An interview with Leo Sharp
Interview by Charles Paratte / Portrait by Leo Valls / All photos shot by Leo Sharp except otherwise specified
Whatever the camera you own, the last smartphone or the most trendy filter of last ios update, shooting good skate photos required skills, knowledges, and a sharp eye.
From his local scene in Milton Keynes to many the places in the world, Leo has been shooting skate photo for more than two decades. We’ve catch up with Leo and asked him a few questions about his experiences, his background and memories.
How did you start shooting photo and then how skate photography became your job?
I got my first camera aged 8 years old. It was a Ricoh rangefinder with pictures on the focus ring rather than numbers. I had a lot of fun using that for a while. It wasn’t until I really got into skating at age 11 that I wanted to pick up a camera again. My friends and I used to club together and buy a 24 exposure roll of print film. We’d take turns shooting photos of each other and then go and get the film processed at the 1 hour photo lab. It was sick to see pictures of yourself and your friends skating, just like in the magazines. This was how I had the idea to send photos of skating in Milton Keynes to R.A.D. magazine. The editor – Tim Leighton-Boyce published the photos in a little feature about Milton Keynes. This was in 1991. Since that point, all I wanted to do was shoot skate photos. I went to university and studied visual arts as there ween’t any photography degree courses with a practical element at that time. Once I left university I worked as an assistant photographer in Manchester, but the studio and still life work was pretty dull and not where my passion was. I started sending photos of Manchester skaters to System magazine, then RAD again, and finally Sidewalk. I started working as a full time skate photographer for Sidewalk in 1999.
Tell me about your favorite skate photo, that another photographer shot ?
It’s difficult to pinpoint one particular photo that’s a favorite. There are just too many! There’s a photo that Wig Worland shot of Danny Wainwright a long time ago that I love. It’s a black and white film image of Danny ollieing a street sign. It has just started snowing – there isn’t any on the ground but there are flakes in the air close to and further away from the camera giving the image a dynamic perspective.
Tell me about your favorite photo you shot ?
That’s hard because shooting skateboarding is just as much about the social activity – travelling, skating from spot to spot, hanging out on the street and talking shit – as much as the photos themselves. So rather than talk about a specific image and the photographic qualities of it, I’d rather talk about one of my favourite trips. It was a UK Sole Technology trip to Marseille in France back in 1999. We drove from Manchester picking up team riders on the way – Rodney Clarke, Howard Cooke, Dave Allen, Gary ‘Woody’ Woodward and Pete Hellicar were on that trip with Neil Chester filming, We drove though England to the Chanel tunnel. Once in France we stopped at Nolliewood skatepark in Nantes for a competition. After watching Marcus Jurgensen win that, we drove all the way to Marseille. I vividly remember driving through the mountains on the way as we threw snowballs in -5 degree and then remember arriving in Marseille to 26 degrees and sunshine! Once there we met up with Pete King and Dave Chesson, two the brits who just happened to be out there skating. One of my favourite photos to shoot for this trip was a photo of Howard Cooke skating the Marseille bowls on Le Prado skatepark at night. He was carving so fast and hitting a frontside stand-up grind at mach 10. I shot it on fast black and white film with flash to accentuate the film grain. One of the downsides to the tip was that the van got broken into at the skatepark on our first night in Marseille and we almost got all our bags stolen!
What is the most difficult photo you ever shot ?
There was a sketchy time once shooting at a spot called 5 bridges in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the North East of England. We were warming up at the same spot earlier in the day when we saw a little kid saying he’d lost his board. We tried to help him but he soon wandered off towards the council estate he’d come from. After hitting a few more spots that day, we returned to 5 Bridges to shoot a photo with British legend Jimmy Boyes. I can’t remember the trick he was trying, but half way through the session a car pulled up next to the spot and 4 big dudes dressed in construction work gear got out. The started pointing and shouting at us about stealing their kid’s skateboard. It also seemed they were pretty drunk as they were unsteady on their feet. One of them picked up half a paving slab and threw it at me. It just missed my head and smashed on the floor. We had to bail and skate off pretty quickly as they chased us, but owing to being drunk they didn’t run very far. That was the closest I’ve come to getting fucked up whilst shooting a skate photo!
Tell me about the statement of the skate photo nowadays ?
Print versus digital you mean? I still think looking at any image printed on paper rather than on a digital screen is a much better way to view it. The demise of printed skate magazines has and the rise of Instagram is a sad thing as the skate media has become so diluted now. Kids ‘follow’ only the people who they deem to be cool rather than getting a good cross section of the skate community that a good print magazine should give you. That said, Insta does allow anyone to have a platform to showcase their work. But then if they get good at shooting, will there be any print ,ads left for them to aspire to getting their photos published in?
Could you tell us what are your different jobs nowadays?
I have done a few different jobs in the last 10 years since leaving sidewalk. I’ve worked as sales and marketing rep for DC Shoes, I’ve been a lecturer in photography at University, more recently I’ve done sales for Volcom and Supra. And now I’m just about to start a sales role with Rock Solid distribution in Bristol. I still shoot as much skateboarding as I can, but I also run a wedding photography business. It’s hard work but good fun – you get to interact with people who are usually really happy!
It seems that you are still a skate photo lover, and you’re always ready to take the camera from the bag if any good opportunity, even on family trip. Am I wrong ?
I will always love skateboarding and skateboard photography. I am a self-confessed skate photo geek and it’s never far from my mind. Any kind of travelling (even with family) involves taking my camera gear if there’s a chance to shoot something!
Who are your personal most influential skate photographers and why ?
The most influential skate photographers for me are:
Wig Worland – he lived close to me as I was growing up. He began his skate photography career as I was skating a lot in Milton Keynes. We all wanted to be photographed by Wig because his images were amazing and got into RAD magazine and later Transworld Skateboarding. I didn’t know it at the time, but his photography had a subliminal effect on me. During this period, I began using a point and shoot camera to document my friends skateboarding. This later became a desire to get our skate scene in Milton Keynes into the skate mags. Wig is the closest thing to a mentor I’ve had.
Atiba Jefferson – his experimental images using crossed processed film and darkroom techniques really inspired me to try different ways of shooting skate photos.
Brian Gaberman – his black and white film images and darkroom techniques are second to none in the skate photography realm.
Do you have any basic tips for any skatephotographer newbie ?
Don’t worry about using flash to start with.
Get a SLR film camera and 50mm lens. Get some black and white film (Ilford HP5 or Kodak Tri-X are good) and concentrate on composition. Think about line, tone and form of architecture. Think about how the shape of a trick looks from different angles – the body shape of the skater and how the board connects with the ledge/rail etc. Think about what is behind the skater in the frame – is there a clear area that you can put the skater against so their outline is more easy to see?
Who’ s been you favorite skateboarder to shoot with ?
There are and have been so many! If I had to narrow it down to 1, (and this is off the top of my head), I would say a guy called Will Ainley. I love his unique style and consistency plus willingness to skate random, rugged spots. He looks good in photos and is a good laugh to hang out with. This is probably the most important thing to me, hanging out and having a laugh!
Follow Leo on instagram @sharphoto