Street Memo - Fred Simonson
In the past couple years Fred has been the ignition of great moments for skateboarding here in the deep south. Fred’s mere presence and his drive to constantly improve on his craft of photography sparks memorable sessions. His approach is a true skateboard purist, a skate rat at heart, but with the proper dash of artist. Since he has started shooting, Fred’s photos have come a long way. I got a chance to talk to him about skateboarding, photography, and the local scene here.
Fred Simonson - Street Memo
Interview by Stephen Serrano
Jordan Trahan, Photo: Fred
What made you want to start taking skate photos?
I started by looking at magazines. I discovered skate magazines, skate media, after I skateboarded a little bit. I'd learned to tic tac and stuff, and had learned that there’s this skateboarding thing going on, and my mom had taken me to the skatepark on Florida Boulevard when I was seven years old around ‘78 or ‘79. She was like, “you might be into this” and I was terrified. Years later I bought a neighbors board for 7 dollars in ‘83 and got my hand on my first magazine in ‘86. I was tic-tacking around by ‘85-’86.
My dad always really liked to take photos, he was kind of a hobbyist photographer. He was a videographer. He was a family videographer, but he also liked to take still photos, especially in the family. He took some pride in the things that he made with photos. He wasn't a professional photographer by any stretch or anything like that. It was absolutely a hobby for him.
I recently went through some of the photo albums, the family photo albums that I was gifted after he passed, and there's some evidence of him picking up some black and white film and getting kind of artsy. So he had a toe in the water all the time with the camera. One of the last conversations we had together was about our mutual desire to purchase one of the new pieces of gear, it was a new camera that was out.
That was definitely a catalyst talking to my dad. Cameras being around and my dad always buying a camera and talking to me about it. I've got this thing where I like to get into stuff and I really go into it a lot. And I really like to spend money, if I could possibly spend money. I love doing that shit. If you like doing that, Photography is your thing.
The last conversation my father and I had was about getting a camera. I had already had a film camera that he bought me and I'd maybe put a couple rolls through it, years ago. So when he caught ill, he was sick for a long time. Towards the end of his life, I just happened to have picked up this camera. I got the call that things had turned for him while I was at the CVS buying film for this camera he sent to me. So there is some connection there for sure.
And then, Ben Moore just took some absolutely freaking iconic photos and I loved it. For The Krew magazine photo cover, backside five-o over the death box on the wall in Baton Rouge, long exposure night photo. Totally ghosted, I forgot who the skater was, but it's a Ben Moore photo. It's a cover for For The Krew magazine, but it could be the cover of any magazine ever at any point in time. It's a beautiful photo.
Willy Akers, Backside 5-0, Photo: Ben Moore
Just him being out in the field and doing it, when the skate park in Baton Rouge opened up. I was underground forever, I’ve worked nights at Louie's for so long. I was skating, but I wasn't like on the scene or anything, I didn’t have anyones number. When the park opened up there was all this activity and it was fun to go, I had a place to skate every day. I was stoked to see the work Ben was doing.
One time a bunch of us went on a shoot with G (Giancarlo D’Agostaro) and Nick Matchett, he was doing a wallride at the Baton Rouge General Monument sign. I used to pass by that monument sign. So I was there for that photo, that mission. It was neat because I used to pass by that monument sign when I was on the bus to high school. I used to be like, dude, “I want to skate that.“ It's kind of a spot but not a spot.
I remember asking Ben after the one and only skate photo ever taken of me that wasn't a mom photo. Ben Moore took of me doing a wallride on a dumpster, it was totally his idea. He took it, and afterwards picked his brain on cameras and he told me it’s 2G’s for a decent digital SLR and glass, I can't remember what he told me to get , it was probably something ridiculous and it was 2 grand to get in
Fred Simonson, Wallride, Photo Ben Moore
What's your favorite skate photo you've taken?
There's a couple of favorites, there's a couple of sessions and there's a couple of ones that I feel like I did a good job on. The Philly fifty-fifty at The First National Bank, fifty on the ledge off the wheelchair ramp, his going pro ad for Scumco board. That, and its companion, that no one has seen of Jordan at the same spot.
I just got that camera and it was the first time I skated with those two together. The colors were good. It had a good exposure. There was just one flash off camera. It was a pretty quick setup. Yeah, that one. That one that one stands out. It also got in the Bible with that one, I was way stoked, it was a fun day. It was a good Monday.
Philly 50-50. Photo: Fred
Can you recall a Philly moment that’s really stuck out in your mind?
Oh, geez, man, that fucking back 50 50. At that Hotel, he had to swerve away from a freaking pit. There's a bear trap at the bottom, of that goddamn thing. You gotta hop on that thing. You gotta throw down, not touch the wall, cause it's going to whack if you touch the wall. Hop off and swerve out of the way of the bear trap. It's like you can't not hit it. That was it, just had so much energy.
