If you walked into a WHSmiths during the 1990s, then chances are that you will have seen the high-calibre work of Wig Worland.
As a photographer at seminal skateboard magazines like R.A.D. and Sidewalk, his sharp eye helped capture a relatable world of British skating, a million miles away from sun-drenched California schoolyards.
Read on for an extensive chat about skating in the 80s, magazines in the 90s and the differences between the studio and the street.
Header photo - Danny Wainwright, Bristol.
First question - when did you start taking photos? Was there something that set you off with it?
I started in school when one of the better teachers realised I wasn't going anywhere academically and lent me her camera. I don't think there was anything else I could have done to be honest. I started to assist photographers straight out of school.
How did you end up doing skate photography? What was the camera set-up back then?
I grew up near an adventure playground. One day in the early ‘80s a quarter pipe with 'Skatopia' written on it appeared there. We would ride our BMX bikes on it. A few weeks later a guy called Wurzel appeared - he literally dropped over the fence.
All of us, including Wurzel, rode bikes for a bit but as the world transformed around us we all got into skateboarding. One of my best friends at the time was London street skating legend Phil Chapman. He let me take pictures of him and I got better at it.
It’s funny how when you're young it just doesn't occur to you that those are the formative years, even though that’s what every older person is saying to you at the time.
My first camera was a Canon FTB with a 24mm lens - I couldn't afford a fisheye lens. I then wasted more time and energy on a 17mm lens. It was really terrible, but I did get my first picture published in RAD using it.
What was that?
A guy called Doc with a chuck on handrail at the bus station in Milton Keynes in an article in R.A.D. in 1990. In the same article came my second and third published picture. It was such a pivotal moment in my life but just like buses, three came along at once.
Doc, Milton Keynes
Do you remember the first photo you took where you thought, “I’m getting quite good at this”?
Not any single shot, but I think when I got to shoot Manzoori or Channer or Wainwright, I was beginning to shoot people who were making great pictures all the time. The trips back and forth to the lab became less fuelled with anxiety and worry about what I was doing.
So something must have been going right, maybe I knew enough about the dark art of shooting on slide film that I could relax into it. A bit anyway.
"We knew what we were doing was way more important than simply school or fashion or T.V."
The late 80s and early 90s are quite a while ago now. What are some things people forgot about that time?
There was no Instagram! There wasn't anywhere other than the monthly magazines (and of course books) to get any information about anything. It really is odd to say it now because we are all so used to finding anything out that we want to know immediately.
My sister has a theory that technology is making us all more stupid. We simply don't have to retain any information anymore. To get from place to place you don't even need a sense of direction, just flick on 'Waze' or whatever and it tells you where to go.
How weird was it to be a skater or a rider in the late 80s? Obviously now skating is going through another 'cool wave', but how much stick did you get back then for it?
We got so much hassle from everybody at the time. It’s ridiculous when you think about how 'cool' it all is now. We didn’t care at all though. We knew what we were doing was way more important than simply school or fashion or T.V. or whatever else our other friends or peers were into. We were involved in making something happen.
R.A.D. was split fairly evenly between skating and riding. Was there much of a divide at the time? And what were your opinions on the other avenues of raditude?
I'll fully admit it; I went from BMX to skateboard. I was probably a little too young to catch the first wave of skateboarding in the UK. I was six or seven and my mum wouldn't let me have a board, though my best mate at the time had much older brothers so I can claim to have ridden a Logan Earth Ski in the 70s.
By the time BMX hit I was a little more in control of my life. I saved up my lunch money for an entire year so I could buy a Kuwahara ET. My friends and I had so much fun knocking about on those bikes in the 80s — it was amazing. Before I knew it I'd given up BMX 'racing’ and was getting more serious about BMX 'freestyle' (which really is an oxymoron when you stop to think about it).
Within a year or two I had switched to a GT Performer and I was entering freestyle 'contests' and wearing ever more dodgy clothing. Obviously we didn't know it at the time but they really were the formative years of my life.
A good friend from that time, Lee Reynolds moved to California and went on to become a very successful freestyle pro rider with Haro. Back then we all hung out at Mons ramp like one big happy family, and that’s where I started to meet more people.
As BMX started to die, I just moved my attention to skateboarding. There was just so much to get into. You can do way more stuff with a skateboard than a bike! Sorry to the entire BMX community.
