Wig Worland interview

29.07.2018 Exclusive, Articles

We caught up with legendary skateboard photographer Wig Worland for a chat about his work, skate photography today, Tim Leighton-Boyce and the RaD. The book of the magazine project.

We were also lucky enough to get access to Wig’s RaD-era archive and have included some of our favourites below. All photography by Wig Worland.

Interview: Henry Kingsford.

Ricky Oyola, ollie, Paternoster Square, 1994.

What got you into photography?
One of the better teachers at my secondary school spotted something about me and offered to lend me her camera. Straight out of school I got a job assisting a very good commercial photographer on one of Mrs Thatcher’s government work experience schemes. She certainly is a divisive figure in figure in UK history but she indirectly helped me. I carried on working for the local photographer when the scheme was finished, he expected a lot and had very high standards so I learned very quickly. This was the late ’80s when photographers were considered as wizards. They could conjure forth images from these concertina like boxes. At the time it was considered a real craft, a proper career path and a job for life. Ha!

What came first, skateboarding or photography?
Skateboarding came first but only after BMX. I ‘transformed’ alongside RaD magazine. It was the way the wind was blowing but I made that journey as well. We had such an amazing time cruising around Milton Keynes on our BMX bikes when we are kids but skateboarding is just better. Sorry BMX world. I mean, loose the ridiculous huge pegs and maybe we can talk, see Gerry Galley’s part in Nails in the Coffin for how it’s really done. One peg touch. That’s it. Also, Backflips?! No, just no.

I guess this is why the RaD magazine story is so important to me: it tracks my life from early teenage years from bikes to boards and on to me having my first picture published within those hallowed pages. BMX Action Bike as it was – and then turning into RaD – was there during the formative part of my life.

You started shooting in Milton Keynes. How was the scene there back then?
The scene in MK was really good. Some of the friends I grew up riding BMX with were already pretty amazing skateboarders. Phil Chapman had been skating with his older brothers since the first wave in the ’70s and Duncan ‘Wurzel’ Houlton lived to Wolverton. When Wurzel literally dropped over the fence at the local adventure playground where we had a quarter pipe, life changed. He rode his bike there with us for a bit but once we’d rearranged and rebuilt into a half pipe out came the skateboards. A kooky bike rider but an incredible skateboarder in his time

How important is it to have good skateboarders around you when learning skate photography?
I was lucky, I grew up near some pretty incredible talents, but because the skateboard world is so small you are always going to meet friends of friends. I wonder how it is these days now everyone is putting there tricks up on Insta straight out of their mobile phones. Is there a place for stills photography in skateboarding? (A question for another day perhaps?) I love following various skateboarders on Insta to see what they are doing and if I think I could make great pictures from it. I’ve already made contact with a couple of skaters through Insta that I really wanted to take pictures of recently and I am sure there will be others. The short answer to the question then is: yes, you need to shoot good skateboarders to make good pictures. One follows the other.

Who were you shooting back then?
Phil Chapman, Wurzel, MK locals Dean Jasper and of course the notorious ‘Doc’. This was slightly before Rob Selley’s time. I already knew Mon (Barbour) from SS20 in Oxford from the BMX days – he owned the infamous half-pipe on the farm in rural Oxfordshire. So when he had a shop team he let me loose on them. One of his riders was Danny Wainwright. This connection also led me to Alex Moul and Tom Penny. Randomly, Pete Dossett moved to my home town early on as well and I started to do a lot of missions all over the country with him. People would come and stay with him as well so I met Jocke Olson and then I guess Rune (Glifberg), though it was probably Wurzel that lead me to Jeremy Fox and the Deathbox team originally. I did a trip to the Münster Monster Mastership one year with those guys, which was eye-opening for a sheltered kid like me. There were some real trouble makers in that crew but I guess that led me to more street lunatics like the very underrated Luke McKirdy. At around the same I also met Shane O’Brien and his Santa Cruz team riders Tony Luckhurst and Mike Manzoori. Jeez I was lucky! Mike is probably my favourite skateboarder to just push through the streets with. Yes, I can skate to a degree, it’s just that I put most of my hours in with a huge bag of cameras on my back!

Luke McKirdy, longest ollie, St Albans, 1993.

