Since 1992, master photographer, filmer, skater and cyclist Gabe Morford has helped to shape the visual identity of the brands that compose Deluxe Distribution, the current home of Antihero, Real, Krooked, Spitfire Wheels, and Thunder and Venture trucks. Each part of Deluxe has its own distinct personality and aesthetic, but there’s a unified sentiment that binds them, creating something greater than just a home for product. Deluxe is core skateboarding – encapsulating the authenticity that other brands aspire to – and something that can’t be manufactured or recreated.
As Deluxe’s official photographer, Gabe has focused his lens on some of the most important and creative talents in the business, canonising their contributions to skating. But Gabe’s real ability – more than simply capturing the highest level of skating at the perfect moment – is to translate the spirit and energy of skateboarding on film.
It takes a certain kind of personality to get the most out of skateboarding’s nomadic and fiercely independent motley crew, becoming a part of the equation, not just ‘the guy with the camera’. And Gabe has perfected the craft – part culled from his teachers and peers, part an intuitive skill that fills each frame with the decisive moment. Both photography and skateboarding have wrestled through significant periods of change in the last decade, but the 42-year-old from Marin County, now based in San Francisco, is not phased. There is no replacement for a life of experience.
Were you interested in photography before skating?
I was. My parents weren’t professional photographers, but they were always taking photos – family portraits and Cub Scout outings and stuff. Our high school had an open dark room, so my dad would go there and make prints. I was always surrounded by really nice, hand-developed black-and-white prints as a kid… If my Mom shot off a roll of film on her Kodak Instamatic camera, she’d always let me shoot the last six frames. So, I’d tool around, shooting pictures of my skateboard or my cat.
What was your first published photograph?
It was an A-1 Meats Wheels ad of Ray Simmonds. It was a three-frame sequence and some other stuff. He was riding for H-Street back then too.
Of course, he was “the guy who ollied over the ladder.
Ha, yeah he was insane. Ray was so determined – it was really rad. He was one of the first kids to really stress out when he was trying a trick; way before Jeremy Klein focused his board in Rubbish Heap. There was this jump ramp called The Lizard, which was eight-foot-long and four-foot-wide and he used it to try and jump over this car the long way. He couldn’t do it, so he went into this kid’s garage, grabbed an extension chord and a saw, and cut his board in half; right through the rails and everything. It was fucking amazing.
So you were in the heart of H-Street then, later, San Francisco when it was the epicentre of street skating. What got you pursuing photography instead of being sponsored for skating?
I always brought my camera everywhere and shot anything. I loved doing that… My friends would film for the H-Street videos and we also filmed some stuff for Sick Boys, and they’d premiere those videos at the local college. At those premieres Bryce Kanights would do slide shows of his photographs and talk about them, so that was rad. I skated pretty hard back then, but I wasn’t focused on getting sponsored. Another big influence was going into Fogtown, which later became Concrete Jungle and seeing all the prints on the wall, shot by Luke Ogden and Tobin Yelland; Steve Caballero skating vert in San Jose and stuff. Seeing those images as a little kid was amazing, it made me want to get a fish-eye lens and shoot like them.
Your job is to go out and document skating, but what’s it like when you’re on a trip and you want to shoot a portrait after someone’s slam, after being in a van for weeks?
I’m very careful how I do it, because a camera can be very invasive at times. There’s stuff that I’d like to shoot, but I don’t, because people need their space. Other times, I shoot a photo, knowing it’s going to be important later. You can’t just fucking barge – you’ve got to give people space when you feel it’s appropriate. I’ll push it when I don’t think it’s going to be an issue and if it is, they’ll say something and I’ll back off.
People are becoming more desensitised to things because everyone’s got their phones. That’s one thing I don’t like on a trip, is everyone using their point-and-shoots and phones all the time, because it wears out their tolerance for having a camera in their face. Even if it’s my job to document, I’m still an outsider, it wears on people. On one day, for one trick, you could have a few photographers, a filmer and someone’s friends, all documenting the same thing. It can be too much, so I try to treat them all like sacred moments, not just take as much as I can from a fucking moment. It’s a team process.
