Dennis McGrath Interview

by
April 11, 2018

What’s up, where’d you grow up?

I’m originally from Verona, NJ and when I was 13 moved to Houston, TX, which was kind of a trip. When we moved there we all hated it, my mom especially. It was just culture shock, you know, kids were calling me a yankee and shit. I didn’t even know what that meant. But every summer we’d go back East to stay at my aunt’s place in Jersey just so we didn’t have to be in Texas.

And how’d you get into skating?

Like around 1984 my friends in Jersey were skating and they showed me the Bones Brigade video, which had just come out at that time. That video just blew my mind, seeing dudes skate pools and doing airs and stuff, that’s insane if you really think about it. So my brother and I saw that and all we wanted to do was skate, but my mom didn’t want to buy us skateboards. Some parents are weird about shit, but like a year later in April my brother and I both got skateboards and went right back to Houston for school. Ended up that the day we got back there was some contest at the one park in the city, and we saw like, Mark Gonzalez and Christian Hosoi, and that was probably the one thing that inspired us to keep skating. I mean, seeing the Gonz in person back then? Holy shit dude. Doing street plants and 180 allies in place, and the leopard-spotted hair wearing shitty overalls. We didn’t even know about skating or who he really was, but he was just so sick. Oh, and then that night we were sitting up on the deck of the vert ramp and Mark did a boneless like right over my head! It’s kind of a trip to think about now…

That’s amazing, so then you moved back East before going to California?

Yeah we moved back at the end of the ’80s and would go to New York a bunch to skate. It was when Shut was first starting, which was an interesting time. They had one of the best teams back then. Then I moved to San Diego in ’92, skating with Brain Lotti and some dudes, and then I moved to SF in ’94 to go to art school kinda, but really I just wanted to skate. So I went for like a year and a half and starting shooting skate photos, and then Greg Carroll asked me to go on a Think tour one summer, and that was basically when shit started for me as far as working in skating. I ended up quitting school when I got back and just started shooting at first for Transworld and then Think stuff, and then Slap after Transworld. Then I started working at Big Brother for awhile.

Huf, ’97

Alright, we’re getting ahead of ourselves, when did you pick up a camera?

I guess it was around my nineteenth birthday, and funnily enough my brother and I got our cameras on the same day just like our skateboards. We both just wanted to shoot photos of skating, we were just looking at skateboard magazines and that’s honestly what got me into photography. Thank God. Grant Brittain is really the reason, he used to send me film and help me out a bunch. I wouldn’t have been able to shoot skating nearly as much if I was buying my own film that whole time.

I heard you’re a big fan of the Olympus XA camera?

Yeah that’s funny, I just found a bunch of my old ones cause I just moved. My favorite one is the XA4, it’s a 24mm lens and it’s macro so it focuses one foot away, and the strap is also a measuring tape. It’s just so good, I actually just made a book of photos from ’95-2000 shot in New York, and all those photos except, maybe five, were shot on the XA. That’s what I’d carry in my pocket all day out skating, you know?

Do you still process and print all your own stuff?

I used to, but I started getting asthma man. But when Ray Potes had the space at Hamburger Fives, I would just go and develop film and hang out all the time. And then I worked from like 2009-2011. I worked with Ed Templeton in his darkroom, and then started getting so many shows I basically worked for him just printing all his stuff on and off for around four years. So I was in the darkroom so much, and then there was a period when my ex-girlfriend and I moved into a new place and shit got worse. I started waking up at 4am and I just couldn’t breathe for an hour. It was gnarly, and I mean I’m in my 40s now, so I just made a decision that I’m not gonna be in the darkroom anymore. I found a good place to make digital prints so…

Bobby Puleo, late ’90s

Are you going digital also these days?

Yeah, a lot now, for work it’s all digital stuff. I like it, I mean I’ll still shoot black and white film and then digital for color. I was never really into color film anyways.

So how’d you get into the porn industry?

Everyone always thinks that I worked in porno, and that’s fine, I don’t care if they think that, I think it’s kind of funny, but here’s the deal; So late ’90s early 2000s, I worked for Big Brother on salary, shooting mostly in San Francisco. Kosick was down in LA, and Tobin still worked for them a little bit but started doing a lot for them, and then Jackass started, so a bunch of people started working on only that, and one day Carnic called me and asked if I’ move down. So in 2001 I started working at Big Brother, which obviously was in the Hustler building. So I was in the offices for like a year and met a whole bunch of people, who happened to work in porno. One day I got invited to one so I went with this one dude I knew and it was a fucking trip. I had my XA in my pocket, like I always did, and I shot like 10 photos kinda just tripping out. The director was really cool with it and we started talking and it ended up he used to be in that punk band Fear, which was so fucking sick. So I asked him if I could come around and shoot documentary style and he was into it. Then I got busy and didn’t do shit for like three years until I hit him up again.