You’ve been in London for a long time, after stints in Bristol and Oxford. There was a north-south divide in skating back the ’90s. What was your experience of that, working for a UK magazine? Were you ever criticised for focusing too heavily on London?
There was no way two northerners – Andy Horsley and Ben Powell – would have allowed Sidewalk to be too heavily London. I really hope nobody ever thought that! I lived in Bristol briefly in the early mid ’90s and then spent 5 years living in Oxford from ’95. When I did move to London in 2000 it felt like I was never there as I was always travelling, though I guess the Ben Jobe thing came from that time, which I’m still pretty proud of. I wanted to travel less probably or at least travel within the city, but there was a degree of resistance to too much London from Ben and Andy as I alluded to.

Can you talk a little about flash lighting skate photography. You are known as a pioneer in this field.
Oliver Barton has cited me as the originator of this idea of bringing the studio to the street but really it was born out of necessity. Warning! Long-winded film technology explanation ahead. The cost of shooting negative film and making prints was prohibitively expensive for a low budget magazine like Sidewalk Surfer, so we had to shoot slide film to get the quality relatively cheaply. To catch the action and get an easily repeatable effect with what was really slow film (100-200 ISO) you had to use flash. We didn’t have the option of anything looking good at higher ISO speeds as faster speed transparency film – even 400 ISO – was super expensive and terrible quality. I’d been assisting a pretty good commercial photographer as my first job straight out of school as mentioned earlier, so studio lighting was what I knew about. I also like the effect when it’s done well. But I’m not sure I’d do it that way today. Lugging all that super cumbersome equipment around! Knocking into people on the Underground. Spending all that time setting it all up and drawing attention to yourself just to be kicked out of the spot… One day in the early 2000s Ollie Barton turned up at Southbank with a car boot full of stuff and was paying £5 an hour to park. That was when I started to question it. I then watched Pete Thompson skate down the street in Barca with a huge suitcase full of gear and that was it for me. The penny finally dropped, carrying all that kit around was affecting the way skateboarders were feeling about the session. I think there is a lot to be said for making it a proper shoot and turning up with your rig and set up and waiting for the tricks to go down – it puts a degree of pressure on the skater. But it can make things really serious and only truly professional skateboarders would come through with the goods. That can be good but perhaps when you’re producing a magazine that is trying to cover the whole scene, I sometimes felt it was going too far – perhaps over professionalising something that was supposed to be kids having fun at the end of the day. After that I started to shoot on colour negative film and would travel with minimum kit if I could. That signalled the beginning of the end of my tenure at Sidewalk. I was getting through thousands of pounds a month in film, process and hand printing. I was costing too much and in an increasingly digital and cost efficient world my time was nearly up.

I haven’t used this new thing that some modern flash does with some digital cameras (high speed sync) yet, but I’d be keen to give it a try. I know what I want it to look like in my head though I’m not sure it will do what I want it to.

Danny Wainwright, Kennington, 1994.

Can you talk a little about the short period when Hasselblad was standard kit and everyone wanted super crisp, flash-lit shots (no ambient blur). It seems like these days, generally speaking, skate photographers are less interested in flash.
I wouldn’t shoot with flashes these days and / or put a £4000 Hasselblad lens anywhere near skateboarding today. I’m really glad I did and I am pleased I got to experience that, but I wouldn’t choose to do it that way again. The Hasselblad years were silly. It was rock star stuff. Though the results are truly amazing to look at, I would much prefer to turn up to the spot with my hand held light eating machine and worry about the intricacies of how things are going to look after grading, rebalancing and perhaps rearranging later. You could read that last sentence for digital process these days, but it was always what shooting black and white meant to me. I felt I was fully in charge of that process back in the early Sidewalk days. I was starting to do the same thing with colour negative in the later days of Sidewalk.

What do you think about skateboard photography today? You have mentioned to me in the past that switching to digital was very liberating for you, but do you feel younger photographers lack something from not learning the old way, through trial and error?
The feedback from shooting digital is really fast and you can learn very quickly but I still think learning photography is down to really looking at the results you have in front of you and being honest with yourself about what it really is. That truly is the issue about any kind of photography. You can hide behind various formats or claim that shooting on this material or that material is what you are all about but it’s not really the full picture at the end of the day. For me it’s about how the image looks at the end of that process. The very end, the purpose it was shot for: the wall, the page, the screen. Be honest with yourself and see it for what it is. Then you’ll progress as a photographer, not as the latest hotshot wonder kid with a new idea, but as a well-rounded photographer. When I was in my twenties and thirties I was shooting so much and I’d learned so much about the dark art of exposing transparency film that I thought I knew it all. The truth is that there is always something else to learn in photography and it’s only now that I think I’m becoming quite good. I finally have an overview of how it all works, technically yes, but there are many, many more subtleties within the final image that I still find interesting.

