Body silhouetted against the bright sky, hair streaming behind him, skateboarder Kevin “Spanky” Long flies through the air. In the background, the Süleymaniye Mosque rises out of the urban haze of Istanbul. Some passersby stop and stare, while others ignore his feat of physical daring. It’s the type of moment that photographer Jonathan Mehring travels the world to capture.
Mehring got his first camera, a Pentax K1000, in high school, and he was hooked. He would go to school early and stay late just to have more time in the darkroom. But when he wasn’t in there developing his photos, Mehring was out skateboarding with his friends.
There was little concrete or asphalt there in rural Virginia, so they cobbled together ramps out of scraps of firewood and plywood. And Mehring would shoot their exploits with his camera.
“I've always shot skating, from the beginning.” Mehring says. “I was a skater before a photographer, so when I picked up a camera, it was an automatic subject to shoot.”
There is no blueprint to becoming a skateboarding photographer. For Mehring it was even tougher: He lived far from California, the center of the skating world. But he persevered, traveling all over Virginia and shooting skating events with cameras he bought on eBay.
“I upgraded from the K1000 to a Nikon 8008, and then to a Nikon F5. I bought them all off eBay, since I was told to never buy brand-new camera gear.I upgraded from the K1000 to a Nikon 8008, and then to a Nikon F5. I bought them all of eBay, since I was told to never buy brand-new camera gear.” He says, “Once I jumped up to [the] F5, that was really getting serious. I wasn’t just a college kid with a camera—I was going for it.”
One day at a skate event, he met established skate photographer Ted Newsome and showed him his photography. Newsome liked what he saw and wrote Mehring a page of tips: which lenses and flashes to use, what to think about when shooting skateboarders, and so on. He also told Mehring to start using slide film.
“I started shooting chrome slide film after that. All the skateboard photographers did, back in the day.” Mehring says, “It scanned better; the color was brighter, more saturated, and the grain made it easier to blow up. You also had lighting control, so you plugged in a formula and you could always pretty much nail the photograph. Honestly, I learned to shoot skateboarding without a light meter. I definitely blew through a lot of film figuring it out, but I got it down.”
Since skateboarding exists in a legal gray area in many jurisdictions, it’s often shot at night when there’s less security and attention. And night shoots take a lot of lighting gear. On his first international skate trip, to Hong Kong, this became a bit of a problem.
“I was shooting with a Nikon F5 and had all these flashes, kind of like Quantum radio slaves, and because of all the technology and radio frequencies they had over there, they would just start going off as soon as I turned them on. I got hardly any good photographs the entire time I was there because of it.”
Nevertheless, it was on that trip that Mehring got bit by the travel bug; he longed for more chances to shoot internationally. Unfortunately, most magazines sent him to the same places over and over.
“I was getting a little bored,” he says. “I still wanted to shoot skateboarding, but I also wanted to have an adventure myself, and go places I hadn’t gone before. I had this big map on the wall and I would just stare at it and look for places that had cities but not much else around. Places that I hadn’t been before, that looked like they might have some infrastructure.”
He started pitching ideas to the magazines set in new and different locations: Argentina, Russia, South Asia.
Countries with less infrastructure present challenges for shooting skateboarding. The ground can be rougher, the elements more oppressive, and the pedestrians and security personnel less friendly. But for Mehring, the payoff is photos he can’t get anywhere else, like the image of a skateboarder doing a frontside heelflip in front of a statue of Stalin in Russia, or of two skaters pushing into the New Delhi morning.
Traveling also puts him in contact with a global community of skateboarders, giving him an appreciation for how the sport can transcend boundaries. It’s a feeling he’s chronicled in a new book titled Skate the World, just released from National Geographic. It’s a collection of bright images and brief essays that details the places Mehring has taken his camera, skateboards, and friends. And the community he’s met all over the world, connected by skateboarding.
One photograph in the book shows a group of smiling kids in Vietnam holding up their version of a skateboard. It looks pretty rough: a wooden plank with wooden axles and small metal wheels. Mehring was surprised when he first spotted the kids pushing their homemade boards along the side of the road.
“We were in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, in the middle of nowhere. And me and Spanish pro Javier Mendizabal were cruising down the road on motorcycles, going through these tiny, dusty villages. At one point, I looked over and saw these kids standing on something, pushing themselves around with their feet. We were like. ‘Whoa, those kids have a skateboard!’ Javier and I got really excited and pulled over and ran up to check out what the kids were doing, but they all ran away.”
The children were a little intimidated by the guys on their motorcycles, but they soon got curious.
“We took our boards off the back of the bikes and started riding them around, and we could see them peeking out and watching us. Once they understood that we had skateboards like them, they all came out and checked out our boards, and then brought out their boards, and we all started skating around on the side of the road.” Mehring says, “By the end, everyone was laughing, and high fiving…[T]he kids were so excited about skateboarding and our boards that we gave our skateboards to them.”
A moment of connection and fun, made possible by nothing more than skateboarding and a sense of adventure—and captured by Mehring and his wide-roving camera.