As throngs of skaters filed into the Villain event space in Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Williamsburg neighborhood one night this spring, Arto Saari stood in the middle of the room, texting. It was Saari's first solo photography show, a silent auction benefitting New York skateparks and community outreach through art, which was supported in part by one of his newest sponsors, WeSC. Though Saari admitted to being a bit nervous, he appeared extremely confident as the crowd -- including fellow pros Fred Gall, Richard Angelides and Stefan Janoski -- skated the steep mini-ramp inside the gallery and viewed his work.
Despite his nerves and reserved nature, Saari stood out at the show. He emits cool and is a true presence. It's not surprising that he was selected for a poolside fashion shoot by provocative fashion photographer Tony Kelly for the July 2013 issue of Playboy. (Link contains adult content. See the photo gallery, below, for some of Saari's behind-the-scenes photos from the shoot.) Even though he was posing with some skate legends, including Tony Alva, Stevie Williams and Brandon Biebel, Saari's charisma commanded all the attention.
The skateboarding stills, portraits and candid photos hung on the gallery walls at Villain illustrated more than the moments Saari captured. His life has constantly been about transition, from coming to the United States from Finland in the late 1990s as a teenager barely knowing English, to dealing with massive head injuries -- most notably, one sustained while filming for Flip's "Sorry" video, which left him concussed -- to ultimately pursuing photography while settling into a home with a concrete pool in his backyard.
As the coping clanged in the background of the show and the crowd buzzed, it was obvious that Saari brings confidence and style to his photography and is on his way to mastering another art. We talked to him about his evolution from being in front of the lens to behind it.
XGames.com: You got your first camera from legendary skate photographer Skin Phillips. What were some things you learned from him early on?
Before I got my first camera from Skin, I had some experience in photography. In seventh grade we had an art teacher who let us use a 35 mm camera to shoot photos. That was my first time of really learning about photography, being in the darkroom and seeing prints come to life. It was like, "Wow, this amazing!"
The photography class was only for a month, but we wanted to keep doing it. The teacher eventually let us roll around the school and shoot whatever [we wanted] because we liked it so much. That got me hyped on photography, but I didn't pursue it until about five years later.
I roomed with Skin in Miami on a road trip and he gave me a crash course in shooting black-and-white; he wanted me to start that way. I didn't know what apertures were or what any setting was; I didn't have any of that in my brain.
They say the theory of photography can be taught in an hour -- [surf/skate photographer and artist] Thomas Campbell learned in two hours over the phone in Europe -- but knowing the theory is only one part. Skin taught me and gave me a cheat sheet with some notes about how to set the camera to shoot skating. I ended up losing the sheet and wish I still had it because it would be an amazing piece to have. I learned to always overexpose to keep the black in there. I would always ask him questions, but he'd say, "I gave you the notes, just look."
Your portraits really stood out at your show in Brooklyn. What are some of your favorites?
The Jay Adams photo is one of the best ones I've taken, along with the one of Lance Mountain. I've been trying to shoot portraits for a while, but you don't wanna see the contact sheets! There's a lot of trial of error. I didn't have much time with Jay Adams; it was one of the first frames I shot, actually.
For the one of Andrew Reynolds, [longtime skate photographer] Atiba Jefferson asked me to shoot a portrait of [Reynolds] and my whole body went to noodles. I had to shoot it in five minutes, so I just tried to figure out what to do, but the light ended up being good. He had that Biggie [Smalls] shirt on; it was just perfect. He was pumped after the session because he got a trick, so he had the attitude.
What makes a skateboarding shot interesting to you, especially when a trick isn't involved?
Some of my favorite photos are just about the feel of the moment. They have passion and rawness -- more than shooting with flashes. There's something about skating that looks better when it's not over-produced. I love flashes and set-up shots, but there's a certain feel to a more spontaneous shot; sometimes it has to do with light.
There's more to skating than just the tricks. Sometimes a pushing photo says more than a switch-flip back lip on a rail. I was recently shooting pushing photos in New York; I love that stuff. It might not mean much to a magazine, but that's such a huge part of skating. Some well-shot photos let you see yourself there; you can smell the city. They can be really powerful.
Longtime pro skateboarder Arto Saari has developed his middle-school interest in photography into a second career as an admired lensman. Part of his perspective undoubtedly comes from being the subject rather than the shooter. "Skin Phillips. Joe Brook. Jon Humphries. Anthony Acosta. Ryan Allan. Atiba Jefferson. Dan Sturt. There's so many skate photographers who have influenced me," he says. The following slides highlight some of Saari's recent work, including behind-the-scenes shots from the July 2013 Playboy magazine fashion shoot for which he also modeled. Pictured here: Marius Syvanen.
You shoot a lot with natural light. Do you prefer it?
For a while I was super into shooting with crazy lights, but then I [got] more into raw documentary photography. I'm going to Alaska on a motorbike trip, so I'll be left at the mercy of God with light.
It's rad because you have to work around it. Some things you just can't shoot a certain way based on the light. When you light something up, you get fixated on one angle. With natural light you can move around easier.
With every shoot, you want to leave room for something random to happen, and sometimes those are the magic moments. You can guide your vision, but you don't want to close out that moment.
What's it like working with John Cardiel, and did you feel intimidated photographing him? [Video contains profanity. -- Ed.]
That was amazing! I never shot anyone riding a bike before that. I didn't know him at all, but he was confident, just like, "Come out and shoot!"
But it's Cardiel. I thought, "I can't blow this!" I had to make some rad photos.
They came together gradually as we just drove around L.A. I used some powerful strobes for some of the shots. The energy was crazy and I hope it shows through. There were cars on the road; he's surfing around and dodging them. I wanted him to do a skid. It was around 7 p.m. and there were buses going down the road. You couldn't really hear where he was; I was trying to yell and tell him where to go.
There's a moment of stillness and being alone, there's carnage around it, yet there's still a little serenity.
Any advice for someone inspired to take up photography?
Photography is such a weird thing and it's not the easiest way to support yourself. If you're looking at this as a lifestyle, you have to have a lot of passion. You'll blow it a lot, but you need to keep shooting and really edit down your photos. Show the best stuff -- quality over quantity -- but always keep shooting. That's what makes you better.
Getting comfortable is the main thing. A photographer has to be confident and comfortable to make great photos. There's nothing worse than an unconfident shooter; they'll make the subject unsure, too. Lastly, shoot with whatever you got. It's not about equipment.