Heywood Ward interviews Sem Rubio the photographer who has documented Mark Gonzales over the years. The new book by Sem features some amazing photography as you would expect and us at Vague would highly recommend you purchase one here, stocked by the good people at The Palomino. Big up to Cascade Berlin for hooking up this piece! Read the interview below and take a sneak peak at some Sem Rubio photos while you’re at it to get you hyped for this book.
Words and Interview by Heywood Ward with Sem Rubio
For the past 10 years photographer Sem Rubio has worked closely with the legendary Mark Gonzales on a project like no other.
Sem’s photography offers an incredibly intimate insight into the mind, life and work of Mark, and along with contributions from so many other greats, this beautifully presented book, produced by the lovely folk at Cascade Berlin, truly is deserving of any self respecting skateboarder/artist/humans bookshelf and/or coffee table (buy 2 copies if you wish!)
We caught up with Sem recently to chat about the making of this seminal work, his insights, processes and what it’s like spending a decade with such a unique individual.
When and where did you first pick up the camera, and the board, did one lead to another? If so which came first and what really got you into shooting?
Skateboarding came first in 1988. Photography came way later in 2000, and just because of skateboarding as I needed something to do with my friends while I couldn’t skate.
When did you and Mark first meet and what was this interaction like?
I actually met Gonz & Pastras for a second in Germany or Netherlands (can’t remember exactly) in 1996 after one of those summer contests. Surely he doesn’t remember me since I was just another teenage punk but we spoke for a little bit back then. However, anecdotes apart, I properly met him in Brazil in 2010 as we both we were part of an Adidas trip there to shoot a campaign for the brand.
Could you tell us a bit about how it was to witness Mark skate in person for the first time?
I did not know what to think back then in Brazil. Obviously, I had my own fan image in my head but I remember seeing him skate and thinking… this is not going to work. He was way off the skateboard-photography structures I was so used to. That made me feel very insecure. Couple days later I realized this was a huge open door to try new things and I started to enjoy it a lot, and of course he became my favorite guy to shoot photos since then.
At what point in your friendship did you both decide to start working on this project together and did you ever imagine it would turn out to be such an incredible body of work?
It was in 2017, I was looking forward a fun skate trip without brand duties whatsoever, just an old-fashioned skate trip with friends, and maybe do an article for a magazine or something. I wrote Mark and he loved the idea and we had a little budget thanks to Jascha Muller at Adidas. Mark chose Palermo (Sicily) as the destination and asked Blondey and Lucas to join us. The trip ended up being short, just 5 days and he was flying overseas. But man, it was a FUN. Best things happen when you are having fun and I knew this was the way to go with Mark. When I came back from the trip I realized I had so much good material in just 5 days… and the idea of doing 2-3 more trips and get something more serious out of it just popped out.
I made a little lazy mock-up of a mini book with all the photos laid out and sent it to Mark and Tia Romano (her wife, who was on the trip aswell) and they both loved it. So we decided to go for it and try to do a couple more trips like that and see what happens.
Whats it like shooting the Gonz skate and does his spontaneity and energy differ at all when he’s not skating?
It’s just that he is not “waiting for you” so you have to be ready all the time. But you know… of course he knows when you need more tries and always helps you get the photo. I don’t remember asking him for more tries ever, but I know some times he gave me a few extra tries when I needed them badly. He probably read my guilty looking face…
Would you say Mark has influenced your other work or overall style after so many years of working together? Have you found your shooting style has changed at all when working with other artists and skaters because of such a long creative relationship with him?
I think I’ve always tried to be myself behind the camera but since he is so free of any “conventionalities” skateboarding has, it gives you much more freedom to do what you want. He’s never going to complain about you not shooting fisheye or something, you know?
I know for sure he has influenced the way I skate and I see skateboarding, and at this stage of my life, I enjoy skateboarding very differently than 20 years ago.
You’ve worked and travelled with Mark for many years and before this project you worked on your Away Days book for Adidas together, could you take us through some of the memorable stories and encounters you’ve had together?
This one stands out for me the most, maybe because it’s the most recent one in Sicily, and because it was during the very last trip of the book.
Mark, Torsten (Frank) and me were driving back at night from a 70s snake run on the other side of Sicily. At some point Mark needed an urgent pee stop so I stopped the car in the middle of nowhere, in front of what seemed an abandoned plane factory with no trace of human life. There were a bunch of trees 10 meters away of the car, but Mark just opened the door and made his thing right there instead. I wondered why he didn’t go to the trees, I mean… I would go to the trees, there’s just more privacy and there’s no one around anyways.
