Until the mid-1970’s, skateboarding was about as rebellious as playing billiards at the local pizza joint. The moves performed on the board were more reminiscent of Fred Astaire than the aerial assaults performed by today’s Generation X athletes.
After success in the 1950’s and 60’s as a popular after surfing activity, skateboarding had become a dead sport by the early 1970s. “If you wanted a skateboard back then you had to go to the thrift store, buy a pair of roller skates with clay wheels, cut ’em in half’then go out in your garage and try and find an old dresser that was 1/2 inch or 3/4 inch oak if you were lucky,” recalls legendary skater Stacy Peralta.
At this very time, surfing found itself removed from the golden boy image of the past that mirrored a superficial Frankie Avalon beach blanket party. Surfing was beginning to build a repuation as a sport for outcasts in southern California, and it built an identity with the local kids from broken homes who would hang out at surfboard designer Jeff Ho’s Zephyr Surf Shop.
Skateboarding played second fiddle to surfing, an activity that was widespread popular, depending of course on wave volume. The surfing style was alternating to a low-slung aggressive posture that had the surfer collaborating with the wave in a hunched maneuver that was more industrial than pretty. Around the same time, the skateboard style was still warped in a time machine consisting of the glamour moves of handstands, toes on the noes, and slow up right spins. But suddendly things changed, as skateboarding became an extension of surfing, by utilizing a low pivotal style. This un-orthodox way of riding the asphalt waves soon gave birth to “vertical boarding,” brought to fruition by the kids from the Zephyr shop- or better known as Z-Boys.
Skaters by their very nature are urban guerillas: they make everyday use of the useless artifacts of the technological burden, and employ the handiwork of the government/corporate structure in a thousand ways that the original architects could never dream of.” Photo-Journalist, Craig Stecyk
Due to a large drought in southern California in the mid 70’s, swimming pools began to dry up and served as a turning point in the skateboard revolution. Acting as modern day half-pipes, the walls of the pool would be ridden, with the ultimate goal being to hit the lip of the pool. If you really wanted to impress you friends, you’d pull off a grind and pivot on the lip, which evoked almost the same adrenaline rush as riding the perfect tube. The Z Boys took it upon themselves to invest countless hours in any empty pool to unleash a treasure chest of new aerial maneuvers never yet performed or imagined on a skateboard.
Perhaps the most famous and eccentric skateboarder of his day and age was one of the Z-Boys -Tony(Mad Dog)Alva. Although as technically proficient on a board as fellow legendary Z Boys Jay Adams and Stacy Peralta, Alva had a natural charismatic flair and skating ability that won him the title of Grand National Champton on ABC’s Wide World of Sports in 1977. He pushed the boundaries of skateboarding far beyond the pre-existing confines of the sport by utilizing his timing, speed, and agility to transcend what was visibly and carnally possible on a skateboard.
After the break-up of the Z-Boys team, Alva went on to form his own company and travel the world promoting his style and skateboards. He was no stranger to the spotlight and carried himself like a rock-star, living decadently. Described as the Michael Jordan of his sport, Alva transformed the sport from board to attitude. This attitude still perseveres, as image and style are as important to skateboarding today as the sport itself. This radical attitude has supported a trend setting clothing industry, music scene, and culture that continually stays fresh, cool, and a step ahead. Where would the Vans Warped Tour be today without the skateboard?
Accompanying Alva on many of these trips around the world was photographer Wynn Miller. Fresh off completing a notorious East LA gang photo documentary, Miller was introduced to Alva by skateboard impresario Ray Flores.
Miller recalls their initial meeting. “Ray said, Tony, this is Wynn and he’s a really good photographer, and Tony was like ‘yeah, we’ll see about that.”
After passing this initial round of skepticism, Alva began to invite Miller to the infamous Dogtown Clandestine backyard pool sessions. From then on, Wynn and Alva formed a bond that Miller describes as “hard to describe.” They travelled together to Mexico, California, and Europe, bonding, and eventually sharing living space on the road. Temporarily, Alva had his own personal photographer capturing his demoing, skating and off board eccentrics. These collaborations produced enough pictures to result in one of skateboarding’s most iconic collection of photographs, that is currently travelling in an exhibition called the “Mad Dog Chronicles.” Put together by the people at the skateboarding/surfing lifestyle company, FRESHJIVE, this unique exhibit has already visited New York, Tokyo, and Los Angeles, providing viewers with a revealing look at Alva’s offbeat flamboyant showmanship alongside Miller’s visionary depth.
“When I shot in the 70’s, people hadn’t seen photos like that, and then it went dormant for many many years. The thing that got everybody interested again was the documentary, ” says Miller, referring to the documentary film Dog Town and Z-Boys. Directed by former Z-Boy Stacy Peralta, the 2002 film revisits the birth of the skateboard movement of the 1970s.
The images displayed in this article are shot by Miller, and you’ll notice how they stand the test of time as survivors of a fashion renaissance. The bright oranges and blues that were once so fashionably dominant are now back again in full force. Miller’s photos ring with the confident 70’s tunes of Alice Cooper,Ted Nugent, and T Rex; the music that was sketer friendly prior to the adventurous sounds ranging from skate parks today.
Alva had a style all his own and was often remembered for skating with headphones wrapped in a bandana; an era before the walkman that Alva refers to as a “BW” and would also term as “head jams.” Miller describes his photographic objective – “I like shooting people clean as crisp images. Especially the stuff with Tony, I tried to make it heroic in a way, cause that’s kind of how I saw him and that’s how people looked at him. Most skateboard photography at the time was kids who were using their dad’s camera. I had been working in advertising for awhile, so I staged the shots, for lack of a better word, looked more professional.”
Tony and Miller had a relationship that involved a level of trust and respect that made way for natural and subjective experiments. Using a fish-eye lens, Miller was able to get up and close on the action. He ads, “having a skateboard in your face, involves trust. More than once a camera got destroyed as a camera got away from him. Tony used to call me “Lens Face.”
Many of the shots were created by Miller just chilling by the side and watching Alva skate, while fathoming the best spot to capture a spontaneous move. The “lighting the pool on fire” picture took teamwork, but Wynn mentioned that Alva knew the importance of the photos and was always cooperative with making sure the photographer had his own angle on the subject.
Miller remembers a day driving from Zurich, Switzerland into the Alps, where Alva just took charge of a dramatic photo opportunity. “We were just driving in the alps and he said, ‘hey man, that hill looks bitching, let me try it,’ and he bombed it,” recounts Miller in response to the photo of Alva speeding down a mountain on his small skateboard.
From Tony Hawk today to Tony Alva, the sport of skateboarding continues to inspire new moves and various art forms on the asphalt playgrounds. Wynn Miller was fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time to capture a burgeoning movement that has transgressed into an independent culture of athletes, film makers, authors, musicians, and photographers that continue to provoke us to think differently.
Photos courtesy of Wynn Miller.
For more information on the Mad Dog Chronicles please visit FRESHJIVE.com