Bryce Kanights on Photographing Skateboarders in The Air Jordan I
The pro skateboarder and photographer explains some of his iconic images.
Photos: Bryce Kanights
Words: Nic Dobija-Nootens
Skateboarder and photographer, Bryce Kanights, embodies the idea that you don’t stop skateboarding because you get older; you only get older when you stop skateboarding. Born and raised in San Francisco, one of the birthplaces of street skateboarding, Bryce grew up learning how to process film in his father’s darkroom. After picking up skateboarding, he started taking his camera with him to schoolyards, backyard ramps and crusty city spots, capturing the aggressive yet graceful styles of early street pioneers. Often, these guys skated in Air Jordans, so Bryce’s photos became a way to document the shoe’s history within skateboarding. To this day, he skates and shoots photos of up-and-coming skaters for both magazines and his own archive.
Bryce Kanights skateboarding in Air Jordan Is in San Francisco
Bryce himself also rose through the ranks. He landed spots on coveted teams and turned pro. Over time, as Bryce developed his creative skills, he worked at skateboarding institutions such as Thrasher Magazine, and his photographs became time capsules of the unforgettable moments and figures in skateboarding culture. Now, he’s one of its most respected and revered photographers; having your photo taken by Bryce could be considered a turning point for any young skateboarder today. Luckily for the kids, Bryce is still hitting the streets hard.
Here, Bryce talks about his career and documenting the Air Jordan I’s adoption in skateboarding culture, timed to Jordan Brand’s new collaborative AJIs with Nike SB.
Todd Prince skateboarding in Air Jordan Is
In your opinion, why did the Air Jordan I become a popular skate shoe in the ‘80s?
We thought they were really good, because they were leather. They had a thin sole, so you had good board feel, and they had a padded collar, which offered a lot of support; we needed both back then, for street skating. We were using jump ramps to launch into the air and land on flat, so your ankles would often get wrecked.
The Air Jordan I was the best shoe out. I tried the other brands, and they were just too thick. You’d have to drag your foot down the street for a couple blocks until you got the thickness to be just right for skating in.
Bryce Kanights skateboarding in the Air Jordan I
What do you think about Jordan Brand finally collaborating with Nike SB again?
I think it’s come full circle. Back in the late ’80s, we were looking for a skate shoe from Nike, and they weren’t paying attention to the market yet. They’ve been involved as SB, which is considerable, but bringing the Jordan Brand into it, with the original look and feel, is pretty cool.
There’s no other activity that blows through shoes as fast as skateboarding. A pair of shoes, for a skateboarder, can last anywhere from two weeks to a month, and then they’re done. A pair of basketball or tennis shoes might last for months. If you’re in the business of selling shoes, skateboarding wears through them the fastest.
Mickey Reyes skateboarding in Air Jordan Is
You used to go through lots of film rolls to get the right shot for a skate photo. Was it ever a hassle to buy all of it?
Fortunately, it was not an issue, because I was working at Thrasher Magazine, and they paid for most of the film stock. I would give someone I was shooting 10 rolls worth of film to land a trick. If they didn’t land it in that many exposures, I just wouldn’t waste any more film. And that happened. I would throw loads of film away, because it was a bail. So you’d be sitting below a handrail looking at all of this empty film that’s just garbage, which was really a waste.
Skateboarding is progressive, and I wanted to document it. So, by any means necessary, I would get the extra film or spend the extra time to document.
Bryce Kanights skateboarding in Tahiti in 1987
There’s this photo of you skating a demo in Tahiti. How did you end up skating in Tahiti?
So it was 1987, I think in November or December. I got sponsored as the first professional skater for a certain brand, and right away they said, “You’re gonna go to Tahiti and do some skate demos for us.” So, they booked my flight, and I flew over to Tahiti.
Basically, the Ministry of Sport paid for everything. I worked for two days with their carpenters to build the fun box and the half pipe, and then I did a one man demo in front of local Tahitians. There were about 1,500 people, and I was in the newspaper every day doing different demos around the island.
“Skateboarding pushes against rules. We just do things our way. That includes how we wore the Air Jordan I.”
Skate demos today are all done in perfect, concrete skateparks. What do you think those older, DIY demos offered that today’s demos can’t?
I think demos are an art form. You’re creating something skateable with your hands, whether it’s a ramp, a slider bar or a truck tire with a piece of wood connected to it. They’re all skateable architecture and art forms. You’re bringing art and culture to skateboarding, and that’s vital.
That’s the outlet that skateboarding gives us — to create and do things independently. That’s the real beauty of skateboarding.
Chris Lowe and Steve Ruge skateboarding in Air Jordan Is
The skateboarding-inspired Air Jordan I Lows are available at select retailers. The Nike SB x Air Jordan I High colorways release May 25.