Text by Travis Hancock
Images by Sam Muller
Pumping up a towering concrete ramp at the Olympic skatepark in Tokyo, Australia’s Poppy Star Olsen readied herself for airtime. For her chosen mode of lift-off, a trick called a boneless, she reached down and grabbed the rail of her board, then planted her front foot on the ramp’s coping to boost herself into the sky.
Although it probably went unnoticed by most viewers in the split second between Olsen’s launch and smooth landing, her trick showcased a significant detail that connected skateboarding’s debut at the Olympics to its humble origins in Santa Monica, a.k.a. Dogtown. The foot that vaulted Olsen’s boneless was clad in the same canvas-and-rubber model of Vans shoe that Dogtown’s famed Z-Boys wore to protect their feet from the unforgiving asphalt.
Skateboarding originated in California in the late 1960s, with surfers killing time when the waves were low. They fastened rollerskate wheels to planks and started cruising the sidewalks and streets in Santa Monica and Venice. The famous Z-Boys got their name from Jeff Ho’s Zephyr Surf Shop, their hangout spot in Dogtown in the early 1970s and eventual sponsor. To this day, many skaters—from those at the Olympics representing Australia’s Southern Cross to those under Japan’s red sun—live in Southern California for its weather, skate spots, and concentration of skateboard companies.
Known for artfully pairing the unique movements of his skater-subjects with the surrounding architecture and light, Muller captures far more than the brute athleticism of the so-called sport.
An enduring hotspot of talent, Los Angeles is also the hub of the skate industry’s best photographers. Few shine as brightly as Sam Muller, who grew up in L.A. and got his start photographing for TransWorld Skateboarding. Known for artfully pairing the unique movements of his skater-subjects with the surrounding architecture and light, Muller captures far more than the brute athleticism of the so-called sport. “If I can, I place the skater on a clean background like the sky or a blank wall so their form can tell the story of the trick without obstruction,” says Muller. As a regular photographer for the Dickie’s, Vans, and Adidas skateboarding teams, he gets to tell the visual stories of high-level—and often hair-raising—skate tricks. “I want to make the trick look as dangerous and impressive as it is in reality,” he says, “so I try to emphasize the steepness of handrails or banks, the length of gaps or the height of drops the skateboarder is taking.”
Muller’s approach may sound highly calculated, but it’s largely intuitive. “One of the most exciting things about skateboard photography for me is the element of the unknown,” he says. “Almost every time I get to a location to shoot skateboarding, it’s my first time there, so I try to follow my instincts as soon as I arrive.” This spontaneous mindset invokes the original spirit of skateboarding; in contests, the Z-Boys bucked technical prowess for impromptu displays of low, surf-style carves. Perhaps Muller’s greatest skill is his ability to capture the confluence of these styles, freezing cutting-edge maneuvers in their most finessed forms and within the full context of light, line, and color, where they all hang together for a split second before the rider rolls away.