Mike Ballard got his first skateboard from his Pops. It was a Black Knight with clay wheels sitting under the Christmas tree. He was ten. The board could only help him learn the basics—bombing the driveway, standing and wiggling, gorilla-grippin’, learning balance. His 20” bike would remain his main passion until one day, while shopping for some BMX parts at an open-air market in Colton, California, he came across some of the first urethane wheels. Bennet trucks hit the market shortly after, and with the continual development of skateboard products that were turning the toy into an up-and coming sport, the hunts for sick bike parts ended.
Around the same time, about 1975, his mom and brother took up photography. Mom shot mostly travel pics, big bro was in yearbook class. Mike, always an art geek and taking summer classes in clay sculpture and drawing, became hooked on photography as soon as he held his brother’s K1000 in his hand. Shooting his first few rolls around his neighborhood, it didn’t take long for the lens to point towards skateboarders. He shot his first roll of film of skateboarding at a local ramp, and by 1978 he started lurking around Colton Skatepark shooting some of the local talent.
Throughout the late 70s and early 80s, Mike continued to photograph friends and local pros while skating backyard pools and witnessing the birth of what is now known as street skating. While some of his buddies were pro or going pro, Mike was nowhere near their level skating-wise. While tagging along with those buddies to contests or demos, he noticed a core group of guys always standing on the vert ramp decks and edges of pools, crouching down around the coping with flashes popping off. He realized that if he wanted to be around to witness the quick evolving, revolution of skateboarding in the 1980s, that he needed to hone his craft with the camera.
Street contests started popping up, which initiated a demand for street photos. In 1986, while skating the Central City Mall fountain in San Bernardino California, Legend Duane Peters arrived with some photographers that Mike didn’t recognize. They gave him a business card and told him to submit pics to their mag. Already connected with a solid crew of skaters he’d been shooting for years, Mike became a consistent contributor to PowerEdge magazine—his first published photo being of Eric Benei doing a wallride to fakie. PowerEdge had an anything-goes type of attitude and DIY attack. Look closely, and it is easy to see that a similar attitude and DIY style weaves through the breadth of Mike’s career as well.
The next ten years consisted of bouncing between Phoenix, San Jose, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Visalia, San Diego, San Bernardino, Huntington Beach… Camera in hand, Mike accessed the skate events of the late-80s and early-90s, witnessing history and photographing it. But, like many folks who work those high-excitement, work-is-play jobs that many others would kill to have, Mike also delved into other artistic interests, like recording and playing music-evidence of a hyper mind.
In 1993, a friend asked him to manage Foundation Super Co. and Toy Machine. This required a move to San Diego, which left him, yet again, in a right-place-at-the-right-time scenario. At this time, San Diego was becoming the meca for the street-skating explosion, while many major brands that began to gain influence in skateboarding planted their roots in the San Diego area. This is around the time I first met Mike, when he brought a relatively unknown, eighteen-year-old Chad Muska to my house in Oviedo, Florida, along with the up-and-coming Jamie Thomas, Ed Templeton, Frank Hirata, and Steve Olson were also in tow. Of all these dudes, I found Mike’s career to be most fascinating, and that year I even wrote my career paper in my tenth grade English class about how I wanted to be a skateboarding team manager and skateboard photographer.
Keeping in touch with Mike for the next twenty years or so proved tough. Shortly after meeting him, he accepted a position of Director of Photography at a new skate shoe company called DC Shoe Co. If and when I got him on the phone in the DC days, he was coming back from Australia or headed to Europe with what would become one of the most iconic skateboarding teams in the world. Circling the globe and promo runs were his everyday business, and documenting it was his job. Occasionally, he’d send me a box of stuff that accumulated in his office—wheels pilfered from Rob Dyrdek’s trunk, shirts from the Big Brother office, decks from Supernaut. Almost always in these packages were scrap photos, under-exposed or slightly blurred, discarded shots of folks like Laban Pheidias or Ed Templeton, but the photos always distinctly reflected his style and ingenuity—modified runways made of plywood, unusual uses of lighting, clown suits and funny props.
It seems the demand for Mike’s talent required a high turnover of photography needed for advertisements, magazine articles, product catalogs… Whenever we spoke, he seemed to be on assignment non-stop, just making a living. One month he would be a contributing photographer to three mags, then he’d be a senior photographer at another mag a month or two later. I remember running into him at the 1999 Tampa Pro where he’d been sent with Chad Muska and the Shorties team, and then later that year I found him a mere twenty miles or so from my house working on the set of the first Jackass movie out in Bithlo, Florida. I still regret not calling out from work that that day to hang out, but I knew he would have been too busy shooting photos anyway. I found his old agency’s webpage once and messaged him, only to find out later he’d sold it and was busy flying to Germany all the time shooting car stuff. In short, Mike’s interests and talents are vast and reach far beyond just skateboarding and photography, but in all of the work of his that I’ve seen he’s documented what is in front of and behind him with those same eyes from his teenage years.
Mike remains busy, but he’s finally slowed down enough to revisit all of the boxes of slides and negatives and terabytes of data that involved skateboarding. It’s been fun hearing him say how many photos he’s completely forgotten about and how impressed he is with himself. So here is some of that work. He’s finally got them online to be admired and made available for future generations. If anything, appreciate the differences of Mike’s style to that of other iconic skate photographer peers of his. I’ve been on Mike’s case for a few years now about how he needs a website like the other guys. Take a look and see why.
Eric Wallman (b.1979)
American, Professor of Humanities and Philosophy, Skateboarder