Friday, April 16, 2010

The Legacy of Warren Bolster...

Inspired by a recent conversation…

One spring morning in 1976 while our family was living in Newport News, VA, my dad stopped the fully loaded family truckster in front of the Ft. Monroe PX. We were about to embark on a family journey down to see my grandparents in Raleigh NC, and as was the routine, we each got to load up on magazines, candy, and crap to occupy ourselves with for the next six hours. It was there that I pulled the very first issue of Skateboarder Magazine out of the rack. It was not just MY first copy of the publication, but it happened to be the very first issue produced. I never missed another.

I had by then attached my sister’s roller skate wheels to a crudely crafted piece of plank, and may have already move on to a cheap K-Mart plastic skateboard with urethane open ball barring wheels. Most of what we used our primitive skateboards for at that time was to carry us to the 7-11 to steal penny candy and play pinball. Any ‘tricks’ we mastered I’d learn from friends during recess at the penitentiary like Catholic School I was attending in sixth grade which had finally let out for the summer. That issue of Skateboarder Magazine changed EVERYTHING in my life for the next seven years or so.

The medium of photography is a strange thing. Without being armed with an academic background in appreciation for the art form, photos can still leave lasting impressions without the observer even being able to fully grasp why. Like great music, great photography can satisfy and amaze you even as one matures intellectually and emotionally, you just begin to figure it out, not what you were missing necessarily, but rather the nuisance you couldn’t quite articulate previously while being so mesmerized by a particular piece of work. This is the center of my ever growing appreciation for the work Warren Bolster and the team who put together Skateboarder Magazine those few years, and why a six hour car ride in an unair-conditioned station wagon packed with six other people and a dog flew by like ten minutes.

A couple of years ago while Googling my random thoughts, I enter Warren Bolster’s name in the search box and was excited to discover a collection of his work in coffee table book form and ordered a copy immediately. It didn’t take long to discover why those photos were so appealing to me as a sixth grader, and as a teenager in high school, and as an adult years later. Every one of them is simply AMAZING! Bolster was already a master surfing photographer before being asked to start Skateboarder Magazine and his entrenched surfer style dominates the photos that filled the early issues. The colors are just unreal, but it’s his ability to capture the beauty of movement that sets him apart from anyone else. There were other staff photographers at Skateboarder that were master surf photographers in their own right as well, but Warren was the one who translated the majesty of the ocean to the world of concrete and asphalt better than anyone else by a long shot and the distinction was immediately recognizable.

As a young skater in my own right, I instinctively had an appreciation for the microsecond long pressure points being captured in those pictures, the wooden tails slapping the coping of a swimming pool, or the last remaining translucent red wheel clinging to the top edge of a vertical plywood ramp, the grinding of light alloy metal trucks against a curb. Pure crystallizing moments of intensity captured perfectly for civilian eyes to witness. It wasn’t just the then unimaginable acrobatics of prehistoric vertical skating either, because long before the boys in Santa Monica jumped into empty neighborhood swimming pools, they were honing their craft and writing their poetry on the dirty streets of drought ridden Southern California. Warren plies his skills at capturing these ‘Moments’ in these other skate disciplines equally well. When downhill skating became the next nation to conquer, Warren made guys rolling down a hill look as exciting as the first time the rear wheels of Tony Alva’s Zephyr deck lifted off the coping of a pool ushering in the age of weightless skateboarding.

As fearless (crazy?) teens, we followed these trends back east like brainwashed Al Queda members. “Did you guys see Guy Grundy on page 32 rolling down La Costa Hill standing up at 55 mph? Let’s give that a try on Stony Lonesome Mountain tonight!” And why the fuck not, right? These photos are what we hypnotized ourselves with during study hall instead of reading ‘Mrs. Mike’. They inspired us to emulate the west coast created madness the first chance we got. As an adult who has supposed to have gained my senses long ago, looking at the pictures now I wonder how these photos didn’t inspire EVERYBODY to take a skateboard down Stony Lonesome Mountain, they’re that good.

I’ll sound like old man winter grousing about how everything was better way back when, before money corrupted everything, etc… but Warren’s photos also capture what has been long lost to the sport of skateboarding today (hell, we’d get offended if they called it a ‘sport’ back then!), and that’s the violent elegance transformed into the grace of movement born from its surfing forbearance. I have a deep admiration for the contemporary purveyors of skateboarding and can’t get enough of the aerial acrobatic insanity that they pull off at such soaring heights these days, or the endless nut racking stunts the youngest of kids are performing using nothing more than an ordinary picnic bench, but it’s connection to surfing has all but faded to obscurity like Bill The Butcher’s grave. Surfing was where it all came from back then. Skateboarding is what they did on flat days. Perhaps that didn’t hold true for us Eastcoasters, but we knew the deal. Now, along with snowboarding, one can learn to skate without even having the slightest appreciation for the mystery of ocean surfing and the associated ancient rites of the culture. This is what Skateboarder Magazine was able to accomplish and package into a box for export using brilliant photography and honest creative scribe (at least for those of us who spoke and understood the language).

I remember as skateboarding became more popular and mainstream (i.e. no longer relegated to long haired teenage degenerates and suicidal rock n rollers) other publications became available. Me and my crew made no time dismissing all of them as weak ass shite. The “how to” articles, cheesy photography, the contest results, Leif Garrett doing nose wheelies, etc… Fuck off. Who gives a shit about any of that? Not us. If you are lucky enough to find an old issue of Skateboarder Magazine or ever get your hands on Warren Bolster’s book, you’ll see and know instantly exactly what I mean.