We Got Into It With Photographer Jonathan Mehring

by | Apr 5, 2023 | COMMUNITY NEWS, FILM & TV, MAGAZINES & BOOKS, OUTDOORS, PHOTOGRAPHY, RVA GLOBAL, SPORTS, STREETWEAR & SNEAKERS

It was fun chatting with Jonathan Mehring, an award-winning photographer and director who has built a stellar reputation in the world of skateboarding. With a unique blend of adventure travel, specialising in action sports, and lifestyle photography, Mehring has explored over 30 countries, capturing skateboarders in awe-inspiring settings such as riding motorbikes in Vietnam, taking a riverboat down the Amazon, traversing the Trans Siberian Railway, and embarking on road trips through India. His work is as much about the location as the trick, focusing on both landscape and skate documentation.

He is a killer photographer, a nice down-to-earth dude and we had a super long, super fun conversation over coffee.

ed. note: A condensed version of this conversation is in the new RVA #40. Pick up the print version around town for FREE or join our patreon and read the web version right now at patreon.com/RVAMag!

Who are you? What do you do?

I’m Jonathan Mehring. I am a photographer and filmmaker, based in Richmond, specializing and action sports. 

How did you get into that?

When I was in the sixth grade, a buddy of mine started skating. I grew up in the country outside of Charlottesville, on a dirt road. He gave me a hand-me-down board and I became obsessed with skating, even though I lived in the middle of nowhere. I had to go down to this tennis court that was two miles away to try to learn to skate. And there was also this four-foot-long piece of a railroad track there and I would drag it out one end at a time. I was like 10 years old dragging this thing out across the tennis court to try to learn to boardslide. I just fell in love. I started going to Charlottesville and skating on the weekends. 

Then there was photography. My high school started a photography program around my junior year. The teacher for that class was by far the best teacher in my high school.

Her name was Rhonda Roebuck; I don’t know if she’s still there. 

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Skate The World, India by Jonathan Mehring @mehringsbearings

Everybody needs a good teacher, right? So what was your first camera?

My very first camera was a Konica camera but it didn’t last. I think I had it for six months and then I got a Pentax K1000– which is like everyone’s first camera. I had that for a couple of years. Then I got a Nikon camera after that, but by and large, my high school photo camera was a K1000. 

I was probably a C student in high school. During my freshman year, I was getting A’s and B’s. Then it was B’s and C’s. Then junior year was C’s and D’s. But then I got so into photography, all of a sudden, I started getting A’s and B’s again. I was suddenly inspired. I would go to school an hour early every morning so I could get in the darkroom before classes started. 

Your school had a dark room?

Yeah, I don’t know how unusual that was at the time. It had about six enlargers in it. And yeah, I was in love– I would go during lunch, before school, and after school, you know what I mean? My friends and I would also write each other fake sick notes from our parents to each other, and then sign each other out of school early so we could go to Charlottesville and skate.

Were you taking photos of the people around you mostly?

Yeah, so I realized I didn’t have a lot of natural talent for skating, but I did seem to have some for photography. I decided to take pictures of my friends, who were all better than me. We would skate all the Charlottesville spots and I always had my camera– just obsessively taking photos and developing them at night. At some point, I got a home darkroom too, which was pretty bad quality, but I could develop film. Then it all just accelerated from there. I wanted to go to school for photography. In my first year, I went to a different school, but I ended up at VCU, which was in-state so it was semi-affordable. Especially in the 90s.

At the time, I was taking pictures of all the Dominion guys. I actually have a funny story about Travis. We had heard about Travis Pulley up in Charlottesville– he could do handrails. I didn’t know anyone who could do handrails. So it was like, we got to meet this dude. We came to Richmond, I think three times in high school. And two of those times I got mugged.

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Travis ‘One Eye Wonder’ Pulley by Jonathan Mehring @mehringsbearings

Richmond in the 90s. It’s a rite of passage. 

