a generation when magazines were the primary source of skateboarding and were passed around and scrutinized more than they are in mine…

My first experience of the wider world of skateboarding, other than ‘having a go on some kids at school who had a Variflex’, was catching a snippet of a poorly bootlegged copy of Animal Chin at my mate’s 8th Birthday party. Magazines were something that I maybe saw a year or so after this, by which point the influx of Powell, Santa Cruz videos and even Hollywood films such as Gleaming The Cube had all been on repeat booking from our local video shop which had them in stock.

As the 80’s rolled on and R.A.D. Magazine became available to order into the Post Office in our village, I became more interested in the stories and photographs than the moving image. That may be because by this point the only video I owned was the Stacy Peralta and Tim Simenon production; Attack. For those of you who don’t know what this was; imagine a mix of pre 1990’s MTV style video editing mixed with bizarre dance music, dubbed over what looked to be the off cuts of Public Domain or Ban This. Oh, and there’s a clown that keeps popping into the mix….Scary shit when you’re 10 years old….

Skateboarding at that time was a subculture. This meant that if you could get hold of a mag or video, you clung onto it like gold dust, as they were the only windows into the greater world of skateboarding at that time. The world has changed massively since then and information has long been a fast paced, ever-updated force so naturally attention spans and the value of each bullet point made holds less weight as tomorrow it will have the next instalment.

What are the earliest photographs you can remember taking? Were they of anyone of note?

The first photos I shot were of my mates skating in Worcester on an Olympus point and shoot that I had been using for a few years whilst out on the piss to kind of get a few photos that would be similar to what’s found on Instagram on a Sunday morning. The camera was fully automatic and I had no concept of film sensitivity, shutter speed or focus; I just pressed the button and sometimes the photos looked plausible.

Moving on a bit, how did you end up working for Sidewalk? I know you got in contact with Leo Sharp in your early days and that was a big help to you. How did you transition from freelance to staff photographer for the mag?

When I finished Uni in 2005, I had no idea what to do so I jumped on a trip to New Zealand for a year with a mate as his Dad had emigrated over there and needed a hand renovating a pub that he’d bought. That amount of time spent away from a close groups of friends obsessed with skateboarding, at a time before ‘in home’ internet, I felt totally cut off from what I loved. I think this motivated me to return home and just start shooting as much as I could. By the end of that summer (2006) and having been home for about three months, I emailed Leo. From that point it just grew steadily over a four-year period with everything from being the guy that would go to events through to self-funding trips with Dan Cates and his crew, whilst working three/five days per week as a measured land and building surveyor (what I’d had trained to do before deciding on a change and going to Uni). A few years later, Leo and his lady emigrated to Oz and on a weekend in Dublin, Andy Horsley and Ben Powell offered me the job, which was six years ago now.

How much work goes into your images once they’ve been shot? I imagine post-production is a duller part of the process, so is trying to capture something that’s near perfect (so the post-production aspects aren’t needed as much) important to you?

Korahn, Switch Backside Flip, Liverpool on the UK Bones tour.
Korahn, Switch Backside Flip, Liverpool on the UK Bones tour.

Post-production plays a fairly big part in the finished look of the image for sure and it helps to overcome some of the limitations of the camera. Composition, spot and form are the three most important things for me, closely followed by the trick with the post-production being just a touch of polishing. Recently I shot the Bones UK tour in the style of square format photos to break things up from a shooting stand point and to give it its own identity within the mag. I’m sure they’ll be a few people out there who’ll not approve but fuck it, I think it looks rad and does it really matter how the end result is achieved? We all miss those Hasselblad fisheye shots, why not mimic them if technology now allows?

With the transition skate media has taken recently to focusing on more online coverage, how has that affected working as a photographer? For both better and worse?

Sidewalk went bi-monthly with the release of issue 220 in January of this year and we saw that as a chance for us to tighten things up and have more control over the content. It was a chance to raise the bar a little as far as what we were running as people would have more time dedicated on say a Haunts or a non tour/trip based feature. Our first issue under the new frequency was issue 221 featuring the Sam Beckett interview, which was shot in California over a two-week period and the Evz (Andy Evans) Haunts, which for the most part had me in Liverpool every Monday for five consecutive weeks. Both of these had a proper allocation of time and I feel like they were really strong features and showed the full extent of what both Sam and Evz were capable of.

Moving forward a few months and Sidewalk went 100% online with issue 222 being released in July with the second half of the mag going out in early August. As far as content and work schedules for the magazine side of Sidewalk; things are the same as the bi-monthly Mag, maybe even a bit freer as it’s a rolling deadline rather than having to get the entire issue done for one date. But, the need to create content for the day-to-day Sidewalk site has been increasing at a steady pace for years and now we have the long form features. So instead of not going to an event as there’s no space for it in the mag, we can now do in depth features that have a really fast turn around and tie in some human interest with interviews like Mark Appleyard (Globe Tour), Dave Mackey and Geoff Rowley (Vans Rowley [SOLOS] feature) and P-Rod (Primitive Demo).