Kenny Hughes, ’02

What made you hit him up again?

Basically I was living in SF around ’03-’04 and was kind of getting sick of skating and stuff, so I would just save up some dough to rent a car and just drive down to LA, stay with friends and just go to whatever address he gave me. I would just show up with my Leica, two lenses, and a bag of film and I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. Just walk around these houses in the valley and shoot anything. So then I met a bunch of people in the industry, and I ended up dating a girl who directed for punk rock porn I guess. But I mean so many of these people I was around were not “porn” people stereotypically, they all had like masters in fine art or filmmaking, and now mostly have really good jobs. They were making some really cool movies man, just way ahead of their times.

So let’s go back to the East Coast and skating New York…

Back in the late ’80s and stuff we’d go into the city and skate with everyone. Kids like Harold and Hamilton and everybody, they were younger but they were down with the older heads that I was friends with. They started skating so young, I think I met Hamilton when he was like 12 or something. Man, Hamilton was from fucking Harlem, and Harold was from cutty city projects in downtown Manhattan, those kids grew up just so gnarly. I remember Hamilton was kind of angry, and now he’s like the most positive, amazing person and I feel like that’s from skateboarding. They started skating and getting the fuck out of their neighborhood and meeting all these people. Skating’s so rad like that…

Stevie and Karl, ’96

And how was yr brother involved with Supreme?

So I moved to SF in ’94, and the same year my brother Mar moved to New York and started Supreme with James Jebbia. So Mat ran the store for the first year and was kind of the connection to the skate scene, and made them legit by knowing everyone, since he was sales rep for Deluxe earlier in the ’90s. I mean they were like the first boutique skate shop and I think it was really smart what they did. This was basically the time that I started shooting skating full time, so every summer I would just go to New York and kick it basically at Supreme for a month or two. By ’95 there was that whole new crew that kicked it at Supreme, like Mike Hernandez, Ryan Hickey, Justin Pierce, Huf and all those dudes. I had never really skated with them until that time, and it was just so sick to see that first crew in New York and then the next wave and being able to shoot photos of those dudes.

Any new projects in the works?

Yeah definitely, I just dropped ‘What’s up with the hoods out in Astoria’ and I’m working on this Barcelona scrapbook coffee table book thing from the early 2000s with Paradigm Publishing from Philadelphia. I’ve also got this book I’ve been working on for awhile stemming from my time being around pron. But I didn’t want it to be just another behind the scenes photos type book, so it’s more focusing on the fact that I had a long term relationship with a woman who starred in and directed pornographic films. I basically photographed everything the whole time we were together, so there’s so much to go through. It’s just really personal and sometimes there are things I’m a little leery about putting out in the world, so it’s hard to work on. It’s just about being human, and sexuality…I don’t know, our lives are crazy.

Eric Dressen, ’15

In yr opinion who should win SOTY?

Ishod should be SOTY every year.

So what do you think about the presence of skateboarding on national television now?

I hate Street League and all that shit, hearing the dudes announce it makes me want to punch someone in the face. But I loved King of the Road because of the fact that there’s kids taking shits out of trees and just doing whatever they wanted. I feel like kids who don’t skate are watching that shit and being like are you kidding me? I could live like that? And then Epicly Later’d is our culture being represented properly, by Patrick O’Dell, a real skateboarder. It’s fucking sick, and I hope we continue to be represented in that real way, by our people.

Phil Shao, ’95

Tell me about this Phil Shao photo.

Think tour, ’95. This was a fiberglass half pipe in St. Louis that shook when you skated it, and that old Kryptonic board with soft wheels was just leaning up against the ramp. Phil just grabbed it, started skating it and just did that starfish like five feet out. Watching him skate transition is like watching Boston skate flat ground ledges and shit. Unlimited possibilities, you could tell him to do any trick and he’d just pull it first try. He’d skate China Banks like a fucking mini ramp, he’d literally be pumping the walls, smith grinding and tailsliding shit while others were trying to get up it. He was the greatest skateboarder ever. The best skateboarder I ever traveled with, or been around to this day, and that was 20-something years ago.

Alright, final question. Would you recommend staying out late or waking up early?

Wake up early, I’m a morning person. But with that being said, there is something about being out skateboarding at night. To be downtown in a city at 2am with your friends and the homeless people, it’s so special and there’s nothing like it. It’s just freedom man, that what being a skateboarder is.