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!”

Z: And you’re developing these tintypes, then and there, at the skate park?

JS: Yes, I develop the tintype in the “darkbox,” while hidden under the cloth, by pouring developer on the plate. I have to use a red headlamp to see, mimicking a darkroom safelight, then bring the plate outside of where everyone can see. You’re submerging it in fixer where the undeveloped silver melts off the plate and the skater’s face appears. Anyone can watch that happen, the image appearing. All the skaters are yelling, “Oh, man!” and “That’s sick!” It’s really a magical process. It is truly magical. And this process allows you to see that with your naked eye. You know, these days, there’s too much to look at with Instagram and all the social media platforms; you’re always scrolling through pictures and looking at them rather quickly. A tintype really forces you to look slower.

What is cool, too, about making these tintypes of skateboarders, is that so many of them are artists and creative types and so they get really into it.

Z: Were you apprehensive about approaching the skaters, at first?

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JS: When I first got to the skate parks, I was. In fact, I still am at times.

Eventually, I just forced myself to walk up to someone and said, “Hi, my name’s Jenny. I make tintypes,” and I show them examples. And it’s worked well. If I have force myself to do this, all the better.

The thing is, I can’t just walk up to someone while they’re skating. I have to make a judgment call as when to approach them and that can take a long time. So I sit there and watch them skate.

The very first time I went to a skate park to make tintypes, I thought, “I’m just going to set up my equipment and ask someone if I can take their picture.” I had distracted myself from being shy and afraid with the desire to know if my portable system, on a technical level, was actually going to work.

Jenny Sampson processing a tintype.
Jenny Sampson processing a tintype.

The annoying thing is that I still can have a terrible time anticipating the moment. There was one time at this skate park in Emeryville. I set up, made some test plates, attempted to say “hello,” but no one was talking to me and everyone was seemingly ignoring me. There were a lot of girls there. I thought they would have asked me something, or made eye contact, because I’m a girl! And there was a woman skating alone. And I’m thinking, “Even she’s not saying anything!”

So I did something I’ve never done before. I started swearing at myself. I swore at myself like no one ever has. I was like, “You lame-o. You are not allowed to leave, until you do your job. You go up to those people over there, and you say, ‘Hi.’” (That’s the PG version.)
I had to walk all the way across the skate-park, to the bowl. This group of girl-skaters backs were all turned toward me, and they were talking and looking down at the bowl. And I said, “Hi, my name is Jenny!” And they turned around. And they’re like, “Hi!” And I told them what I was doing. And they’re like, “Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah! Let’s go do that!”

Those ended up being some of the best portraits I’ve made.

Z: Are the skaters ever uncouth?

JS: Um, not really. The rudest people have ever been was just completely ignoring me. Other times, I’ve asked if can I photograph them, and they say, “No.” But that’s not rude, it’s just a total bummer when it’s challenging to ask them in the first place. I have low expectations, so I can handle it!

Ninety-nine percent of the time they’re really nice.

They’ll say, “Hi, Jenny! Bye, Jenny!”

ziggy, bakersfield, 2010 (wet plate collodion tintype, from Jenny Sampson's "skater" series
ziggy, bakersfield, 2010 (wet plate collodion tintype, from Jenny Sampson’s “skater” series)

Z: San Francisco, where you grew up, certainly played a major role in skateboarding history. How much did the city influence this oeuvre? Were you familiar with skating as an adolescent?

JS: A friend of mine actually dated Tommy Guerrero [the legendary San Francisco-based pro-skater] for a little bit. She would always say, “He’s a really good skater!” I never hung out with Tommy, but I admired him from afar and, of course, thought he was cool. He was older, cute, and a skater! My older brother was a huge influence on me and, though he had a skateboard, he wasn’t a skater. My life might have been much different had he been!

Z: You also happened to attend Urban, a tiny high school just off Haight Street, which is, of course, still a mecca for youth culture. That proximity must have sparked your imagination. What role, if any, did the Haight-Ashbury play in your artistic development?

JS: I am sure Urban School and the greater Haight played an important role in my artistic development and also my personal development. My time at Urban provided me a massive urban education because of their unique curriculum, all the wandering around the neighborhood. Urban was tiny, and whenever not in class, we would end up on the streets. It was known as the alternative and somewhat structure-less school and I responded well to that. It had a colorful student body and was creative to the core. I feel like, at the time, we were exposed to the inner workings of the city and parks and opened our teenaged eyes.

Do you remember this store called Toy Boat, on Clement Street? It’s an ice-cream shop, but it had all these toys, too, all these Pez dispensers and other little toys? My friend Justine had a job there in high school. All “the mods” hung out there. We thought they were cool.

Another friend had a crush on a guy from another school who was a surfer. And we’d go and hang out at Fort Point [the iconic surf spot under the Golden Gate Bridge]. Whoever had a car, after school, we’d drive, and we’d go there and hang out and watch the surfers. We never talked with any of them—it was really silly, but we were young.

dean, san luis obispo, 2016 (wet plate collodion tintype, from Jenny Sampson's "skater" series)
dean, san luis obispo, 2016 (wet plate collodion tintype, from Jenny Sampson’s “skater” series)

Maybe all that surfer-watching was good practice, because now I can easily go to skate parks. I can watch. There is a little bit of young Jenny still left in me, wanting to watch the cool, cute guys. But now I can talk to them!

Z: Please pardon this last question, it’s a bit pretentious. According to the “philosophy of sport” an activity usually has to be autotelic to qualify as play—something you do simply for its own sake, primarily for intrinsic aspects, i.e., because it’s “fun.” Is that autotelic quality part of what drew you to the skaters?

JS: It looks like so much fun, but what an understatement. Even sitting on the sidelines, obsessing about whether or not I am going to be able to photograph one of them, is so enjoyable. I feel the adrenaline and I am not even skating. I wish I knew how to do it. In those moments where I am not taking portraits of them, I am totally happy just watching.

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