Trying to pinpoint Joe Brook’s photography isn’t easy. “I would say I’m a photojournalist/fine art photographer,” says Joe. “I mostly photograph skateboarding, but I photograph landscapes, portraits, music, you name it. It all ties into what we do for articles and I don't want to label myself as just a skateboard photographer, because I can shoot everything.”
Behind the Camera - Joe Brook
Joe is one of the staff photographers at Thrasher Magazine, one of the last, highly distributed skateboard magazines in the world. “I thought I was gonna last six months, it was a sink or swim situation, and now I've been working for High-Speed Productions for 23 or 24 years. Who would have thought,” Joe says of his role at the magazine.
“I started at SLAP Magazine, which got its title from ‘Skaters Looking At Photos’. It was more current and fine art skateboard photography. I would also do stuff for Juxtapoz, which is an art magazine that High-Speed owns too.” Slap Magazine was one of the first magazines to launch itself as a digital publication with active message boards in the early 2000s just as traditional print media was starting to dwindle. “The magazine launched as a digital publication too soon. A lot of companies at that time didn't use [Adobe]Flash to make ads come alive for the web. Not a lot of companies were making digital ads at that time. No one knew how to do it, they were a little too ahead of the times,” Joe explains about the demise of his first role at High-Speed Productions. “After that, they luckily took me in at Thrasher as a staff photographer,” he says.
SLAP wasn’t the only magazine at High-Speed Productions to fall victim to the change in the way people were beginning to consume media. “When I first started working there in the early 2000s, and even before when I was just contributing photos to them, there was a lot going on. Publishing was going crazy. They [High-Speed] had Cart Sport Magazine, a go-kart racing magazine. They had Schwing, which was an alternative golf magazine, kind of like Big Brother (another popular skateboard magazine that had an edgy vibe to it). There was Twist Grip, a motorcycle magazine. They had Erotica, which is a fine art type of magazine of paintings and photos. And Juxtapoz. So, there was a lot going on when I first started going into the office,” Joe reminisces. “When I would ride my bike into Slap, to turn in photos, it was really interesting to see it go through this change to where it is now. And it's still family-owned. We are one big family, so it's nice.”
Nowadays, High-Speed Productions only publishes Thrasher as a monthly magazine and Juxtapoz as a quarterly magazine. “I think people look at Thrasher as kind of a beacon in skateboarding, to be like this is the level that we [skateboarders] want to achieve with skateboarding.
There's just so much happening in skateboarding right now, and I feel like we as a team funnel it down to the best of the best, hopefully,” Joe explains about Thrasher’s survival. “Thrasher does a really good job of documenting skateboarding and making a historic timeline of who was ripping at this time and these are what tricks were being done. If we don't have that, then we don't have anything. There would be no history to look back on in skateboarding without magazines and videos,” Joe continues. But within the last decade, Thrasher’s popularity spread beyond just skateboarders. “I think they [readers of the magazine] would kind of get into skateboarding and we would feature artists in Canvas and feature photographers in Skaters Eye, and there's a lot to read within the pages of the mag. Some people pick up Thrasher Magazine just to look at the music section, Zounds. It's got a vast web presence too, you get immersed into it pretty hard,” Joe says of Thrasher's widespread appeal. “There's a lot behind it. It has a cult following and it's a legacy brand. I still love when the magazine comes in the mail.”
Joe didn’t just start a 20-something-year career at a longtime specialty publication overnight though. “I grew up skating in Michigan, moved to San Francisco when I was 19, and I was just around skating a lot and would just see photographers and videographers out in the city,” Joe reminisces about his early San Fran days. San Francisco in the late ’80s and early ’90s was a Mecca for skateboarding and still is to this day. “I was just working some dead-end jobs, then hurt my back, and I was like, ‘What am I gonna do with my life?’” remembers Joe. This injury would become the catalyst for his career. “This girl that I was dating was like, ‘Oh, you should take a photo class or ceramics class,” Joe recollects. “So I just went to City College and took photo courses and fell in love with photography. A lot of my friends that I would skate with were out with photographers and filmers and I thought that was cool! ‘Wow, this is what you guys do for a living? This is so insane,’” says Joe of the realization that one could do skateboard photography for a living. “I would work from six in the morning to two in the afternoon. Then go home, change, eat some food, and then go to college from four to ten at night,” recalls Joe of his schedule. “I disappeared from all my friends for three or four years in that process. But I saved up money to buy a Nikon FE 2 and some flashes and some radio triggers and just basically failed miserably at first.” But fail as he may have, Joe didn’t give up. “I had a little notebook that I would keep and I would write one through 36 in it. Then I'd write on frame two, ‘250th at F 5.6’, and I would just go through and write down the settings for every photo that I took,” he explains. “It might have taken me like a week or two to shoot those 36 exposures. But when I got it developed, I'd be like, ‘Okay, this doesn't work, this works, this doesn't work.’ So I kinda had that cheat sheet and I would go back into certain lighting situations, like at dusk, and I would open my book and see an eighth of a second at 5.6 or 6.3 looks really cool. So I memorized the lighting through trial and error.”
