An Interview With Photographer Jenny Sampson.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Sky captured in Los Angeles by Jenny Sampson

We ran into photographer Jenny Sampson at the Exposure Skate contest last year, and we were intrigued by her old school photography techniques - and that she was shooting portraits of a lot of the female skaters, as opposed to action shots.  She has one book on skateboarding out and another one (that you don't want to miss!) launching soon.

Read on for a very inspiring interview with this rad woman!

Name?     Jenny Sampson

Age?   49     (I’ll be 50 on October 22!!)

Where do you live/work?

I live in Berkeley, California and was born and raised in San Francisco. In all capacities of my work, I am everywhere. My photography –sometimes I am shooting at home and I process all my film at home (black and white film) and sometimes I shoot in the field, which is where I met you, or at a client’s home. I make silver gelatin prints in the city in my darkroom (my dad built it and printed in there before I was born). I am also a catering chef, so of course I am all over the Bay Area with that.

Jenny working her magic - photo via Jenny's instagram

How did you get started in photography?

Well, I first learned to process and print in the 6th grade. I had begun taking photos before then with my Kodak Instamatic that my parents bought for me. My father always had a camera in his hands to photograph us, usually on vacations since he was always working when we were home. I knew I wanted to do what my dad did –or at least what I saw him do, which was use a cool camera and take pictures.

What type of photography do you do when you are not shooting portraits of skateboarders?

I love photographing people, but I am not always around them. With my wet plate process (the process I use to make tintypes of skaters), I make still lives which I do at home. When I am out and about, I’ll often carry around another camera (2¼ or 35 mm or polaroid). I tend to photograph kind of odd or quirky mundane scenes on the fly. And since I am often around food as a chef, I take snap shots of food –but not like those foodie pics. I’m usually focusing more on the geometric, patterned stuff.

Jazzmen & Nathalie ~ Seattle

What got you interested in skaters and made you want to take photos of them?

Ok, this is kind of a long story.

The seed was planted in 1995 when I lived in Seattle. I used to ride my bike to work past a skatepark on 5th Avenue across from the Memorial Stadium in the Seattle Center. There were always tons of guys there skating –at that time, my photography was very much about quirky, truncated portraiture, gesture and posture. I thought the skatepark would be a great place to shoot because I figured people would ignore me (which I prefer when I shoot –except for tintype, of course) and there was a perfect concentration of people. They were focused on and interacting with each other and doing their thing –I could be ignored and shoot this organic scene. But I was completely intimidated and didn’t know how to approach them. I beat myself up every time I biked by them knowing I was missing out on this thing that I knew could be so good.

Years later, I had moved back to the Bay Area. I learned how to make tintypes and recognized that I needed a portable darkroom because, as a roaming photographer at heart, I saw potential tintypes everywhere (I had been making tintypes at home using my basement as a darkroom or at Rayko –the photo center in SF where I learned how to make tintypes). I built a portable darkroom and went to the Berkeley skatepark –I had just discovered it weeks before and unconsciously decided that was where I needed to go in order to test out my portable set up.

I distracted myself from the insecurity and feelings of intimidation with this portable photographic process. I made about eight portraits that day in January 2010 and I immediately knew I was on to something. (Some of my favorite skater portraits to this day I made at that very first skatepark tintype shoot.)

The more time I spent at skate parks observing and interacting with the folks there, the more I saw this rich culture that I had been previously unaware of, so I kept on going. It was so much fun, even though it was still intimidating –I was really putting myself in situations that weren’t naturally comfortable for me, but I saw it as a personal challenge to get over it. I’ve learned a lot about myself and strangers that I never could have foreseen at the beginning of this project-series. It has been life-changing for me.

Ivonne ~ Encinitas

Why did you decide to focus on the old art of tintype?

