Silly Girl Skateboards team rider Jean Rusen of Tempe, Arizona, catching air in a backyard bowl at Slash Camp in Colorado. August 2016. Exposure: 1/1000 sec., ƒ/8, ISO 1000.
Skateboarding was a big part of college life for photographer Kathy Hayes. At first, it served as a mode of transportation through New York City’s concrete jungle and from one to another of her school’s scattered midtown buildings. It then evolved into a pick-up sport that, before small towns had their own skateparks, found arenas wherever there were hard, curved and banked surfaces.
One popular point of assembly for her cohort was the now-legendary Brooklyn Banks, under the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge—a landscape of brick and concrete that once resonated with the sounds of skateboarding mixed with the music of the Beastie Boys played through an old-fashioned boom box.
A youthful diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis in Hayes’ knee, one of a skateboarder’s most important tools, curtailed her “skating” career for many years. A decade later, helped by multiple surgeries and new medications and inspired by people who were still skating as they approached middle age, she picked up where she had left off. “I was watching friends even in their 50s still shredding,” she says, using the enthusiast’s term for determined, skillful skateboarding. “So I dusted off my board and started to skate again. It was life-changing.”
What also changed was that Hayes started bringing a camera along on her skate outings. She had taken pictures all her life, starting with a Bugs Bunny-themed cartridge camera her mother gave her when she was 5 and, later, majoring in photography at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). But it wasn’t until her late 30s that Hayes’ two passions came together. Having been schooled in film-based photography, Hayes was challenged by her borrowed Canon EOS 5D DSLR—though it was much more suited to skateboarding’s action and informality than the old Rollei twin-lens reflex medium-format camera she had been using until then. “I was pretty lost when digital took over,” she recalls. “I basically taught myself, but was doing a lot of things wrong.”
To learn things the right way, Hayes went back to school at SVA for a master’s degree, studying in its intensive, year-long Master of Professional Studies (MPS) in Digital Photography, which is taught by some of the most knowledgeable people in the photography business. And when it came to picking a subject for her thesis project, the choice was clear.
“I realized that my work would be stronger if I photographed something I knew and loved, so I started shooting the world of grown-up skateboarding more resolutely,” says Hayes, whose hand was forced by a skateboarding collision that injured her wrist, temporarily knocking her out of the action and into the photographer’s “box.” Lucky for Hayes, the world of grown-up skateboarding is both visually rich and full of human interest, and far removed from the popular perception of skateboarding as a risky, unsavory and antisocial adolescent behavior. The body of work she created, and which continues to this day, can be seen in full at kathleenhayesphoto.com. It’s titled “Shred Til You’re Dead.”
Hayes’ images of mid-life skateboarding’s highly social realm gain their strength from her insider’s perspective, something that’s true of most great photography of human subcultures. “I wouldn’t have the same level of intimacy and access if I weren’t part of the scene myself,” she says. “I don’t think I’d be as comfortable if I were an outsider, and my subjects wouldn’t be as comfortable with me as a photographer. Skaters generally don’t want some random person lurking on the scene. There might be drinking, pot smoking, people getting silly. I’ve taken plenty of pictures over the years that would’ve gotten me on the shit list if they’d ended up in a magazine or on social media.”
It helps that Hayes has dozens if not hundreds of like-minded friends, not only in the U.S. but also around the world, who stay in touch with each other. They get together both for local, impromptu skating sessions and for large-scale skateboarding expeditions to far-away places. “Sometimes you can just show up at a spot and find people skating, and sometimes it happens with a text thread,” says the photographer. “But there are also a lot of group road trips and caravanning to various places, exploring different cities and connecting with the locals. Community and camaraderie are a big part of grown-up skateboarding. It’s so social and celebratory.”
Hayes’ subjects may be iconoclasts, but they live very different lives than their teenage counterparts. “Lots of them have day jobs and families,” says the photographer, who herself works as an academic adviser to SVA students. “But they didn’t quit skating because they got old. They didn’t quit because they had an injury; in fact, some have overcome major physical handicaps that would have led others to lead mundane, stationary lives. They haven’t given in to being told they were too fossilized to be engaging in an activity associated with reckless youth.”
Many of Hayes’ subjects and companions are female, some of them “skate moms” Hayes has met through a women’s skateboarding group that holds what are known as Slash Camps throughout the country. One of Hayes’ skating pals has a couple of kids and runs a Montessori School in Charleston, South Carolina; another has two girls and works at an arts-oriented charter school in Tempe, Arizona. Another of Hayes’ California comrades is the daughter of Patti McGee, the first female pro skateboarder, 1965’s national champion, and the first woman inducted into the Skateboarding Hall of Fame. In 1965, McGee appeared on the cover of Life magazine doing a handstand on her skateboard, for a story on the craze shot by the great Life photographer Bill Eppridge. Mother and daughter now run their own skateboard company, Silly Girl Skateboards, and Hayes is committed to using their highly graphic boards, one of which features the Life magazine cover shot.
Hayes doesn’t consider herself a sports photographer. She is simply photographing a subculture in which an athletic activity is the focus. That said, she has done a lot of surfing, the aquatic parent of skateboarding.
