Meeting... Michael Burnett!

With the Paris House Of Vans pop-up event taking place this week-end in the French capital (LIMITED TICKETS HERE), and notably featuring a retrospective exhibition of Michael Burnett spanning twenty years of continuous contribution to the main photography in Thrasher Magazine, the opportunity to try and catch up with this crucial (and effervescent) protagonist of the dominant skateboarding culture was perfect. So we casually shot him a handful of questions, and ended up so pleased in return to get answers that just reeked of the very enthusiasm and passion for skateboarding, people and life altogether that seemingly have been a driving force in his existence for decades now. Here's to (Live!) transmission.

LIVE Skateboard Media: So « Full Blast » is the name of your exhibition of your work with Thrasher over a two decade-long span. The curating is especially incredible in that the juxtaposition of the images instills brand new dimensions to the reading of the already existing, separate photos; a lot of them are iconic in themselves, but the mix of old and new, sometimes with reoccurring characters despite the difference in eras enhances their impact and highlights the strengths of our culture in a beautiful way. For instance, the Ali photos especially hit hard.

How hard was it to look back on twenty years of amazing skateboarding and diverse, incredible people and to compile everything into one show? Was making all those connections from picture to picture something you were consciously trying to achieve? Because the resulting effect really is a "full blast". Was conveying those new dimensions on your mind the whole time, or do you think it was just essentially bound to happen due to our culture works, with the most passionate and the most persistent always ending up crossing paths?

Michael Burnett: Here's how I put the show together: it was really hard to go through everything and decide what I wanted to represent out of all these years, but, at the same time, it was easy because up until 2007, everything is on film - so the main thing that made it easy was I picked things that I already had a scan for, which sounds callous but at the same time, you figure everything that ran in the magazine that was scanned, I already went through a process of picking that photo to go in the issue in the first place, so it's not like it was without consideration.

"Nothing seems that fantastic in real time - then you look back a few years later, and it takes on a new meaning"

To be totally honest, to get all the film scanned is an enourmous pain in the ass. So, I kind of picked out my favorite film that I already have scanned, and combined it with the digital stuff - which is way easier to find and dig through and search. Because it is a huge process - I have a giant cabinet filled with boxes and boxes and boxes of film photos, and it's really gnarly [laughs], like you could make a hundred different shows probably just as good; you would just have to dig back into the archive each time.

 Michael Burnett
Ali Boulala. Ph.: Michael Burnett

But moreso than that, this is a combination of photos that I really like, and photos I've also got a lot of good feedback from, because you know - when you're putting a show together, you're trying to entertain people as well - I'm not so egoistical as to think it just matters what I think.

I like all these photos, but I like some of them more than others - and then there's some photos that are really good just because they show just the difference in eras. They show special times for people who are no longer doing the same thing, or they capture the fashion, the funny stuff, the weirdos, the moments that just have gone by - you know, nothing seems that fantastic in real time, but then you look back a few years later and it takes on a new meaning.

I try to show a breath of my experience and, if I was to kind of classify what I look for in a photo, I would I say like fantastic, exciting skate action, and then I also like moments that tap into the absurd - which you'll see, hopefully it's a balance of cool skate photos and stuff that's funny, or thought-provoking (probably not), or weird, or stupid; that's what I like to see, so that's what I included.

 Michael Burnett
Jamie Thomas. Ph.: Michael Burnett

LSM: Another juxtaposition (coincidental, that one?) that made me think was the one of the Jamie Thomas ollie and the Kyle Walker kickflip. Almost twenty years set those two apart, right?

I think those two put together really emphasizes focus on the evolution, progression and transmission in skateboarding over the past two decades. As the same human being to have shot those two classic photos, did it ever come to you how really incredibly blessed you have been to witness (let alone document) the evolution of our activity over such a long period of time; you’re now shooting a generation that grew up studying and learning from the generations before, that you were already capturing the prowess of back then, too!

How much Jamie Thomas influence and heritage would you reckon a skater like Kyle Walker carries - knowingly or unknowingly?

Michael Burnett: Yes, those two photos are about twenty years apart - and yes, of course, I'm blessed to see this. It's so trippy!

And another thing you've got to consider is that even though I've had this job for twenty years, I've skated for ten years before that too [laughs], so it's such a trip to look back on such things and reminisce on how I saw Neil Blender, for instance. I got to see Neil Blender skate! Just to get to go from there to see what I get to see today, it's insane; I got to see the birth of street skating, up to where it is today. And it's fortunate that we are into an activity that is still so young, because we are getting to see the founding fathers of skateboarding - we're getting to see the birth.

