This post is the first in a Focal Flame Photography series on “alternative sports” – athletic endeavors that are bit outside of the mainstream.
Tricks. Ramps. Rails. Grinds. Fakies. Ollies, 720s, front side airs, and kickflips. Skateboarding has its own unique language, style, and culture. But is it a sport?
“Absolutely,” says photographer Clint Thayer. “It is physically demanding. There’s the competitive nature of improving one’s abilities. And there are even actual competitions.”
Jim Toombs, owner and manager of Erik’s Bike and Board Shop on the west side of Madison, WI, agrees. “The big thing with skateboarding is that it focuses on technical ability, not necessarily cardio workouts,” says Toombs. “I see skaters doing rails, ramps, jumps, kicks, flips….there’s a lot of focus on foot work, mental concentration, and practice.”
A former skater himself, Thayer is drawn to the motion of skateboarding. “I’ve always enjoyed the speed and the way the body transforms itself both while on the ground and in the air”, he states. Motivated to capture images depicting that velocity, he visited a skate park in Middleton, WI during the first warm day of spring and photographed several skaters honing their skills.
One of the skaters was Shea Cotter-Brown. With four years of skateboard experience, he was drawn to the sport through family ties. “I had to do something, given what my brothers are into”, he said during a follow-up interview. With older brothers devoted to skiing, skateboarding, snowboarding, and inline skating – some with backing from commercial sponsors – it was no wonder that Cotter-Brown became dedicated to a board sport.
“My friends and I are at the park shark level”, he said, explaining that young novice skaters are referred to as "groms" while advanced skaters earn recognition as “park sharks”. Along with a small clan of fellow skaters, Cotter-Brown has been practicing at locations including Four Seasons Skate Park in Madison, an indoor park at an undisclosed warehouse location on the south side, and at local outdoor skate parks when weather permits.
The group caught Thayer’s eye. “I really wanted to study motion and how to capture skaters in motion. I did this primarily with a low shutter speed and panning shots that blurred the background but that kept a certain aspect of the subject in focus.” While some images impart a sense of movement, others seem to freeze a moment in time. “I wanted to do total stop motion at timepoints so that you couldn’t really tell what was happening, or if the board and skater were able to make it and land the particular trick that they were attempting.” The end result is an unresolved tension that conveys the risk involved in pursuing a trick, even as the outcome remains unseen.
Skateboarding culture has long been focused on graphical expression. “The graphics [of boards] have always been fairly cutting-edge”, says Toombs. “Today I think the color schemes are even more vibrant”, he says, noting that past seasons have seen trends ranging from a penchant for pink to more muted earth tones and even plaids. As a result, both skater and board can serve as focal points for photographs, with strong colors contrasting against neutral asphalt and concrete.
Cotter-Brown and his friends are honing their skills daily, planning to travel to California this summer to take in – and take part in – the skate scene there. Hoping to compete in events like the Chili Bowl in Proirero del Sol, they are practicing new tricks, trying to avoid injury, and reveling in their park shark status.
What are your thoughts: is skateboarding a sport? Share your skateboarding experiences in the comments section.