Is Sam Muller the Goya of Skate Photography?

Images courtesy Sam Muller

Sam Muller is a good dancer, an ideal wedding guest, an avid storyteller, a magician, and one of the few photographers whose photos of skateboarding I genuinely admire.

Muller’s work is enigmatic and cinematic, and somehow more real than reality—more vivid and abstract, like a photo imagined rather than taken. He is a talent that deserves more than lying in ditches and prostrating beneath handrails, and yet he chooses that dreadful, thankless path for the pure joy of skateboarding. Imagine that: Picasso or Goya choosing to contribute to Thrasher rather than the annals of history. Alright, Muller isn’t dark and brooding enough to be Goya (he’s so cheerful that when I cut the ha-ha’s from this interview, the word count shortened by 400), nor is he enough of a dick to be Picasso, but my point still stands.

On the topic of not being a dick: it is worth mentioning that to be a good skate photographer, you have to be as good at being a person as you are at taking a picture. You could actually be the Goya of photography, but if no one wants you on the sesh, what good are you? This is to say that Sam Muller’s success as a skate photographer is not only a testament to his photographic skill, but also to the fact that he’s easy to be around. That’s probably why that wedding we went to together last week was such a good time and why this interview was such a good time—all talent aside, Sam is a good time.

Sam Muller, portrait by Andrew Peters

When did you start taking photos?
Probably around the time I was 14. I went on a family trip to Africa and my dad was a very serious hobbyist photographer, so he brought a bunch of things with him to shoot with, and I just shot a lot with his stuff. This was back in 2004 and he had a real digital camera already, which is pretty crazy. He was shooting all the time, but every five minutes I’d be like, ‘Can I borrow that?’

Were you skating at that time?
Yeah, I started skating when I was 10. In the fifth grade my friend, Sam Parkin, started skating—and got really good at it, actually. I sucked at it but he was really good, so almost immediately I started filming him with his parents’ handy cam.

What were the influences back then? What were your videos?
Either Menikmati or the Sorry videos. Oh, and Yeah Right!

Very different videos; you’re very disloyal.
Well, it’s mostly all French Fred. I owe that guy a lot.

It’s interesting how skaters get all of this recognition for being great at skating—and they should—but no one would know if they weren’t being shown to the public in really cool ways by really creative people. 
Oh man, yeah. If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?

Did you ever get sponsored?
No, I’ve always sucked at skating. I feel like most media people have at some point had a desire to get sponsored or go pro, but then would go, ‘Maybe this isn’t for me.’

How did you merge skateboarding and photography?
It was kind of a gradual thing. I started filming my friend back in the fifth grade; the camera was cool to me. I started filming before I was shooting photos. I bought a VX1000. I remember I posted a clip I filmed on a forum and someone commented, ‘Stop smoking crack before filming’ and that really hit me where I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not so good at this, maybe this isn’t for me.’ I didn’t really enjoy it that much, anyway. I was just doing it to be around skating, trying to help my friends come up. I decided to sell my VX and buy a photo camera. But skating and photography always sort of went hand in hand.

When did this become a job?
I think I felt like it was a job before it was actually a job. When I was, like, 18, it was definitely not my job, but every free moment I had, I was out skating and shooting photos. That was simply what I did. I didn’t go to parties in high school, we would go light up spots instead. Like, everybody else my age was out getting wasted and having fun, and we’d be at Wilshire lighting up the stair set on a Friday night.

When was the first time you got paid for a photo? That seems more like the moment that a job becomes a job.
I remember I submitted a photo of my friend Elliott Wright for the ‘Who’s Hot’ section in Skateboarder. He back 5-0’d this out ledge–the ledge that Leo Romero grinded up for a Skateboarder cover, Owen Wilson skated it in Yeah Right! He back 5-0’d it, but he did it when I wasn’t around. We went to reshoot it and he got too on the inside of the first try, folded over toe side, and just dove to his head on the ground. Definitely concussed, bleeding down his face. We wanted to bring him to the hospital but he was like, ‘Nah, I’m fine, I’m fine.’ From there, we went to a party for the opening of the WeSC store on Robertson, and he’s bleeding down his face at everyone. We go into the alleyway in the back and Heath Kirchart is back there, standing alone in a corner. He sees Elliott and just beelines for him and is like, ‘What happened to you?’ Elliott tells him what happened and Heath is like, ‘You came here and didn’t even clean the dirt off of your face?’

