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|| News Item: Posted 2002-05-27

What's your Sport of Choice?
By Alan Greth, Contra Costa Times

Photo by
How did you get involved with professional sports photography?

Let me take a guess: You watched Pro football, baseball or basketball on TV as a kid and thought; "I like this. I want to be a part of this. I want to meet the players, be on the field."

From talking to people between the ages of 5 and 50, this scenario plays itself out around the country thousands of times every year. As all of us working professionals who read Sports Shooter know, dreaming about your future is a key ingredient to actually finding yourself on the field of play of a major professional sporting event. I am in the category mentioned above. A sport is what inspired me to borrow my father's 35 mm Mamiya. The thing that separates me from many other professional shooters is the sports that pushed me into photography. Skateboarding.

While the mainstream in Northern California in 1977 was down at the roller rink skating backwards to the Bee Gees and other disco crap, I was across the parking lot at the local skateboard park flying out of swimming pools with the Sex Pistols blaring from the PA system. I can still remember the disco geeks coming out of the roller rink and looking at us like we were zoo animals. You see, my teenage sports idol was not Hank Aaron, Jerry West or Wayne Gretzky. My Idol was a 19 year-old Santa Monica surf rat and skateboard pioneer named Tony Alva.

Dogtown is Born.

Photo by
In the mid 70's Alva was part of a Santa Monica-based group of skaters that was pushing the limits of this sport and laying the foundation for what ESPN now calls "extreme" sports. Alva and other skateboard pioneers are currently featured in a new Sony film called "Dog-Town and Z-Boys." You may have to look hard at the film listings to find this movie because as usual, the mainstream is still fed the same lame crap and this great documentary is not being marketed well by Sony and the new world order. In the 70's it was disco and "Saturday Night Fever" providing the opiate to the mainstream.

Today it's "Star Wars" and "Spiderman", a 60 year-old comic book remake. How original.

Times do Change.

It is very strange for me to walk into the local mall now and see a Vans shoe store. You see, I was wearing Vans 25 years ago. Back then, Vans was a small shoe outfit based in Anaheim called Van Doren Rubber Company.

In the 70's and 80's I would order my Vans directly from the factory because there were no Vans stores in the mall. The kids at school would look at me and my buddies like we were from Mars. Needless to say with "Saturday Night Fever" at the top of the Charts, most high school girls in Northern California were not interested in guys wearing "funky skateboard shoes".

Of course some people and media companies did pick up on skateboarding. Skateboarder Magazine provided the world with a secret window into the world of the Southern California skateboarding scene. The stunning photography was infectious. Young photographers like Glen E. Friedman and Mark Boster filled the pages. I couldn't get enough of it.

Beautifully lit and composed photography of guys flying 5 feet out of an empty swimming pool or homemade ramp were amazing. Some of these photographers were using multiple off-camera lights with gels, slow shutter speeds, the works. I learned more about sports photography from the pages of Skateboarder Magazine than anywhere I can remember. Even today with skateboarding rising to near mainstream, skating magazines still push the boundaries of our craft. I encourage anyone to drop the 5 bucks next time your sipping latte in a Borders and check out the skating magazines. You'll see more than guys pushing the AF button on the EOS and burning an entire roll of film of some running back coming straight at them.

Rule Number 1.

Photo by Alan Greth/Contra Costa Times

Photo by Alan Greth/Contra Costa Times
Over the last 20 years I have photographed just about every professional sporting event you can think of. I never once asked a player for a broken bat, an autograph, a used jersey or other freebies you sometimes hear about. I was proud of this after being face to face with people like Magic Johnson, Joe Montana, Mark McGwire and others.

But this 20 year streak recently came crashing to a halt when I took an assignment to photograph the director of "Dogtown and Z-Boys" along with one of its stars, Tony Alva.

Two of the things I am most passionate about came slamming together as Peralta and Alva made the rounds on a media junket to support their new film. Photography and skateboarding. Before the assignment I was thrown back to my rookie days in photography. Nervously calling Robert Hanashiro for lighting tips, testing my lighting kit, plotting my route to the San Francisco hotel where I would meet the two legends. To me this was like meeting Muhammad Ali and Joe Montana.

I arrived at the hotel over an hour early and immediately started scouting for a location to shoot the two skating icons. As usual the Hotel was dark, dingy, old and parking was 22 bucks. Isn't photography fun? Having been in this situation countless times before, I made my way to the roof of the hotel. This was more like it! Old rusty window panes, machinery and a crappy view of San Francisco. I made a few frames with the D1 that I later showed to Alva and Peralta to get them to agree to go to the roof. Chalk up another point for the Nikon D1. It's a lure.

Breaking Rule number 1.

Photo by Bob Pepping/Contra Costa Times

Photo by Bob Pepping/Contra Costa Times
As I was introduced to Tony Alva and Stacey Peralta by a publicity person (who had no idea who she was representing) I broke my own 20 year-old moratorium on autographs. I pulled out an 11x17 picture of Alva flying out of a Santa Monica swimming pool knownas the Dog Bowl and asked him to sign it. He was stunned that I had the picture (It was one of the movie stills provided in the press kit) and of course signed it. For me, this was a Jerry Rice jersey, a Cal Ripken glove and a Barry Bonds home run ball all in one. I had finally met The Athlete that I had idolized for 20 years.

Great way to Make a living.

That, my friends is why I am still in this business. After 20 years you can still get goose bumps and sweaty palms on your way to work.

(Alan Greth is the Executive Photo Editor of the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay Area. Alan can be reached via email:

Related Links:
Dogtown And Z-Boys DVD
Dogtown: The Legend of the Z-Boys

Related Email Addresses: 
Alan Greth:

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