If we’re gonna go down the heavily debated topic of formats then I’m probably going to be pretty unfashionable over the following paragraph. For the most part, shooting for the mag involves sitting in gridlocked traffic on our strangled motorway systems for more hours than I care to count. None of this shit is on my doorstep; yeah, I choose to live in rural Worcestershire rather in one central scene but, I believe that keeps me impartial and less likely to become lazy and just tramline the go-to locals and go-to spot repeats. With the time and effort it takes to go out and try and do something new or give someone a proper chance to highlight themselves, it seems strange in our current world of transparency and immediacy to want to hide all of that away in something that only a small number of people will see, relatively speaking.

You’ve shot skateboarders from all over the country, the States, Europe, for everything from tour articles to First Lights – have you found that photographing someone in what is basically ‘their environment’ usually makes for a better image? Or does having someone over for a week on limited time usually result in a more spontaneous and better result?

Harry Lintell, Nosegrind pop out
Harry Lintell, Nosegrind pop out.

Tours are great as from a selfish point of view; you know that pretty much whatever happens there’s going to be an article to come out of it. The day-to-day editorial work on interviews and human-interest features is a totally different deal; nothing is guaranteed. For me, you can’t replace that one day every few years when you shoot someone’s first photo or it’s the first time you shoot with someone who’s making their way in from the fringes and they go on to become the next name in our world. The all time top dude for this was Jack Edwards. I can’t exit this question without mentioning Harry Lintell and Barney Page too as they stayed at my place when we were living in London in 2009. Those guys were so young and everything they did was a total pisstake. And continues to be.

Who have been your favourite skateboarders to work with over the years? Also, on that note, while you’ve worked in this industry for a long time, is there anyone you’ve felt particularly honoured to photograph?

The best people to shoot are those who either have an idea of what they want to do or are mad enough to just think, “fuck it” and give anything you end up at, a go. The dude with a list is rad too as you can have some kind of structure and maybe pre plan the day a little but there’s nothing better than when someone who has zero regard for their physical wellbeing (John Bell, I’m talking about you!) just throws themselves at anything and everything. As far as honoured; Rick Howard, Jamie Thomas, Lance Mountain, Arto Saari and Geoff Rowley. All really nice people and all childhood, teenage, present day heroes.

On the other hand, what’s been a nightmare to shoot in the past? I mean this in regards to tricks and not the skateboarder doing them; is there anything you’ve had to go back numerous times for or had similar issues with over the years? There must be a fair few…

The negative side of it all is never the skateboarding. As I said earlier, none of the stuff I shoot is just me going out locally with my mates and making sure I’m done in time to be in the pub or home for tea. With each year that passes, I have more and more responsibilities in my life so each journey needs to be increasingly thought out and must have a purpose, as time is something I no longer have an abundance of. Weather, security, injury or just something as basic as snapped board can mean you have to go back to get something. As long as the guy, or gal, doing the leaping is keen, I am too.

Amazingly and coincidentally, Sidewalk’s first and last physical cover was a Kickflip melon grab. It’s also featured in your exhibition so what was the session/day like that lead to capturing that trick?

Yeah, pretty random. The photo was shot on the Sam Beckett mission to San Diego I mentioned earlier. We’d gone to downtown SD to hook up with Stu Graham and skate Washington Street but by the time we’d gotten there pretty much everyone who anyone was there, going off. As it was so late in the day and with some many people there, we stayed in town and headed back there first thing the next morning. Sam being Sam just gave himself a ten-minute warm up and was pretty much good to go. With a few minor bails behind him, he grabbed it, stuck it to his feet and rode away. Two seconds later and Peter Hewett walked through the gate…

first-and-last-Sidewalk-covers
“Kickflip melon in, kickflip melon out.”

At the same time the final printed issue was released, your son Samuel was born. What’s it been like adapting to fatherhood and juggling travel with your role at Sidewalk and balancing home life?

Having Samuel come into our lives has been the best thing that’s ever happened to me and I’m sure my wife Steff feels the same from her point of view. He’s amazing! The whole thing is a massive life changer and everybody tells you how it’s going to be, but nothing prepares you for just how tired you’re going to be. It’s a rad tired though. As far as my role at Sidewalk and photography as a whole is concerned, nothing’s really changed apart from things maybe being more planned or shooting towards what we need rather than taking a punt on a random day out.

Obligatory Rad-Dad question; are you hoping your son will pick up the board or camera or possibly both?

For sure. Skateboarding teaches you that you can do something and you can do it on your own. That’s one of the greatest life lessons that the masses never learn with a team sport or ‘organized’ interest. Like Rodney Mullen says; it teaches you not to give up on the first failed attempt. I think photography is exactly the same in both respects; I’ll get him a set up and a camera as soon as he shows an interest.

Whose photography do you follow closely? It’s natural that anyone from your generation that picked up a camera, be it video or photo, would have been inspired by photographers in the US but now UK and European skate media holds more relevance than possibly ever before. Who do you think is pushing things outside of the States and attracting my generation to document skateboarding on more familiar shores?