What were you looking at for inspiration back then? Even your early photos had a definite style.
I was looking at BMX Action and BMX Plus from America that would appear periodically in the newsagents near my school. Then Freestylin' and Transworld, and Thrasher when I could find it. Back then Thrasher wasn't quite so appealing — it was half a music magazine with really cheap paper, and was scrappy compared to glossier titles of the day. It’s amazing how Thrasher has outlasted them all.
I loved Spike and Windy, and, obviously J Grant Britain, but I also really love TLB's pictures. He really was an amazing complete photographer - properly trained and much better than me. Now I have had a chance to see the stuff in the RAD archive, I can't begin to say how amazing it is. It might not have looked all that good in the mag but that was because of the awful print quality. When the book comes out you’ll see what I mean.
Mike Manzoori, Milton Keynes and Harrow
Talking of the R.A.D. book, what was it like going through the archives for that? There must have been a lot of stuff in there you forgot you took.
It’s amazing to see that stuff being resurrected. So many times the comments on Instagram are along the lines of how much of it could be from today, but with looser trousers and smaller wheels.
R.A.D. faded into the shortly-lived Phat in the early 90s. How did Sidewalk come about?
Andy Horsely and I were doing a magazine called The System during the last days of TLB R.A.D. When R.A.D. was sold to yet another publisher that was out of town, Tim didn’t want to leave London. He thought it was a dead end. By a series of strange occurrences Andy Horsely and I managed to get ourselves in the door at R.A.D. There’s a bit more to this story, but the full version will be in the book hopefully.
Whereas early skate magazines had their fair share of day-glo high-top fashions and boned-out, high-zoot grabs, Sidewalk had a much more British look. Was this intentional? Or was this just a reflection of the times?
It was absolutely intentional. We wanted it to look like a British skate magazine, and perhaps naively, we wanted it to feature all British people, in Britain. The US skate magazine culture was, and still is, so dominant, but we wanted to showcase the UK.
At the time the world was beginning to see Rowley, Penny and Wainwright but we knew there was so much more. Making an all-British magazine was way more difficult than any of us imagined and I'm not sure how sustainable that idea was (and still is). We tried our very best given the resources we had.
Was there things you wouldn't photograph - maybe dodgy outfits or questionable moves?
We had an unspoken ban on the Benihana at Sidewalk. Ha! I wonder if anyone else would admit to that. Everything else was totally fine. We even put Dan Cates in the mag with all his craziness for heaven’s sake!
Dan Cates, Walthamstow
The mid-90s seemed like the real glory days of magazines. They were thick, they came out once a month, they had all sorts of mad stuff in them… and they could all be bought from WHSmiths for a few quid. Why do you reckon there were so many good mags around at this time?
It was really the only way to communicate before the internet really took a grip. Nowadays, you put your tricks up on Instagram and let the world judge you. Back then, we shot the photo, we took it to the lab, and then it was sent off to be printed in cyan, magenta, yellow and black on paper.
After a lot of fuss and bother, the magazine hit the shelves and the rest of the world could see the moments that I had had all to myself. It really was an incredible moment. I'm not sure I'd go back to it though! It was pretty insular and created some difficult politics. It's probably a bit more democratic now. If you don't like what somebody is doing, you 'unfollow' them and that's that.
What was a typical day like back in the early Sidewalk days? Was there a typical day?
Probably wake up late and head to the office via the lab, to pick up the film from the previous day. Maybe pet the dog when I got there for a bit. Horse would invariably arrive later than me and we'd get lunch. After looking through some pictures on the light table I'd head out to shoot skaters in various parts of the country.
One day I'd be in Hull, the next in Birmingham and the next in London. It was a pretty insane schedule to be honest.
"Photography is all about various kinds of lies to create the shot you want."
I’ve said this before in other interviews but I’ll say it again, I hated driving up and down the motorway system in the UK, but I loved the people I met along the way. I really don’t think there was anyone that I didn’t like — it was incredible. A good example of this is driving to Hull, which is a really long way from anywhere. But when I got there, there was Eggy and Banksy and Scott. Amazing people.
This might be a bit of a camera tech guy question… but imagine I’m stood at the top of that flatbank hip at Radlands and a young Tom Penny is cruising towards me… how do I capture the action? Should I pan? Is my flash mounted on the top of my camera… or on a cable… or on a stand? What film should I use?
