We met Mathias in 2013 and we immediately became passionate about his photography. His own passion for skateboarding caught our eyes as his book 'No Skateboarding' had just launched. With a scandalous delay, we finally publish this Photography Without Words #5 blog post together with the exclusive interview (scroll down) that Mathias had very kindly given us in Paris.
ABOUT ‘NO SKATEBOARDING’ BOOK
No Skateboarding is a photography book putting together a gallery of portraits of the 70 most influential skaters in the history of the sport. But instead of having action shots of the riders’ feats, it pays tribute to them by making portraits of the men behind the sometimes legendary tricks they once pulled.
Rather in the artistic tradition of grand portraiture as it was carried out by painters from Van Dyck to Jean-Baptiste Ingres and later by photographers from Nadar to Annie Leibovitz, the book is composed of a series of posed portraits shot on a traditional square format camera over a period of fifteen years. But this is tradition with a twist, and the setting for those portraits is not the photographer’s studio or an elaborate set but the men’s immediate environment: the street.
Mathias spent many years on and off in Los Angeles dedicated to his long time project named no skateboarding.The book is bringing a fresh and intimate look over a generation, at the early birth of the street skating in the late 80'.
“I told myself: let’s meet and photograph all the key figures that shaped modern skateboarding and influenced our generation. I was eager to publish a book of portraits with no action photos. I wanted to capture the key figures of the scene, in their everyday environment. But I wanted the real thing. Many books have been published since but none has been able to resist the temptation of including action shots. And that was exactly what I wanted to avoid. The idea was to put together the first monograph of portraits with the street as the background. I wanted to show the man behind the tricks, the person behind the style.
Each skateboarder has been selected for a particular reason. One day they created original tricks or lines, that sent shockwaves to the skateboarding world, changing the way we thought, reinventing our world. Without even always knowing it, they set something in motion, something that spread like wildfire into local scenes. A spot and a trick put together could build someone’s reputation for a whole generation of skaters. Some became legends, some are local heroes. But each in their own right was influential and inspirational.
The captions that go with the photos are here to flesh out the stories behind each of the portrait, to tell readers about why each sitter was included, who they were then and who have since become, how each photo came to be the way it is and how some came close to never existing…”.
Mathias Fennetaux, Introduction, memory is inspiration
Lance Mountain (Orange County, 2002)
Mike McGill (Encinitas, 2004)
Jamie Thomas (San Diego, 2000)
Natas Kaupas (Santa Monica, 2000)
Tony Alva (San Diego, 2001)
Julian Stranger (San Francisco, 2004)
Chris Miller (Carlsbad, 2004)
Tony Hawk (Encinitas, 2004)
Ray Barbee (Orange County, 2001)
Rick Howard (Paris, 2004)
Erik Ellington (Beverly Hills, 2001)
Steve Caballero (San Jose, 2005)
Sean Sheffey (Lausanne, 2004)
Chad Muska (Los Angeles, 2000)
Ed Templeton (Paris, Palais de Tokyo, 2002)
[Original interview was in French and was translated by Jardins Florian’s editor]
Natas Kaupas and Mark Gonzales have been Mathias’ idols and meeting Natas in particular has been the inspiration that motivated Mathias to conceive the book. Indeed, in 2000, he felt it would be amazing to meet all the legendary skateboards that he dreamt of as a French skateboarder. He came up with a list of more than 60 people who defined this sport and started to meet them one by one… He really wanted to put forward some of the forgotten heroes particularly those from Venice Beach.
One camera (Rolleiflex), one format (square), 70 encounters.
Who are you?
Mathias, photographer. The other day I said: “am I a photographer or am I trying to be one?" At which point can one say ‘I am a photographer’? With this book project at least, I can now say that it is finished. I can turn the page after so many trips, and what represented my life as a teenager. I am a photographer but isn’t everybody a photographer nowadays?
What do you appreciate the most in your friends?
Their critical sense, their courage to say things and their sharing of discoveries. Sharing in a constructive manner is key.
What is your favourite occupation (alone)?
I am crazy about fly-fishing. I am actually crazy about trekking along the river and therefore fishing is almost an excuse to do so. I actually prefer to fish in small rivers down the mountain. The less roads there are, the better. Fly-fishing is my favourite and it is closer to hunting than fishing in a way.
What is your favourite food, drink and/or restaurant?
World cuisines in general. Thai, Chinese and Japanese cuisines in particular. I love Asia.
How do you wish to feel the day you die?
At peace, I would like to feel that all the values that have been transmitted to me (by my parents and people I have met) I have managed to transmit as well… Life is all about transmission I think. This book for instance is the transmission of what skateboard and the people who shaped it represent to me.
What is your present state of mind?