Instagram allows us all to follow a wide range of photographers from every generation of skateboarding, so influence and reeducation are constant for me. Obviously we all keep a close eye on what the guys in the US are doing but my main influences throughout have always been the UK photographers. The people who’ve had the most bearing on me and still influence me to the point that I can hear their voices in my head every time I frame something or there’s telegraph pole fucking up the shot are Leo Sharp and Andy Horsley. The feedback they gave me via email or phone for so many years whilst I was trying to work out how to make my photos look how theirs or others did has been invaluable to me. I still apply that to everything from answering emails sent in by the next new photographer, right through to trying to get the best out of a situation when things don’t go to plan.

How does putting on an exhibition in this sort of environment compare to the more traditional sense that an exhibition would be hosted in?

I’ve done two exhibitions before and they were both in skate shops; ‘Sensation Unsurpassed’ at Spine in 2008 and ‘Borrowed Ground’ in Ideal in 2009. I guess the majority of the customers were skate savvy and would know who, what and where was associated with the photos. One of the draws of the Bold Street opportunity was to put some photos into an environment where creative people go to get their lunch and would hopefully show our world to those living outside of it. New eyes on our world.

Heartthrob Tom Harrison throws a hefty Frontside Smith.
Tom Harrison throws a hefty Frontside Smith in Warsaw.

How did you go about choosing which images were featured in the exhibition? Were there any you were definitely set on? Scouring your back catalogue must have been a chore and a trip down memory lane.

In the early planning stages it became clear that I was going to need some financial help in order to make this thing happen as the large prints and made-to-measure frames aren’t cheap. I started off by picking the photos that were amongst my favourite that involved skaters who were sponsored by people that I knew would be up for it and it just grew from there. And I filled in the gaps with some cash I had from selling some camera gear. Massive thanks to all of the brands and individuals who got involved – it means a lot. Seriously.

Out of the fifteen photographs you chose, was there a certain one that was your favourite? What’s the story behind that certain photo?

Jamie-Thomas-July-178One of the most bizarre and ‘is this really happening’ situations would have to be the Jamie Thomas ‘globe ride’ on the Newquay town centre fountain. Ben Powell and myself were on a three-day Fallen tour, which had set up camp in Cornwall, as that’s where the distributors are based, and by the end of our final day we’d pretty much just got demo photos from Mount Hawk and Truro Plaza. In need of some street action to turn this into a mag feature, we headed to the infamous Newquay Church Rail that Adam Moss and others have slayed. Jon Dixon and Dane Burman front feebled and back smith’d it in a mater of minutes and we headed back to our digs. We got a knock at the door a short while later and it was the Chief. He says he’s up for going to try and shoot something in town so we just wandered around Newquay town centre on a Sunday night dodging the stag dos and ended up at the mirrored ball.

Darren Pearcy and a few others were with us and they’d managed to find a few bits of ply and a broken pallet and the Chief set about trying to get himself onto the slippery installation. When you’re knelt on the floor in front of a huge shiny ball that’s pissing out water all over your fisheye and waiting for the dude who’s section from Welcome To Hell you watched on repeat as a 17 year old to potentially land on top of you, you know that it’s going to be something to remember…

This seems like a fitting one to round things off with. Can you explain the session that’s featured at the start of Geoff’s Propeller part with him and Jimmy Boyes breaking the fence and skating Edge Lane? You also shot the photo of Geoff stood in front of the Liver building at the start. Didn’t he call you up one night to arrange all this at the last minute?

Geoff and Greg (Hunt) were over for the opening of the House of Vans in 2014 and Geoff had asked if I’d be up for meeting them in Liverpool as he was filming the intro for his Vans section. Who’s going say no to that? I met them at Edge Lane on the Saturday lunchtime to try and shoot his trick before we attracted too much attention from the locals. Bear in mind that Greg Hunt was rockin’ a RED camera and we were in one of the sketchiest areas of Liverpool. Oh and Geoff, Greg, AVE and myself had to leg it out of there three years earlier whilst trying to shoot something…

Geoff Rowley, Frontside Tailstall, Edge Lane, Liverpool.Initially, Geoff wanted to do a 5050 transfer from the bowl over to the other bank that leads down to where some of the now defunct parts of the park were. To do so, he was going to need to make a hole in the fence to get enough run up. That’s where that footage from Propeller comes. One nasty slam later and realising that he couldn’t really get the right speed on the age old crumbling tarmac, Geoff decided on a front tail.

The following few days were met by pretty terrible weather along the Mersey so we had a load of time to kill. The portrait that was used in the titles of his section was a bit of a quick snap shot whilst Greg was setting up to film some shots of the Liver Building. It was one of many lifestyles and ‘on the go’ style portraits we shot over the weekend but I guess it worked for what they needed it for. Fast forward the best part of a year and I get a call from Geoff late one night saying that he was in the editing suite with Greg and he needed a photo from Liverpool so I sent him everything over. A few days later he text saying it was going to be in the video so obviously I was super stoked.

         Rowley Propeller Intro Geoff-Rowley-Edge-Lane-Fence

Bold Street

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