If you're at a comp it's best that your flash is mounted on your camera, because if you’re trying to be clever like I was in the 90s trying to use an off-camera flash on a lead (Windy Osborn/Spike Jonze style) you're going to miss a lot of shots. Yes, always pan with the subject if you can, it's just better and I'd use whatever film you can afford. It’s really expensive and you only have 36 to 39 shots depending on how clever, or stupid, your camera is.
If it’s not contest day then spend a little longer on your lighting. But not so long that you forget to shoot the scene, the look of the place and the informal portraits of the skaters. You’ll regret that later on if you don’t shoot that stuff. Ahem…
Tom Penny at Radlands and Geoff Rowley in Liverpool
Useful tips. Sidewalk did a very good job of making some fairly drab looking spots pretty good. That photo of a lad named Cookie gapping from a Carpet Right car park in the rain comes to mind… something like that could easily look pretty depressing in lesser hands. What were your tricks for making these fairly everyday places look decent?
Bring your own sun — a portable flash. Oh, and a little jiggery pokery with the slide film we were using as well. Also, know what you’re doing, and how the film is going to react to the light. Photography is all about various kinds of lies to create the shot you want.
I’m glad you remembered that Cookie shot because it is pretty special. He was such an amazing, positive person. Never mind my photograph, but how did a person stay positive when you had such terrible conditions to skate in! It’s not exactly California.
Pretty much sums up how we should all approach life, the Cookie story...
I don’t know if I’m looking into this too much, but a lot of the Sidewalk stuff celebrated British culture rather than disguise it. I’m not sure where I’m going with this question, but do you think it’s important that people embrace their situation, rather than endlessly dream of California?
My entire life’s philosophy is to draw out what you can from the place where you are, rather than dreaming that somewhere else has the answer. This ridiculous dreaming is the reason that the air is so polluted these days with people crossing the world on long haul flights to wherever and with people driving from perfectly fine A, to almost certainly nearly the same B.
Of course all this is fine for me to say, I don’t have a car but I live in London where there is a brilliantly sophisticated Public transport system. I grew up in Milton Keynes so it wasn’t a shock to get to California and see the state they’re in, but I truly believe the car has ruined a lot. Not least for our children who can no longer play in the streets primarily because of the number of vehicles on the road. Rant over.
Haha fair enough. What were some of the hassles of making a magazine back then? Any camera mishaps or blatant errors come to mind?
Radio slaves were terrible but they still are. That’s the nature of radio waves in a very wet country. There was some dodgy kit but you could usually spot it pretty quickly and pass it on. I did have all my cameras stolen from the boot of my car once which did feel like the end of the world at the time. Grant Brittain very kindly sent me one of his old cameras and a fish eye to start me off again and Pete Hellicar rang round all the big names in the industry in the UK asking for donations to get me started again. Really kind, amazing people.
"My entire life’s philosophy is to draw out what you can from the place where you are, rather than dreaming that somewhere else has the answer."
The problems were always with the printers or repro people. Handing over your precious photographs and layouts to people who aren’t as invested in the project shall we say. Having said that, there weren’t that many problems, only ever issues that the editor or I would notice.
Reuben Goodyear, Stockwell
I’d say skate photography fits under the documentary category, but how far would you go to get a better photo? I know moving the occasional rucksack out of shot is fairly commonplace, but I’ve heard stories of photographers carrying around brighter clothes for people to wear so they stand out more.
There are a few skaters who would bring their own brighter clothes for the shoot. Have a look through my shots and see if you can guess who they are for a fun game. I think this is brilliant.
I don't think that skateboard photography is documentary at all. It’s a collaboration between the skateboarder and the photographer to produce the best image they possibly can.
What about the days when nothing happened? Surely there must have been a few afternoons when no one was feeling it, or did the fact you had a big camera bag egg people on a bit?
It rains a lot in Britain, I'm sure you've noticed. On those days, if you were lucky, we'd sit about in the local Skateshop. If we were less lucky we'd get caught at the local indoor skate park and wait for the rain to stop. I remember thinking then that I would never get that time back, now of course if I had that time back I would do just the same thing. Amazing days.
I'm sure people did feel motivated by having a magazine photographer in town to shoot pictures of them yes, but that just makes me wonder what it's like now? You can literally shoot a picture whenever you like and upload it anywhere.
