Photographer Jenny Sampson has just launched her first photo book, titled Skaters. Tintype Portraits of West Coast Skaters, in which she has portrayed, as its name indicates, those who live with a skate under their feet. The volume, published by Daylight Books, is the final result of a seven-years-work hanging out, getting to know and taking pictures of them. But we know that rollers have been portrayed all over the world since they exist as a social group. So what makes Sampson’s book so special? In addition to her extraordinary capacity to depict her subjects’ core beings, she’s used a rare and old technique: the wet plate collodion.
Can you tell us more about yourself, please? How would you describe your personality?
I was born and raised in San Francisco, my father was too and my mother was so in Berkeley. I am now living in my mother’s house since she grew up. When I was younger my dad had a camera and he was always taking photographs, recording movies and slideshows at the house. I was always asking if we could have a slideshow of the family, I loved them. My father had definitely a huge influence in terms of me becoming a photographer.
I learned to photograph, develop film and print in the 6th grade and studied photography every year at school. I went to college in the south of California where I was a psychobiology major. However, I am a professional chef now – even though I’ve been shooting always. In 2001 I was working in a restaurant that closed so I decided to focus just on photography, but it was kind of impossible for me to support myself only with photography. So I ended up just cooking. It was then that I started to take myself more seriously as a photographer. I have always been the black sheep of the family, following where my interests were asking me to go.
Regarding my personality I asked one of my really good friends to help me answer this: peppy, hyper at times, energetic, outgoing, fiery, feisty, kind, upbeat, reflective. We cook together and we discuss almost about everything.
You caught our attention not only because of your extraordinary photos, but also because of your old school technique – the wet plate collodion photographic process. When and why did you decide to use this technique? How and where did you learn to use it?
I became aware of it in a museum but saw my first contemporary tintype at Rayko Photo Center, in San Francisco, where I noticed this combination of modern and old. I was totally fascinated by how the pictures were taken in a studio, looking contemporary but antique. I immediately signed up for a workshop to learn how to do it. I was strictly a black and white photographer, and I took just one colour class, but definitely wasn’t my interest. I practically learnt this technique in 2008 in Rayko Photo Centre in San Francisco. It just closed down early this year and it is kind of sad, as it was one of the most wonderful places in the city. It was supportive in all the modalities of photography, and I went there a lot to print. To me the all wet plate collodion process is just magical, and the reason why is because everything happens in front of you. Tintype is a negative so you actually can see the images developing from nothing. Also it forces me to slow down during the process of making the pictures and also it forces me to engage with people. The result is beautiful, a unique and special object because of that. You can see colours differently than just black and white. The perception of reality changes. Moreover I love it because it’s a shared experience. People sit for that and at the end they can touch, breath the picture. It’s just magical.
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What is the main challenge for you when using the wet plate collodion? And what do you think are the biggest pros and cons, besides the preparation time?
My biggest challenge is the air temperature. If it is really hot or too cold the result will be different. For logistic reasons, sometimes it is impossible for me to shoot what I like because obviously I have to carry all the equipment, or sometimes it is just the location that doesn’t allow it. When you do your chemicals you have to achieve that sweet spot where things work perfectly. But when the chemistry is too young or too old everything becomes more difficult. I like to break the rules though, so I always try my best and although there is a mistake, this can be beautiful anyway; but sometimes I just have to give up.
We can tell that your subjects never smile. Is there any reason behind it? Or is it only because of the long process demanded?
It is a kind of combination, both actually. I don’t want a posed picture, but I want people to feel comfortable, physically and emotionally. They choose whether they want or not to smile and I can see that when they decide to do it, the smile is just true, real, spontaneous. It is a comfort issue. You can be happy and not smile, and you show it as well. Some of them also decided not to look at the camera, which is totally fine. Your true smile is in your eyes, not only in your mouth.
We are all excited about your latest book, titled Skaters. Why them? Do you skate, too? What do these people mean to you?