I fell in love with it immediately. I had known about tintypes –and daguerreotypes because I had seen them in museums, but that was kind of it. I didn’t know the history or anything about them. I saw a contemporary tintype that Michael Schindler made at Rayko Photo Center in 2007 or early 2008. It was beautiful! I signed up for a workshop pretty much immediately and once I saw the actual process, I was hooked. I loved the making of the chemistry (as opposed to the black and white darkroom where you simply dilute the pre-mixed chemistry with water, with wet plate, you use recipes from the 19th century, raw chemistry, beakers, scales, pipettes –the works.); I loved the magical aspect of the plates clearing in the fix. And surprisingly enough for me, I didn’t mind (and have come to love) the slower process of making the actual exposure. I had always shot on the fly, no tripod, no extra gear, super easy. I never thought I could deal with a large camera that required a tripod. It seemed too slow for me. Now what I do requires a car full of equipment. Making a tintype is another world. Your brain is in a different gear to make pictures and the finished plate is hauntingly beautiful so whatever my hang-up was before, it was erased with the tintype.

Can you explain to our readers what tintype photography is?

So a tintype is the actual photograph made using the wet plate collodion photographic process that was invented in 1851. Though it wasn’t the first photographic process, it was instrumental in bringing photography to many more people (than the previous processes) because it was the first portable photographic process and more affordable –it also was less toxic. It is called a tintype because in those days, tin was considered to be a cheap metal, and the process was cheaper than the others, hence “tintype” even though they were never actually on a sheet of tin (I use aluminum sheets). The reason why it is called “wet plate collodion” is that the metal plate on which the image sits must remain wet with chemistry throughout the entire process of making the tintype. Basically you are making film by doing this –although the film base is a piece of metal instead of a flexible, transparent substrate. Exposures for tintypes are very long in comparison to modern photography; my subjects must remain perfectly still for about 30 seconds although the actual exposure is generally about four seconds. That 30 seconds has to do with using a view camera and the fact that focusing cannot be done while the plate holder is in the camera.

Without going into too much detail, the process is as follows: pouring a viscous liquid, salted collodion, onto a metal plate (if a piece of glass is used instead of the metal plate, the end result is called an ambrotype) and then submerging that plate into a bath of silver nitrate where it becomes light sensitive. The collodion layer acts somewhat like as a glue for the silver nitrate to adhere to the plate.

After the plate is sensitized in the silver, while it is still wet, it is placed in a plate holder which is then slid into the view camera and an exposure is made. The plate is processed by pouring developer onto the plate, water poured to stop development (these steps are done in a darkroom), and then fixed (outside of the darkroom). That last step, in the fixer, is the magical part that I love sharing with my subjects. This is when you can see the image appear while the unexposed silver floats off the surface of the plate.

Lacey Baker ~ Seattle

What was it like getting skaters (who are all about movement) to sit still for the length of time it takes to do a tintype?

That’s a great question. Way easier than you might think! I can confidently say that, with extremely few exceptions, every skater I’ve photographed was totally into it and remained surprisingly still. My opinion: because they have to have such good balance to execute their tricks, they are able to remain super still. Sounds odd but it makes sense to me.

Do you like to talk and get to know your subject a little prior to taking their photo or is it better not to?

I definitely like to talk and get to know my subjects. I don’t feel like I need to get their story beforehand. Because it is a long process, and usually they are at the skate park to skate, I try to make it move along as fast as possible, at least in the beginning. Once we’ve begun the setup, then there is more time to talk.

What ways do you try & make skaters comfortable in front of the camera when they are not used to sitting still for a portrait?

There is a lot going on in my head when I'm doing a tintype shoot. I need to make sure the light is right, the temperature is right (if it is too hot there can be problems), the plate is poured properly and within the right time frame. Sometimes I am moving around not talking in order to take care of that stuff and so I shift from serious, silent technician to chatty, friendly photographer. I tell my subjects a little bit about what I am doing –sometimes they ask more questions, sometimes not; I want them to be as comfortable as possible because that will help getting a beautiful and honest portrait, but also it helps them remain still for the exposure. I give them pretty specific instructions about certain details (e.g. “you can blink!) that won’t affect their stance. I see making a portrait like this as a collaboration between them and me, so I’m genuinely interested in them which I hope helps them relax. Sometimes they have ideas of how they position themselves and sometimes they want me to direct them. Some people are more outgoing or shy than others. Sometimes we end up telling each other silly stories and laughing, and other times it’s more subdued, but I am a bit of a goofball at heart so even if it gets serious for a moment, I return to the goof pretty quickly.

Hannah ~ Seattle

Have you had to explain that with tintype motion isn’t possible in the normal sense?

Yeah, practically every single time! I have a few funny stories about motion and tintypes and tell them when the subject comes up. The stories can be a good way to loosen people up, which is super important.

