Off the rails
SKATING: With this photograph taken in Kenmare in 2000, Richard Gilligan launched his career in skate photography, he tells Eoin Butler
ON A COLD, CRISPmorning in the winter of 2000, 19-year-old Richard Gilligan stood on the banks of the Kenmare River, his feet muddy and camera poised. A hundred metres away, his friend Bruce Kelliher was nervously clutching his skateboard and swaying slightly in the breeze. It was just after daybreak and Our Lady’s Bridge, outside Kenmare in Co Kerry, was deserted.
If any motorists had been passing at that early hour, it’s unlikely they’d have spotted Kelliher perched, as he was, nine metres above them, atop one of the bridge’s shaky iron arches.
After getting his bearings, Kelliher offered Gilligan a thumbs up. The signal was duly returned. Kelliher took a deep breath, stepped on to the skateboard and pushed away.
It was a stunt the Tralee man had been planning for years, and one, he concedes today, which was more than a little reckless. But he executed the descent successfully and, months later, Gilligan’s photo appeared as a double-page spread in the San Francisco skate bible Slap. Irish skateboarding had arrived.
Kelliher was quickly offered sponsorship deals by several skate companies. But he wasn’t the only one getting noticed. “That picture opened up so many doors for me,” admits Richard Gilligan today. “People were used to seeing guys shoot stunts like that in America or Australia, but never in Ireland.” Skate magazines in Britain and Europe took notice. Work offers flooded in.
The intervening years have seen Gilligan – who has a degree in documentary photography from the University of Wales – branch out into editorial, fashion, portrait and commercial work. But skate photography was his first love and, next month, he’s exhibiting 30 of his favourite pieces, selected from over the past 14 years.
Skateboarding has taken the 28-year-old Dubliner all over the world. But this exhibition concentrates on the Irish skateboarding scene, as he has witnessed it develop. From summers in Tramore, Co Waterford, to his time as one of the stalwarts of Dublin’s nascent skate scene in the early years of this decade, Gilligan and his camera have been there.
So does Ireland pose any unique challenges for a skate photographer? He nods. “In California or Australia the sky is blue and the light is crisp,” he says. “So they can use natural light, even to capture an object at high speed. In Ireland, we’re more restricted.” Another problem, at least in the early years, was a lack of officially designated skating areas. “Very often we were dodging security guards and gardaí.”
His background as a skater has proven invaluable. “When someone is flying down a handrail, or jumping across a gap, you have a split second in which to capture that moment. That’s something you can tune into, but when you skate yourself it’s quite intuitive.” It has also given him access that an outsider could never have dreamed of.
“Before the Tony Hawks game came out on the Sony Playstation, 10 or 15 years ago, skaters got heckled on the street,” he recalls. “There was a core of about 30 to 40 of us and I was the only one with a camera. You couldn’t have taken these pictures, I don’t think, if you weren’t in the inner circle.”
Fittingly, his new exhibition, Timeline, is being held in the Plane/Site Gallery on Lad Lane, just off Baggot Street – once a favoured haunt of Dublin’s skating fraternity. He has asked his insurers about the possibility of installing a skate ramp on site for the opening, but has yet to hear back. Is he expecting a big reunion? He smirks. Some have drifted away from the hobby over the years, but he reckons he’s still in close contact with about 80 per cent of the skateboarders featured in the show. Many of them are married with children now. One is a marketing manager for a well-known telecommunications company. “We’re still really passionate about it,” he says. “Even if some only get out once or twice a month.”
Before I leave, I ask which is his favourite photo in the show. It immediately occurs to me that this is a silly question. He points to the photograph of Bruce Kelliher hurling down the steep arch of Our Ladies’ Bridge in Kenmare. Gilligan and Kelliher are still great friends; Gilligan is godfather to Kelliher’s second child, Mason.
“It was the first photo I’d ever had published,” he beams. “And it was published in my favourite ever magazine. In a double spread! It was just a dream come true for me. I remember queuing up outside Tower Records each morning for weeks, to see if it had arrived. And when it finally did, I bought all 15 copies. So no one else in Ireland even saw it.”
Timeline is at the Plane/Site Gallery, Lad Lane, Dublin 2, November 3rd-8th