Tobin Yelland first picked up his stepdad's camera and took a class at the De Young Museum aged fourteen. A year later, he had his first photograph published in Thrasher magazine and a year after that he shot his first ad for Venture Truck Company. Now, twenty-six years on, Tobin is a successful professional photographer and filmmaker who has worked with people like Ed Templeton, Aaron Rose, Josh Leonard and Jon Barlow producing documentaries like Beautiful Losers and work for Nike, DVS, DC, Casio, The New York Times, Sony and Vans.
OK. Let's start this, what's going through your mind at the moment you take a picture? Are there any rules that you follow or is it a case of point and shoot?
I like to feel good about my camera and know what kind of film I have in it, then I just wait for something in me to say ''hey, why not take a picture of that?'' Or I might be hanging out with people and after taking a light reading I?d just be waiting for something to happen that might make a good picture. The exact moment I take a picture is hard to explain. There are so many variables.
What cameras do you like to use?
I like the Leica M6 with 35mm, 50mm and 75mm. I also like Olympus XA for on the fly shooting and the Contax 645 for smaller medium format shooting as well as a Mamiya 7 for it?s 6x7cm frame size.
Do you print your own photographs?
I don?t have a darkroom at the moment but I am looking for one. Black and white is my specialty, but I like to print color as well. When I need to print I rent a darkroom or go to a friend?s school and print.
I understand that you do some illustration too, how did the collaboration with Keep come about?
I love to draw, my favorite subjects are my cameras. Una at Keep asked me to make a camera drawing for a t-shirt, it was fun and challenging for me. I like drawing still life or sometimes I like to draw from photographs in books I like, such as Danny Lyon ? The Bikeriders, Bruce Davidson - Brooklyn Gang and Larry Clark - Teenage Lust.
Are you planning any shows or zines with your illustration?
Yes, I'm having a show in Portland, Oregon in late September at The Department of Skateboarding. I'm also working on illustrating a short story for Melisa Ip.
Did you draw much as a kid?
Yes, I loved drawing as a kid but it's easy to loose that drive. My mom encouraged me to keep going.
What started your interest in photography?
My mom and dad had cameras so just using their cameras was my first introduction to photography.
Were your parent?s artists or just into photography and illustration?
My mom is a painter and my dad paints as well as jewellery making.
Did you study photography at all?
I took summer classes during middle school to learn how to print and develop film, then another more advanced black and white printing class. I also took a three-day workshop with William Kline, Pedro Meyer and Larry Clark.
That?s quite an impressive line up. Did the class have a lasting effect on your photography?
I got back from the workshop super excited to make pictures, I was on a mission. I felt like I had figured out a direction, so for the next ten years I mostly photographed my friends. I'm trying to figure out what I'm doing now as well, I have started to shoot more New Yorkers as well as shooting stills for movies. I?m having a show in Burlington, Vermont this summer that I'm making a film about New York for.
Ed Templeton says that you are responsible for him realising that he had a privileged access to the inner world of skateboarding, the documenting of which formed a large part of his early work. How?d you feel about that? In many ways both yours and Ed?s images have had significant effect on the visual language of skateboarding.
I feel good about influencing Ed with photography. Ed has influenced me with his drawing and paintings. We have gotten together a lot over the last fifteen years and its great to share ideas and get each other excited about making more artwork.
What's your involvement with Skate book?
I showed them some pictures and then they ran a portfolio feature of my work. They do a great job at making their books.
Are there any solo book projects in the pipeline for you?
I am working on a book about skateboarding which consists of black and white photographs of northern Californian skaters in the 90s. I have at least one more book planned for that which I will take care of after that.
That was a great period for skateboarding. Are there any standout memories from that time? You were living with Luke Ogden and Bryce Kanights, is that right?
I lived with Bryce and Luke for a year and then lived with Luke for two more. For a while I lived with Luke Ogden, Julien Stranger, Mickey Reyes in a warehouse which was a lot of fun. We would throw huge parties and everyone would come stay with us. I was just getting established as a skate photographer at the time, I spent every day shooting everyone and every night making prints in our darkroom. Mickey was a cop so we would shoot his gun in the house and smash beer bottles on the floor. Tons of fun.