What gave you the idea of doing a book of male & female skater portraits?

I actually never thought of a male book or female book. My first book isn’t a male book –there are girls in there, too! It’s just that for that body of work, I went to random skateparks and would photograph anyone whose attention I could get and then whoever would say “yes.” As we all know, there are usually more guys at skateparks. When I did see a girl, I would try to approach her, but, honestly, it wasn’t easy. That was (and sometimes still is) the most challenging part of this work –getting people’s attention. I eventually gained much more confidence to walk up to people, even though it was (and is still) difficult for me.

When I was shooting toward the end of my book deadline in 2017, I came upon a gaggle of girls at the Emeryville skate park. I photographed them and they were awesome. It made me so happy to see a group of girls at a skate park because I hadn’t seen it before. They told me about a Skate Like a Girl event that was happening in Santa Rosa and so I went to that. I was unaware of SLAG and I had never gone to a skateboard event to shoot before. That was that.

I didn’t even know too much about the pros (girls or guys) but I knew a little bit. It turned out that the event was a competition as well as a viewing of Quit Your Day Job, a film by Monique O’Toole and Erik Sandoval. I saw Vanessa Torres and Mariah Duran there and I am sure there were others, but I was super green couldn’t ID anyone. I know I made some super lame comments not knowing to whom I was talking, but oh well, what are you gonna do? (I got myself educated, is what I did!) It was at that event, I think, that I knew that my next series would be just girl skaters. Since then, I’ve learned even more about skateboard culture. I knew nothing of the girl skaters for one major reason. They weren’t given the attention or exposure that was given to the guys.

Jenny's first book ~ SKATERS

We know you have a second book coming out next year – can you tell us a little about that and when it will be released?

Yes, I am so excited! Skater Girls is dropping in the Fall of 2020, possibly earlier. My publisher, Daylight Books, publishes art and photography books. They did a beautiful job on my first monograph, Skaters and were interested in doing a follow-up so here we are. It is great timing, too, because the Olympics is going to bring a lot of attention to skateboarding (actually, I suppose for some people maybe this isn’t good?). Plus girl skaters are getting so much more well-deserved attention and exposure. It is an exciting time we’re in.

I should add that I am still shooting for this body of work and for the book. I am traveling up and down the west coast and will likely put calls out when I am planning to be at certain skateparks. For the girls, I’ve mainly been going to specific events because I know there will be tons of girl skaters to shoot --otherwise, it’s chancy that there will be many girls at any random skatepark. So follow me on Instagram to see when I’m setting up!

Will it be the same size and format as SKATERS?

Yeah, that’s the plan.

Will there be a gallery show?

I hope so! I am currently working on exhibitions around the time of and following the publishing of Skater Girls. I have been showing my skaters and girl skaters for many years in various capacities around the country. A few of them are going to be in a show at Sparks Gallery in San Diego –I think that exhibition is from October 19 – November 19.

What has the response been like from the skate community when the first book came out?

Totally positive. They are such a supportive group. I love the skate community. This is not your average way to photograph skaters, so everyone’s been down with it. Tintypes are pretty cool.

Laura ~ Encinitas

We met you at Exposure Skate Contest in 2018 and you were taking tintypes of various female skaters – can you explain the cost of shooting this way vs. a digital or even a “film” camera – so people understand what goes into making a single portrait?

In some ways it is difficult to put a price on it, suffice it to say they are expensive to make. I buy all the raw ingredients to make the chemistry. I buy sheets of aluminum and cut them to size with a metal shearer. Each individual plate takes anywhere from 10-20 minutes to make depending on circumstances. That one plate is the only copy, so I have to get the exposure right; I must develop it correctly; I must wash and handle that plate without scratching it; I need to dry and pack it up without damaging the surface; I copy-shoot and/or scan it, also without damaging the surface; and last I have to varnish it without catching it on fire or getting too much dust and crap on the surface. And also, by the way, my subjects have to remain still for the shot, which can sometimes be challenging. If any of those things doesn’t go right, it’s a loss. A loss of my subjects time (which is valuable because often they are competing or skating and this is their one chance for the shot), a loss of my time (often I have driven hours from home for the shoot) and a loss of of money from my pocket. And there is literally only one exposure, that’s it. But all of this is part of the deal. You win some you lose some. It is an investment on many levels and I love it.

