Tobin Yelland grew up immersed in the skateboarding culture on the streets of San Francisco. At 14 years old, he found his passion, photography, and began shooting pictures of his friends and fellow skaters. A year later he had his first work published in Thrasher Magazine. From there, an amazing career as a photographer began, eventually transforming into filmmaking where he has worked on projects with some well known clients such as Nike, MTV, DC Shoes, and more. Tobin was also the eye behind the lens for the feature documentary, Beautiful Losers. In the interview below you’ll learn a bit more about Tobin’s path and his view on the DIY sub-cultures that have developed around skating, street art, surfing, and more.
Growing up in San Fransisco and being part of that skate scene in the 80’s and 90’s, how do think that culture has affected you as an artist? How has that culture affected mainstream society?
Looking back, I think my friends and I cared more about having fun and having a good day skating than anything else. Fast forward 20 years, I think if it’s not fun then something is wrong and I better change course with what I’m doing.
I hope skate culture has affected mainstream society by teaching people to think on their feet and to just go ahead and do what you want without asking for permission. You are skating through the city as a young person with not much power and you are skating different public and private property skate spots and just seeing how long you can skate before getting kicked out and then when you are get kicked out, you haggle with security guard or just come back when they are not looking and make your trick. I think street skating has taught me that there are no excuses to working to get what you want.
When did you start shooting photographs and what were your primary subjects your early years of photography?
I started in 1984 at 14 years old. I shot all my friends goofing off and skate action shots. I pretty much shot everything; stupid self portraits and girls that were cute. I tried to copy photographers I liked, like Edward Weston and Grant Brittain and many more.
You started filmmaking five years after picking up a still camera. What drew you to filmmaking? What does shooting motion allow you capture that stills do not?
I started through skate videos. I shot Stereo, A Visual Sound and Anti Hero, Fucktards both with Hi 8 video and Super 8 film and some Pixelvison. The first real introduction I got to cinematography was when Director Mike Mills needed a location to do a Coors Light commercial. Dave Carnie and I were roommates and Mike used us as the actors drinking and falling asleep in front of the TV. Scott Henriksen was the DP and I asked him all kinds of questions about his 16mm Ari SR that he was shooting with and we talked a lot. He hired me a couple months later to shoot some 16mm Bolex of a live concert for a record company. It was the first time that I was loading and shooting 16mm and I was so stoked! Shooting motion is so fun because you get to tell your story with hundreds and thousands of images instead of one or a handful. I love both stills and motion although I’ve been slacking in the stills department lately.
Today you shoot both stills and motion. Artistically, when do you think it’s best to shoot stills? Motion?
I think stills and motion are both so cool. It’s nice to blend them together. When I’m shooting a still sometimes I think ‘wow this would make a great motion shot’ and when I’m shooting motion sometimes I think the opposite and just want to capture the action in another way.
The short film “Encinitas Realization” was made during the months you were living in Encinitas with Thomas Campbell before move to NYC. How did your time here affect you?
Living with Thomas and Michelle Lockwood was great to get introduced to surfing. And also to take a break from San Francisco.
What did you like about the area?
I like that you can just walk to the beach anytime you’re at home and that people take time out to go watch the sunset. That’s super cool.
What did you find it lacking?
My sublet with Thomas ran out and I wanted to move to downtown San Diego. I was shooting lots of skate photos and I needed to be closer to the photo lab and Encinitas was a little slow.
Korduroy headquarters is in Encinitas and we were rolling after we watched “Encinitas Realization”. You hit the nail on the head with that one. Where did the idea come from and what were you hoping to convey?
Chris Johanson wrote and directed the film I think he was influenced by staying with Thomas and just his take on Encinitas surf culture mixed with his sense of humor.
You moved to NYC in 2001 and now have a family in Brooklyn. Why the move? What do you most enjoy about living there? Are there any other spots where you could see yourself living?
I actually moved to LA and have lived here for a year. Living in New York for 9 years was an adventure for sure (I had lived in Brooklyn for six months before 9/11. I watched it all from my roof. ) Brooklyn is a fun place to live and really hard at times with the weather and all; but I’m glad to live in California now where the weather is nice.
You do a lot of commercial work now. Growing up documenting areas of life that were untouched my corporate agendas, did the transition to commercial work come easily or was it difficult? What advice would you have for artists adapting their work into the commercial world?
When I started I was doing skate photography, the difference between commercial and editorial could be the same photograph but just a bigger check for a print add so I always wanted to use my photos for adds considering how little magazines paid. For me, my balance has always been trying to get enough personal work done that I’m having fun with and then going after commercial jobs to earn some income. My advice for transitioning into the commercial world is don’t be upset if you don’t make it all at once. Success happens to some people quickly but just be sure you enjoy what you’re doing and then work every angle business-wise to do the jobs you want to do. Find the people who know what you want to know and take them out to lunch or work as intern, etc., and find out what you need to know to get closer to what you want to do.
You’ve really seen the transformation of these DIY subcultures like skating, tagging, surfing, etc. grow into large industries. What you think about this transformation?
I can talk about skating. I shot a lot of skating from 1985 to 1999 and it’s great to see people do well and great to be a part of something when money isn’t the main purpose to why you are doing it. I have so many good memories of skating around San Francisco all day and I have watched companies grow and It seems like the successful companies are making things that are inspired and you can tell that what they make has something behind it.
Who have you seen go “big time” but still retain the mindset of when you were groms? And what do you think contributed to their ability to maintain a healthy mindset amidst the change of pace of stakes?
Anti Hero Skateboards has stayed true I think. They really focus on skateboarding and I think that keeps things simple. They have the best adds and videos. Also, Independent Truck’s print ads have never changed and I think that’s so cool. They just focus on a great skate photo and simple design and that’s it.
For more on Tobin, check out his website at http://www.tobinyelland.com/