Anyway, we met Travis and we would skate at the Green Rails together. I have a picture I shot in high school of him at Green Rails. It was this horrible off-brand fisheye that never could take an in-focus photo. I would send my best shots to Transworld and different magazines, though Transworld was the biggest at the time. Grant Brittian was the photo editor of Transworld then, and he sent me this photocopied sheet of skate photography rules or instructions on how to improve and what they were looking for.

It was interesting; it was good. But it was just like, man, not only did I get a rejection notice, I also got a sheet explaining how to do it. 

Was he trying to encourage you though? 

There was no communication. It was just like, here’s this letter. I think everyone who sent in photos might have got it, you know? It did help, but it was also a little bit hard to swallow. I thought I was doing pretty good. Turns out I wasn’t. 

Yeah, all your friends were telling you how awesome your work was, and then he’s like– not so much.

Yeah. I was like, “I got a friend who can grind a flat bar.” They basically came back with, “So what?”

Incidentally, also in high school, we started the first iteration of McIntire Skatepark, which now is a state-of-the-art huge skate park. But at the time there were these tennis courts across Rt. 250 from the new park. It was about six or eight abandoned tennis courts full of cracks in the ground. And we would go around Charlottesville, and somehow we found four or five rusted-off broken handrails, in the dumpsters or behind buildings. They were the exact size of cracks, which were about two inches wide. So we would take a sledgehammer, or maybe just skateboards, and hammer them into the ground. And then we had all these flat bars everywhere. 

But they were random because they had to follow where the cracks were– they were going in all different directions. And then we started building little ramps. We built a bank ramp and a quarter pipe– it was a full skate park. But the city would come to take it away, so we’d have to rebuild it again. Anyway, long story short, it’s now a skatepark. 

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Dylan Rieder frontside heel flip in NYC by Jonathan Mehring @mehringsbearings

Why do you think that cities are so hostile to skaters? 

I think there are two reasons. One is definitely liability, which is a purely US problem. I wish they would change that law. It’s like, if you get hurt doing your thing, it should be your own fault. And most people would say that it is until they get a big medical bill and they can’t pay it. And then there’s a precedent here that says, actually, the property owner has to pay it. I can’t speak for every country, but in my experience going to Europe or South America, that’s not a problem. 

I think there’s also a cultural thing where skaters are viewed as “bad.” It’s a renegade sport. It’s considered a new sport, even though it’s not that new, it started in the 50s or 60s. It’s different.

It’s not sanctioned. There are no rules, there’s no court, no field. You’re not constrained to an area. Even in the parks, people figure out different ways to skate. 

There’s always a way to one-up yourself or make it more dangerous as you go along. That’s part of the appeal of skateboarding, though, isn’t it? Seeing if someone is gonna keep pushing it?

I mean, there is a one-up-ness sometimes. I like to think of it as more of a spectrum. There’s respect for what has come before. People try not to repeat tricks unless it’s a real easy, basic trick. If someone does a respectable trick on a spot, it’s the job of people around there to know what the tricks are. Someone should remember who’s done what– to some extent. Obviously, some spots are ancient history and you don’t know, but there is definitely an effort made by most professionals to not repeat the tricks that have been done. It’s like, well, this person already did that. We’ll let them have their shine, and I’m going to figure out a different way to skate it.

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Jake Johnson frontside flip in Rotterdam by Jonathan Mehring @mehringsbearings

You eventually become a part of a publication. What were you doing?

So I went to VCU and studied photography. I went through all of the art classes and did Art Foundation, which was a great background, I had no idea that I could draw before going to VCU. And I still don’t love drawing but I can do it, I can get by. My photos were getting better and I was still sending them to magazines. I got really into Slap Magazine because two of my favorite photographers, Mike O’Meally and Brian Gaberman were working there. 

