They're as ubiquitous to urban life as traffic jams and things wrapped in bacon. Skateboarders wheel across surfaces and fly over sidewalks, down stairwells, along walls, and atop cars. Nothing is off-limits, which is why skateboard photography can be such a compelling art form — even for art-goers who dislike skateboarders because of the noise and clatter of the skateboarders' every move.
The most shocking thing about "Synonymous," the exhibit of skateboard photos at 1AM Gallery, is the stasis in so many shots. Skateboarders standing around. Skateboarders laughing with each other. Skateboarders (and skateboards) in a moment of utter calm. Take Joseph Staley's Onward, a beautiful black-and-white image of a skateboard and Staley's foot, gliding past a fading arrow that was painted onto Market Street as a car directional. The contrasting shapes that compose Onward — triangles and lines; dots, ridges, and curves — give the shot an almost abstract quality. Its meaning is absolutely clear to Staley, a 30-year-old San Franciscan who has been riding skateboards for 22 years and, as an adult, has encountered waves of antagonism from strangers.
"It's forward motion," he says of the photo. "The arrow means forward progression. I'm on a skateboard and that's my direction every day."
Staley's images — including one titled Carpenter by Trade, which shows rider Tim Bruns aloft like a bird — are meant to contradict the image of skateboarders as rule-breaking renegades who can't fit into society. Bruns was one of the first professional skateboarders whose non-skateboarding abilities impressed a teenage Staley.
"I met him when I lived in Los Angeles 12 years ago, during the height of his being a sponsored skateboarder, and I really looked up to him," says Staley. "He was at the time going to Los Angeles Community College for a graphics-design degree. I admired his work ethic and the ingenuity to be planning a life after skateboarding. He's like myself and other skateboarders around my age — someone who spent his entire life skateboarding and spends so much of their free time devoted to their passion. By trade, he's a carpenter and works 9-5, just like I work 9-5."
Staley works as an entertainment coordinator for an events company, and this summer has been a youth counselor for kids at the Jewish Community Center. He's a photographer whose work is good enough to be exhibited far beyond the "skate photo" genre. Ditto for Jason Henry, a 28-year-old photojournalist and commercial photographer who shoots for such publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Vice Magazine. For Henry, skateboarding as a teenager led to photographing his skateboarding friends, which eventually led to photography as a full-time profession.
"People," Staley says, "tend to lump skateboarders, especially adult skateboarders, into this genre of 'lost boys' or 'people who don't want to grow up.' They think that skateboarding is just a childish activity, but these views are from people who haven't spent their life skateboarding. ... It's your lifestyle. It's your friends. For so many, it's their job or why they got their job, or how they got to know people."
While "Synonymous" humanizes skateboarders and reveals different dimensions to their lives, some of the photos confirm the stereotype that skateboarders prefer living on the edge. Among Henry's set is one of a skateboarder fighting a taxi driver, and another of a bare-chested skateboarder named David Perry, who's shown holding a pet raccoon at his parent's house in Florida. Perry's mother rescues and rehabilitates raccoons and keeps them with her, and the raccoon is biting the face of her skateboarding son. "It wasn't intentional or harmful," Henry says. "It was like a dog giving a love bite."
Henry, meanwhile, admits to something that counters an earlier claim. "I'm still that little kid" who likes to skateboard, he says, adding: "Maybe I don't want to grow up."
Less is more. It's a truism that also applies to visual arts, and two exemplary practitioners of this approach are exhibiting just a block apart in downtown San Francisco. Charley Brown has brought his tectonic splashes of black, white, and red to the Dolby Chadwick Gallery, while Alex Katz has gifted his timeless black-and-white etchings of six young adults to Meyerovich Gallery. Brown's canvases are reminiscent of Robert Motherwell's greatest works but are anything but derivative. Diptych #1 — all 10 feet of it — feels like an epic reflection of synthesis and symmetry. To say Diptych #1 is "breathless" is but one fitting description of Brown's singular creation. Katz ensnares his six portraits in shadow and lines that give them the right amount of mystery and prominence. Just as with Brown's paintings, Katz's etchings inspire multiple viewings — to make sure you notice every detail of the minimalism that's hard at work.