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Contrast Magazine
Sam Muller

Sam Muller
Words / Travis Hancock

If you ask Sam Muller how, over the course of his teenage years, he went from a kid filming amateur skate videos with his friends to a respected photographer in the skate industry, he says it’s sheer luck, a right place right time kinda thing. But, unlike Sam, luck doesn’t sit in the California sun for six hours straight shooting sequences of a nearly impossible trick. Luck doesn’t often haul a hundred pounds of lighting gear over an eight-foot chain link fence. And luck doesn’t go very far when shooting intimate portraits of skate legends, musicians and Oscar-winning directors. At the ripe, hairy age of 24, Sam has the work ethic of a seasoned vet, matched by a knack for precision on the order of German engineering. But for all this, he’s humble about his success, and less interested these days in exploiting skating’s mainstream than in branching out, exploring new subjects and terrain—from ballet to his Hollywood Hills hometown.

Chilling at a skatepark a few weeks prior to his recent amicable departure from Transworld Skateboarding Magazine, Sam took some time to chat while that day’s subjects warmed up their legs.

 
Travis: What came first for you, skateboarding or photography?
Sam Muller: Skating did. I started skating when I was ten. My friend from elementary school got me into it. I remember being like, ‘Woah, he can get his fuckin’ board off the ground! That’s crazy!’ He was really good in my eyes. I had a little video camera and, I don’t even know why, but it was my first instinct to want to film him. I didn’t even really care if I was good or bad at skating at the time—I still don’t. I just wanted to film him all the time and he fucking hated it! He was like ‘Don’t film me. Do not take that camera out.’

So you started filming a friend and somehow that translated into a career?
Yeah, I was filming skating for a while, and I would go on this Internet board, get my work critiqued, and people were like, “You… suck at this.” I’ll never forget this, after I posted a video of my friend Max Karish doing a line of tricks in his driveway, this one kid commented, “Please refrain from smoking crack before filming lines.” It was at that point that I was like, ‘maybe this isn’t for me.’ And that same website had a photography section, and I really liked all the skate photos and I started getting into that. Then I went on a family vacation to Africa, and I brought my video camera but didn’t even take it out of the bag. I was just bugging my dad the whole time for his still camera, and when I got back, I sold my [Sony] VX1000 and bought a still camera.

What kind of camera?
A Nikon F100—my first camera. Actually, my dad gave me a [Canon] AE1 back in the day, but I never really used it. The F100 was the first camera that I bought myself; I researched it and knew what I was doing.

How did buying your first camera result ultimately in a job at Transworld?
Sheer luck really. I was shooting skating and I would nerd out on skate magazines. I would look at photos on the Transworld website and, I don’t know if they knew what they were doing, but they had these extremely high resolution scans of a lot of Oliver Barton, Mike O’Meally, and Dave Chami photos. So I would download them and study every inch to learn composition and those kinds of things. Then, one day I went with a friend visiting from Australia to Samy’s Cameras. I remember we were holding a digital Hasselblad with a fisheye lens on it, and this guy walks up and says, “Ya guys know how much money ya playing with?” I was like, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’ I had no idea who it was, and my Australian friend was like, “That’s Mike O’Meally.” I was like, “No way!” Then we ran into him in the parking lot outside and he gave us a bunch of film and a couple of boards that were in his trunk and he said, “Hey, I need some help. You wanna scope some spots and help me with photo stuff?” We reached a mutually beneficial agreement. I ended up helping him for a few years, and he eventually asked if I wanted to be an intern at Transworld. So I started interning there when I had just turned 19, in 2009. I was just a year in at Art Center College of Design.

You more or less ended up camping out at Transworld, right?
Yeah, I was down there three or four days a week. With my school schedule in blocks, I would have class all day for two or three days, and the rest off, so I would go down there with a sleeping bag and sleep in the office. In retrospect, I have no idea how I did that. I’d wake up in the morning to a bunch of chipper people who have already had their coffee, like “Good morning! Good morning!” and I’m down on the floor rubbing my eyes.

What was the most important thing you had to learn during the internship?
You really just gotta do what has to be done, no questions asked. Especially if you’re an intern, you’ve gotta learn that, especially if you eventually want to work with these people. You have to make them happy.

