Everything Is Stories spoke with photographer Clarke Tolton whose sharp pictures often explore action and movement within various cultures. In this interview, Tolton talks about his latest project, COASTAL WITH TYLER MUMMA, where he travelled with skateboarder Tyler Mumma up and down the California coast shooting stark landscapes and capturing moments of personal freedom.
You grew up skateboarding, surfing, and going to shows. How have these cultures shaped how you take photos and approach things creatively? Are there any specific influences that still inspire you today?
Clarke Tolton: Growing up in Huntington Beach, you’re surrounded by surfing, skating, and music. It’s hard to escape the “bro-ness” of it all. Creatively, I’m not really inspired by surf and skate. But as a kid during the 80s, I remember being fascinated by punkers who would hang around downtown Huntington Beach. Guys with liberty spikes and mohawks. All I wanted to do was dress like those dudes. I thought they were the coolest.
How did the project come about and can you give us a bit of a backstory on who Tyler Mumma is?
I met Tyler in 2011. He asked if I’d ever want to shoot some photos with him. It was something I’d never done, and I thought I might be able to approach it differently. I wasn’t influenced by what other skate photographers were shooting. For me, it wasn’t about the big frontside air or backside smith. I wanted to focus on Tyler and the places he was traveling to. I knew nothing about him until we began to spend time together traveling. He earned a reputation largely outside of the skate industry and would just show up at a spot and tear the place apart with effortless style. We would roll up to spots in Palm Springs, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Orange County, and everyone would be so psyched to watch him skate. He just wants to have a good time whether it’s skating, surfing, or hanging with friends. No ego, no pretense.
You mentioned this was a photo project without any preconceived idea or concept. Talk about this mindset and the first few days of the project.
It kind of unfolded as we continued to shoot. There was no right or wrong way, no good or bad. Let’s just have a good time and see what we come up with. The two things I knew I wanted were mid-session portraits and landscapes. If I had a couple of those I considered it a success. The project hasn’t really changed over the course of the years. It’s still about about exploration, travel, community, and Tyler.
I selected the non-skate imagery based on the landscape. For example, the shot we did above the cloud line behind the Golden Gate Bridge. And Tyler directed the skate stuff. We’d be driving on Highway 1, and he’d say “Stop. Get off here. There’s a pool in the forest that I know about” or “There’s a ditch we can skate in Santa Cruz. Wanna go there?” It was all fairly improvised. We stopped wherever we thought we could make good images.
Looking at these photographs, are there any stories that come to mind? The project took you up and down the California coast, so could you talk a bit about why certain spots were chosen?
Not too long after I met Tyler, he asked if I wanted to go shoot at this backyard pool. He pitched it to me as him and a bunch of his friends hopping fences and skating in empty backyard pools. I thought, “This will be amazing and totally illegal. Perfect.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t like that.
In various lower income neighborhoods around the Indio and Palm Springs, residents can’t afford to keep their pools filled and maintained. Tyler and his friends scour Google maps and cruise around neighborhoods for good pools to skate. If they find something they like, they knock on the front door and ask. They call them “permission pools.”
Tyler came across this one pool where the only requirement to skate this guy’s pool was that we buy him an 18 pack of Coors Light and give his son a pair of shoes. Seemed like a fair trade to me. The homeowner sat in his driveway drinking beer, his son had a fresh pair of shoes, and we got to use the pool for as long as we liked.
If you could list a handful of songs that made up the soundtrack to this trip, what were they?
Waylon Jennings, “Luckenbach Texas”
David Allan Coe, “Long Haired Redneck”
Gerry Rafferty, “Down The Line”
Minor Threat, “Filler”