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Joel Rice

Creating Tintypes at the Skate Park: Q&A with Photographer Jenny Sampson

eulalea, emeryville, 2017 (wet plate collodion tintype, from Jenny Sampson's "skater" series

eulalea, emeryville, 2017 (wet plate collodion tintype, from Jenny Sampson’s “skater” series)

Using an anachronistic 4×5 view camera—the kind where the photographer stands draped under a dark cloth—Jenny Sampson has been steadily creating tin-type portraits of skateboarders she encounters at local skate parks, mainly in California, Oregon, and Washington. The resulting portraits are beguilingly fraught with melancholy atmospherics, their distressed tactility an implicit rebuke to the sterile, antiseptic images saturating daily life in a digital age. (Several such tin-types were recently featured in ZYZZYVA No. 111.) Sampson’s practice has allowed her to meaningfully engage with the skaters themselves, and obliquely teach them a bit about her antique photographic technique. (Paradoxically, the process requires the skaters to remain absolutely still for at least 30 seconds.) In the following conversation, conducted by phone, and over Gmail, Sampson shares her experience venturing into the skater’s semi-private preserves.

ZYZZYVA: So how do the skaters respond to you when you bring this unwieldy antique camera into their midst?

Jenny Sampson: The camera is a 4X5 view camera. It’s the kind of camera that sits on a tripod, has the bellows—the part that looks a little like an accordion, and the photographer has to duck under the dark cloth while focusing on the subject.
There usually aren’t many of those types of cameras at skate parks! I also set up my portable darkroom, which includes processing trays and tanks that are visible to everyone. All of this can attract attention, actually helping me engage with people.
Sometimes when I’m developing the tintype, kneeling underneath the darkroom cloth, people don’t know I’m under there—because I’m small, covered, looking like a little mound. After the tintype is developed, I flip the cloth off and people are surprised because they didn’t see me, “Wow! Oh, wow! There she is!”

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San Francisco—the Bookstores, the Landscape, the Kids: Q&A with Nathan Heller, Molly Young, & Willy Staley

Nathan Heller, Molly Young, and Willy Staley are three working writers in New York. Heller was recently named a staff writer at The New Yorker and is also a TV and film critic for Vogue. Young is a feature writer at New York magazine, and Staley (who I used to skateboard with in high school) writes regularly for the New York Times and the New York Times Magazine.

All three are in their late twenties, and, interestingly, all three grew up in San Francisco. (Heller rode the 43 Masonic to high school, Young the 38 Geary, and Staley the 24 Divisadero.) Young, who recently profiled Tumblr’s David Karp, learned to surf in Bolinas. Heller, who has a piece on San Francisco’s new entrepreneurial culture in the latest New Yorker, has not forgotten the pleasures of a burrito at La Corneta. And before interviewing Earl Sweatshirt of Odd Future for the Times, Staley perfected his craft, in part, writing a well regarded blog on the Bay Area rap scene called nationofthizzlam.com.

We asked them about growing up in San Francisco, how that may have shaped them as writers, and what they miss about the city and the Bay Area.

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Nathan Heller

ZYZZYVA: You attended Lick-Wilmerding, a socially conscious, private high school in San Francisco. In what ways did this institution help you discover yourself as a writer?

Nathan Heller: One of Lick’s goals at that time—probably still—was to bring together a pretty eclectic mix of people. I was there essentially as part of the weirdo quota. But this meant it was a really fun place to be. I’ve learned it’s fashionable to have hated high school, but this wasn’t the case for me. I really liked my classmates. I had a great time. The principle of eclecticism applied to teachers, too. Faculty members had these really colorful previous lives. For instance, Robin von Breton, who was an English teacher—I’m still in touch with her—had studied under Robert Lowell during his medium-crazy period in the late Sixties and then co-founded a weekly newspaper in New Orleans. She’s kind of a genius. Another English teacher, James Harris, had done some broadcasting and, I believe, is now on the East Oakland school board. Don Negri, a French teacher, was amazing on Candide because, decades earlier in a galaxy far away, he’d done a doctorate in Enlightenment philosophy. I have a hunch that if you’re raised on a weird mix of ideas and experiences as a kid, it’s easy to end up a certain kind of writer. It seems of a piece with the intellectual flavor of the Bay Area, too.

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