Bristo Square crew, 1993.

Can you talk through some of the ups and downs of shooting skating for a living? Some days I feel like it’s the best job in the world, others it’s super-frustrating.
OMG, yes totally. When I first met Mike O’Meally in 2006 I was really having an off day and I tried to explain why I was no longer involved to any degree. It went something like this; because of the unsanctioned nature of street skating I had been driven insane. Rock star skateboarders who don’t want to get up to create good pictures, getting busted from the spot when you do finally arrive, if you’re in northern Europe having to deal with the unpredictable weather! The driving! Why I didn’t insist on getting the train everywhere when I worked at Sidewalk I don’t know. I loved the people I met along the way but those endless motorways…

What made you stop shooting skating and move towards cycling-related photography around the mid-2000s? Was there one particular catalyst, an awful trip or experience working with someone?
No, this feeds into what I was just saying about it building up over years. There’s a theory about doing what you love and turning that into a job. I think the danger with that theory is that in every job there are going to be good days and bad days. When you love something so much and it is your entire life those hard days really hurt. Skateboarding had become my life, it was my work it was my social life it was everything and I think I’d just had enough. Also, at the time I’d met a girl who went on to become the mother of my child. I guess it felt like time for a change.

And not to dwell on the negative, what are a couple of your best memories from shooting skating?
I couldn’t single out any one thing. Working for all those different magazines and meeting all those people through the years was such an incredible journey. If I was even slightly religious I would say I have been blessed. But I’m not, so I won’t. I guess I worked hard, I got up in the morning and I went to do it with the people that mattered at the time and of course I was lucky enough to be paid for it.

More recently you have been working with Palace. Can you explain what you do there?
I’m a commercial photographer. I’ll work for any brand that wants to pay my day rate. Though I have turned some down some through the years, there haven’t been many.

Dan (Adams) told me you were shooting skating again lately and really enjoying it. Who have you been shooting? I noticed you shot some stuff at Mwadlands last year.
Yeah, the Mwadlands thing was really funny. Stu (Hammond) from Palace sent me an email about the park and I emailed back jokingly saying that he could get me out of retirement to shoot some skateboarding but I would need Geoff (Rowley),  Tom (Penny) and Carl (Shipman) there. He messaged straight back saying: “It’s funny you should say that because Geoff is already here and Tom steps off the plane in an hour.” The park was really close to where I live so I had no excuse really. The only problem was that the digital SLR and the fisheye were at the studio on the other side of town. I didn’t think I should waste any time by going to get it so I grabbed what I could from home and headed down there. That’s why the first night’s shots were shot with a Fuji 6×9 with a tiny flash on top – hilarious and I don’t think the shots are too bad either. Geoff was there absolutely killing it – literally like it was still 1995 – and I got a couple of shots of him. We then got talking and catching up and he was kind enough to spend some time trying to explain the hunting side of his life that causes consternation with some. Earlier this year he then got in touch to ask if I would come and shoot him when he was over in England this summer. We met a couple of weeks ago and the images will be out there soon. I alluded to finding people through Insta earlier as well. Yeah, I’m enjoying it. But it’s not my job anymore, so I can enjoy it for what it is and walk away when it’s not for me.

Hugo Boserup, Mwadlands, 2017.

It seems relatively common for skate photographers and filmers to move into other fields, then return to skateboarding later in life. For example Brian Gaberman and Dan Magee. How does working in skateboarding compare to the real world?
The real world is so much more controlled with lots and lots of layers of people having a say in the look of the final image or campaign. Dan Magee is a good example of somebody who is able to control all those layers and come out with a result that is very exiting but also polished. Those people are rare. I love Brian as well and his work. I have unseen pictures of Brian skating. I should post them on Instagram. Another example of my charmed life!

