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Skateboarding’s Anthropologist: An Interview with Ed Templeton on Wires Crossed

Ed Templeton, a legendary professional skateboarder for over 20 years, is one of the few to develop a dual career: there are those who recognize Templeton as a skateboarder and those that recognize him as a photographer and artist. While there are certainly some cultural overlaps between these disparate audiences, Templeton has successfully penetrated the art scene and established himself as a photographer just as he had years earlier as a skateboarder.

His previous exhibitions and photobooks—such as Teenage Smokers and Tangentially Parenthetical—secured him a status as a noteworthy artist outside of skateboarding. His newest photography book, Wires Crossed, is a convergence of these two worlds. Templeton the skateboarder and Templeton the photographer merge. There is a certain vulnerability here: the viewer is given an intimate glimpse into the private, shared lives of these skateboarders, Templeton included. Everything from the marginal (smoking a cigarette, driving the tour van) to the substantial (being concussed in an emergency room, forcefully being arrested) are put on display.

Templeton describes Wires Crossed as an ‘anthropological project.’ He is an impartial observer (and, at times, direct participant) of a culture that he himself was embedded in; the camera remains objective while Templeton himself can’t help but be involved. The critic Susan Sontag wrote fifty years ago that, “For the anthropologist, the world is professionally divided into ‘home’ and ‘out there,’ the domestic and the exotic.” In Wires Crossed, those divisions are irrevocably collapsed. Templeton is an anthropologist who is at home in what should be the exotic ‘out there.’

Teddy Duncan: You've referred to your newest photography book, Wires Crossed, as your life's work. How long have you been working on this project, approximately?

Ed Templeton: Probably since 1994. The reason I even picked up a camera was to start this work; I had a realization that I should be shooting this culture. I didn't have any connections to a publisher, but I did start shooting the photos with the ultimate end goal that this will be collected in a book someday. Throughout my career I wondered when I should end it. Then I had this super long skate career, and it wasn't until 2012—when I broke my leg real bad at the age of 40—that I decided, OK, this is the end of my program, I'm going to retire and stop trying to keep up with the kids. Even then though, from 2012 to 2022, I was working on it, but I dragged my feet. It was a daunting task, having so much work to look through and whittle down into a potential story. Towards the end it's like a concentric circle. As it got closer everything starts getting more refined. And then working with Leslie Martin at Aperture helped get some fine points and context added. It's been a long saga. I had a huge folder with around 5000 photos, and I just needed to cut that in half. That's why it took so long, I would take a long time to cut 5000 into 2000. And then I might go away for six months and not think about it and come back with fresh eyes again and then cut that into a thousand.

Teddy: That sounds like a really deliberate process. How did you select the pictures to include and the ones to omit? What made a picture stand out to you?

Ed: The first wave is pretty easy in a way, because it's cutting away the stuff that is irrelevant right off the bat. But once you start getting down further there's a lot of things that are similar. I might have had four or five different instances of a skater giving another skater a haircut on tour. Then you have to make that determination. It's just a gut feeling. You just look at them over and over again and go, “OK, this is the one that I think stands out and this is the one that tells that story the best.” And that'll be the one that makes it to the book finally.

I used themes as editing devices. I have a certain theme, for instance, like skaters versus security guards or police. I might get all those photos together and then see which ones make it. Other times it might be a person. So, this is Steamer, one of the pro skaters on tour, I might take all her photos and look and then try to whittle it down to the best photos. Those are the two ways: by theme and by person. Of course, you already have your favorites in your head, the images that hold everything up. The hard part is the in-between stuff.

Teddy: In an interview with ArtNews, you compared Wires Crossed to a kind of anthropological project—is there something distinct about the kind of skate tours and trips that you were going on that are ‘lost’ today?

Ed: Well, certainly, there are major differences with cell phones and social media. That's one of the few major differences is that the boredom isn't the same anymore as a general term because everyone has something to look at and do. I imagine the skateboard tours now are just everyone looking at their phone and having their headphones on the whole time—if they even do tours anymore. The idea of everyone listening to the same music and looking out the window, enjoying the world or looking at a magazine—those days seem kind of long gone. That’s a major difference. A certain innocence has been lost with that. The world has shrunken and evolved since then too. I mean a lot of the terminologies we use and the way we conduct ourselves socially has changed as far of the slang that everyone used, and obviously a lot of the book could fall under the term ‘toxic masculinity.’

My camera was a little bit of an anomaly, but also there was a safety knowing that there was not a direct line immediately to the internet. Now a camera equals immediate shame for everything you've been caught doing because it's going to be posted and then you're going to get dragged if you're doing something weird. I like the idea of shooting a skater getting drunk or doing drugs, doing cocaine or signing breasts, but people are more guarded now because they have more to lose. I think a lot of the stuff that I shot in the early 2000s would be a lot harder to get now. The same things might happen, but they wouldn’t want to broadcast that.