Do you think these advances in technology have improved skate photography or not?
I would have killed for a digital camera back when I was shooting skateboarding every day. I’d not only have been able to see what I had in terms of stills, but shooting sequences would have had a lot less pressure involved as well. A couple of people have said that seeing the used rolls of bails lining up on the stairs or pavement beside me gave them extra incentive to land the trick, but it made for some pretty heated sessions.
The Chris Oliver kickflip off a bus stop into bank with another drop springs to mind. Fair play to the ginger genius though, he bloody landed it, and he can say he did it on film as well. So, so sick.
Chris Oliver, Bournemouth
Did you enjoy doing sequence shots or was it just a case of documenting the new tech?
I wasn't really interested in shooting sequences to be honest, I always thought that was the job of the video camera. In some ways I wish I stuck with that attitude and concentrated on the style of the skater rather than the high tech that they could put down. I think that would have made for a more interesting back catalogue.
This is maybe another fairly camera-orientated question, but I’m interested, so the casual readers will have to suffer… you were maybe one of the first skate photographers to push the studio-lighting style out into the real world. What led to this development?
Ollie Barton thinks I was the first to do the studio on the street thing. I guess other people had tried using flash slaves off camera before, but I made it my own. I was the first out there with portable studio flash which had more spread of light than the dedicated flashes made by camera manufactures. I'm sure I was responsible for keeping the Lumedyne brand going for a while. Lumedyne really are the most terrible looking lights that have ever come to market, made from bits bought from Maplin or Radio Shack, but they worked quite well and everybody had them in the early 2000s.
Did setting up multiple flashes in ropey areas ever become a problem?
It's funny you know, I never felt odd about setting up lighting anywhere. If you’re prepared to pop a light out on a dodgy estate then you’re serious about getting something done. I think most people whoever they are respect that, some are even interested in it.
There were a few hairy moments — like a car taking out a light in downtown Stockport while shooting late at night. But the light was in the middle of the street, so that one was on me. Nobody ever picked one up and legged it. Not once, but as I said they don't look expensive so maybe that was enough.
Mark Channer, London
Maybe a bit of an obvious question, but do you have a favourite photograph you’ve taken? And are there any photos which you wish you took?
As I rather flippantly alluded to earlier, I don’t feel I shot anywhere near enough incidental stuff. I was too interested in making the lighting right to capture the trick perfectly. If I could go back I’d have a point and shoot with me at all times and I’d use it constantly.
I don’t have a favourite photograph. There are just too many, of so many amazing friends and brilliant talented people. I couldn’t pick one above all others.
In 2018, it’s easier than ever to take a photograph. Is this good or bad? Has the advent of phone-based camera gadgetry devalued the art (or at least the science) of photography?
No, it hasn't devalued it. Because more people have cameras, more people are interested in photography. If you want to lug around a huge old school view camera to shoot pictures then there are sub-genres of sub-cultures that can more easily facilitate that stuff nowadays. Of course more people think they can do it, but it's still the case that only some people do it well.
These days you do work for people like Rapha and Palace. After all the years lying at the bottom of some stairs, is it nice to be in a studio?
I love the studio because I can turn up at 9am, I can see the work coming through on the computer all day and the art director signs it all off as we go so there are no disappointments later. I can pack up at somewhere between 6pm and 9pm knowing that I have done the work and that I am going to be paid. I can then spend the evening looking after my daughter or whatever without the worry of whether I got caught the trick at the right time or indeed if I exposed the film correctly.
However, the buzz of shooting skateboarding, especially on film, is amazing because it is the opposite of the above. It was and still is an incredible brilliant world that I was fortunate enough to be part of for a limited time.
Ben Jobe, London
What else do you get up to outside of photography? What music are you into?
I listen to NTS radio all day everyday primarily because I don’t want to hear the same music twice ever. I really don’t dig nostalgia. I’m quite into cycling but I didn’t ride all winter so I guess that makes me a fair weather cyclist. John Rattray has invited me on his Good Egg cycle/skateboard tour this year so I’ll try to make it out there for that.
Sounds good. Okay, I think that’s all I’ve got for questions. Have you got any wise-words you’d like to add?
No, just enjoy life as best you can. We’re not all going to be famous or millionaires, so don’t believe anyone when they tell you to follow your dreams — real life might conspire to not let you get there. Life just happens to most people.