What skaters are good to shoot?
It depends on timing for most people. Most of the guys I’ve worked with are really good, but there are some guys I try not to push at all: Julien Stranger being the main one, ha! But sometimes he’ll come to me with a crazy idea and I’ll be like, “Okay!” I’ve shot so many of these guys for so long, many of them since they were just flow kids, so it’s a lot more natural.
Also Huf… I’d go out with Keith (Hufnagel) every day and he was always down for whatever, when he first was coming up. Before that I went out Kelly Bird a lot, as well as Salman Agah, Shawn Mandoli, and Edward Devera. Everyone’s been pretty cooperative and they’ve let me be creative, and hopefully they trust me. I’m here to make people shine and bring out the best in them.
Having a camera on you changes what you can do and what you’ll try. It can really motivate…
The whole process of shooting photos [in skateboarding] is to try and bring out people’s best. They have what they want to do and I’m not trying to change how they skate, but I also try to push them in a positive way. You want to keep them safe, but it’s bit of a push and pull.
I think with all the brands on Deluxe, the ads and photographs are as gnarly as anything out there, but there’s a different feeling to what else is out there. Is that from just letting things happen?
Most of the guys I shoot are characters, so I just let them do their thing. I try to shoot everything to the best of my ability. Right out of high school I assisted a rock ‘n’ roll photographer named Mark Leialoha and a guy who shot stock photography named Wernher Krutein. You know, “We need a couple in a vineyard” or, “We need some shots of a guy at a computer.”
The stock photographer was really, really strict, because we were shooting slide film that had to be exposed perfectly and there were tons of other technical requirements. So coming from that, I really jumped right into how to make a high quality image. I’d show him stuff and he’d be like, “Oh, why are you even shooting an image that’s not perfectly in focus?” Shit like that – it had to be tack sharp.
The rock ‘n’ roll photographer was amazing – a lot of times he’d just pay me in gear too. It really appealed to me, because we were shooting serious bands, but we’d only have ten minutes to shoot them in front of the venue. It was almost like shooting guerrilla skate images, because you just have a few lines, you set up in the street, and have minutes to get the shot, before it’s gone… That really helped me to tune my craft; be ready for everything, be fast, and don’t take away from what’s going on. You can’t lose the moment because you’re dicking around with flashes or whatever.
I was just on the road with Grant Taylor and it’s so hard, because he gets a trick second try and I’m still getting out of the van. You have to be aware and be fast.
Having been doing this for so long, how have you seen the role of skate photography change, now that everyone’s a ‘photographer’?
I try to keep shooting the way I always have, and deal with the back end as it comes along. I shoot so much and there’s not enough pages for all my pictures to be printed in – especially now – so I’ve embraced that there are other formats and places for them. Of course, I love seeing something printed, but if I can make a bigger impact on more people on mobile, then that’s rad too. I just don’t want images to be a flash in the pan; I hope people see them, revisit them, and appreciate them. I like print because, unless you throw the magazine away, it’s there for good.
– INDEX –
I. Full Pipe Tony Trujillo. This was shot on the Tent City Australia trip. It was natural light, shot with a T-MAX P3200. I shot some stuff that was lit in that pipe, but the park was hard to light because it was so big. This shot ended up being the cover of the video.
II. Motorcycle Shot. This was shot after the first Stereo video A Visual Sound. We used to go down to Los Angeles all the time to go skate with Jason Lee, Jeremy Wray and some other Spitfire and Thunder dudes. It wasn’t planned for an ad or anything, but we had shot a photo of Jason doing that big ollie at Beryl Banks and this was the same trip. It was just out there shooting with a manual focus lens.