Hayes still loves to surf but points out that it’s a very different activity, not only from participants’ and photographers’ perspectives but also in a human sense. “Just like concrete and water are very different elements, skaters and surfers are very different people,” she says. “Surfers are much less social than skateboarders and are very competitive. They’re even competing for every decent wave that comes along. They spend most of their time waiting and watching. Skateboarders can just hop on a ramp and ride it and stop to socialize whenever they want. They’re not trying to outdo each other. They’re mostly just challenging themselves.”
Hayes also says that the cost of surfing gear makes it socially exclusive, limiting the kinds of people, and photographic subjects, who have access to it. That’s all the more true of snowboarding, skating’s alpine cousin, in which even the cost of a weekend’s lift ticket can be prohibitive. “Besides,” says Hayes, “skateboarding is the only one of those sports where you can have a barbecue going and a band playing.”
Cost is also a factor in photographing board-based sports. “You need a powerful telephoto lens to do a good job shooting surfing and snowboarding, too,” says Hayes, who has also snowboarded. “Aside from being really expensive, it’s awkward. I’ve shot surfing from the beach with a telephoto, and during a big swell, it was more than I could handle. Telephoto photography just isn’t my thing. It’s a different experience being so far away from the action, and it changes the kinds of pictures you can make. I prefer to be up close with my subjects, with shorter lenses, so I can be a part of their world. And shorter lenses are less expensive.” Skateboarding action is easier to capture than surfing for other reasons, too. “If somebody does a good trick, for example, I can ask him or her to repeat it,” she says. “She might end up doing it 10 or 20 times so we can get it right.”
Skateboarding photographers aren’t the outside observers that photographers of organized sports are, so shooting the subject comes with an unwritten code of honor that can affect how Hayes works, and in particular her final edits. “With skate action shots, there’s a big controversy about whether to publish or post images that aren’t of ‘makes,’ tricks that are successfully completed,” she explains.
“Sharing or publishing photos of non-makes is frowned upon. But sometimes a shot of a skater attempting a trick can be better than a photograph in which they actually land it. If they didn’t land it, some photographers, and lots of skaters, consider that image a hard no. I sometimes delete those pictures off my camera as I’m shooting.” When pressed if she would delete an otherwise excellent photograph on strictly athletic grounds—say, a mid-trick shot in which the landing itself wasn’t shown—Hayes admits that she would probably keep the image. Viewers, and skaters, wouldn’t be the wiser.
Surfing also lacks the intense visual culture that makes skateboarding a more interesting subject for Hayes. This is true even of the boards themselves. “Most surfboards are solid white unless you pay extra to have them customized,” she says. “But off-the-shelf skateboards are all about the graphics. And they’re often designed by skaters.” In fact, many skateboard enthusiasts are themselves artists or musicians, and they bring those talents to skating meetups.
“DIY skate spots are practically skateable art and usually covered in a local skater’s artwork,” says Hayes. “Handmade skate zines are also a huge part of the culture and are full of skaters’ work. And there are curated exhibitions of artwork by skateboarders.” Along with participating in those shows, the photographer herself has branched into other visual media. “I started silkscreening a few years ago,” she says, “and I’ve been using it to make and sell glow-in-the-dark skate gear tote bags.” She has also created silkscreened, skateboard-themed shirts for an annual skate party in Massachusetts where “each year, the bowl gets a fresh design that’s unveiled at the party.”
Skateboarding’s committed visual culture is also why Hayes prefers to shoot in its less-formal venues, even though it might be easier to do her work at sanctioned skateparks or at skateboarding’s ever-increasing number of competitive, professional events. (The sport will make its first appearance at the next summer Olympics, but Hayes is unlikely to be joining the throngs of sports photographers who will be there to photograph it.) Some of these places are the private back yards of people who’ve dedicated their real estate to the sport’s ramps and curves. Some, like the Brooklyn Banks, are public places where skateboarders have appropriated in a rowdy challenge to propriety—though these days, participants are likely to bring their own wooden and sheet-metal props, from ramps to grind rails to quarter-pipes.
Some, perhaps most authentic of all, are backyard pools that have been drained for the winter or permanently by owners who would rather skate than swim. (Pool skating and its “vert” maneuvers got their start during the 1976 California drought.) Personalized and quirky, such places offer a richer and more meaningful context for Hayes’ photographs. Whether those images are of skaters in action or environmental portraits of skaters themselves, they provide a visually dense, exciting environment for skateboarding photography.
Given that Hayes is an active participant in the very thing she photographs, rather than an outside observer, how does she divide her time between shooting and skating? “I love doing both, so it’s a tricky balance,” she says. “It really just depends on the flow of things and the opportunities that present themselves. If it’s a really fun session, especially with the ladies, it’s hard to just do one or the other. I might be shooting photos, and someone entices me over to the snake run to skate. I’ll end up taking a few runs, then going back to shooting some photos. If the bowl or pool is too gnarly for me, then I just shoot. And if I’m having too much fun skating, I end up shooting less!”