Simultaneously, Joe would be out skating with his friends who brought other photographers along and he'd see how other skate photographers were shooting their photos. Joe ended up getting some photos of himself skating in magazines as well around this time.
It was around this time Joe connected with Thomas Campbell. “Thomas really mentored me a lot,” says Joe. “He put a lot of faith in me. He was like, ‘Dude, what are you doing?’” And Joe told him, “I work and I go to school.” So Thomas told Joe he was going to start sending him film. “He would send me film and be like, ‘Hey, do this or do that.’ And I love Thomas' photos. He, as a photographer, artist, filmmaker, just everything, he's just so brilliant. Every time he’d send film, he’d be like, ‘do this next time or try this and put a gel on your flash’ and every one was different. For me to have that feedback from him, was like the warmest hug in the world,” Joe fondly remembers.
Joe also credits Lance Dawes as a huge mentor as well. “I feel like as a writer, and photographer, Lance is amazing,” Joe proclaims. “Lance was a jerk in the best possible way. I would ride my bike from the Tenderloin to Hunters Point and I would have rolls of film and Lance would just look at the film and just say, ‘Out of focus. Shutter speed’s too slow.’ And he would just mark up my film. Every time he did that, it was like somebody stabbing my heart.” But Joe didn’t let it get him down because, in reality, it was true. “I mean, Lance wasn't there to sugarcoat it. He was just, ‘This is the reason these photos suck.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, I get it.,’” Joe recalls. “Thomas was more nurturing. Lance was like, ‘This sucks, this sucks, this sucks.’ But every time, before I left, Lance would always gimme a couple of rolls of film. And he wouldn't be giving me film if I wasn't going in the right direction and a glimmer of hope, so it was just always pushing me forward.”
Joe’s photography education doesn’t really sound too different from most other photographers, right? A sprinkling of the basics from schooling, finding a mentor to point you in the right direction and give you some criticisms, topped with a big dose of trial and error. But working as a photojournalist in skateboarding couldn’t be more different from most other types of photography professions. “There's so much that goes into it,” Joe explains. “Shooting skateboarding photos is like going fishing, you know? I think a lot of times people see a video or a photo and they don't realize how much it takes to get the trick. There are a lot of factors that go into that. How many trips you make back to the spot. Maybe 3 or 4 trips back, three hours each session. Just watching the skater have to suffer [because they’re struggling with the trick]. Or they can't go until the traffic light lets them go because they’re landing in traffic, or you're waiting on pedestrians. Maybe the skater gets hurt. Security kicks you out. Or a random pedestrian tries to police a situation and comes out and takes your flashes and brings 'em into their business or house. Or the skater’s not feeling it or something throws off the situation or the energy's not right,” Joe opines over some of the regular struggles in trying to get a shot for the magazine. “It's really interesting to be part of the process and to be there with the skater too. I really study all the videos that come out and I study each skater. If I'm going on a trip with some people that I really haven't met or skated with, I'll watch their video parts or I'll look at their interviews and see the stuff they wanna skate and then have suggestions for spots. It's not like I just go out blind, I put my work in too. I do a lot of homework to look into what the skaters like to skate.”
Joe’s skateboarded his whole life, so when people are having a hard time and they can't make a trick, he’s equally in it. “I'll suffer through it with them,” Joe says of the less tangible struggles he runs into when trying to get a photo.
“Or sometimes people do the trick first try and you're like, ‘Damn, hopefully, all my equipment is working.’ Because sometimes it [a trick] does happen on the first try, which is very humbling.”
Just knowing how to shoot sports photography won’t make you a good skateboard photographer. “I'm sure shooting other sports photos are equally as hard. You have to know the sport,” says Joe. “But I think for skateboarding, it's a moving production. Do we have a video guy? Do we have to fix the spot? Bringing brooms and wax and things to take off skate stoppers. Talking to police and talking to security guards. It's almost kinda like a three-ring circus, but it works. And when you're with other skaters, usually, they'll take over some of those duties when you're trying to shoot, but we kind of go out there and just see what the world has in store for us. I think the way we [skaters] look at skateboarding through our eyes and what we do with it, it's totally different from an outside perspective. I have some of the craziest stories of incidents happening where you're just like, ‘how did this turn into this from nothing,’ you know? I really, really try to be respectful to the police, security, the elderly, to anyone. I'm not the guy that's pushing the limits and getting people angry. I just want to shoot a photo.”