III. Matt Field Dumpster. We needed a Real ad and were coming back from somewhere – maybe South Bay – and took an exit, pulled over into an alley, and just rigged it up. It’s just power and flexibility – popping and sucking your legs up.
IV. Peter Ramondetta. This was in North Carolina. He was skating a loading dock bump to rail; he landed on his tail and the board shot up and hit him in the face. Blood started spraying everywhere, but he’s so tough that he just handled it. He knew I was going to shoot a photo. There was nothing I could do to help. Once we got to the hospital, he had to wait twelve hours to get stitched. The bleeding had stopped and his face just swelled up. The inconvenience was actually worse than the flesh wound.
V. Mark Gonzales Street Ollie. When Mark lived in SF we’d just cruise around. There’s that Pine Street bump near there and he’d just ollie the bump and shoot down the street. There wasn’t anything we were shooting for in particular. To get actual skate shots on a schedule is so fucking hard and rarely works, so you just shoot everyone all the time, and the best becomes the ad or photo.
VI. Motorcycle Kickflip Photo. The first version of this photo, with Mark Gonzales and Max Schaaf, happened when Mark was staying with Max and they found that bump. It wasn’t planned to have Mark ollie over Max, but it just happened. We didn’t film the first one, so we had to go back, which was cool because I got to shoot it again. I don’t know how it came up to have Ishod Wair and Jake Donnelly go back to that spot years later, but it was fun to do it. That was the first time Ishod rode a motorcycle. I was stoked when Jake ollied Ishod, but then he fucking kickflipped him. There were some insane bails, where he landed on him and Ishod managed to keep going, without crashing.
VII. Robbie Russo Backtail. This was an Antihero trip. He was just skating and he started trying that and I was like, “Oh shit! That’s the trick.” It was hard to light, because it’s such a big area. I used to practise setting up two lights in two minutes – you gotta just be jamming. The way I keep my skate camera gear is ready to go. Some situations are harder to light, but I try to be fast as possible, and also get the best light… Tailslides are hard, because the millimetre of degrees can make or ruin the photo. You see a saggy tailslide and it’s just, “Fuck! Sorry dude, we can’t run that.” I’ve had really good tricks go down – say a big switch heel – but then the board is rocket, and you tell the rider you just don’t want it out there. Maybe it would inspire a kid to skate, but when I’m documenting someone, I want them to shine – I’m responsible for that.
VIII. Mike Carroll EMB. Mike hated this photo when it came out. It was in Slap and, at the time, people were nollie flipping out of shit and doing super technical stuff, so I think it was so simple that at the time it didn’t capture what he wanted, but he learned to appreciate it. It might have not been the best at the time, but people stewed on it and loved that photo. I’m stoked that it happened.
IX. Handrail Destruction. This was shot at Broken Arrow, right outside of Tulsa – it was Ernie Torres’ high school. They had these perfect rails that were knobbed, that was our old Team Manager and Filmer Dan Vellucci and Jasin Phares – they were just out there, making it happen.
X. Ronnie Sandoval. This was in Potrero del Sol park in San Francisco in 2014. We were working on a bunch of shots for an article in The Skateboard Mag called ‘In Transition’. It was one rider, in one park, for seven days. He was ripping the bowls, but he’s so good at eggplants so I told him I wasn’t shooting them anymore, even though it’s one of my favourite tricks to shoot. Ronnie just excels at them. We shot a really good one in the bowl and then people were joking that he should try it on the fence. He actually did a nosepick tailgrab first and once he got comfortable in that pocket – sure enough he went for it. Some of the bails were sketchy, because he was pretty much upside down, but he just handled it.
XI. Mark Gonzales Boneless. Usually you just fill the van and go skate. You can’t really force what’s going to happen, so you just get everyone skating somewhere fun, knowing someone could get a trick. We were at a park just two hours from SF and that’s what happened with this photo.
This article originally appeared in Huck x Levi’s® Skateboarding Special II: Stories of Independence.