Architecture seems to have gotten a hold on Rich Gilligan. Hot on the heels of his ‘Common Ground’ exhibition last year, in which he and his go-to stylist Aisling Farinella drew links between architecture and fashion, the photographer has turned his attention both to the campaign for Open House, and the architectural anomaly that is the guerilla skatepark in his new book ‘DIY’. The latter of these – a real passion project for Rich, whose love of skate culture is what drew him to the camera initially – is the culmination of four years’ work spent scouring the landscape for these makeshift structures all over Europe and America. The compilation of his large-format, colour shots makes for slightly eery viewing, as expanses of concrete emerge quasi-mysteriously in city centre black spots, suburban no mans lands, and, occasionally, pastoral havens miles from anywhere. Gilligan’s thirst for the skateboarding subculture – the community that fosters it, and the medley of bizarre landscapes and cityscapes in which it thrives, pushes his quest out to the far-flung corners and crevices of the western world, and gives ‘DIY’ a compelling visual narrative even for the most unlikely skateboarding fanatic. We chatted to him about working on the series, and how he was scooped for a very different architectural photography project by Open House.
You started off photographing skateboarding, then through a detour of commercial and fashion work, have somehow ended up back there.
Well the first pictures I ever took were skateboarders, so before I wanted to be a photographer, I wanted to be a skate photographer. I never stopped shooting skate photos, but you can’t really earn a living from it, so I slowed down a lot when more commercial work started coming in. I decided to do the book because I really missed doing that, so I decided to combine everything I’d learned through my documentary and commercial work with my knowledge of skate culture.
Do you find that skate photography isn’t taken seriously?
Yeah, totally. People are very dismissive of it, but I can totally understand why, a lot of it’s very formulated – trying to make everything look as dramatic and extreme as possible. The skate photography I was drawn to tended to have either a more documentary approach, or a more natural approach – where it was more about the surrounding landscape or city, rather than trying to just make the trick look as epic as possible. The one thing people don’t tend to respect or realize about skate photography is how hard it is. Getting the timing right, and having to light everything so quickly – you become really disciplined and adaptable, and I think that’s a skill I’ve carried with me. I apply everything I’ve learned from skate photography to my work in fashion, advertising and visual communications. I learned everything from skate photography!
What were your visual sources as a skate photographer – did you look at other skateboarding work, or documentary work?
Initially I was on a strict diet of skateboarding: I had no interest outside with anything outside of it. Early on I was really interested in the work of Glen E. Friedman – his really early Dogtown photos from the seventies, then his hip hop photography. Through him, I started to see the link between the three subcultures of skateboarding, hip hop and punk rock – seeing all his early pictures of Run DMC and the Beastie Boys made me realize that you could be a skate photographer, but also shoot other stuff. I also started to discover the work of actual skateboarders, like Ed Templeton, who was a professional skater from Huntingdon Beach. He started documenting his life on the road, traveling all over America with a bunch of skaters, and his work would be very influenced by traditional American documentary photographers. So even though initially it was all skate photography that I was into, but that led me into portraiture and documentary styles.
Do you think skate culture is as strong now as it was when you were growing up?
Skateboarding tends to go through booms. In the late seventies, when Glen E. Freedman was around, it was at a low point, then in the eighties it got really popular. Usually when you start seeing it in ad campaigns and music videos, that’s when you know it’s coming up, then it goes really mainstream and horrible and dips back down. In the early nineties, there were only maybe thirty or forty skaters in Dublin, so it was a real small, tight-knit community. Then from around 2000 to 2005 it totally blew up again, when the Tony Hawk Playstation game came out. You could say in the eighties it got huge when Back to the Future came out as well – something iconic will happen that it features in, and then it explodes. At the moment it’s kind of evened out – it’s definitely not as popular as it was, but the people who are into it are really into it. It’s in a really good place right now.
The sites you photographed for DIY were all guerrilla constructions. What were some of the weirder ones you encountered?
Some of the weirdest places were the more rural ones. There was one in Portland, Oregon called Burnside that was a mad spot – there were lots of crackheads who lived there, lots of homeless people, lots of skaters who kind of lived there hobo-style, and then loads of skaters who’d travel from all over Oregon just to skate there. So you’d see mad stuff on a daily basis – weird situations that initially you feel really intimidated by, but then after a couple of days it just becomes normal, and you don’t question it. Another great spot was in Nantes. It was this amazing idyllic scene, in the middle of nowhere – very surreal. I wanted to make sure the book had a real mix of locations, as I didn’t want every site to just show the stereotypical view of skaters. DIYs exist everywhere. There’s no hierarchy to it – even the badly made spots are just as important as the huge epic ones.
