And, strictly speaking, '76, '77 and '78 by Hugh Holland…
People are crazy for Hugh Holland’s photos. You know the ones. Those retro-gold shots of skate dogs in the dry summers of 1975 through 1978, when it looked as if the world was skating on the edge of an oasis, everything parched by the sun, when every twilight the spray from a thousand sprinklers washed dust and sand from the grey foliage.
And those skaters, sometimes without shoes and shirts, but always with long hair, and always with a ballet-like style.
If you’re in Australia, or Sydney at least, you can come and see a gallery of Hugh’s best photos, even buy one if you’ve got a little room on the plastic, at Blender Gallery in Paddington.
I lit up Hugh’s phone yesterday in Torrance, California, to talk about how he went from furniture and antique restorer to pre-eminent chronicler of the most photogenic era in skate culture and one of the most imitated and referenced photographers in fashion.
BeachGrit: I want you to describe 1975 for me…
Hugh: Hell I don’t know, it was different for sure. But it was right when the summer of love was ending, although we didn’t see it that way at the time. We thought it was sell the dawning of the age of Aquarius but it was the start of corporate powers taking over. It was the end of the period of growth. I was just getting into gear. I was 32, had my own business going, doing pretty well, and I lived in Hollywood. Things were exciting.
BeachGrit: Tell me about that first summer of 1975, that famous drought, when you started shooting skate in drained pools…
Hugh: It was hot and dry and there was much more smog then than there is now. And part of what gave the pictures that warm look was the sunsets combined with the movie film I was using. I was using movie film because it was cheaper to process. Eastman film. It had a colour all of its own that was specific. That warm, soft look of film that has become a signature for me was the film combined with the smog and the fact that I shot a lot in the late afternoon.
BeachGrit: Were the shots an immediate hit?
Hugh: No! All my photos were sitting in boxes for 30 years and hardly anybody saw them. I shot for fun. I didn’t have any idea they’d be fine art prints in the 21st century.
BeachGrit: How’d they get so famous so suddenly?
Hugh: I guess you could say it was Dov Charney, the owner of American Apparel. He saw one of my pictures at a party in New York in 2005 and he wanted to buy it right then and there. I don’t know if you know Dov…
BeachGrit: Yeah, he’s a wildman…
Hugh: Yes, he’s a wild man. Absolutely wild. He’s the president and owner of American Apparel and built a whole company and, yeah, he’s amazing. They fired him, though… anyway, he liked the seventies, he liked the way they dressed. You know, the people most interested in the skateboard series are the fashion people, the fashionistas. They like the freedom of the seventies. The way they did and didn’t dress. The toot socks and the short shorts.
BeachGrit: So what happened next?
Hugh: Dov got in touch with my gallery. I was living in San Francisco and the gallery said, you better make some more pictures. He’s really interested. So I ended up making some more and he bought ’em all, about 30 or so. And he made a deal to use my pictures in his American Apparel stores all over the world. That was a time when he was opening stores everywhere. He really put me on the map.
BeachGrit: You shelve a lot of cash with the American Apparel deal?
Hugh: It wasn’t very lucrative for me with Dov. It was very little I got paid. It was very little. It didn’t start for me (financially) until I got discovered by M + B Gallery in West Hollywood.
BeachGrit: What thrilled you so much about the kids you were shooting in that period?
Hugh: I was into the visuals. I liked to photograph those wild children. And they wanted to be photographed. It was perfect.
BeachGrit: Y’ever in contact with any of the kids?
Hugh: Yeah, some of ’em, the ones that are not dead.
BeachGrit: How they do feel about the popularity of the shots?
Hugh: They’re mostly fifty years old or so, or 60, yeah, and they love it. They love it. All of ’em. I haven’t had anyone who didn’t love it. It was a very good time.
BeachGrit: Did you give the kids prints?
Hugh: I have and I do, but in the seventies I gave away so many prints. I wonder if any of those vintage prints are still around. I haven’t seen or heard of any. But I made lots and gave ’em to the guys…
BeachGrit: You’ve exhibited, recently, in LA and Sydney. You notice any difference in the response to your photos?
Hugh: In Sydney, I was amazed at how young they were and how they looked like the surfers and skateboarders in the photos. In LA, it was mostly the surfers and the skaters of the past. But in Sydney, yeah, it was a very young crowd. This one girl in Sydney told me I’d been her inspiration, her big inspiration. And she told me how she got a skateboard photo of hers in a gallery and it was all because of me. She said, ‘You’re my inspiration!’ I had no idea!
BeachGrit: What do you hope your photos give us? Historic curios or something else?
Hugh: The purpose of the photos, of art, is for people to open up their own imagination of what it was like back then. I like pictures that tell a story but you’re not really sure, no one is really sure, what the true narrative is. It’s something developing and taking place in real life. I like pictures that look like they’re from a movie, that look like they’re a scene from a movie or a play. Something unfolding. Something candid.