Friday, December 9th, 2016 | T: lamono
Ivory Serra has been a lifelong artists and photographer. He has worked with major studios, for the likes of Willy Rizzo and Peter Beard, but he’s most known for his independent work. Though he has captured portraits of A-Listers, like Lenny Kravitz, Retna and Noam Chomsky, his documentation of the skate culture, since the ‘90s, has brought him the most attention. It’s hard to say that you have not seen his work before, especially if you admire skate photography. One of his most famous pieces is a black-and-white panning shot of the late Andy Kessler, pushing through the Manhattan traffic on his skateboard. His latest book, Full Bleed, is the Magna Carta of New York City’s skate culture. It features over 30 years of NYC skate photography, from him and 60 other photographers, including Spike Jonze, Larry Clark and Mike O’Meally. lamono sat down with Serra to talk about the journey he has taken and some of the experiences which have shaped him into one of skateboarding’s most respected figures. T: PARIS PETTERSON-GARNER
F: Andy Kessler, NYC 2005
Skateboarding and photography seem to be two important elements within your identity. How have they evolved? Was it skateboarding that brought you to photography, or photography that brought you to skateboarding?
I was born in Bolinas, a coastal town north of San Francisco, California. It’s a small community of diverse people and it has always had a surf and skate scene. I learned to skate with my brother as a teenager before taking any real memorable pictures. This was the early 1980’s, and it wasn’t until high school, when I took a photo class and learned how to use a camera and make prints in the darkroom, that my photographic practice really started. From that point on, my photographs were of my travels and friends, which were mostly skateboarders. Both, my skateboarding and photography have evolved together because it’s difficult to do both at the same time. When the session is good you want to skate and that’s usually when the best tricks happen. There are times you have to choose one over the other. It’s always a balance between work and play.
You have worked with an impressive number of famous personalities. The list is long, and it includes legends like Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Noam Chomsky, Retna and N.E.R.D., just to name a few. Could you share with us one of your favorite, or most rewarding, experiences while working with a celebrity client?
Over the years, I’ve had the chance to work with many amazing people, and that’s a difficult question, to name one particular favorite person or experience. I really like working with Lenny Kravitz, since he knows how to collaborate and has a great sense of style. I’ve had a few really fun shoots with the skateboarder Tony Trujillo. He has the best energy on and off his board. Some of the most memorable times photographing are actually when I get a chance to travel and document other people outside the U.S. In 2001, I went to Japan for five days to photograph several artists including Barry McGee, Ed Templeton, Mike Mills, ESPO, Phil Frost, Margaret Kilgallen, Cheryl Dunn, Chris Johanson, AMAZE, and that was something I’ll never forget. Also, two years ago I spent 11 days in Peru photographing various cities and sites, which was an incredible history lesson, seeing the various ruins and ancient artifacts.
Making books is a great way to preserve a slice of history in one place.
A couple years ago, you and other skateboarders/artists, like Lance Mountain and Chad Muska, were featured in Love & Guts’ ‘Eyes Wide Open’ exhibition, which was dedicated to fellow skaters that have passed away. What was it like working on a memorial about inspirational individuals, like Harold Hunter and Andy Kessler, with other talented artists?
As you get older, it seems the number of great friends and skateboarders that have been visited by the brother of sleep grows every year. It’s always difficult to lose someone you’re close to. Doing a memorial show is important so friends can remember the inspirational contributions individuals such as Andy Kessler and Harold Hunter have left for the skateboarding community. They are truly New York legends, and having a group of artists come together and pay a tribute to their legacy was an honor to be party of. Seeing all the work together and the effort everyone put into the show was super fun.
One of the visual artists involved in this exhibition, Don Pendleton, said that, ‘It’s almost inherent in skateboarding that there’s this creative element that can’t be ignored’. Would you agree with this sentiment? If so, how do you apply the creativity you employ in your artwork, to your skateboarding style?
I totally agree that skateboarding is creative on many levels, from the individual making a choice to ride a board, to the graphics that cover almost every surface of that board. Skateboarding is a lot like music, it’s both personal and can be group oriented, but not easily classified as a sport. The Olympics will be interesting, as judging the creative aspects of skateboarding is very difficult. I don’t see a relationship between my skating style and my photos, but I do try to be precise and create a timeless moments with my work, if that’s possible.
