Skater boys on show
A new exhibition remembers the sidewalk surfers of the ’70s, writes Elizabeth Fortescue
The first time Hugh Holland saw skateboarders and decided to photograph them, he thought their moves looked like ballet on concrete.
“I saw a phenomenon unfolding before my eyes, and it was beautiful to me,” Holland says.
The year was 1975 and the place was Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Los Angeles.
Teenagers from local neighbourhoods would gather in the concrete drainage ditches alongside the road and spend whole days pitting their fitness and agility against gravity and the threat of broken bones and torn skin.
Holland says he was just getting into photography at the time.
“I suppose I was looking for subject matter, although I didn’t know it at the time,” he says. “I was in the right place at the right time. Young skaters were just starting to ‘go vertical’. They were excited at every boundary passed, and the excitement was in the air.”
Holland photographed the skateboard counterculture for three years, taking thousands of images. Some of the lithe young athletes, like Stacy Peralta, became famous skateboarders and surfers. Most of them didn’t. In the golden light and long shadows of Holland’s pictures, they are f forever young.
Holland stopped p photographing skateboarders when the sport of rebels and surfers was taken over by brands and logos. It was no longer of vital interest to him, and he moved on to photograph other subjects.
But people from London, Paris, New York and Japan have experienced Holland’s skateboarding photographs in a travelling exhibition, which will be in Sydney from Tuesday until August 1.
Holland will attend the official opening at Blender Gallery on June 4, where he will also launch his book of the same name as the exhibition — Locals Only.
“For this show, we’re unveiling nine new photographs,” Holland says. “They’re skateboard-era photos that haven’t been seen much yet and are being made as fine-art prints for the first time.”
Holland says he has “thousands of good photos from those days”. Interestingly, they lay ignored for years until he included one in a mixed exhibition in 2004.
The photograph was spotted by Dov Charney, founder of the American Apparel clothing business, which prompted Holland to go through his skateboarding archive. He held his first dedicated skateboarding exhibition in 2006.
There is a documentary quality to these photographs. Spanish revival architecture and swaying palm trees are the backdrop as kids with sun-bleached hair pull off amazing physical feats on their decks.
With the action happening so fast around him, Holland had no time to direct the action. Nor did he want to.
“There was no setting up of the pictures, except for the fact that the skaters often showed off for my camera,” Holland says. “My style has always been more street photography than any other kind — capturing pictures I see unfolding in front of me.”
Holland turned up to photograph the skateboarders in areas like Huntington Beach, Burbank, Balboa Beach, the San Fernando Valley, San Francisco and even Baja California, Mexico.
The skateboarders loved being in his pictures.
“They did cooperate,” Holland says. “Maybe you could even say that they got me to co-operate with them. They wanted images of themselves almost as much as I wanted to do it.
“I had good attitude almost always from them. One thing is that, 40 years ago, there were a lot fewer cameras around than there are today. Now everyone has a camera of some kind. At that time, when I appeared with my camera, I was welcomed.”
The roots of skateboarding go back to the 1940s. But the mid-1970s saw a boom in popularity, thanks to the invention of polyurethane wheels, which provided the traction needed to perform increasingly complex tricks.
Every surfer had a skateboard, and rode it in a
way that mimicked riding a wave. Riding a skateboard even became known as “sidewalk surfing”.
Another term coined was “pool riding”, referring to the use of empty backyard swimming pools as unofficial skate parks. California in the mid ’70s was in the grip of drought, and local teenagers would scale people’s fences to ride in their pools.
In 2011, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles included Holland’s work in the first major US museum survey of graffiti and street art. The exhibition was titled Art In The Streets.
If getting the attention of a major art gallery bestows retrospective social acceptance, all the little rebels in Holland’s pictures had suddenly found themselves on the inside — maybe where they never wanted to be.
Locals Only, Blender Gallery, 16 Elizabeth St, Paddington; free June 2- Aug 1, blendergallery.com
Examples of Hugh Holland’s Californian skateboarder photographs taken in the mid-1970s, on show at the Blender
Gallery in Paddington from next week.