And I was like, man, I honestly like these photos more than what’s in Transworld. Even though they’re kind of rough around the edges and they’re not as polished, that’s kind of what I liked about them. I started sending my shots into them and also into Thrasher, which was in the same building. Slap was like the artsy version of Thrasher. I got a photo published in Thrasher randomly from a skate contest of a pro that I sniped. That got me sparked. Then I started sending my more artistic stuff to Slap and they called me up and they’re like, “Hey, we like your stuff, keep sending it and we’re gonna send you some film.” And I was like, “Oh my god. Slap just called me and they’re gonna send me film. Are you kidding me?” I was freaking out. <laughs>

And this was while I was at VCU, and I had teachers telling me to leave skateboarding alone and that it wasn’t worth my time. I was doing my art assignments, my portrait assignments, and this and that and they were pretty average. But when it came to shooting skating, I could see myself getting better. But anyway, I finally get a photo published in Slap– it was a two-page spread. It was a shot of my buddies skating in Charlottesville. I thought it was so cool. 

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Car overheating somewhere out west, 2000 Road Trip by Jonathan Mehring @mehringsbearings

And you put Charlottesville on the map too. 

Yeah, and it was funny because it was at the spot we called the New York Grinder. It was off the Downtown Mall. And it was this one single block that looked like it could have been in New York City. I’d always had my eye on New York City just because I liked the aesthetic of it, how grimy it was– especially in the 90s. 

But anyway, since Slap was so supportive, I started giving them everything. I wasn’t spreading my work out to different magazines, because nowhere else was doing anything with it. It was just coming back. I did a homie article about skating in Richmond, with all the Dominion guys. Bobby Stewart was up and coming. I thought he was super gnarly– he was gnarly, you know? But that didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t hear anything back. 

My next idea was to go on a road trip with my friends Brian Davis and Rob Lee after we graduated. I was working valet at the Omni Hotel and had saved up $1,500. I bought a Nikon fisheye, which was $1,000. 

Those are still $1000. 

Yeah, it hasn’t changed at all. So I got the fisheye and then had $500 for the road trip. And then Brian and Rob each had 500 bucks. And so we’re like, alright, let’s map it all out. I did the gas mileage using a map; I was drawing our line and totaling all the mileages up and I figured out that we could go if we didn’t stay at any hotels. If we camped the whole time, we could do a month.

Wow. Off $1,500. Gas was like $1.50 at the time, probably.

Not even that. It was $1.29 or something. So the three of us packed the car and we just headed out. My idea for the article was to photograph all the pro skaters we were sure we were gonna meet and then compile it and write about our road trip and meeting all these pros. It was a good-ish idea, but it’s pretty hard to meet these pros. Because you don’t know fucking anyone.

I’m taking pictures as we go through St. Louis, Denver, Albuquerque, and Phoenix. I remember Rob got sun poisoning because we went skating in Phoenix in the middle of the day– in July. There was not a soul on the street anywhere that day.

They all knew better.

Yeah, exactly. Then I also had a 1984 Toyota Camry that had spray paint over rough spots that didn’t quite blend in. 

So you looked like a problem.

It also had skate stickers on it. Mike Sinclaire had written Gary Smith’s height– two feet two inches– on the trunk. Gary’s this short ex-pro skater from Baltimore. There was all this dumb stuff written all over the car. It didn’t look good. 

Then we went to Kansas and saw, “the world’s largest gopher.” It was advertised on these handpainted signs for like 50 miles down the interstate. And when you pull up to this zoo it has badgers and five-legged cows and just fucked up animals there and shit. Then they have the “world’s largest gopher,” which is fucking concrete and 30 feet high. When we pulled up, they took one look at us and flipped the sign to “closed.” <laughs>

From Phoenix to San Diego, my car started overheating. So we had to only drive at night and then we had to stop probably every half hour and wait 20 minutes for the car to cool off. 

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DJ Chavez backside 180 melon grab at Albuquerque skatepark, 2000 Road Trip by Jonathan Mehring @mehringsbearings

Were you calling your parents at this point? Asking them to wire you money?

No, no, we never had any support. We were on our own. When we finally got to Ocean Beach, we slept in the car because we had driven all night long and it was 4:30 in the morning. We got there and were just like, fuck, this is gnarly. 