Philly, Backside 50-50. Photo Fred
There’s this story that’s told about some frat boys saying, “Hey, do a Kickflip Back Tail” at One Shell.
I don't know if it happened, but the story goes, he was called out, 20 bucks for a Kickflip Back Tail. He just does it, kickflip back tail, give me your $20. Dude's got to give him 20 bucks.
He's so confident. That's what he does. He's like you said, it's just street athleticism. It's fucking rad to watch. It's exciting.
Can you explain your biggest challenge taking photos?
It's tough to be as excited as I was two years ago to go shoot. Back then I was excited about anything. I mean, you could shoot a slappy, I'd be like, “fuck it, what are we doing?” To maintain an approach of being excited about it, and trying to find a way to relay that excitement through the image.
To take value in the moments that you have, because that's what you're doing when you're taking pictures. So Sturt apparently would ask dudes if there's a risk of death, like, “Oh, you want to go somewhere? Well, is there a risk of death? Is it gnarly enough for me to go even waste my time?” That's a bar to set if you're going to be that guy and that's one way to approach it, but I do not denigrate Sturt at all.
To honor and value the time that I have with folks like, “let me do my best to make this pop.” Because when you take photos, you know when there is a pop, you know when it's there, when you have it and, you know when it's not. To find that moment and to trust that moment, to believe. You almost have to believe that that moment is there with anything and you just have to unlock that goddamn mystery of what's there, because it is there. The more probative you are and the more searching you are for that image the image that is going to tell that story.
I don't feel like I'm a great story teller with the photos. I'm not always thinking about the story. What I'm saying is, sometimes I'm thinking about, “let's get the guy, let's get there.” Let's show that this was technically accurate.
I think the challenge is to believe that there is a photo here, when you’re going to skate with somebody.
Charles Johnson, Backside Noseblunt. Photo: Fred
At any point in time during your skateboarding life, what's the most you fanned out?
I'm the biggest fan out. I’m the biggest kook.
I wrote a letter to Natas one time saying, “Come skate with me in Lafayette.” He wrote me back. I didn't keep the letter. He pretty much said, “I just want to skate the whole world” blah, blah, blah, here’s a fucking sticker sort of thing. It was in Natas handwriting and my dumb ass didn't fucking hold onto it. No sense of the future. I told my friends “Natas wrote me back!”, they didn’t say it but it was obviously, “Oh you kook.”. That's the start of a long fucking future of just being a fan.
What's your favorite candy?
Okay. So Laffy Taffy is the finest candy, but I think they made too much of it. Something like they got pieces of metal in the Laffy Taffy. They're trying to overact production because it got popular. I don't even fuck with candy that much, I haven't bought candy this week.
But Laffy Taffy, not the banana. The tropical flavors are fire. I’m down with them.
What was the best session lately taking photos?
Philly, over that barrier, that was a really productive day. You got the nose slide on that high ledge. We got that, all the kids out in the street and the passers by that was that was a good that was fun.
Philly, Ollie: Photo, Fred
I mean, it's the most fun in the world. Cruise down the street, across town and ollie up the sidewalk. That's the elemental thing. To go point A to point B across the city and make it into your own little skate park. To me, that's commanding your environment to re-shape your world especially into something as mundane as going from point A to point B. That's my favorite part of skateboarding.
Stephen Serrano, Noseslide, Photo: Fred
You got any advice for someone trying to start taking photos?
So you need to use a flash if you want to take skate photos. There are some times when you get away with not using it, but you gotta use it if you want to make it look like you've seen growing up in a magazine.
Gotta have a fisheye, I'm not great with them. I'm not a master, there's some times when I do well with it. That is not personally my favorite.
You need a nice portrait lens or a 70 - 200mm zoom. Even Canon and Nikon have some good old glass. Because, what are you doing? You’re really taking action portraits. There's some stuff out there.
Get a decent camera body, go full frame, why not. Holler at me if you got any questions or holler at somebody, but good glass, don’t sleep on long focal length like 105 or 85 portrait. You need a fisheye and it doesn't hurt to have a 50. I mean, you could probably you could do all that with one kit lens because you you get faster glass, lower aperture. Other people use zoom lenses, with that you have some versatility.
If you think that you’re into it, make an investment or borrow somebody's gear maybe. Don't be scared of using camera flashes.You need to go out, shoot a million photos and digest. Shoot manual, learn about your camera and learn how to use it.
Study the craft of it. One thing that I could always do is to look at as many skate photos as I can, especially because different tricks have different ways of being shot. Different groups have different ways tricks have been shot. The legacies of how they've been shot in the past.
Some of that is because of the way somebody does it. Some of it is the nature of the trick. Some of it is the setting, some of it is that photographer wanted to indicate how the trick was shot. Sometimes skaters like Mark Gonzales are real easy to shoot as he shows you where put the photo. I mean like, ”it's here, take the photo.”
Learn how to control your light. Spend the money on glass and what you're going to need. Good luck.
Do you have any last words?
I love all y'all.