"When you're a kid, you don't think about it - you just see what can be done and you do it; [...] then the baseline of what is "normal" shifts"

I trip out sometimes when I look back: "Was that me? Was I that kid?", because I have pictures from then too - pictures that I took when I was fifteen years old. Which is always crazy to think about that because you know, as time goes by, those things stop being a moment and they start seeming more like something out of a movie, you know what I mean?

But as far as progression: it's insane, I can't even believe it. It's daunting where things have gone, and here you are, thinking you might get numb to the progression but really, you just get consistently amazed by how crazy and good people are.

 Michael Burnett
Kyle Walker. Ph.: Michael Burnett

It was crazy to get to see people like Jamie Thomas. Yes, such people undeniably led the groundwork for a lot of what is happening today, whether those new guys realize it or not - because when you're a kid, you don't think about it - you just see what can be done and you do it; there's a point where you see other people can do stuff and you're like "oh yeah, well then I can do that", and it just seems normal. And then the baseline of what is "normal" shifts.

You know, I don't think Kyle Walker carries that influence and heritage insomuch as he was born into a time where doing this stuff was possible, or "normal".

"It just gives you that frame of reference where you think it is possible"

That's the burden of the pioneer, you know - back in the day, when we first saw, say, Danny Way grind the round handrail, we couldn't believe it - like, "how can you not just roll off?" - it didn't seem possible. But, once you see something is possible, you just take it from that step and move forward - especially if you are as talented as Kyle Walker and these guys today.

Let's just take a moment to pause and just consider how much those pioneers abused and destroyed their bodies - and maybe that's going to be the case too and when Kyle is in his forties, he is going to be as fucked up as Jamie Thomas [laughs], but I kind of feel like those new guys got to learn how to do everything properly in the first place, so they weren't the crash-test dummies the generations before them were.

Before that, it was like - you were trying to kickflip down ten stairs, but you might land on that thing primo ten different times before you made it [laughs], whereas those guys knew how to do it properly from the beginning. So that's definitely a leg up, but it doesn't actually make it easier; it just gives you that frame of reference where you think it is possible.

 Michael Burnett
Geoff Rowley. Ph.: Michael Burnett

LSM: The Geoff Rowley gap 50 hubba in Lyon is one of the most legendary skate spots in France, with OG’s like Cliché’s Jérémie Daclin having skated it for the first time not that long before Geoff showed up and murdered it, actually.

But everybody who went nuts on that thing (and most of the spots in Sorry and Menikmati) at the time most definitely blew doors and paved the way to skate globalization. Sorry and Menikmati marked for the first time the US really got to get a glimpse of all those exotic spots Europe had, and it made a lot of people want to travel. Then it turn, for European skaters, it became possible to have a pro career all the while staying based in Europe because you could now get coverage at your own spots.

How exciting was it for you to be on such trips, and discover all those new areas of the world (in addition to witnessing the history-defining skateboarding)? When was your first time in France, or in Europe altogether, actually? 

Michael Burnett: Yeah, that wasn't my first time to Europe; I went to France with the World Industries team with Daewon, Enrique Lorenzo and Shiloh Greathouse, back in 1998 I think - that was my first trip. And then I went back with Blind, when they had Ronnie Creager and Lavar McBride - those were demo tours. And then, I also went and did the contest circuit: they would send me to Europe and I would shoot all those contests, I would ride the train and sleep on people's floors and things like that.

But 2001 Flip was a big turning point for Thrasher's modern era, as well as for me at the magazine, strictly because Geoff Rowley happened to have a soft spot in his heart for Thrasher, he really appreciated Thrasher's history and wanted to give us a chance, so that was my big opportunity to cover skateboarding in kind of a more modern way than Thrasher had been doing. And getting to do that was crazy - I couldn't believe how good those guys were, I was shooting everything on film and I was blowing through rolls of films to get those sequences, you know - but it was such a special time because Geoff, Arto and Mark were so good, and Bastien was so good too.

"I don't think people should have to go to California"

Going to Europe then, we saw Jérémie Daclin when we were there for sure; we were with French Fred too. You know, I didn't really think about it, and put it in a historical context, but I liked being around those international guys because I felt like an outsider myself: I'm not from California, I didn't grow up around pro skaters, so I liked those guys.

