Skate Photographer Mike O'Meally on His Palace Collaborations & The Magic of Shooting with VHS

We catch up with the legend at House of Vans Seoul, discussing his 20-plus-years career and more.

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For over 20 years, Australian photographer Mike O’Meally has documented the raw evolution of skate culture. From the streets of Sydney to Los Angeles, where he is currently based, he has provided an intimate look at the inner workings of a truly vibrant and dynamic world. Transcending any typical modes of categorization, however, O’Meally’s photographic scope extends beyond just skate — towards an honest documentation of culture, travel and even the human race, as he himself describes.

As a regular collaborator with Palace, O’Meally has worked with the iconic skate brand on a wide range of projects — most recently, that would include Palace Skateboards’ inaugural magazine issue. Lensed entirely by Mike, the uninhibited representation of Venice Beach’s skate landscape is a testament to the photographer’s powerful voice.

“…that is what the culture is all about — maintaining some purity of spirit as the culture evolves with the changing technology.”

At this year’s House of Vans Seoul, the L.A. transplant showed a photo exhibition that served as the heart of the weekend’s events. Assembled as an open-plan display, the combination of images — which includes street shots and gravity-defying moments alike — embodies the many facets of skateboarding as both a sport and lifestyle. An extending wall was covered by a towering black and white collage, providing a blitz of memories that encapsulates Mike’s experience as both a partaker and observer of the culture. It was in this space that he also hosted a photography Master Class, where young camera enthusiasts clung to his every word, picking his brain on topics of technique, subject matter, career advice and more.

During the event hosted at Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a breathtakingly futuristic space designed by the late Zaha Hadid, we caught up with Mike to discuss his triumphant career. From discussing the past and present of skate culture, to getting insight on how to get that perfect shot, the lensman shares with us a wealth of knowledge that we were more than eager to digest. You can read our full conversation below, and can check out our recap of House of Vans Seoul here.

mike o'meally skateboard house of vans seoul skate skateboarding

Can you tell us more about your collaboration with Palace? Why did you choose to use VHS to record video, and how does this medium capture/reflect London?

I actually shoot photos for/with Palace, and they just released a big fat magazine from the two trips they did to L.A. earlier this year to Venice beach, which features all my photos. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out and it’s always nice to get a whole magazine to yourself — that NEVER happens ever!

As for VHS, the Palace video guys carry around the big cameras and use the big VHS tapes, and I think it’s just become their thing. It’s a throwback to when footage and tricks had a different authenticity to them, and hopefully kids who are maybe interested in that can get some of that magic feeling. As for capturing London, I think it suits it perfectly — nothing is smooth in London, nor does it come easily. You have to work hard for it, and I think VHS is the perfect medium to reflect that struggle.

Having taken skate photography for over 20 years, how has it changed over the years? How has it stayed the same?

Well, the cameras and equipment have changed — now everything mostly involves computers at some point. But essentially, the spirit of the act of capturing skateboarding has stayed the same — at least the way I see it. We probably use more expensive equipment nowadays and more of it, and to be honest I kind of miss the simpler times of just one backpack with some basic shitty flashes — just hoping for a miracle that something will turn out properly.

mike o'meally skateboard house of vans seoul skate skateboarding

How do you feel about skate culture becoming a muse for high fashion?

I think skating has always had its own beat — it’s flattering when other worlds take notice, but I think the best thing about skating is that it does not follow anything else and it’s constantly recreating and reinventing itself. If high fashion sees a muse in that well, great! The world moves on very fast though.

Do you think it’s necessary to be a skateboarder in order to document the culture/sport accurately?

I don’t think it’s 100% necessary, because there are a few well-known skate photographers who don’t really skate. But at the end of the day, I think it goes without saying that you will have a better understanding of anything you are trying to photograph if you participate in it a little yourself.

To you, what is skate culture in its purest form?

Skate culture in its purest form is a bunch of friends — either old or young — getting together at their local spot, some curbs, a bowl, a ledge or even their favorite hill, and just chopping it up. Talking shit to each other, egging each other on to try tricks, encouragement, heckling and having a great time together. Or even just going out for a skate to bomb some hills on your own. One of my most cherished feelings is skating to the store, or even nowhere in particular, by myself and just going with the flow.

mike o'meally skateboard house of vans seoul skate skateboarding

How do you see skate culture (and the documentation of it) in 20 years?

I think it continues to evolve through the evolution of media platforms — from the first Xerox zine, all the way through now to social media and web-based media and the traditional magazine. But as I said earlier, if the spirit of it is still somewhere amongst all the technology, then that is what the culture is all about — maintaining some purity of spirit as the culture evolves with the changing technology.

What is the secret to taking a great portrait shot? An action shot?

I am still trying to unlock the secret — but I can tell you it helps to be able to look people dead in the eye and know what you are about, and perhaps you can listen with your eyes and find out something about the person you are shooting when you do that. Good portraits involve honesty, in my opinion — people can sense that when they look at it.

The secret to a great action shot? Get down low and go go go! You gotta get to a position that is going to tell an accurate and more importantly, an exciting story, about what is going on. Whether that means getting up high, down low or very close, or even far away — use your legs, your mind and your balls, and that is a good place to start when shooting action. Timing is also obviously quite important!

mike o'meally skateboard house of vans seoul skate skateboarding

How was your experience exhibiting/interacting with fans at the House of Vans in Seoul? What was the response to your show like?

Of all the shows and events I have had over the years, the fans at Seoul HOV asked some of the most thoughtful questions and were so happy in general, which made the whole experience for me really delightful. People were taking lots of selfies in front of the photos, in particular the XEROX wall. The fans were very respectful but also lots of fun! Overall the response seemed very positive.

What was the most rewarding thing about speaking to young photographers during your Master Class?

I think the most rewarding thing is just being reminded of the time when it was all so new to me as well. I have been really lucky in my journey, having some really generous people share their time and knowledge with me — so it was a blessing to be able to give something back in the same way it was shared with me. Hopefully I was able to impart some useful information to those young photographers and set them off on the right path. It was also very rewarding to see the passion in them, the thirst to learn and create is real — that was inspiring to me.

What sort of preparations go into curating/organizing a photo exhibition?

For this particular show, it was a lot of digging through the archives finding old photos of skaters wearing Vans — a lot of old film getting filed and sorted and scanned, but it was fun to have a specific target in mind. That is, they had to be wearing Vans so it made it like a treasure hunt. Once I had a master list, then the next step became editing down which ones were exciting, were more relevant, were wearing a particular shoe that doesn’t exist any longer, or just basically trying to find something special in the photo that would be interesting to the fans. Then it’s sending the scans off to get printed and framed and then figuring out how to hang them up, in what order, what looks best next to what, et cetera.

“…the thirst to learn and create is real — that was inspiring to me.”

How do you determine when to use black & white or color shots?

I just assess the environment and try to get some kind of feeling for what would look best, and what the scene already includes before I decide to shoot a photo of it. A lot of the time I already think/see in black and white.

What advice would you tell someone who wants to start taking film photography, but has no experience?

Don’t be afraid to try some things that you aren’t sure about. Some of the best results with film are complete accidents, and you won’t get those by being careful. Film is precious, but you should also not be scared of it.

What is your philosophy/motto for life? For art?

Live life to the fullest and if you are making art, make something with guts!

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