I was surprised by how quiet, and serene, some of the shots were – they nicely capture that moment of calm before the movement and action comes rushing in. Some of them are very thoughtful as well, even melancholy. Do you think they’re quite pessimistic in a way?
You could argue that. Personally, I find them really optimistic, because it’s a really positive thing for skaters to take these wastelands, places that have no life in them, and give them a burst of energy. They’re basically turning something that could be really, really shit and depressing into something fun and exciting. None of the sites in the book are funded – they’re all made by communities where everyone chips in, using whatever they have around them. There is a darkness to my photography, though, and that probably does come through in my work – I’m not trying to make everything really dramatic, or like a still from a David Lynch film, but it’s often the case that I’m naturally drawn to shooting things in a certain style, or in a certain way. I don’t really think about it at the time – it’s only when I sat down, after four years, to make the final edit that I started to make links between locations, all these weird visual connections started becoming apparent.
It must be pretty incredible to see four years’ work coming together like that.
Yeah, it’s a bit overwhelming! I kept trying to push it on – I wanted to spend another year doing it. I had a deadline from the publishing deal, then started freaking out because I hadn’t been to Asia or Australia, or Russia. I asked for another year, but the designer made the point to me that this isn’t a catalogue – this isn’t about me shooting every single DIY spot in the word, this is about showing my connection to the subculture and to the landscape. I’m never going to shoot every spot, it just wouldn’t be physically possible…
Especially as there are new sites appearing sporadically all the time as well…
Yeah, and the whole point is that they’re ephemeral spaces – some of them only last a few weeks, some last years. And that’s part of the appeal – there’s an uncertainty about how long they’re going to be there, and that’s why the lengths people go to to create them are so amazing. Some are almost like lunar landscapes, they’re really impressive and so much fun to skate in – much more intuitive than parks made my the council, because they’re made by skaters.
You have an exhibition at the RHA on at the moment, as part of Open House – how did that come about?
That came about after I’d spoken at Offset in March – Natalie, the Director of the Irish Architecture Foundation saw my talk, and was working on the identity for the project with Connor & David at the time, who are an amazing design duo. They asked if I would to shoot their campaign, so I scratched two weeks out of my diary and went around the twelve locations she gave me – I didn’t really have a brief, they just let me do my thing. We then decided to do an exhibition of the works afterwards – Natalie has a curatorial background, so she was really interested in shaking things up, and abandoning the strict rules of architectural photography. There’ll probably be loads of architects and architectural photographers who’ll see the show and hate it: we wanted to do something that challenged people, that wasn’t what they expected to see. I love traditional architectural photography, but it can be very slick, very polished and heavily retouched. I just shot it all with one camera and one lens, and tried to react to the place I was going to shoot as opposed to trying to create some epic scene.
Being more honest with it?
Well, it gets dangerous when you try to bring concepts like ‘honesty’ into photography! [laughs] But you could say it was me shooting with my gut feeling, as opposed to trying to over-consider everything. It’s more about harnessing your natural reaction to a space. The exhibition’s called Architecture Alive, and it’s about the life-cycle of the building – some of them were really old Georgian buildings, others were more modern, but I tried to capture how people function within each of the spaces. The idea is that everything that’s happened within a space will resonate through the images.
What was your favorite building to shoot?
The one I found the most interesting was the Iveagh Trust Flat, on Patrick Street. The last tenant was a woman called Nellie Molloy, who had kept it the same since the 1940s. When she passed away they decided to follow her wishes to keep it like that. The guy from the council who let me in told me stories about how when she passed away, lots of her grandchildren came over from England and visited the flat. They’d never met their grandmother, but were in this space where there were pictures of their dad as a kid hanging on the wall; they were all very moved by it. It also just really reminded me of growing up – the same feelings and smells and atmosphere as when I went to my granny’s house. It’s a completely different Dublin and different feeling to what exists now. It’s amazing that they’ve kept it, and that it hasn’t been done in a sort of cheesy tourist-trail way. There was a stillness to it that, as a photographer, I find really seductive.
And what building would you love to gain access to for a shoot?
The Douglas Hyde Gallery. I really love the concrete staircase in there.
Richard Gillian’s ‘DIY’ launches in Copper House Gallery on October 11th. Available from www.1980editions.com