As far as European skaters making a career, I think that probably has more to do with modern technology and openness because until very recently, you still had to go to California - and maybe you still do - for better or worse, but now there is a million different ways to have yourself a skate career and to sell skateboards - so that's cool, I like it! I grew up in Texas, and Texas skating was very unique compared to the rest of the world's skating; we had our own pros, we had our own whole thing, and to this day I like the idea that you can live in your own place and make it go your way whilst having it be shaped by your environment. I think that's an enriching experience and I don't think people should have to go to California.

 Michael Burnett
Frank Gerwer. Ph.: Michael Burnett

LSM: Sorry but I think the world might really appreciate the back story behind that Frank Gerwer black and white portrait...

Michael Burnett: So it was Frank's birthday; we were in Arizona and we were like, "we gotta to get Frank a gift"! So we went to Boot Barn, which is like a cow-boy clothing store, and we bought him this big, heavy cow-boy shirt with fancy buttons, shiny snaps and everything, but it was really hot because we're in Phoenix - that's in the middle of the desert, so it was like a hundred degrees, so it got really hot [laughs] so we cut the sleeves off, keep going and then, finally we're just down to the pockets and that was all that was left of Frank's birthday shirt.

LSM: You have so many photos of Anthony Van Engelen, from different eras. He does not appear to be skating his board backwards on the switch backside nosegrind - do you know if he usually does that to this day, skate off the tail switch? Such a skate nerd question, ha, sorry…

AVE's presentation has changed over the decades but I like how he’s still making the same "skate face" on the switch nosegrind and on the red slappy grind - which was his SOTY cover, right? What year was that again? I like how the Fucking Awesome stickers provide some kind of visual clue of the time period, but without them, the photo might as well have been ten or fifteen years old. The style is timeless.

Michael Burnett: No I don't think he rides his board backwards - you mean, does he turn it around? I think if it's backwards he rides it backwards, I'm not sure though... Yeah, upon inspection, it does kind of look like he's switched it around, right? I don't know, hard to say. I don't think of many people doing that, but maybe that was a different time.

 Michael Burnett
Anthony Van Engelen. Ph.: Michael Burnett

Yeah, the slappy grind was his SOTY cover, so that was April 2015, I think. Yeah he's cool; I got to meet him when I first moved to California to get the job. He was the amateur on 23 Skateboards then, and my friends owned that company, so I'd go over there and shoot photos with him and Dill, then Clyde Singleton...

So I got to meet him there, but I didn't really know him back then - he was like a teenager. But I know him pretty well now; he's super funny, like a Han Solo from Star Wars. A funny character, great guy, incredible skater.

 Michael Burnett
Anthony Van Engelen. Ph.: Michael Burnett

LSM: What year are the Cardiel photos? Any back stories?

Michael Burnett: These are all from the same trip in 2003 - we went to Mexico City for the opening of a skatepark, all three photos are from that trip.

Yeah, he's just amazing: pure skate-powered, we were at the demo and there were those hundreds of kids just following him around from spot to spot, cheering him on. He just lives and breathes skating.

The full pipe thing, that's just on the side of the road - that's the support for a freeway, so we just saw it on the side of the road and pulled over and he started skating it... I was lucky enough to get that photo.

He was just born to skate; continuously inspiring.

 Michael Burnett
John Cardiel. Ph.: Michael Burnett

LSM: I never know with Daewon - that photo was around Skate More, right? How incredible is Daewon to witness in person? That man pretty much set the bar for technical street skating back when people were still essentially trying to figure it out. Then fast-forward five years and everybody’s trying to skate the way he skated at the time, but he’s progressed way past that since and already appears to be touching new stuff. Repeat the same process half a dozen times and you get his career, pretty much. Were you ever around him a lot? How inspiring has it to be?

Michael Burnett: Daewon is very incredible to witness in person. He skates more than any person I've ever met, he probably has his feet on griptape for probably four to five hours a day. We have worked on interviews a few times over the years - we would go out all day, going to spots, trying tricks or whatever and then, after I left, he would go and skate flatground for four hours by himself, or with his friends.

He is the best: always learning new stuff, he's just an animal when it comes to skating, he can do it all, pretty much.

