Glen Jones Interview - Photographers Ep 1

Interview with Glen Jones, Photographer. |  by Sebastião Belfort Cerqueira

Swamp Ramps in Mississippi, punk rock in Minnesota, Glen Jones’ camera has been along for the ride since the early 80s. Now he’s in Portugal and he’s starting up an elementary school. Go sign your kids up.

Before we get into skate photography, which I know you do because you like it, would you let us know what you do for a living?

I’m a school teacher. I’m in Lisbon right now starting a new school. I’m an elementary Montessori school teacher. I’ve been doing that for about twenty-five years now.

Montessori is a teaching method, right?

It is a teaching method. It’s a very empowering teaching method for kids, it looks at the individual versus, you know, trying to teach the masses. It’s an educational approach that jibes really well with how I think teachers should teach. When I look back to all the great teachers I had growing up they all had these mannerisms and these ways of really looking at me as a person and not just another pupil. With Montessori that kind of mindset is ingrained in the approaches. I could talk on and on, do a whole interview about why I chose this as my field of work but it is a really good fit. I’m also trained as an archeologist, I was going down the route of being a professor and I found out I enjoyed working with children more than publishing and all that. I love digging in the dirt, I do it every time I can, I enjoy the fieldwork but I wasn’t cut out for the harsh reality of academia. I prefer my academia working with and inspiring young people. So, yeah, that’s that... now, skateboarding!

Yeah, let’s get into it. Of course the first question is: when did you start?

This all goes hand in hand with the photography. I had a skateboard as a young kid, around seven or eight, in the seventies when they were in the same shelf with the yo-yos and other toys. I had a drugstore board and I cruised around my driveway and the whole block. The eighties rolled by and I had a BMX bike and one day, probably about 81-82, a friend of mine said “You have to see this ramp where these guys are riding.” I went there and I was blown away. In this little town I grew up in, in Mississippi, Ocean Springs, not too far from New Orleans, there was this brilliant vert half-pipe and a couple of guys who were kingpins in the scene and who were really good. They were also the coolest guys ever, Dana Buck and Lindsey Kuhn. They are still in the skateboard world [Kuhn owns Conspiracy Skateboards]. So of course the next day I was showing up with my skinny seventies board and kind of getting laughed at, because they had the big pig boards, but I jumped right in, me and a few buddies. We were just inspired, so we got the bigger boards, put up with the razzing and became a part of that crew. We had a kind of Deep South Gulf Coast skater network in the eighties, going from New Orleans to St. Petersburg, Florida. Skateboarding was kind of dead and it was all backyard vert ramps. We had a really strong community and part of that was doing zines and shooting photos, so that’s where the camera came in.

I liked to play around with a camera when I was little. I had this cheap little 35mm and after my dad saw that I had real interest he gave me his Nikon F, which was a really well-made camera, and I still have it, I still use it. Then, my oldest sister was a photo journalist and for my thirteenth birthday she brought me her old darkroom. My birthday gift was her setting it up and teaching me how to use it. All that came together at the right time, when we were all skating and I wanted to document it. I love photography. I can’t draw very well but I can shoot photos and it’s always been an output, so I have documentation of everything, from seeing my friends’ crusty little punk rock bands to going to skate contests, writing for zines and shooting for zines, plus the road trips that we all took. I got to be known as the guy with the camera. I still have all these negative files and covid has allowed me some time to start scanning more of them.

When I grew up all the cool kids’ films were set in the fifties but now I realize the eighties have become this sort of mythical era for punk rock and skateboarding and people want to see these things. My girlfriend says I ought to write a book and get a real website going instead of just facebook or instagram. That’s something I look forward to doing but I don’t want to keep looking back, that’s for sure. Right now, I love supporting Trucks and Fins because they help get me around to these spots, to meet other skaters, and I’m pleased to take photos and try to help out in documenting skateparks, it’s a cool thing. I always bring my camera when we ride, I skate for half the time and take photos for half the time, probably more photography if I’m having an off session.

  • "In this little town I grew up in, in Mississippi, Ocean Springs, not too far from New Orleans, there was this brilliant vert half-pipe and a couple of guys who were kingpins in the scene and who were really good.
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Do you still have a darkroom set up?

