Tai Freligh interviews Charlie Samuels about Virgin Blacktop: A New York Skate Odyssey…
Award winning Director/Photojournalist Charlie Samuels has shot hundreds of assignments for magazines in the U.S. and abroad and has been Director or Cinematographer for dozens of films. Charlie got his start documenting the New York City skateboard scene and has been a contributor to The New York Times since. His images are featured on a Supreme clothing line, Burton snowboards and Vans skate shoes. His latest project is currently making the festival rounds- a documentary called Virgin Blacktop that chronicles the story of The Wizards skateboarding team. It took Samuels 24 years of shooting and hunting down films to put his movie together. The Wizards are all in their fifties now and, remarkably, all of them still skate. Flickering Myth’s Tai Freligh caught up with Charlie to ask him about the film, his long career as a photojournalist and why skateboarding still ignites a fire in his belly after all these years.
Tell us what the film is about?
You’re asking me to boil down the 9 lives of the Wizards skate crew over 40 years that I squeezed into 83 minutes? Okay, here goes: Virgin Blacktop: A New York Skate Odyssey is an uplifting character-driven story about boys skating across boundaries to become men.
Why was it so important to tell this story?
Because we are living in challenging times and our film shows how us skateboarders, against all odds, created our own lifelong community. As Pooh (Wizard) says, “The story has GOT to be told!” Also I just HAD to make the film when I found a huge trove of ’70’s Super 8mm footage that was ahead of its time shot by James Oursler, Gail Tipton (a Wizard Mom), Carlos Cisneros; Rolf Taylor, Matt Harrison and Will Hammerstein.
What is it about skating that has kept your interest all these years?
The magic, creativity, and camaraderie among our sub-culture that is now worldwide. It’s a passion of mine that has become a way of life.
What do your kids think of you skating?
They don’t seem to think of it as a big deal around me but I hear they brag about me to their friends.
When you fall in your fifties, you don’t bounce back as quick as when you’re a teenager. What was your last nasty fall and how long did it take to heal?
Yeah, I found that out about 10 years ago so I push myself about 1/50th as much as I did as a teenager. My last nasty fall was when I sprained my wrist in a mini-half pipe and it took too long to heal. That sucked but it didn’t stop me from continuing to skate at age 57. But other than using my board for transportation I wear full gear 100% of the time. It’s great exercise and, statistically, has no more injuries than soccer or basketball. We are still fighting our undeserved reputation as a dangerous activity – it’s certainly a lot better for you than staying inside on screens.
What is your funniest story from putting the film together?
Hmmmm, I think the funniest stories are actually in Virgin Blacktop like when we would be in my parents’ gold 1975 Plymouth Satellite station wagon on our way to a demo, contest or skate park one of the Wizards insisted that I “Stop the car!” so he could get out and dance when he heard a certain song playing on the AM radio. From putting the film together, this isn’t funny, but I couldn’t have found a better person on Earth to Edit and Art Direct it: former French pro skater David Couliau.
It sounds like a lot of stuff was left out of the movie. Will there be a follow up film or maybe a bunch of special features?
Too much was left out of the film but that is the nature of communicating – you gotta emphasize the absolute best stuff. Who knows about a follow up film but when I’ll soon post some choice nuggets that we left out on our Instagram.
How did you get your start taking photos for Thrasher and Transworld Skateboarder, pretty much the gold standard for skate magazines?
Actually, I started out shooting ads for Airwalk, Powell-Peralta, Thunder Trucks, etc. With skate ads, unlike mainstream ads, they credit the photographers so the mag editors must have known of me from those ads. That led to shooting editorial for Transworld Skateboarding and Thrasher. I then shot a dream assignment for Thrasher — a photo-essay in 1989 about the burgeoning New York City skateboard scene. I featured legendary skater Harold Hunter R.I.P., N.Y.C.’s first pro Joe Humeres (who appears in Virgin Blacktop) and a bunch of other talented skaters as New York was popping. We skated all over Manhattan that summer. I ended up working with K.T. quite a bit after that – another legend.
What is your favorite image of yours used on a shirt, shoe or snowboard?
That’s easy — my imagery of Harold Hunter from that Thrasher photo essay was featured on a Supreme x Comme des Garcons line of hats, shirts, jackets, T’s and three Vans skate shoes. But Supreme didn’t use the best one which was used on various T-shirts, posters for Adidas and a Burton snowboard — a telephoto lens shot of Harold skitching a taxicab with the World Trade Center towers in the background — that is an epic shot encapsulating much of who I am that I’m real proud of – I gotta make
a photo deck outta that shot.
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My bigass print (approx 49”x24”) of legend Harold Hunter skitching a cab with the #twintowers behind him is still available for sale in Brooklyn! It sold for $1200.00 previously but make me an offer! Partial sales go to #haroldhunterfoundation Photo of my photo by @colegiordano “Skateboarding Works” Photo & Art Show Premiered on Go Skateboarding Day and the Show is still up. Appointment Only and Photos & Art is for sale and proceeds go the HHF. DM for details. Thanks Point Green Studio, Supra, SHUT, LifeValet NYC AND all the sponsors!! #GSD2018 #lifevalet #NYSBFilm DM @LifeValet for Viewing Show.
What’s next for you?
I’d love to direct a narrative film because documentaries, unless they have a finite end, take way too much time. You can mold narratives before you start shooting, plan and avoid shooting hours of useless footage. And of course photography — I’d like to get back to my roots and shoot for Thrasher, Transworld, etc. again.
How do you survive the zombie apocalypse?
Zombies? They are so corny and hilarious — anything but scary. But to answer you — with a skateboard, a positive “what me worry?” attitude and a lot of photo flashes to blind them.
My favourite skater from my childhood was Steve Caballero. Who was yours?
Yeah, Cab is a superhero ambassador for our lifestyle. Without a doubt Jay Adams was my hero in the late 1970s. (from Dogtown and Z-Boys) Actually, in my film, Virgin Blacktop, you can see his name on my fake I.D. – also because his name was easy to spell when anyone asked me for ID back then – which was annoyingly often because I looked 12 years old as a teenager. I figured Jay wouldn’t mind because he was in California and I was in New York.
Street or ramp?
Pools fo sho. Love the weightlessness.
Who is the Tony Hawk of today’s skateboarding generation?
Hard to say, I’m blown away every month at what I see from even unheard-of skaters. But I hope the next mega-ambassador will be a woman – women have been ripping for decades but the mainstream doesn’t yet know.
If not a photographer, what career would you be in right now?
I’d fight global warming head on – humans are causing it so we gotta fix it pronto!
You can follow news about Virgin Blacktop on their website, Instagram account and Facebook page. We thank Charlie for taking the time to answer our questions. You can find the upcoming film festival schedule below.
And here is the future film festival schedule:
- Moments Festival Malaga SPAIN mid-November.
- Tampa Bay Underground FF Dec. 6-9
- Dunedin International film festival, Dunedin, FL Jan 12, 13, 2019
Tai Freligh is a Los Angeles-based writer and can be found on Twitter.