"You have to realize that a lot of these people are working against something else"

I really appreciate how much he's put into making things his own, doing his own unique take on things. The crazy part is, it's not like he is perfect: he falls a lot, he eats shit a lot! But yeah, just to think about Daewon the guy on the roof, Daewon the guy on the table, Daewon the guy blasting airs in a concrete skatepark, Daewon the guy riding a tree, Daewon the mini-ramp maniac, Daewon the guy who can do a manual and take a wheel off - he never seems bored of it, never gets tired of trying new things - he's very inspiring.

He's also super duper sarcastic; I think when you're around him, you may be like, "this guy hates my fucking guts" [laughs] because he's very passive aggressive and sarcastic, even when he's being nice, you never quite know! But I really like him a lot, I have learned to look past that and just to say yeah, that's my bro, Daewon, just nice!

 Michael Burnett
Daewon Song. Ph.: Michael Burnett

LSM: Then in a completely different style, but just as unbelievable, in the exhibition you'll also have photos of classic, incredible skate prowess such as the Burman handrail, or the Cory ledge trick down a hubba, or the Dickson ollie, or the Figgy crooks… Next to immortalizations of other epic characters such as Ed Templeton, or Lance Mountain. Diverse individuals, each with their own background, approaches, styles.

Now it would be easy to guess absolute love for, and commitment to skateboarding is the common denominator they all share; but it would be more interesting to try and ponder the fundamental origin of said love, and - considering your experience being around such legends throughout the years - I would love to hear your take on it. If you had to guess, what would you say is the reason (if any) why we are all so broken in such a way that skateboarding might end up devouring our lives?

Michael Burnett: What brings those people together to be great at skating? I've thought about this a lot. I think some people are naturally gifted, physically, so they just go for it; some guys, it's just what they have been doing since they were kids, so they eventually got good at it, and it's like, the thing they are good at, and then... You know, a lot of them are crazy.

You have to realize that a lot of these people are working against something else. It's like, everytime you find an amazing skater, you're also finding a lot of fucking crazy people - in a good way though, but it works like this when you are a kid. A lot of kids that have problems, they are able to channel their emotions and their energy into something that is fun, and brings them joy and satisfaction and, mostly, just occupies them.

So you see a lot of that, and then there also is just the idea of those guys eventually reinventing what they like about skateboarding.

 Michael Burnett
Dane Burman. Ph.: Michael Burnett

You could be a good skater as a teenager, but if you want to keep going, a lot of the guys will have to reinvent why they do it.

Maybe that means they will want to win a contest, maybe that means they will want to make a bunch of money, maybe it means they want to be with their friends and be really social about it. A lot of them turn into athletes - full-time athletes - you see these guys and they are all about yoga, and training, and healthy eating; they make skateboarding their physical job.

So, I don't know - I think you don't have to be really good at skating to love it, if anything I think some of that is just luck, if you're going to be good or not. And then, there's people that are really good and have horrible style and terrible tricks [laughs], and that's fine too: I don't judge people's skating based on that. If they are just cool people, and have fun, that's what I think is important as far as skating.

"If it is a job, then it's a satisfying job"

What brings all those folks together is they are really good at skateboarding, then I don't really know how they got so good at it, but a lot of them are very talented people in a lot of ways. Jerry Hsu, you could talk to him like a grown-up when he was like fifteen years old - he's very smart, very talented, very socially adept. A lot of people you meet are just dynamic people in general, and amazing people in general. Some of the biggest names, they would have been good at anything they tried; they're just those talented, magnetic, amazing people.

 Michael Burnett
Nuge. Ph.: Michael Burnett

I don't know why it takes over your life; I think it's different for everybody, but ideally, in the best case scenario, it brings you satisfaction and joy, and it doesn't turn into a burden, it doesn't turn into too much of a job - or if it is a job, then it's a satisfying job.

Thanks for your interest in the photo show. I love all these photos, it's a privilege to get to be around all this stuff and I try not to take it for granted; I try to find the joy in the little things in life. For instance, I love the photo of Nuge who drew a picture of himself on the dirty pillow, I love that photo just as much as I love the beautiful Leo Romero 5-0 grind on a blue rail under stormy skies, you know? There's a certain amount to cinematographic beauty to this stuff, especially in photos where you just get to sit back afterwards. I'm privileged to get to be friends with these guys and experience this great adventure with them, so thanks everybody!

Book your ticket for Michael's exhibition, « Full Blast », at the Paris House of Vans event this week-end, here.

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