In your work you seem drawn to stark colors, silhouettes and sharp lines. A balance between foreground and background. Where does that come from?
I like to have stuff in the foreground because it feels like it adds depth to the photo, and makes it feel three dimensional. Sometimes it’s subconscious, but sometimes I look for elements in the photograph that can give it some depth. And as for lines, I grew up in a Lloyd Wright house, son of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and my parents and aunt and uncle have always been into architectural stuff. They had architectural books around the house and I remember looking at those in the early days and being like, “Wow, these are fucking incredible.” Architectural photography is all about having your lines straight, and having everything really perfect and neat. So I think that kind of had an influence on me.

That shows in the photo of Raven Tershy doing the frontside ollie from the bank into the column.
That was my first cover. That’s in Panama.

What about the Guy Mariano pole jam shot from the “Lakai: Venice to Venice” feature? What kind of choices went into that?
I didn’t have much wiggle room on that project, which is really nice sometimes. I was working really closely with the director of the commercial, Federico Vitetta, and he wanted it all to look like it was shot from a boat, so every angle that we chose was from the water or low, as if it was from the water. That photo almost ruined the entire commercial shoot. Guy had three of the exact same board set-up, so it would look like it was all one continuous day, and he had already lost two the day before, so he was on his last board. He did the pole-jam before Feds was set up to film it, and the sun was setting, and we were in the middle of a pretty busy canal. And then on the first try when he was filming he flipped forward and his board just shot into the water, so we had no more boards for him to skate. We were trying to get them to overnight some boards for him to skate; it was a crazy situation. So as far as the angle goes, that was that. We settled on that for the video camera, and tried to have some continuity.

What about spots where there is no geographic or creative limitation, and you have free reign to shoot? How long does it take you to figure out the right angle?
I mean, it depends, but usually I know where I am going to shoot it from, but I don’t just settle for that. I’ll walk around for maybe five or ten minutes to see where else I might not have thought of originally. Some people just get to the spot and want to get the trick crackin’ and you have to think really quickly on your feet. Sometimes you just have to go with your first instinct, and then sometimes you think afterwards like, “Shit, why didn’t I think of that?” But you can’t beat yourself up about that kind of stuff.

What interested you in branching out from shooting skate tricks into shooting more portraits of pro skaters?
Well, as you get older, at least for me, the tricks start to lose their “wow-factor” after being around it for so long. You know you just get used to seeing that kind of stuff, and then you want a little bit more, and want to figure out who the people are doing the tricks. So I’ve been focusing a lot on that. When you sit down and shoot a portrait you talk to somebody and get to know them. It’s pretty intimate because it’s just you and them. I wanted to get to know these people better and I realized that through that you can meet anybody in the world, like actors, musicians, aid workers, anybody and learn anything through photography. Through some assignments when I got to shoot portraits for Transworld I realized that there’s this whole other world out there and I really liked it.

It seems like the crew you have shot for a long time, your group of friends, have all pulled each other up through the ranks. Do you feel like there’s a mutual benefit thing going on?
Yeah, I think it’s great. I remember reading this article, again, in Transworld, when I was younger by Scott Pommier called, “How to Steal My Job,” and he wrote that he kind of rode the coattails of Mark Appleyard, and I thought that was crazy that you could do that. But I remember when Elijah Berle started getting hooked up, I could see some similarities between the situations. And then Ryan Spencer started getting hooked up, and Adrian Adrid started getting hooked up. Everyone is putting their own work in individually, but when you’re connected like that people on the outside just notice a bit more. That really helps.

A lot of people have noticed. So what’s next?
I just started working on a personal project about the Hollywood Hills—a mixture of portraiture and landscape. It’s a way to explore where I’m from, which I never really did. The place is so big and so intricate and I’ve gotten fascinated with photography as a way to explore every inch of that area, and find out what it means to me to have grown up there. It’s interesting to me because it’s this place to people that they love so much and like to talk about, and are fascinated by, but none of them have really explored it.

This feature can be found printed over 12 pages in Contrast 14
Sam Muller

For more about Sam Muller:
sammuller.com
@sammuller