First of all, I don’t skate, I just try at home. I was really good when I was a kid, but I didn’t continue. I was probably influenced by my older brother, wasn’t a big skater, but I kind of wish to skate now. I love it. I used to live in Seattle in 1995 and 1996 and I was riding my bicycle to work and there was a skater’s park close to it. At that time I was shooting people in more candid ways, I cut body parts or faces; it was more about the gestures and postures. I thought about being invisible around skaters and photographing them this way but I was intimidated and scared. I had always seen this group as rebellious and I think I wanted to be rebellious too. Unfortunately, I never got up the courage to shoot them. I didn’t know how to approach them.
In 2010, when I had my own equipment and I had built my own dark room I was living in Berkley. When I finished building my portable darkroom, I decided to go to a skater park close to my area with my flatmate and I made eight portraits. I remember I was definitely scared but I was able to distract myself as I was very excited about my new dark-box and I wanted to test it out. As I had all this equipment with me, some people were curious about what was going on, so it was kind of a start. I made some of my favourite portraits that day.
I think skaters are lucky because they can do this thing that they like where they want. They can take the skateboard wherever they like. It is extremely exhilarating. They fight against their fears and to me this is freedom. I am very curious about them. I really desire to be able to skate. We hung out together, so I got the chance to know more about this fantastic group, which is full of sweet and very open people. I was doing just what I am passionate about and they were doing what they are passionate about.
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Skaters are mainly identified with rebellion. Can we ask you what does this word mean to you? And with what other words/concepts do you relate skaters to?
Yes, they are! Thanks to them I learnt rebellion is not necessarily a negative behaviour – which is often associated with –, but instead I would say it is synonymous of determination, support, discipline. They make a lot of noise on the street and they sure dress in a certain way, which is very fashionable right now. Of course this is a generalisation, but many of them, from kids to adults, hang out together and they are considered troublemakers, but not necessarily they have to be in trouble. Hanging out with them, especially at the beginning, I realised that I had to break through this group, break boundaries, simply presenting myself and asking. They definitely helped me to change the way I approach people now, investing my time in a pleasant way. Now I can say that it was actually facilitated because both of us were interested in what we were doing. I truly was interested in what they were doing, and that made things easier.
What is your relationship with skaters now?
Some of the skaters I met I’m still in touch with through social media, even if I don’t live nearby. Some of them don’t reply, some of them do, and obviously younger people only check their email once in a while, if ever! My project took many years, so it took a lot of time before I could break through those boundaries, but now, I know that approaching them is more spontaneous and less scary.
The images are the mirror of skateboarders’ core being: playful, anxious, innocent, pensive, sensitive. While the emotions coming out from these images are spontaneous, how did you choose the poses? Are they also a true depiction of the subject's personality?
It has a lot to do with the process. I talked to them about what I was going to do and I asked them to feel comfortable in front of the camera. I just was encouraging also their own ideas, and I loved them. Some of them were shy and didn’t want to look at the camera, but the eye contact was very intense, and others wanted to smile. I like collaborations and I thought it was a great experience for both of us. I learnt from my subjects and got a feeling from each of them. Regarding the poses, they are very personal. My main aim was making them feel comfortable. I just asked sometimes to change the pose because of technical issues – like lights.
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As you said before, you’re a chef, so you must be talented in a kitchen. Do you think there is any connection between photography and cooking? Is there any way how this discipline influences your photos?
Yes, they are both sciences. Creating things, combining elements, they are related processes. As a chef I have to fix problems if they arrive. And making tintypes is not like making films, developing, printing, etc. It is everything in front of you, immediately. I can say then that cooking totally influenced me. I have a lot of tintypes of food and still lives. Sometimes I am cutting strawberries and when I see piles of beautiful pieces or piles of any other food I just have to photograph them.
Have you ever thought about doing a fashion project? Or a project with no people or portraits?
Oh yes, I have! I think it would be very fun. I’ve been photographing still life and landscape, but fashion for me is still a bit difficult, I should have a studio and lighting. Sometimes I just play around with friends; textures and details are very fun, especially seeing how the process makes the colours appear in a different way. It’s like a different way of perceiving things. I would approach fashion in an abstract way, definitely.
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