While Joe isn’t pushing the limits with the general public’s acceptance of skateboarding, he does say, “Just due to the fact that being on a schedule, or being somewhere on a trip, you’ve got to be in the moment. When skaters are in the moment, you just have to go with it, you know? 95% of the time, if we could shoot in the golden hour in the morning or in the afternoon, that would be perfect. But that's literally very rare. You can't be like, ‘Hey, let's wait for two hours for that nice sunset.’”
Joe admits after 20-something years, he’s got the photography part down to a T. “I think every skate photographer has their formulas,” he says. “I have my equipment really dialed in so I can look at a spot when I get there and analyze it.
I'll put a fisheye lens on, and put a telephoto lens on, and I'll walk around and look high, look low, climb up on things, just to see how to make the spot look the best for the photo, to give the spot and the skater justice. I always try to light it nice and just try to be quick,” states Joe. “I don't have an entourage of people carrying my lighting equipment. A lot of times I'll just ask other skaters to move this flash here, or do this, or do that. And I'm running around throwing flashes up. With digital, you can see if you get a good photo. And if I get a good photo, sometimes I shoot a few film photos just for myself or I just stay there until the trick is landed. It's not like I pack up my gear once I get a good photo.”
“I'm not a tech camera guy,” Joe bluntly states. “I don't have the newest iPhone or the newest cameras. I heard someone say ‘It's a tool, not a jewel’ before and it really just struck a bell with me. They said, I just use them. I don't put them on a shelf. I just look at cameras as things that you use and they're instruments to document light and time and moments. I bring them out and put 'em in my camera bag and bang 'em up,” explains Joe.
“I use the Nikon D850. I have a Nikon D4. I have a 24-70mm and 80-200mm [AF Zoom-NIKKOR 80-200mm f/2.8D ED]. I have a 16mm lens that I bought when I first started shooting. And I have some other prime lenses, like a 50mm, a 35mm, and a 60mm. Then for flashes, I use Flashpoint 360’s and I usually travel with three of those. I still travel with a Nikon SB800 just to have on camera to shoot photos. And then I have an Xpan, and a Leica. I use a little Sony RX 100, version five or six, for just party photos or lifestyle photos, or just walking to the coffee shop and not walking around with the big camera. I used to carry huge cameras around all the time. At this point, I don't do that,” Joe trails off as he lists the gear usually in his bag for a trip.
Joe admits that his gear list used to be even more extensive with all the film cameras he used to drag with him on trips with him. “Looking back on those articles, I love how they look because of the different formats. The square format of the Hasselblad and then a four-by-five photo and then a half frame. I just love how those articles looked shooting color film and black and white film, cross-processing film, shooting infrared color film, or infrared black and white film. I was lucky enough to be in that time when all those cameras and all those films were very accessible. And then, you know, things went digital but I've been shooting Nikon since day one,” Joe proudly claims.
“For somebody that has never shot film and only digital, I don't know if it's something they can relate to. Just the look and the feel of film photography. I just love it. And it's so hard to explain to people,” Joe says of his use of film photography in his work now. “The way it looks, the way it renders. You can go into a dark room and print it. There's nothing better than going to a dark room and printing a black-and-white photo. That's so hard to explain to people. Yeah, you can do it [manipulate an image to look like it was shot on film] in Photoshop. And I remember when I first started doing digital photography and doing stuff in Photoshop, I was like, ‘Wow, this is so weird.’ I was like, ‘I think I can do this better in the dark room,’ just because I knew it through intuition. I’ve shot film for so long and I feel like I will always shoot film in some capacity, whether it's photos of my family or whatever.”
When pushed for his favorite film stocks, Joe's list is also pretty extensive. “I mean go to for film, it's either Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP5. Always. And then Portra 400 or Kodak Gold for color, and that's for 120, 35mm, and four-by-five. If I'm at a photo store, I just grab some and make sure I have some,” Joe fires off without hesitation.
“I'll shoot TMAX 3200 or Ilford 3200 sometimes. I like all the Lomo films, especially Metropolis. And I like the Lomochrome Purple. I just bought some red scale and I got that new Turquoise film, but I haven't shot it yet. My favorite right now is Psychedelic Blues film. They're just fun to mess with. I mean cameras are kind of like toys, you know. I'll just throw my camera in double exposure mode and shoot a show. Sometimes you just can't care, there are no rules.” Even Joe’s kids shoot film when he hands them and their cousins the Ilford HP5, Kodak Tri-X, or Kodak color disposable cameras. “I just feel like there's no reason not to shoot a photo,” proclaims Joe.