Was he being a dick about it?
No, he was hyped. He was sooo stoked. He was probably like, ‘That’s some shit I would have done, why didn’t I think of that?’ We didn’t get the photo that day, but we went back and—I swore I’d take this to the grave, but whatever—we posed the photo that ended up running because he already did it and wasn’t about to try it again with a concussion. Sorry, Elliott.

Did you get a photo of him and Heath?
I don’t think I was brave enough for that. Just the posed 5-0.

Were you paid for that? 
Nah, I don’t think so. Maybe. The way it works is you go out, you shoot whatever, then you submit those photos and you get paid if they use it. The first thing I remember that I for sure got paid for was this photo I had in Transworld. It was this 2.5-inch photo of Josiah Gatlyn front shoving over a handrail. I think I got 75 bucks for it. It was so small; it was the size of the negative. I think it was on the masthead page too, like in the shitter of the magazine, but I was stoked. I was an intern at Transworld at that time, too.

How’d that come about?
I randomly ran into Mike O’Meally in the parking lot of Sammy’s. I was 16, with a friend from Australia, and Mike’s Australian. We were bored and so we went to Sammy’s to mess around with the brand-new digital Hasselblads. Mike comes up right behind us and whispers in my ear, ‘That’s a lot of money you’re holding, kid,’ and I was like, ‘What the fuck? Who the fuck?’ My friend from Australia told me who it was, so we followed him out into the parking lot. He was great! He had all these boards and film in his trunk that he just gave to us. He asked if I wanted to help on shoots sometimes and it just came from doing that.

Is that how you learned to set up flashes and stage and whatnot?
I learned that from skate perception. I learned just from studying Mike and Atiba’s photos and figuring out where they were putting flashes for their photos. Transworld had these extremely high-resolution scans of all of their photos on their website, so I would download these print-res files and study where the shadows were falling and how they were setting up. I still have a folder of all of those photos, I should tell them. Me and all these nerds would draw in MS Paint, these diagrams of where we think they set up their shots. So nerdy.

How do you decide where to place yourself? What do you look for in a shot?
I’m a huge fan of architecture and architectural photography, so I always try and see if I can incorporate that somehow into the composition. I try to make wherever they are going to be in the frame as simple as possible so as to not draw attention from their form, because it really should be about them, and your job is to help them look as good as possible. You gotta let their style sing. Maybe that’s why I have such a love for fashion photography.

What is something that you don’t like to shoot?
Events. Video premieres. Sequences. It’s sick, sequences don’t even get run anymore. We won.

Why don’t you like sequences?
At that point, you’re just filming. You’re holding down a button and basically doing exactly what the dude next to you is already doing, but you’ll probably get paid less for it. People don’t want to see a sequence; people want to open Instagram and watch it.

What do you look to for photo inspiration? Inside and outside of skateboarding.
Oh man. Thrasher, i-D, Time… I look at a lot of photographer websites, too. I’m trying to spend a little less money and time buying really expensive fashion magazines so I can look at the pictures. If you’re talking about what influences me outside of skating, definitely going to museums. My mom works at one, so I spend a lot of time at museums looking at other kinds of art, seeing how other painters and sculptors make their art and how they look at form and composition. That’s really cool to me. Also, being out in nature.

What do you mean?
Well, being out in nature is very calming, especially because skate photography is a kind of photography that can be very stressful. You get put in situations that are high anxiety or a little intense, being out in nature helps me to reset and relax a little. Skate photography is also just bad for your body. Carrying equipment, hopping fences, laying in ditches—you contort your body a lot and for long periods of time.

How do you cope with that? What would you advise others do to cope with that?
For a long time, it was just beer. Honestly, a foam roller is the greatest thing I’ve ever bought myself. You really have to practice self-care. For a really long time, I was on the road, drinking a lot, not taking care of the machine. I’m older now and it’s catching up with me. So yeah, just take care of yourself. You won’t be 25 forever.

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