You have mentioned that you lived in northern, central California and New York City. Which has been your favorite place to live in and why? Do you see yourself moving elsewhere?
I spent 21 years in California, before moving to New York City after finishing college in Santa Cruz, CA. I’ll live in NYC for as long as it’s affordable and relevant to the work I do. I enjoy traveling from New York whenever possible, but moving isn’t on the immediate horizon.
One of the photo series published on your website is called ‘Old NYC’. You have been living in the city for the past 21 years. What is your interpretation of the differences between the Old NYC and the New NYC?
I have lived in New York City for a few decades and a lot has changed since 1995. There are now more skate plazas and parks that didn’t exist ten years ago. The old parts of the city have become nostalgic because the new is constantly replacing the old, and that is true for most cities these days. I like NYC, it is different than Brooklyn and the other ‘boros’. Some of the most drastic changes in the urban landscape are happening outside Manhattan. The Old NYC was a rougher place. Times Square is now an advertising playground and no longer a row of broken movie theater marquees. The times are always changing, especially in such a densely populated island where real estate is limited.
Another element that is tied to skateboarding, and heavily featured in your photographs, is the development of street wear and skate fashion. What do you think of the influx of skateboarding culture and fashion into the mainstream, as seen in the dominance of brands like Vans or Supreme?
There will always be an underground aspect of skateboarding that doesn’t rely on the mainstream fashion trends and consumer marketing choices of brand executives. I have always liked particular brands myself, either if it is a camera manufacturer or a board company, and ‘function before fashion’ is a motto I agree with, but the support some brands offer can not be overlooked. My twin brother, Shelter, and I, both rode for Vans as teenagers, and the things Steve Van Doren has done over the years for skateboarding makes me wish there were more brands like his. The creation of skate parks, contests and tours, are all possible with the help of mainstream sponsors. I was at the first X-Games. That was the beginning. Now skateboarding is going to be in the Olympics. Tony Hawk said, ‘The Olympics need skateboarding more than skateboarding needs the Olympics’, and that can be true for a lot of commercial brands involved with skateboarding.
A lot of street photographers like to travel light when they’re on the road working. When you’re traveling for work, what equipment do you always take?
Lately, if I’m traveling, I bring a Fuji 6X9 camera, Yashica-A twin lens, Olympus XA2, Canon MK2 w/ 24-105mm, Nikon SB-26 flash, Vivitar 285 flash, a Pocket Wizard set and maybe a Wescott silver/white reflector. It’s important to be mobile and have a good camera bag. With a Domke shoulder bag and, if I’m flying, my Think Tank Airport case, you can travel light and be able to a grab your camera quickly. I try to avoid carrying a tripod and usually end up bringing more equipment than I use. With most commercial jobs the equipment is predetermined and rented, so personally I like to be mobile and check two bags at the most.
A recurrent subject in your Cuba series are the classic cars that fill the streets of Havana, like the Cadillac De Ville or the Chevrolet Bel Air. It’s interesting that people in the U.S. look to new cars for solutions of sustainability, but a lot of the cars in Cuba have sustained since the mid-century. What did you notice different about the car culture in Cuba versus that of the United States?
In Cuba, the preservation of the classic American cars was great to see. Old parts being used over and over. Here, in the U.S., it’s a privilege to own a classic car, but in Cuba that was not really a choice, the only old cars were American ones from the 1950s and ‘60s.
Along with Alex Corporan and Andre Razo, you created a pretty comprehensive documentation of New York City’s skateboarding history in Full Bleed. The book is over 300 pages and features 30 years of photos. What was it like creating a project of this scale?
Full Bleed was a great collaborative project that took a lot of work and involved around 60 photographers. Making books is a great way to preserve a slice of history in one place.
We’re more than excited to check out your new projects. Is there anything you’re currently working on or about to release?
I’m working on a book that will include 20 years of photos from my archive. Also I’m shooting a long-term project in California for which I’m using an old 4×5 camera.
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