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Ed Templeton looks back at the subversive skate culture of the 90s and 00s

By Alex Merola

The photographer and skating legend speaks to us about his new photo book which brings together work from his archive, paying homage to the hedonistic, troubled kids from the skate parks of his youth.

Great photography touches the soul. Ed Templeton leapt into the life of picture-making in 1994, following his encounters with Larry Clark’s Teenage Lust (1983) and Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency(1986). “Those books really hit me,” he tells Dazed in a conversation over the phone. “I used to always think you had to go somewhere exotic and shoot a war to be a photographer. Once I realised that you could document your own world, I began hoovering everything up with my camera.”

For Templeton, skating and photographing came hand in hand. He was doing what he loved, and he did it compulsively. It’s no surprise, then, that his new three-decades-in-the-making photo book, Wires Crossed, is a huge and unruly object. It chronicles the thrills and spills of the skateboarding subculture between the 1990s and early 2000s through the lens of a participant-observer – at once “one of them” and a pioneer. From masterminding the cult brand Toy Machine to wrecking a string of world championships and beyond, Templeton has become a legend in the annals of skateboarding history. His book might be as powerful a record of skate life – its wayward youth and lust for the road – as has ever been made.

One of the hand-written scribbles in the book reads: ‘THE CATHARTIC RELEASE THAT COMES FROM DESTRUCTION.’ Did all of your skater friends come from broken homes?

Ed Templeton: I always felt that, to be a skater, you needed to have a faulty wire somewhere. That’s why I called my book Wires Crossed. I mean, it’s a very individualistic activity and you fall on cement all day. All the kids I hung out with had dysfunctional families, which is something that only made sense as I got older. I was born in Anaheim, right next to Disneyland. From our front yard, you could see the Matterhorn sticking out. Later, we moved out to a trailer park in Corona, which was where my dad started fucking our 14-year-old babysitter. That caused my parents’ divorce, and then the ‘troubles’ started. After my dad left, we moved in with my grandparents in Huntington Beach, where most kids either surfed or skated. I fell into the skating camp because it was easy to get ‘hand-me-down’ boards. All of a sudden, the punks I used to walk 50 feet around at school because I was scared they wanted to kick my ass were asking me to hang out with them. It sounds clichéd, but skating saved my life.

You presented photography at your first art show in New York, right?

Ed Templeton: Yes. That was in 1994. Although it was primarily a painting show, I was a megalomaniac in that I wanted to fill up every inch of the space. There was this door in the wall space and it killed me that it was bare. For some reason, I had shot Polaroids of some friends’ boners, for the hell of it I guess, so I stuck them up in the doorway. It was a macho time, and some of the NYC skaters were clearly ticked off that this Californian guy was showing guys’ dicks on the wall. There was a lot of homophobia in the skating community back then.

How was it meeting Larry Clark there?

Ed Templeton: Not long before, I had actually scanned one of the photos from his book Teenage Lust for the cover of Heavy Metal, the Toy Machine video we were making. I thought Larry Clark must be dead, so didn’t even think about him until the gallerist Aaron Rose mentioned he usually comes to the show. I was like: ‘Oh shit? This guy’s alive?’ I realised I had to face the music, so I came clean to Larry. He was very gracious about it, and told me: ‘No worries. Everyone thinks I’m dead.’ This was around this time he was working with Harmony Korine on Kids, and getting involved in the skate world. I think the fact that a pro skater used one of his photos for a cover gave him a kind of entrée.

What was it like juggling the skate and art worlds?

Ed Templeton: There were some frictions, which was weird at the beginning. I was doing shows one month and skating the next. Sometimes, I’d go straight from contests to galleries to set up shows. It sounds stupid, but we made fun of the art world because we were so DIY. But those feelings have melted away as I’ve got older. Plus, the skate world kind of likes it when one of their own gets recognition from the outside.

Well, Aperture is certainly as big as photobook publishers get!

Ed Templeton: I wanted this book to land in the art-photo world at large. Of course, it’s a time capsule, draped in nostalgia for a bunch of skateboarders who came of age during that era. But, at its base level, it’s a photography book which I hope will appeal as much to non-skate photography fans as it will to skaters.

I guess the ‘image’ a lot of people have of skating culture derives from magazines and videos?

Ed Templeton: For sure. The book is a ‘warts and all’ look which I hope gets beneath the surface. There’s a lot of brutality in there due to the obvious fact skateboarding is extremely tough on the body. One of the other main threads in the book is lust, because chasing women and hooking-up was a big part of life on tour. Then there’s the whole fandom culture, where girls try to get their breasts signed by pros. It’s a weird microcosm because these guys aren’t famous at the airport but they are in the skatepark. The self-medicating aspect was a big part of it too. Apart from me, basically everyone was drunk or stoned most of the time, so there were constant battles between cops and security guards. Half our lives was basically avoiding getting busted.

How did you fit into that ‘rock star’ lifestyle?

Ed Templeton: It was always a bit strange for me. I had a certain level of removal from the life I was immersed in because of the fact I wasn’t partaking in drinking or smoking, and also because I had been happily married from the age of 19. I was a few years older than the people around me and also running a company, so I had to be the responsible one. All this stuff mixed in with my personality, which kind of leans into the quiet and observational. I liked the idea of looking at skaters the way an anthropologist might.

I really appreciated reading your interviews with fellow pro skaters. You get to see where they are now and learn about their evolutions as people…

Ed Templeton: Almost everyone I photographed and interviewed for the book is now sober. They have evolved, grown up, started families. I guess the lifestyle they were living turned out to be unsustainable. Obviously, a lot has changed in society since too. For example, it was really refreshing to hear the reflections of Elissa Steamer, the first female pro-street skater who we had on board at Toy Machine from the beginning. While she had to deal with the porn in the van, the toxic language and so on, she didn’t really see things how people might think she did, or want her to today. I also spoke with Brian Anderson, who was in the closet when I was shooting him, but is now out of the closet and the most famous gay pro skater in the world.

I guess being a skater makes you acutely aware of ageing?

Ed Templeton: Definitely. It’s such a youthful lifestyle. When you’re young, you don’t trust anyone over 30. At 50, I feel like a dinosaur. I’m very aware of what I can’t do on a skateboard. There’s tonnes of pressure to skate forever. Still, whenever I’m seen, I’m asked to do this or that trick. But I physically I can’t, especially since I broke my leg.

There’s a moving spread which pictures your wife, Deanna, by your bedside after one of your concussions…

Ed Templeton: Deanna has been by my side throughout this whole journey. Now that I’m older and not skating so much, she’s happier. She didn’t hold back in her interview, basically saying she hates it when I skate. She still thinks that, each time I go out skating, it will be my last. Over the years, I’ve put her through so much trauma by thrashing myself. In the photos you mentioned, she’s crying at my bedside. It hurts me to see the pain and sadness on her face. 

What has it been like looking back?

Ed Templeton: The millisecond you take a photo, it’s old. Photographers live in the past, so I think I have a high propensity for nostalgia. There’s a little hand-written note at the end of the book that reads: ‘I PICKED UP A CAMERA TO REMEMBER MY YOUTH AS A SKATEBOARDER WHICH STARTED DISAPPEARING…’ It ends: ‘WHAT HAUNTS ME IS HOW MUCH I MISSED.’ I can’t help but think about how this book would look if I was even more steadfast with my shooting. My photographic work ethic was more haphazard in those early days. One day I’d be shooting constantly, the next I’d forget my camera in the car. Looking back, I do wish I had kept it with me 100 per cent of the time. What you see is probably about 25 per cent of what I could have documented. That’s what haunts me.