We started meeting some sponsored skaters once we got to Albuquerque. We met DJ Chavez who was, I don’t know if he ever went pro, but he was one of the people that ended up being in skate industry. Then we went to LA and met Adam Alfaro who later became a Black Label Pro. The people we talked to were up-and-coming skaters who were down to shoot with a random ass kid with a camera.

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Ryan Simonetti melon grab at the Concussion Ditch in Albuquerque, NM, 2000 Road Trip by Jonathan Mehring @mehringsbearings

We were camping the entire time. Though we did stay in one hotel, maybe a Motel Six, in Albuquerque. I think it was like 20 bucks a night. When we got our room, the lady at the front desk didn’t just give us a key. She walked us to the room, I guess to see if it was okay? She didn’t have any shoes on and she was missing toes. <laughs> Then we got to the room and there was a crescent moon-shaped crack around the deadbolt– somebody had kicked the door in and knocked the entire mechanism off. It had been duct taped back on. She was like, “Here’s the room.” And we’re like, “Yeah, it’s good.” We didn’t even fold the covers back. We were so skeeved out, there were dead roaches in the drain of the bathtub. We just laid our sleeping bags on top of the beds. 

Fast forward to Laguna Beach. We were at Huntington Skate Park. I was like, “Man, is there a campsite around here?” Everyone just told me to go to a hotel, so I found a random one. But the concierge told me that it would be $120 a night. There’s no fucking way we could’ve afforded that.

He mentioned that he knew some people who used to camp down at Laguna Beach. So we drive down there, and there’s just nowhere to sleep. The sand was right up against a sidewalk that was next to the road. But there was a gas station up the street so we park there and decide to sleep on this hill, We had to shimmy under these bushes in our sleeping bags to even get up there. I also remember that Brian had diarrhea so he had to keep getting up and running down to the water. We were sacrificing socks all night long. Sorry, Brian, if you read this.  

Then at like three in the morning, we hear automatic sprinklers. We’re like, fucking sprinklers? We ran back to the car– I parked under a street lamp– and my car was absolutely covered in pigeon shit. It was completely white. I went to a gas station to wash the car off and I was using the windshield squeegee to wash the whole car and this dude got so mad at me. He’s like, “It’s not a fucking car wash.”

Whatever. We go and leave that guy behind. We make it to San Francisco. This guy I knew, Dave Rosenberg, took us around the SF area. And he asked if I wanted to meet Mark Whiteley from Slap Magazine, who I had been corresponding with. I wanted to, so we went and met him at his house. We were chatting, but it was a bit awkward. I thought we would get the invite to go to the Slap office, but we didn’t. 

But we’re going up the rest of the coast, skating, doing the same thing. By the time we get to Seattle, we’re out of money and tired. On the way back to Richmond, we blew a tire around Chicago. We had to get towed, which was the last of our money. We had just enough gas to make it back to Richmond– I don’t think we even ate. We drove from Chicago to Richmond without stopping. 

When we got back to Richmond, I called Mark to let him know we made it home. And he’s like, “What do you mean?” I’m like, “We met in SF? I was hoping to go to the office?” He didn’t even realize that was me. I was too shy to say, “Hey, I’m the guy who has been sending you all these photos.” We kept working together and I ended up working for the magazine after that.

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Jonathan Mehring, Rob Lee, Brian Davis, 2000 Road Trip

Did you write a good story after the road trip?

I wrote a story and sent it in, but nothing happened. Total fuckin waste. Well, no, it wasn’t a waste. It was awesome; it was amazing. But as far as getting something published, it did not work. 

But they started to tell me that they needed me to shoot pros. The rest of that summer, I would go to DC every weekend and I’d photograph all those guys. The Capital/Nicotine days were over but Pep Martinez (RIP) and those guys were still up there ripping. I decided I wanted to write an article called “The Forgotten City” and feature all these older pros who were no longer in the spotlight. That article finally ran. And it was 14 pages. It was huge.

