Book Review: "Skaters" by Jenny Sampson
By Frances Molina
Skaters, a collection of tintype photographs by Jenny Sampson, is a book of compelling contradictions, a clash of old and new, of energy and stillness. Sampson directs our eye to the men and women riding fast on the fringes, diving into drained swimming pools, falling hard, and besting gravity with cool bravado: skateboarders from the West Coast. But this series stands apart from other bodies of work which usually seek to snap the skaters in action. Instead, Sampson does what some might consider impossible – she asks the skaters to sit still long enough for her to take their portraits with her tintype camera, capturing an intense energy, bristling just under the surface, in each face.
It seems an unlikely combination; using a tintype camera, near ancient technology by today’s standards, to document a subculture that is so stereotypically “young”. Especially challenging is the amount of time and preparation needed to assemble a tintype camera. Not necessarily ideal for shooting a group that is notorious for being constantly in motion. But Sampson overcomes these superficial challenges to produce a series of striking photographs that penetrate past the popular image of the skater to reveal faces of exquisite and surprising character.
Sampson speaks on the “beauty and bond” of this merging of the contemporary and the traditional in the book. She called the process both “intimidating and exhilarating” as she was challenged to step outside of her comfort zone and into a strange kingdom ruled by tribes of misfits. Sampson’s courage was rewarded; her subjects openly reciprocated her interest, offering to help her with the camera equipment, peering over her shoulder to watch as she developed their portraits, which they described as “sick”.
With Skaters, Sampson, without flash or force, breaks down our lasting misconceptions about the skater. We’re so much more accustomed to seeing skaters in action; a flash of color and sound in the distance, being chased by the cops or filming each other for some unknown audience. They’re the blur at the corner of our eye, the low familiar sound of their wheels growling on the pavement. Sampson and her tintypes bring them into focus, with honesty, energy, and truth.