Gabriel Angemi is as multi-faceted and interesting as the photos he takes. Born and off-and-on raised in Camden, New Jersey, he came up skating the streets of Philly in the early-90s with the likes of Matt Reason and Serge Trudnowski. He began documenting the skate and punk scenes that he was a part of, and continued to bear witness as a firefighter in the city. His art is raw—it’s an earnest, unflinching, heavy-hearted report on our system’s failures—and it’s beautiful. What’s he shoot with? A Mamiya? A 7D? Nah, pretty much just his phone.
So you’re from Camden, New Jersey?
Yeah but I don’t live there currently. I was born there, stayed a few years, then the family moved to nearby Audubon. I’m a second generation fireman–my father was on the fire department there for thirty-three years. When my parents divorced, pops moved back into Camden in the late eighties. I started living out of my father’s house in ‘94 after high school. He and I didn’t get along much–he wasn’t into me riding a skateboard. I was in Philly most of the time, sleeping on friends’ couches, park benches at Love Park, wherever. He asked me to take the fireman’s test in ‘97. Best thing I ever did. Pops was right about longevity. My job’s given me everything I have in life.
When did you start skating?
Third grade…I actually did third grade twice, I was too young. They held me back, and of my new classmates there were a couple kids in there with skateboards. I transitioned from metalhead to punk rock skateboarder around that time. By the end of fourth grade, I was skating forty-five minutes to the speed-line train to Philly daily. There was really nothing to ride skateboards on in South Jersey. It was either the railroad tie outside my house or go to Philly.
When did you start shooting photos?
I started shooting photos in ‘96 or ‘97. I had a 35mm, similar to what I shot my first Deadbeat Club Zine, “Flowpath,” with. I was just really into documentation. I’d see zines and punk rock stuff, people shooting photos at shows. I thought “I know a lot of neat people and I’m in a lot of neat places– I might as well shoot some photos.” That’s what my photography is now.
When do you feel that you made the transition from it being just a hobby to something more serious?
2004 or so. I was shooting portraits of firemen and our culture, but I kept my photography and job separate. I’d come to work and focus on that. Then when I was off, I’d listen to my scanner. If there was a fire near my house and I had time, I’d shoot over to the scene and take photos of the guys–just documenting us doing our thing.
In 2011, Dennis [McGrath] brought me to Ed Templeton’s house while I was out west. I got to hang out while Dennis was using Ed’s darkroom; he was starting to play around with the Lennie Kirk book at the time [Heaven]. Ed and Deanna were the nicest people, they took me to the pier and walked me around. I can remember the moment precisely–I was talking about how I tried to keep my job and my art separate; how they never really mixed well. Ed was all: “why? it seems to me that you’re in a perfect place to make art.” We talked a while that day, he helped me to see the whole thing, the bigger picture–he connected the dots. That’s when my photos started getting a lot better and when I started shooting more seriously.
How has the current state of technology affected you and your exposure as a photographer?
I was probably one of the last men in America to get a cell phone. I was 34. My father asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I had just broken my iPod eating shit skating. I was like, I could use a new iPod. He says, the new iPhone’s coming out, how about one of those? I didn’t really need the phone… but he didn’t listen. I just turned 40, and still don’t talk on the phone, but I use the hell out of the camera.
[Instagram] has definitely gotten me exposure, no question. I have Ed to thank for a lot of that. I’ve gotten a lot of heat for the stuff I do. Not everyone who sees [my Instagram] understands my work. I can only control what I can control though. I feel confident and know that I do it with a pure heart. Technology and everything has changed: it’s horrible for a lot of things and great for a lot of things.
What’s your ideal project–if you had the time and money?
I want a grant! I want to make a book. I want to go to these other fire departments where my friends work. Places like Detroit or Flint or Gary, all these banged-up places, and basically do what I do in Camden but from their perspectives. Ride along with them on their rigs and shoot photos when they’re going to work and doing their thing.
Do you feel like you’re doing a service to these places through your photos?
I hope so, I’m very cognizant of that. I definitely don’t feel like I’m taking anything away. I’m about to do a board with Spectrum Skateboards with some of my photos and drawings on it. There’s a skatepark in Camden, I’ve talked with people involved with it and whatever proceeds that skateboard makes will be donated to the skatepark. If that keeps one kid involved in skateboarding and going to that skatepark on days where he might wanna go to the corner and do some ill shit, I’ll feel like I’ve helped.
What’s up with the zine?
It’s called “Accessible Repositories.” Where I work and what I see on a daily basis is people using any means necessary to make their lives more convenient…the homeless, the squatters, people who are struggling. That sort of thing still fascinates me. I don’t understand why places like this exist. I get the bigger picture of why, but in this country, in this age, I still don’t understand why people have to endure some of the struggles they do, and that’s what I want to show. That’s what I’m trying to make pictures of, if you can make pretty pictures of stuff like that. It just doesn’t make any sense to me and I think that most of society chooses to completely disregard it.
Ange will be in residence starting 3PM this Saturday at the Bodega – 241 Centre Street in NYC. Also featured will be the work of Drew Leshko, Jim Houser, Martha Rich, Dennis & Matt McGrath, Clint Woodside and Bill McRight. Promotional items supplied by HUF worldwide. Go check him and show love if you’re around!