Moving on to the RaD book, how long have you been involved in the project and what is your involvement?
This book is a long time coming. Dan and the main photographers have been talking about it for years, but it only really became a reality when TLB (Tim Leighton-Boyce) finally open the doors on his archive of images in 2014. I nearly wept when I first saw the Curtis McCann sequence he’d found for the Southbank book. It was so good to finally see it out in the open again. That collection of images could have all been destroyed by now, engulfed in flames even! It’s amazing it’s intact and ready to be used.

Can you explain briefly how you fit into the RaD story? You became involved quite late on, if I’m correct.
The long version will come out with the book and Tim’s departure to do Phat magazine is already very well covered in a We Look Sideways podcast interview, which is really interesting and very concise if you wanted to have a listen (and has really upset the BMX world). RaD was then being published by somebody out of London and for some reason they thought it best to let the staff from the Snowboard title they also had attempt to run it. Needless to say this was a pretty dark period for RaD. No offence meant to those involved, who I am sure were doing the best they could. At about the same time I had met Andy Horsley who worked for a skate shop / distributor in Nottingham (Rollersnakes) and he had somehow convinced the owner to bank roll a magazine called The System. There was really no money for this print mag but Andy had the drive to make it work. The first issue was essentially everything I had shot over the previous year. Hunt a copy down if you can! One day after two or three issues of The System, I decided to pick up Andy from Rollersnakes and drive him to the RaD offices where I essentially told the publishers that Andy and I should be producing RaD magazine. It was an audacious move but amazingly they went for it. The rest I guess is history.

Carl Shipman, Radlands, 1995.

What is your relationship with Dan and Andy (Holmes)? Have you worked with them previously?
I knew Andy Holmes from his involvement in the Dysfunctional book. Incredibly, I have three pictures in that seminal work. For heavens sake whatever you don’t read my biography in the back pages though! I don’t know what I’d been taking that day but my tongue was evidently firmly planted in my cheek! I promise I have much better material now.

Why is the project important?
The RaD book is an incredible culmination of people and ideas from a pre-internet era. When that magazine came out every month it was where all the action was. Remember that this was before skateboard videos were any more than very rare and long before the advent of the monthly skateboard video magazine. It really was where all the important stuff was happening in skateboarding. All the incredible talent in those pages and all the incredible talent it used to create those pages. I feel lucky to be involved to honest. I was heavily involved for only the last year of the magazine in the ’90s and because it was a post-TLB project, I think there was a degree of resistance to having me involved in the current book project. We’re all very good friends now though.

How has it made you feel going through your archive? How do you feel about your your work with some distance and perspective, now that you’re less immersed in making it?
I avoided looking at my archive for years. I don’t really enjoy nostalgia. I guess it was the way I was brought up – never look back, always forward and it’s true today, I’m still only interest in the next job (luckily I have a team of people working with me now to make sure yesterday’s job is delivered though, as a note to potential new clients reading this!) The RaD book and to some extent the Southbank book from a few years ago helped me to go back in there and reevaluate how I should see it.

Dan ‘Jagger’ Ball, 360 flip, Wolverhampton, 1994.

One of my favourite things about looking at these older photos are the little cultural references: ads in the backgrounds, old cars, old shop fronts that sort of stuff. And of course the clothes. Do you experience the same?
Yes, all that stuff is very interesting and relevant just at the moment. It’s very interesting to see how fashion can be cyclical. Dan at RaD said that he’d walked into a high street retailer recently and he felt like he’d walked into a ‘90s skate shop from the clothing they are selling. It’s funny reading the comments on the RaD archive Insta – so often people say that something from the past looks like it’s from today for some reason or other.

For those who don’t know – maybe younger readers – can you tell us a little about TLB and his contribution to skateboarding and skate photography.
Tim Leighton-Boyce was an incredible photographer who has done such a lot to make sure that the UK skateboard scene was properly documented. That archive is huge as he was really very prolific. My relationship with him has always been one of a supportive uncle who didn’t let me join the party too quickly. In the very early days of my original involvement in the magazine he would be a great pains to tell me that there really was no budget to pay for freelance photographers. As skateboarders we all owe Tim a great debt for being there when nobody else was to show us what it all looked like. In an age before literally everyone having a really incredible camera in their back pockets, there were a few people like Tim who shared how the world looked from their perspective. It used to stoke us out month after month when the magazine came out and it’s still incredible to see that stuff today. The RaD Insta page is the place to start if you want to see what I mean. We’d like to do two books to start with but there is easily enough for 10 books! It really is such a huge archive.