Then we heard some distance barking. It was dead silent so the echoing-growing barking really stood out. Through the rear window I saw a whole heard of wild dogs going full speed towards us like fucking maniac goblins. And Mark was right in the middle of pissing. We all screamed things I can’t remember.
Mark jumped in the car at the same time I pressed the pedal. The door was still open, and we heard dogs hitting and biting the back fender while we speeded up back to the highway. Man, that was fucking scary. There were a few seconds of dead silence in the car trying to process what just happened, and then we all laughed our asses off for 10 minutes straight. Good move not going to take the piss at the trees, Mark!
How did that experience and project differ to this one?
Away Days was mainly a video project directed by Matt Irving, and the book was just something extra that came with it. Something more like a sum-up of the best photo moments of a whole team, and more skateboarding oriented.
Gonz book was completely different, starting with being independent and published by a big name like Rizzoli New York and that is all a passion project. It had a very different concept being a monograph of Gonz today, which talks about Gonz but also about skateboarding and art. With my friends at Cascade (Lou Savoir as the editor, Julian Dykmans as the producer & Albin Holmqvist at the graphic design) we worked so much to connect every single dot, photography, word and art piece, to portray Mark as we really wanted. It came out as a non-linear portrait of Mark, and I think that makes the most sense. I love the result. I think when you finish the book you are a little closer to Mark’s universe. I really tried to make a honest portrait of Gonz as best as I could.
Did you face any difficulties over the course of making this book? Was there ever a point where you thought the book may not happen?
Difficulties? All of them. First, it has always been an indy project. This sounds great because you can do anything you like, until you realize you can’t do anything because you don’t have any budget. So that was the first big problem, months of juggling and finding budgets to keep the project going without going totally bankrupt… which I kind of did anyways. Adidas helped a ton here but understandably this was not a project they could put much budget into, and I wanted this project to be about Gonz not about the brands, so I worked on other parallel projects in order to be able to shoot my own stuff with Mark.
Second big problem is, Mark is a very busy person. He has a lot of work in his art studio on his daily basis, duties for the brands he skates for… on top of his family life, so he does not have much time for you, basically.
Tia Gonzales Romano did help a ton in making every trip and photo in this book possible, from obviously arranging the family duties to the trip schedules to helping in the layout of the pages, to providing the contacts and imagery of Mark’s art, including opening the door to many of the interviewees in the book. You’re amazing Tia!
Every little trip we did was very short (in skateboarding standards) and very spaced out in time. So 3 years doing this project could sound like a lot but it ended up being like 25 actual shooting days. This was good in the sense of narrowing down what I needed from Mark for the book and get it done based on his availability.
Regarding the book, there were times where I felt this wasn’t moving forward but having Tia & Mark supporting the project at all times I was always convinced it was happening.
How does shooting with Mark in his hometown of New York City differ from shooting him elsewhere around the world? What’s it like cycling around New York together hunting for spots to skate?
I’d say time spent with Mark is the biggest difference. As opposed as it could seem, it’s harder to shoot with him in New York because he has so much stuff to do on his daily basis that he barely has any time for you. On a trip, which is not happening too often, he has no other duties so it’s way easier.
In New York, I always skated behind him on the bike. I really cannot shoot photos while cycling and the board is much easier for me. I love it, but damn he made me sweat! We would end up in random spots and move around the city all the time, but the most interesting thing to me was the journey from spot to spot.
Could you tell us a bit about the times you Mark spent together when you weren’t shooting, how is Mark off camera? Would you guys ever just hang out and go skating or were you always focused on the project at hand?
We hanged out a little bit but I was mostly focused on the project. Since we couldn’t travel together that much, I had to get the most out every moment. That being said, yes you end up hanging out quite a lot anyways, there’s always breakfasts and barbecues and dinners and driving hours on trips. Mark keeps everyone entertained with his inexhaustible source of crazy 80s, 90s and 00s stories, which I really think could do a book alone.
What’s the best piece of advice Mark has ever given you?
I love when he says “I don’t have time to be pissed!”.
The release of this book rounds out 10 years of epic collaboration for you both, if you could do it all again would you and what’s next for you?
It has been an epic ride with Mark and Tia, Cascade, Albin, Rizzoli, and everyone involved in this project. This is a once in a lifetime project, of course I would do it again! There are things I would change but as a whole, I am happy with the result.
No plans mate, stay alive and get in a fucking plane soon. In addition, stay alive for getting in a fucking plane.
Purchase the Mark Gonzales by Sem Rubio book by clicking here or the book cover below!