North Carolina-born skateboard photographer Pete Thompson learned his profession on the go, taking thousands of photographs in the 1990s, most of which were discarded. In the pre-internet age, luck played a huge role in whether a shot was successful and, even if the photo was published, by that time the trick was often out of date. By the mid-2000s, Thompson had moved into commercial photography to develop his skills. However, in 2019 he began retrieving some of his old skateboard shots from across the US. Thompson realised that what were once considered rejects now had new meaning. Compiled in the photobook ’93 Til: A Photographic Journey Through Skateboarding in the 1990s, his images capture the people and the places, the thrills and the hardships of an intense era of change. Thompson spoke to us from San Francisco. He began by talking about the democratisation of skateboarding that took place in the 1990s.
Pete Thompson (American accent): You have to go back to the earlier era of skateboarding, which was the big ramps, the superstar vert skaters, Tony Hawk, Chris Miller... that type of skateboarding wasn’t very accessible. But when street skating started to emerge, all you needed is a skateboard. ‘92, ‘93, ‘94 were years of massive growth in the tricks and in the amount of kids that were doing it. Street skating is so much more technical than vert skating, and this new language of skateboarding was being developed by random kids who lived in cities.
Documentation was a major part of the evolution of street skating and skate magazines were a reference point. Thompson talks more about how the scene developed.
Pete Thompson: Things were just shared word of mouth. You would hear of somebody doing something, typically it happened in California, and you would look at a photo and you’d be like, ‘How is that possible! How did the board get over there? How did he make that turn?’ Videos were rare. So, there was this mystery to it. And there was nobody around to ask how to do anything with a camera. You had to get the film developed, so you didn’t even know if you got the picture right at all, and you usually didn’t.
FUNCTION NOT FASHION
Like getting a trick right, Thompson’s photographs gained consistency through sheer persistence. Finally, influential magazine Slap agreed to publish them. This was the early 1990s, and the scene suddenly exploded. Things began to change extremely quickly.
Pete Thompson: Skateboarding needed to experiment to see what worked best. The wheels got really small so then there was less weight on the board because if you were going to flip the board the weight really mattered. Boards got skinnier and then boards got kick-tails on both sides. The same thing goes for clothes, where they wore huge pants, that kind-of made sense because if you were trying to learn street skating there was a lot of flipping of your board and a lot of smashing of shins and it was kind of protection, but also you could still move. And there’s a lot of trial and error and R&D that goes into those shoes because it’s such a specific type of shoe that skaters need in order to feel comfortable on their board.
At the time, skate companies would load up their vans with five or six professional skaters and drive around doing demos. Overseas competitions helped spread skills. California had a healthy skate scene, and local scenes were non-judgemental. However, there were so few opportunities that if skaters went to another city, things could be tough.
Pete Thompson: The police part of it was one thing, but the other element, the tribalism was fierce. If you went to a new city and you didn’t know anybody, skaters would probably steal your board, and if you had a camera, they’d take your camera. It was rough. So, you really had to know somebody. There was a very small piece of the pie available to these people. It wasn’t about money or anything, it was just about contribution and status.
A SHARED STRUGGLE
Today there are indoor skateparks with new equipment, and tricks are shared instantly through online tutorials. In 2020, skateboarding became an Olympic sport. But it was the free and resilient spirit of the early 1990s that Thompson wanted to pay homage to in his book.
Pete Thompson: Skateboarding is not easy. Are you willing to spend weeks trying to do one thing on a skateboard that nobody cares about, in your driveway, by yourself, after you cleared the snow off? You had to really want that! And there wasn’t any future in it. You were going to get made fun of, people would make fun of your clothes and your torn-up shoes. But one of the best things about skateboarding is that, even if you’re terrible at it, you can still be part of the group.