Tonight I strongly urge you, your loved ones, or any other human in general to attend a swinging little photo show taking place in the city of San Francisco. "Debris: Thirty Years of Skateboarding and Music Photography" features the work of Bernie McGinn, a Nebraskan of hearty DIY/creative stock who has been in the right place at several of the right times, capturing rare moments with musicians and skateboarders that otherwise may have slipped through the cracks in a pre-digital age. Oh, and special thanks to Kevin Wilkins and Andy Jenkins for the inside trivial tracks. —Sean Cliver
Cliver: On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the influence of Glen E. Friedman on your growth and development as a photographer, if not a human being in general?
Bernie: I'm going to go for a 8.5 on the Glen E. influence. Those photos are absolute classics. Whether it is a live music or skate photo, the best will make you feel the energy as if you were there. So many of his photos have that quality, and I try to do the same. In addition to GEF, there were several really great photographers who I learned from growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, in particular a guy named Bill Jones. He would have these great parties where he showed slideshows of his punk rock and skate and party pictures. I loved the way everyone would cheer and yell at each picture. It would be a huge compliment if people step up to my photos and just said “Yeah!” because they couldn't help it.
Taking photos at a punk show looks like it can be a hazardous activity. What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you?
Besides hearing loss? Luckily, I haven't had any camera equipment smashed at the crazier shows, but there have been some close calls. Depending on the show, you need watch out for boots and fists. I was at a show recently where these knuckleheads were doing the crazy kicking/punching the air dance, “Oh, I was just dancing, and I guess you got in the way of my fist...,” which almost took me out a couple times. Besides being annoying, it just looks so uncool. I don't get it. Also, get off my lawn.
On how many occasions did you actually see nude people skating the Nude Bowl?
Only once, but luckily I had my camera. The Nude Bowl is a sweet little left-hand kidney in the Palm Springs desert that was once part of a nudist colony in the 1970s. At some point the place burned down, so it's this great bowl in a post-apocalyptic landscape. It's just far enough away from civilization to make it a pain in the ass to get to, and you definitely aren't going back to town to get an extra six-pack. You had to have your shit together. Grinding that thing without shoes, pads or anything else is a gnarly proposition.
Rumor has it that you once lived in the dining room of Spike Jonze’s apartment. Did you ever get into any shenanigans with him back then?
True. I lived with Spike, Lew [Mark Lewman], and Gork [editor of BMX Action] when I moved to California to work on Homeboy magazine in the fall of 1988. They lived in a three-bedroom condo apartment just a block away from the publisher in Torrance, CA, and they were nice enough to let me partition off the dining room to make a room of my own.
I remember a time when Spike and I went to an abandoned grocery store in south central Los Angeles where people had built a bunch of small ramps, making a cool street course. One time we were there, we saw the doors on the far end of the building fly open and a cops started to rush in. Spike and I and a few other folks bolted for the closest door to make our escape. Outside, Spike and I ran to the right towards his car which was parked behind the building. The other guys went left to climb a fence. Spike threw his little Honda into reverse pretty hard, and then peeled away as the cops chased the guys over the fence off to the left. Close call.
Another time in 1992 there was a skate/art show in Chicago which brought out all kinds of people: Thomas Campbell, Kevin Wilkins, Spike, Andy Jenkins, Roger Bridges and lots of other folks. I remember watching Spike, Roger, and one other guy do some proto-jackass stunts, like falling down stairs or whatever. Then they got the brilliant idea to do some rental car vs. pedestrian stunts. The car windshield didn't survive, but I got some photos.
In my opinion, Lance. He perfected the pushed out front leg where his ankle looked like it was broken. I gave it my best effort, but couldn't master the ankle-broken style though! [Photo of Bernie sadding out by Spike Jonze.]
What was the best thing you remember seeing on the day the kids from California came out to Nebraska for that “Midwest Melee” contest in Rich Flowerday’s backyard in 1983?
Just watching them immediately master the ramp was a revelation… hopping on the ramp with a couple fakies, a kick-turn, a rock-and-roll, a styled out frontside grind as their first run. Just immediately dialing it in. The guys from Texas—Craig Johnson, Dan Wilkes, and John Gibson—were all amazing, powerful skaters. Christian Hosoi slammed and broke his collarbone at the contest. I lived just a house away from the ramp, so some of the pros stayed at our house. That first night, Lance Mountain stayed with us. I was 13, and here was one of my biggest heroes in my living room watching David Letterman. I tried not to fan out too much, but he was a cool, real guy. Later, Allen Losi and some other guys crashed at our place. The experience totally destroyed any illusion of fame for me early on, and I have always been grateful for that. When you have had your biggest heroes sleep on your living room floor when you are a kid, it takes a lot for someone to impress you.
You come from a very DIY/pre-internet age of envelopes with stamps on them, cut ‘n’ paste zines, and rolls of film that had to be processed, developed, and printed. Kids today have a whole other digital upbringing. What, if anything, do you feel has been lost in this age of instant gratification?
A deep love and appreciation for the smell of darkroom chemicals, for one. We can publish anything so quickly and easily, it's really easy to share first and then think about quality later. We don't allow ourselves the time to experiment or refine, and the pre-packaged “creativity” filters just get in the way of learning the tools you need to actually be creative. I don't get the same kind of surprises scrolling through Instagram today as I did in the ’80s opening up my mailbox to discover a fresh crop of zines.
dThe gratification of creating and sharing today is so closely tied to immediate feedback. It is too easy to share first without being critical about whether you are sharing anything good or interesting. Don't get me wrong, I have Xeroxed plenty of my own bad photography in my time, but I'm not sure how the new tools encourage anyone to create better and more interesting stuff that prompts the visceral reaction of saying “YEAH!”
One of my favorite things these days is getting a good picture of someone at the skate park and showing it to them. Chances are that they haven't ever seen anything but a smartphone picture or video of them skating, and sometimes they say “YEAH!” That makes me happy.
What percentage of the photos in your upcoming show have previously been printed and seen by the public eye?
Ninety-percent of these photos have never been printed and shown to the public. Some have been shared on Instagram and Facebook, but nothing beats a nice big print—or fifty!—on a wall. I believe there were two pictures which were printed in Homeboy, but none of the other pictures have been published in magazines. A few were shown earlier this year in a live music photography group show here in SF, but the bulk have never been shown publicly and many have never been printed and scanned until just a week ago. It's been a lot of fun digging through the archives finding stuff I didn't know I had, like a photo of Chris Miller blasting a backside air out of the full-pipe and into the back wall at Upland. Gnarly.
How did you go about selecting the two photos to be used for the special edition Paisley Skates boards?
Getting the chance to get my images on a deck was a huge surprise. Really excited about this! I wanted to use live music photos to have a physical combination of music and skateboarding. It was tricky to find the right shots that would work well as a full deck graphic and not get cropped too weirdly. Luckily, I had shots of Mike Watt and Kurt Cobain which lay out on a deck pretty nicely, I think!
Last question: What happens when you try to run aluminum foil through a Xerox machine?
Heh, yes! I tried that with one edition of my zine, Tiki. As I recall, toner didn't want to stick to the foil and smeared off right away. I loved the look, though, so I ended up using glue spray to stick the foil to the covers, then cut out a window pane to show the logo which was printed on the first spread of the zine. It was a HUGE pain in the ass, but totally worth it.