Your work featured in the Beautiful Losers show and you're quite involved in the accompanying documentary. Is it possible to sum up this experience and your involvement in it?
I made five 16x20 inch prints for the first three shows, then when I heard the show was going on tour I made four 40x60 inch prints for the rest of the tour. The museum tour just ended recently after five years. The show went all over the US and Europe. As for the documentary I was the director of photography. I shot all of the primary footage with the HD camera and lots of the archival footage in the film. I was also the co-producer, it was great to work with people like Aaron Rose, Josh Leonard and Jon Barlow. We were together for all the interviews, It was great to have a small crew.
Have you noticed that having been involved in the Beautiful Losers show has opened doors for you as an artist?
Beautiful Losers is the biggest show I have been in so I am really honoured to be included in it. The shows have helped my status as a fine artist as well as commercial work I produce. It?s great to be associated with all the amazing artists involved.
Were any of those artists included, other than your immediate peers, idols of yours as you were developing as an artist?
I look up to Stecyk's photographs, he did a lot of amazing things for skateboarding. I love his portraits and that sick slalom picture of Jay Adams. Larry Clark, Raymond Pettibone, Glen E. Friedman and Ari Marcopoulos are big inspirations to my work as well.
There were and still are a handful of people putting on similar shows to those curated by Aaron Rose, most notably Rich Jacobs with his Move shows and Marsea Goldberg at the New Image Gallery. What is it about Aaron and Alleged that has generated such phenomenal interest?
Aaron recognised the importance of this art scene very early on which made a lasting impression on the art world. He went on to make multiple books about it like Young Sleek and Full of Hell, Dysfunctional and Beautiful Losers. He made, and still makes, many books with the artists he exhibits and made a feature length documentary that he stars in. He became the figure head for that whole scene after telling the story in the film. Rich Jacobs and Marsea curate amazing exhibitions and continue to be important representatives to that art scene. I think we will be seeing more books and films from them in the near future.
Getting back to your work, do you consider yourself an artist or do you feel more comfortable with being labelled as a photographer or director of photography?
I make photographs and films that are fine art and I make photographs and films that are commercial, I like to do both.
Like a lot of photographers you?ve moved from still images into film. Do you feel that was a natural progression for you?
I got my first experience making skate videos with companies like Stereo. Shortly after that I got a job shooting a music video then one thing leads to the next. Moving images are really amazing, I keep learning more and more every time I shoot. The Red Cam is really nice, I want to get the Scarlet when it comes out.
Are you still in touch with Larry Clark?
I haven't seen him in a while but I still talk to him now and again. Larry came to California in 1990, I took him with me driving around the central valley where he met a lot of the characters that went on to star in his movie Ken Park. Ken Park was going to be Larry's first film but he and the co-director Ed Lachman had a falling out so it didn't get made until much later. Larry says I introduced him to skateboarding. Thomas Campbell introduced Larry to Mark Gonzales, which inspired the Blind video being featured in his film Kids.
When you shoot stills for films, do you get a lot of creative freedom?
Well the first one I did was a pain in the ass because I was inexperienced and had a bitchy producer watching over me. I was totally on my own for Bully and Love Liza. It was great shooting the scenes with such a talented crew and actors.
Did you see the book of stills from Mike Mills' film Thumbsucker by Ed Templeton, Mark Borthwick, Todd Cole, Ryan McGinley and Takashi Homma? I thought that was an interesting approach.
Yes I saw that, it was a really cool book. I love looking at another photographers work and trying to figure out why they chose that particular image, what kind of camera they used etc.
When we last spoke, we talked about a documentary workshop you?d done through Beautiful Losers and Nike?s Make Something project. Is teaching an area that interests you?
I really like the workshops, the Nike Make Something documentary boot camp was really enjoyable, I would do it again. I was really nervous about that, I wasn?t sure that the kids would be into finding a subject on the fly and making something so fast, but they went to town and came back with some really personal short films.
Finally how?s fatherhood treating you?
It?s great. Probably the best thing that?s ever happened to me.