Right now I have my changing bag and my development tanks and I scan the negatives. It’s a hybrid work form. I would like to get to a point where I could have a darkroom again because I do miss watching the images appear on the paper. But, you know, photography is such a thing... I do have my artsy side and I love capturing a good visual. But I guess if I had a style it would be not having one, I just like documenting everything. I haven’t had much instruction, mostly self-taught and my sister. When I was in high school I took a night class at a community college and was taught by an old, crusty photo journalist from Mobile, Alabama. He was chain-smoking I think even in the darkroom and was a crotchety old bastard but he was really good about his technique, he was all about the mechanics of it, really practical.

I’ve done a few shows with my work. The most fun I’ve had with that was just before moving to Portugal a year and a half ago, in an upstairs gallery above my friend’s skate shop back in Minneapolis. I’d been shooting all these images for years so I did a show with about one hundred and sixty prints but it was all meant to be left there. I gave instructions to the owner of the shop to keep the show up for a month and then give the photos to all the guys that were in those shots. That was my “thank you, Minnesota and skateboarding”. I had all these images and I just wanted to give back to a scene that was so good to me.

I’m getting really curious to see your older stuff. Because the photos you have on Trucks and Fins and on your instagram account struck me as being different from the usual skate photos. I don’t know if you’ve read the little essay I wrote on one of your photos, but I feel like there’s many where the skatepark is empty or maybe there’s someone riding but they’re not the focus of the picture at all, you get this overview where you can see the whole setting. I was wondering if that had anything to do with that joy of searching for and finding a new spot? 

Well, of course. I’d also say that stepping back and putting a skatepark or a scene into a larger perspective might be a more recent thing I’m doing. And I wasn’t really aware of that until you pointed it out but it has to do with that visual thrill of exploration and trying to put it into a context. It’s cool to be able to look at a park and be able to go “so that’s where it sits”. Instead of that one skater, that one rad trick, maybe as we get older we get a little bit more introspective and we see the bigger connection. But also being in Portugal, with the ocean right here, I’m sure that’s affecting the light. When I’m out I’m always noticing the colours and the light. So whenever I see that and I’m skating I always try to step back and be like “whoa, look at these trees in the background and the way it all ties together and everything.” Also, I’ve never had a super wide lens, so I’d have to lurk back a bit for fear of cropping limbs off or something and that might have had an effect on it. I think also for Trucks and Fins I tend to do that a bit more, but skateparks are amazing architectural features with all the lines and the curves and just trying to play around with that is fun.

I was planning on asking you whether seeing pictures in skate mags had had any influence on you wanting to take pictures or whether it had more to do with just wanting to document stuff. I get it from your story that it was mostly the documenting side of it.

Goodness, I had a little 110 Kodak camera in the seventies. I loved to just sneak around and take shots of my friends when they weren’t looking, you know, like playing spy. Later it was probably skateboarding and wanting to document that. And also wanting to fit in with the skateboarding crew. I was a bit younger and so I wanted a good reason to be around. Of course even after I got over these insecurities and I was skating with them I’d still always have a camera with me. I had a friend that used to laugh at me at shows and he’d say “yeah, next to the band, the guy with the camera is the next interesting person.” I was never able to play that up to my advantage.

Right now I’m really anxious to be able to go out and get lost in all of Portugal’s nooks and crannies, and to the eastern part of the country where it’s drier and rolling, and of course if there’s a bowl or a half-pipe or some place to skate I’ll shoot that as well.

There’s this writer called Elijah Wald, he has some really good books on the blues and on rock n’ roll. On one of them he says that he used to go to these dances when he was a kid and the guys who could dance always got all the girls. And so, as he couldn’t dance, he learned to play the guitar, which made him the next interesting guy. It’s kind of the same thing.

Of course, who doesn’t want to feel cool like “oh, I’m documenting this”. But now being older I’m just happy I did it. I just scanned some old band shots this past weekend and I had some of Babes in Toyland. And I know Lori [Barbero] and all of them and they love it when I post old shots. It’s good that we have those memories and it’s different, because that’s what everyone has now with their phones and everything. Doing it back then it was a little more select, maybe a little more special. I don’t know what’s going to happen to this generation when they’re my age and they have so much from their past to look at. It’s good to look back but also to keep going forward. There are some things I love about digital, it doesn’t seem as enduring. It gets done and stored into a digital file that could very well disappear, where film to me has this real physical permanence. So when I do go out and take skate shots today, I take my film camera with me but I wait ‘til the session is really happening, then I go back to my old film skills, where I just want to get two or three really good shots. I’m not a film-only elitist at all, I know what I like and I enjoy shooting both. Right now I’m really anxious to be able to go out and get lost in all of Portugal’s nooks and crannies, and to the eastern part of the country where it’s drier and rolling, and of course if there’s a bowl or a half-pipe or some place to skate I’ll shoot that as well.