A great feeling of satisfaction, even more so as I share this space with the younger generation* (Ecole Boulle students). Woodwork is also the quest of perfection, of the perfect hand gesture, the study of wood physical properties with a view to creating physical structures or to serving visual purposes. In other words wood-workers' quest for the perfect gesture can also be found in skaters who came up with figures. Each skater has his own way of interpreting a special figure (e.g. ollie). People in the know can guess who is the skater by merely seeing the way a figure is executed. Like all the wood pieces coming together to form a piece of furniture, all the skaters mentioned in the book come together as a transmission to the new generation. Hence why I feel good [laughters].
[*Editor’s note: the book exhibition took place in 2013 at Cite de la Mode et du Design (Paris) together with works from Ecole Boulle students]
What is your favourite motto or quotation?
I have many. In photography, "let well enough alone" [original quote in French “le mieux c’est souvent l’ennemi du bien”]. Very often, while we try to finetune the lightnings, the first shot happens to be the best.
What is photography for you?
Photography for me is memory.
Who are the photographers, artists or people whom you find most inspiring in life?
In painting, Soulage whom I discovered when I was 15 at Galerie du Jour. His work on black & light really mesmerized me. Rembrandt’s lights also touch me, his chiaroscuro and contrasts.
In photography there are too many, from Salgado, Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson and so on. All the guys who worked in black & white and focused on contrasts. Funnily the people I mentioned are not specialized in portraits. Avedon’s portraits are very simple, for instance the miners shot with a white background. In my book’s project I wanted the portraits to evoke the city of L.A.. This is where skating takes place. Nowadays my portraits tend to become more and more spontaneous and less directed.
How do you perceive ‘skate culture’ today? Why did you feel so attracted visually to this universe?
I don’t know as I don’t belong anymore. Skating and street culture are in my blood but I don’t know what skate culture is today. It has become much broader and mainstream but the technical level worldwide is so incredible that it looks almost like video games.
How do you select the brands you work with and how difficult is it to combine your artistic vision with the brand management constraints?
When I work for a client, there are constraints and I respect them as it is part of the deal. Of course I try to optimize the topic, the background but I stick to the creative brief.
What are the companies or brands that you find inspiring?
Architecture is very inspiring to me. I know that’s not a company or brand but that’s what inspires me [laughters]. Brands’ problem is that they can have one image one day and lose their soul a few years later, so I find it hard to stick to a brand in particular.
How does professional photography remain relevant in a world where so many bloggers have blurred the line and act as photographers? How is Instagram affecting professional photography?
Means of communication have multiplied and everybody has a cellphone camera and apps so everybody can shoot pictures and I find that great. Now the difference lies in one’s capacity to tell stories. Putting nine-ten pictures together in a consistent manner is the real name of the game. In other words shooting one image is easy, creating a series is a different game. Using back-light, colour contrasts or monochrome is ok, but creating a series is the real challenge.
Living in Biarritz, does it change your perspective as compared to Paris?
Yes, it has had a profound impact. I moved to South of France to surf and live close to the sea. It is a kind of California dream in France. My passion for skating has now switched to surfing. One cannot have it all, Biarritz is not a capital city so I have to keep my curiosity up and remain alert.
What are your potential taboos when it comes to photography?
I don't really have taboos in photography. My limit is when I feel that something I want to do might get too close to what another photographer has done, then I prefer to stop if I don't bring enough differentiation. It requires to have a certain knowledge about photography history and other photographers’ works.
Do you only use 100% digital cameras?
For the book I only worked with films [i.e. traditional photo negatives] but I obviously work nowadays with digital cameras.
Which projects are in the pipe?
Working on something more spontaneous…
What would you do if you were not a photographer?
I would have loved metal welding and soldering as it feels supernatural to weld two pieces of metal together. When I was young, I was thinking of becoming a naval architect but that was a teenager’s dream as one has to do lots of maths to do such a job. After finishing high school and passing my scientific baccalaureat, I did not study further, I started to take my first pictures and publish them.
What is your piece of advice to aspiring photographers?
I wish them to be able to publish a book one day, it gives a feeling of timelessness and not just the ephemeral feeling of a feature on web pages. The book has been printed in Italy at EBS in Verona. Their know-how and sensitivity has brought the project to new heights. I spent two days with them and I was almost sad when it came to an end. So I am looking forward to the next book project!
Which music are you currently listening to?
I listen to everything, from classical music to hip-hop and jazz.
Infinite thanks to Mathias for his passion, time and patience.
Mathias Fennetaux grew up in Paris in the 80’s. He has been an independent photographer for over 20 years. His work, which focuses on youth’s culture, lifestyle and fashion, has been deeply influential in shaping the visual culture of the French and European scenes. Splitting his time between personal art projects and advertising campaigns for all the major board sports companies, he shares his time between Paris and Biarritz.
Photography Without Words #4: Steven Lyon
Photography Without Words #3: Anushka Menon
Photography Without Words #2: Dane Shitagi "The Ballerina Project"
Photography Without Words #1: Carlo Mollino