Here is a list of the preparations for me to shoot at a skate park or event:

• Cut and pack aluminum plates (must cut far more that you might need) and protective sleeves.
• Prepare all chemistry: sometimes up to several liters of developer, clean silver nitrate bath, pack extra silver nitrate, mix fixer.
• Pack tent frame/tent; tables, towels, photographic trays, fan, headlamp, batteries.
• Pack camera/s, tripod, loupe, stool, darkcloth, reflectors.
• Pack photographic trays for washing; pack drying rack and up to 18 gallons water.
• Print/pack contact/model release forms; business/postcards.
• Pack anything else I might possibly need.

So there is a lot going on to make just one tintype at a skate park or event. My record number of plates is 30 in 6 hours, which is TOTALLY insane –and not all of them are successful plates. This was at an event where I had a photography assistant who was capable of handling all interactions, maintaining model releases and waiting lists as well as the washing of all plates, drying and sleeving them –oh yes and also acts as my handler -- “Jenny, drink water! Your next person is Sophia.” (This may not sound like a lot, but I guarantee you, it is a lot of work for 30 tintypes of which perhaps fewer than 10 are up to snuff.) I should add that this is six hours of shooting plus an additional four hours of pre and post-shoot work.

What are some of your favorite places (skateparks, street, backyard pools) to shoot the tintypes portrait?

I actually like all sorts of places –I like fences and trees and cars. The depth of field is shallow so most of these details are out of focus, but they look good that way. Fences are a great way to stabilize my subjects plus I think they look cool. I love the geometry and patterns they offer.

Ziggy ~ Bakersfield

Do you have an all time favorite image that you have taken?

I suppose if I had to pick one, it would have to Ziggy, Bakersfield, 2010. But there are several –and they can change, too. But Ziggy is pretty much way up there.

Do you skate yourself?

Nope. I learned to skate at summer camp when I was about 10. There were three of us girls who picked the skateboarding activity all week long; by the end of the week, I could skate up the ramp, do a kick turn and come back down. (The three of us placed during the competition --1st, 2nd and 3rd!) But, sadly, not anymore.

Any female photographers in the world that you look up to?

Well, I admire all of them, really. Especially the ones who are shooting video –I still can’t imagine riding and shooting at the same time. It is all such a commitment and it’s been such a male dominated world for so long. Norma Ibarra, Zorah Olivia, Norma Ibarra, Monique O’Toole, Kristin Ebeling, Desiree Astorga, Olga Aquilar just to name a few.

Any advice for someone who wants to get into photography?

Just shoot. Get your hands on any camera you can –it doesn’t have to be a good or expensive camera –your phone is fine, too. If you are truly into it, I recommend using an actual camera because there is a physicality to it that can be important and getting a phone out of your hands is a good thing. But it is important to remember that it isn’t about the equipment, it’s about your eye and exercising that muscle. Go for a walk that is purely for making pictures. Walk around the block. Wander around your home. It doesn’t matter. Eventually take classes or a workshop with a photographer whom you admire, if you can afford to. Shoot, shoot, shoot.

Amelia ~ Seattle

What about advice for girls who want to skate?

First thing --if you can afford to get a board, buy one and stand on it on a rug. Haha, that is my non-skater advice because that’s what I did a few years ago to try to get (back) on a board. But really, I think that if you are shy, or scared or insecure about it, look for a girl skate organization near you –there are more and more every day and they can provide a safe, supportive environment for you to learn and they also probably have a skateboard you can use if you don’t have one. If you aren’t shy, or scared or insecure, do the same thing. Or get your hands on a board and stand on it on the sidewalk outside your house. Just get on it. Make sure you are protected (helmet, pads) and learn how to fall so that you minimize injury. Know that you are going to fall, so be prepared and educate yourself about how to make it less scary and painful. I think this goes for anyone who wants to skate, yes? I kind of feel silly giving this sort of advice as a non-skater, but that’s my advice nonetheless.

Where can we see your work?
IG @jennysampsonphotography

I’ve had work in Analog Forever Magazine, The Hand, SPOT
My work will be in a show in San Diego at Sparks Gallery from 10/18-11/19

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