It’s a good excuse to get around, right? You plan a roadtrip to go skate and have fun and you get to see the rest of it.

Yeah, it’s a little harder now, when you get older, but it was really the calling card back then, when skateboarding wasn’t as massive. You would roadtrip and connect, you’d get a hold of people and crash on couches and skate their ramps or bowls. I’d say every third weekend we’d go somewhere else just to meet up with friends and do that. Today it’s a little harder, not just because I’m older, but because back then you had such a small scene that you were really excited to meet another skater. I went to visit my sister in Minneapolis in 1983. I was at a mall and had my “Skate and Destroy” Thrasher t-shirt and this kid came up to me and asked me if I was skater then looked down and checked my shoes to kind of make sure. He was like “we got a half-pipe down the road” and gave me his number because he knew from my accent I was from out of town. He did exactly the same things we were doing down south. He had a skatezine and a backyard vert ramp, you know, the whole eighties skate kit you had back then, but it opened a door and I met people at that session the next day that I’m still friends with now. Today I don’t know if it’s as easy to make these connections, but it’s still exciting and vibrant. I go to the park down here in Estoril [Parque das Gerações] and despite some of the park design issues and the maintenance or whatever, it’s a really vibrant scene. You see whole families there watching and skating and it’s very different from when I grew up, where if you were a skater you might as well be an alien. Of course we also liked that because it made us rebels but I like that it’s now being seen as a viable thing to do. There’s the downside that it gets marketed more but I’ll take the good with the bad. I also really like to see so many girls riding because for so long, skateboarding was such a boys’ club. When you get a bunch of teenage boys together talking smack, it’s sometimes not the most respectful atmosphere, so it’s good that there’s this balancing factor coming forward.

When I started skating back in 99-2000, I never got deep enough into the skate scene where I got to travel and meet other skaters, but I know some people in Portugal have similar stories to yours. Still, to European eyes, there’s something about America being the place where it really happened, so there’s this sort of authenticity about your story that fascinates me, it’s like I’m watching the Nine Club.

The funny thing is I came from a really small town that was not tied into the scene but we had some guys that lived there that had been around. And we were about five, six hours from Texas, that really influenced southern skateboarding. I don’t know if you remember Zorlac Skateboards, Craig Johnson, John Gibson, but these guys would drop by our town whenever they went off towards the East coast. There was a small scene but when you showed up to other people’s ramps sometimes you’d see these pros you saw in the magazines, like Monty Nolder or John Gibson, and you learned really quickly they were skateboarders just like you, they were accessible. So some of my favourite memories have to do with befriending some of these pros and getting to go on roadtrips with them. We did feel cool but, still, I wouldn’t sell Portugal or Europe short. Even when the magazines were coming out back in the day, we’d read Transworld and they’d always seem to have some freestylist from Iceland, there was always some ditchy-looking skatepark in England. And we knew of the Swedish [Eurocana] skate camp where the Mctwist was figured out on one of the first big transition ramps. Then Spain too. I had a friend from the States who moved to Barcelona and that’s all he could talk about – street skating in Barcelona in the early 2000’s, how everyone was showing up there to ride. So, you know, I’d say Europe is a player, it might not get in the limelight but the stories are there, and I’m sure Portugal stories are there too. I bet there are some guys around that can really tell what it was like. Because I come from Mississippi in what we called a backwater scene there was safety in numbers, we all hung out together in a tight community and I can only imagine Portugal has a similar story. As it wasn’t that mainstream I’m sure the people who did it were probably more dedicated, so, yeah, find those people, I want to hear those stories.

I do have my artsy side and I love capturing a good visual. But I guess if I had a style it would be not having one, I just like documenting everything.

Yeah, it’s true, I’ve recently interviewed the skatepark builder João Sales and he sort of told me a similar story to yours, set here in Portugal. Speaking of skateparks, I’d like to go into your punk rock photography, but first I have to ask you about this skatepark you shot. It’s the weirdest skatepark I’ve seen, it’s fascinating and it just looks unskateable. Do you remember the Samora Correia skatepark?

Oh that one! It is unskateable. I don’t know if [T&F co-founder] Haroun told you my idea: in doing this tour we found some skateparks that are completely unskateable and that is the top one. What we need to do is have a Triple Crown Event over a couple of weekends, invite all the skaters over to ride these bad skateparks, and that one would be the crown jewel. Whoever designed that skatepark had no idea, no clue, and if you can do anything on it, you’re a great skater.