There was a cohesiveness [among the skaters on tour] and I feel like everyone's just individualized now. Social media, especially in skateboarding, has changed everything. Video has been the currency for skateboarding for so long, teams would build up clips to make a video and that was the main goal. And now, everything is just shared on Instagram immediately. It has ruined the whole framework of how skate videos were made, how a lot of companies made money. But that's really hard to do now because there's just so much you can see online. People do save up video parts, but then they drop on the Thrasher site for free and people watch, and it feels like it has about a two-week shelf life. I think that's why people look back to some of those older videos with nostalgia. Like the “Welcome to Hell” video or “Yeah Right” video or the Flip videos, all these companies that made these major videos that have big premieres—I think kids still look to those. A lot of skaters still look to those things, whereas the newer ones are really hard to wrap your head around.

Teddy: In the final interview of the book with your wife, Deanna, you both briefly discuss feeling ethically compelled to intervene at times, particularly with teenagers. You say something similar in the beginning of the book in two journal entries on Brian Herman and Alex Olsen. Were there times that you felt an obligation to softly or even explicitly direct a skater’s behavior?

Ed: I never felt concerned. I know Deanna had that conflict. I was looking at it a little more anthropologically. For me it meant that this is something that had to be documented. This is what's happening. This is the truth. But on a different note, I try to lead by example with my team. I myself wasn't drinking or doing any drugs. And I would try to counsel guys, but it also doesn't mean as much coming from me. I mean in the case of Brian Anderson, who talks about his alcoholism in his interview, I don't know if I could really say anything to those guys. They already know where I'm coming from, so I don't have any insight to give them. Of course, I'm gonna say don't drink because I don't. I don't think my words had any weight for them.

It was really hard when I saw somebody going too far to really get involved in that way. But I did, I would break up fights at skate demos and I always felt like I was the adult in the room. I mean there were cases where kids at a demo would start fighting and instead of trying to shoot a photo, I would just go in and break it up because I felt like I'm the person they came to see and I can easily break this up without getting punched or whatever. Luckily, I didn't see anything that crazy where I had to intervene. There were no cases where someone was going into date rape territory or something where I felt like I needed to stop it. Everything was pretty low key. Even in the book, there's one photo of a guy with some cocaine. It was pretty basic. I think there's a lot more cocaine in skateboarding right now then there was in my day, at least with my team. There was just a couple of cases [of excessive drinking] with Brian Anderson, who was always drunk and when I tried to talk to him, I think it fell on deaf ears.

In the case that we talked about in Deanna’s interview, there was a girl in a van and the guys were trying to get her to take the top off, I think we just put the kibosh on it right away. She pulled over and had a talk with the girl.

Teddy: At the end of the book, you write “what haunts me is what I missed.” What did you miss? Was there anything specific that stood out as a time that you wished you’d had your camera ready?

Ed: Some of the hookup stuff I probably missed. I wasn't maybe as aggressive as I could have been. I felt like since I was such a participant—I'm a pro skater myself—I'm the person who's having to do the job. A lot of times I'm driving the van to get to get from point A to point B. When we show up in a skate shop, I'm the person who's on the clock, so I had to skate. I have to talk to kids. We’ll skate for four hours and then sign autographs for another two hours afterwards. And all that time I can't have my camera on me. In that case, I've missed a lot of what makes a tour really special or interesting: the stuff that's happening during the show. I was the show so that was hard to get some of the behind-the-scenes stuff. Usually as soon as we were done skating, I'd grab my camera and do the autograph session and try to get photos if I could. But a lot of times your time is just taken.

That is what the observer-participant dilemma is. We get to a swimming hole and I'm sitting there like, “Do I want to document this or do I want to have fun and swim?” Sometimes you can't do both. I can't just leave my camera out in the dirt somewhere while I'm swimming. It's an either-or situation sometimes. So that’s what I mean, there were times I just ended up participating and not photographing stuff.

As I was building the book it triggers the memories of the stuff that I missed. I think the public doesn't have any idea; this is just my own torture. Everyone seems happy with what I got, but they don’t know that its maybe 50% or 75% of what I could have got. There's another skateboarder who's a photographer named Jerry Hsu and we rode for the same shoe company [Emerica], so I went on tours with him sometimes, but he didn't skate the demos. I remember being jealous because I'd look over on the sideline and I'd see Jerry sitting there shooting photos of kids and stuff and I'm like, “How are you getting away with not skating the demo right now?” He might not have been feeling it that day, so he would just take off and shoot.

Purchase a copy of Wires Crossed here:

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