“I love looking at light,” says Joe of how much light influences his love for photography. “There's this photographer, Frank Ockenfels,” Joe tells, “I really look up to Frank’s photography and he asked me once, ‘Hey Joe, do you ever keep a light journal?’ Frank just opens his iPhone and he has photographs of any cool reflective light or beautiful light he’s seen,” Joe continues. “When I saw that, what a great idea! Frank takes a photo of it, and then he replicates it in a studio or wherever he's at. He is incredible at lighting. It's cool to like to look at light and just appreciate it. I always tell my kids, this is like really nice light right now, just to see if they can see it,” Joe states.
“It's weird,” Joe begins, “I think a lot of times if you have the intuition like, ‘I need to make this photograph,’ stop whatever you’re doing and take the photograph. It might be gone if you don’t. I never leave my house without a camera. I always have a camera, whether it's a digital point-and-shoot, a film point-and-shoot, or an SLR.”
Maybe Joe doesn’t keep a light journal, but he basically does with the number of photos he’s shooting even when they’re not for an assignment. “There's always something to shoot,” claims Joe. “I love shooting photos,” he continues, “I'll shoot film, I'll shoot digital. I'm always shooting photos, whether it's skaters or just something scenic. On trips, I'll get up in the morning and walk around and go sightseeing. I always take advantage of being in these awesome places or situations. I'm not just gonna go sit around you know, I'm going out and seeing stuff. If I'm on a trip, I'll be like, ‘Well, let's go out and sightsee. Let's go to DC, let's go see something.’ Or if we're in Pittsburgh, and it's raining today, ‘let's go to the Andy Warhol Arts Museum.’”
Joe’s love for photography doesn’t just stop with his experiences. “I'm a big photo book advocate,” Joe unabashedly admits. “I love zines. It's like eye candy. You get to share it with people,” he continues, “I'm always looking at photo books. I'll go to Powell's books and just sit in there and look at books forever. I just go to what photo books that I have and zines and there's just tons of inspiration, you know,” asks Joe. “When I first started shooting photos, I lived in downtown San Francisco and I would go to Borders books and literally spend hours there. I would get off school, then go to Union Square and skate with my friends, and then I'd just go look at photo books. I’d look at people like Avedon and Ansel Adams, or whoever it was, and just look at what they were doing. You know, Annie Lebowitz, Sally Mann, Alex Soth, Todd Hido, Jim Goldberg. Or sometimes I would see these photographers in San Francisco,” Joe remembers fondly.
The hours of looking at photo books combined with working for one of the last widely distributed in-print magazines probably drives Joe to place high importance on printing his work out. “It kind of rounds out your life to make stuff and sell it or give it away,” Joe explains.
“I just like to make stuff. It's fun to create. I feel like we have these little gadgets, you know, and I love the Instagram bump or photos on the web or like an article that's in the magazine that goes to the web, that goes to more people that can't get the magazine. But yeah, print photos. Do stuff with them. If you shoot photos and they just sit in boxes, who cares? But for me, if it's important, might as well print them. It's fun and it's something that I appreciate and I'm very honored to be part of.”
Joe extends that feeling of being honored to be a part of skateboarding and documenting it to handling the next generation of would-be skate photographers. “People always ask me ‘What camera should I buy?’ And I’m not sure what to say. I don't know what their budget is or what they’ll be using it for, ‘Everyone has their own preferences but you won’t know what those are until you try a couple of cameras out. I recommend going to a place like Pro Photo and renting an entry-level digital camera to kind of get your feet wet. Don't spend $10,000 on your first camera and figure out that you don't like shooting photos or you don't like that camera. Rent. Renting is a good way,” advises Joe.
Even though he gets that question a lot and may not have the answer kids are looking for, Joe stays true to his passion for photography and says, “Let's make it cool for people. Take the time to interact with people and if people hit me up and say, "Hey, what do you shoot with? Or What equipment are you using?" I tell them.” He’ll also tell them to never stop asking questions.”Do what you love and reach out to people,” Joe says, “reach out to photographers. There are a lot of photographers that I met just randomly coming up, on the street while skating or emailing or DMing and saying, ‘hey, like I really like your photo work.’"
So what’s on the horizon for Joe with a freshly started 2023? “I’m very motivated to make things happen. I’m constantly thinking ‘who can I work on this feature with? Who can I shoot this photo with?’" says Joe. “I'm always reaching out to skaters with a ‘Hey, what are you working on? Let's work on something,’” Joe boasts. “It's not like I just sit and wait for the phone to ring. I'm very proactive in contacting skaters, and team managers, calling Michael Burnett, the editor-in-chief at Thrasher, and constantly checking in with him and asking, ‘Hey, is there anything coming up? Can I work on any of these projects?’ I'll do stuff for like Adidas, Nike, Levi's, and Converse as well as other clothing brands. I get hit up randomly for commercial stuff, so I try to squeeze that in when I’m not on a trip,” Joe leaves us with.