It really is amazing. I’m thinking Salvador Dali designed it. Because you get to recognize the features that you’d think naturally belong in a skatepark, like rails and stairs, but they’re all in the wrong places. It’s a surrealist skatepark.

I thought it was meant to be ironic. We just sat there for fifteen minutes looking at all the lines that could never happen. It was funny, but it’s also a sad commentary. Obviously that town had good intentions, I don’t want to be insulting nor mock people, but maybe next time they could talk with some skateboarders first. That park is so humorously wrong that you kind of have to go there just to get a good laugh. Yeah, I think it would be hilarious to throw a contest there to see what anyone could do. It would be fun, and it would also bring attention to better skatepark design. Any more questions?

Yeah, I’d like to get into the rock n’ roll part now. I saw some gear shots on your instagram page. Are you in a band?

Oh man, I used to be in a lot of bands. Once again, back in the eighties that was part of the whole skatepunk kit. You either got a bass or a guitar, I happened to be handed a bass. That was part of the image, I guess. In 1985 I was in a little punk rock band called Spastic Fury. I played with other things off and on, throughout the nineties, and I think my last gig with any sort of semblance of a group was about five years ago. I still play, I have a studio right here, with my amps and my instruments. Music for me is like a model train, I do it for my enjoyment and if I can pull it together and play something out live and people like it, great. One thing that excites me is that there are some really great musicians in Portugal. I’ve been following Tó Trips and I got to see the Dead Combo on what was going to be one of their last tours and then I saw his new band [Club Makumba]. His solo stuff – I love the dusty guitar, I love what he’s doing with all the variations... it’s Iberian, there’s some spaghetti western in there but there’s also a Portuguese sound. And then his new project, that drummer, wow, there’s something like these old Portuguese colonies sounds creeping in, these polyrhythms... it’s an interesting melting pot. So, yeah, I do look forward to meeting some musicians and throw some ideas around.

I was lucky to have some great musicians back home that I played with over the years. Those music scenes in the eighties and nineties were much like the skate scene, there was a community there. Again, with the camera I could have a foot in the door and then they’d find out I played bass as well and the next thing you know I got set up in a band or two. I probably have as much music stuff and band shots from that era as I do skateboarding.

I was lucky to have some great musicians back home that I played with over the years. Those music scenes in the eighties and nineties were much like the skate scene, there was a community there.

Did you get to shoot any bands you really really liked?

Oh yeah... I mean, who didn’t love Fugazi? I caught their first tour camera in hand. But the funny thing is, when I first moved to Minnesota, after high school, I was living in this punk rock house and bands were always crashing on our couch. Once there was a band coming from California and they were having a hard time getting a gig in town. They ended up playing in my friends Chad and Josh’s basement for about twenty of us, and that was Green Day. And that’s actually where the singer met his future wife Adrienne. She was this cool, punk rock... well, goddess, if you will. Small world, her brother is Steve Nesser, the old Birdhouse pro, and that’s how close these scenes are. Lots of overlap.

But yeah, I do have some band shots like that. I’m trying to think of bands I like... I’ve got a couple of good, crusty shots of Mark E. Smith in one of his many reincarnations of The Fall. Phenomenal... There’s a club in Minneapolis called the 7th Street entry, it’s an institution, and there’s a corner next to the stage where there’s a little bit of brick sticking out and you can stand on that with your heels and lean up against one of the bass monitors in the ceiling and kind of wedge yourself in there. For about three or four years when I was first living there and going to shows religiously, that was my corner and so I have many shots from that tight corner, looking out at bands.

So yeah, I guess I love music too. And maybe if I did one thing, I could catch up and actually finish one thing. Of course my main work has been my profession, which is teaching. The skateboarding I love, I still do, not as much as I’d like to. The bass playing I enjoy, I plug in about every other day, occasionally I write my own melodies and songs. And yes there’s the photography. Maybe if I quit three of those and just focus on one I could finish something. I’m sure when the time comes and I kick the bucket I’m gonna have fifty unfinished projects and that’ll be my epitaph “almost got it done but...”

I’m sure that won’t happen. But it’s a cheery note to wrap this up on. Is there anything you’d like to add?

I covered a lot of ground, thank you for the opportunity, because I haven’t talked about this stuff in a long time. But I’m happy to share and if after seeing my photos you have any more questions, just let me know.

Thanks, Glen.

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