I had moved to DC at that point but then Slap asked me if I could move to Philly. I said sure. Philly was going off. But they had essentially fired the guy who was on retainer and had me replace him. So there was some major beef I was thrown into the middle of. And I’m trying to shoot with people and trying to become friends with all the pros. Eventually, after a year and a half there, some of them end up shooting with me and it was fine, but I just never liked Philly. 

I always wanted to move to New York. I ended up doing it in 2003. I had another beater car at that point– a Buick Century I bought from my grandmother which I spray painted matte black. Brian, one of the guys who went on the road trip, and I drove to New York, in the car and had all of our stuff crammed in there. Everything that would fit is what we moved with.

While I was living in Brooklyn, I was still working for Slap Magazine. They sent me on tour a couple of times. There was a Zoo York tour, and a Black Label tour that went all through Europe. Each one was around a month-long– super gnarly tours. But the first trip they ever sent me on was to Hong Kong. 

Is there a skate scene in Hong Kong or was that because the pros were doing a tour?

Oh yeah, there’s a scene there. When I got there, I saw Cairo Foster, Kenny Reed, and Ricky Oyola. And I was nervous, dude. Cairo was a huge handrail guy who I’d never met, and I had never photographed anyone who was doing what he was doing.

Then on top of that, the technology there was so much more advanced than here. I had these cheap radio transmitters, that was all I could afford. The radio frequencies in Hong Kong kept setting them off. I would set up my lights and they would just go off until the batteries died. I couldn’t even control them. I was freaking out trying to photograph Cairo doing gnarly stuff. I squeezed out an article, but a bunch of photos didn’t come out. Luckily, they didn’t fire me. I don’t know why they didn’t. It was a rough trip, for sure. 

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Gilbert Crockett nose blunt slide at Vans Space 198 in Brooklyn, NY 2019 by Jonathan Mehring @mehringsbearings

So at this point, you’re a professional skate photographer.

Yeah. Living the dream, barely hanging on, you know? 

At some point, you move beyond magazines. How?

Right. So, long story short, after I moved to New York, I realized that I had peaked at Slap Magazine. I had gone as far as I could go there. There was an opportunity to move magazines, so I ended up working at Skateboarder Magazine, from 2004 until the end of 2014. They basically gave me a free license to travel. They were like, “As long as you have an A-list group of skaters, you can go wherever you want.”

We traveled all over–did over 30 countries. We went to fucking Kazakhstan.

So these were places that were not traditional skating hotspots?

Yeah. At that point in 2004, I knew exactly how to shoot a skate photo. I was doing the best that I could do, and I wasn’t seeing a lot of progression anymore. I knew that there had to be more to this. I could catch the tricks at the right time, and I knew what they all were. So what’s next?

Sometime after I got back from Kazakhstan, I ran into Susan Hitchcock, who works at Nat Geo. We were chatting about traveling at this Christmas party, and she’s like, “Man, you’ve been doing this for a while. Do you think you have enough for a book? Because we’re always looking for youth-oriented material.”

So I come in for a meeting with Nat Geo with a Kodak paper box full of prints. They liked my work, but they wanted to know more about the angle. Like, how does this fit the Nat Geo mission? I didn’t have an answer for them, so we decide to “keep the conversation going,” and years go by. 

Eventually, I figured out the cultural angle for the book. And I start writing Skate the World.  It ends up being 240 pages, but it’s not my story. It’s the story of skating. About 75% of the imagery was my photos, but we also brought in other photographers that I felt were needed to illustrate aspects of skating that were significant to the book that I didn’t have as much experience with– like the scene on the west coast. 

When did you transition into filmmaking? 

That’s been a semi-recent development. You know, I was always asking my film friends about their settings and overwhelming them with questions. I was trying to wrap my head around it because I never went to film school. I took one film class at VCU, which I totally blew off. 

The first major project that I properly directed was Walls Cannot Keep Us From Flying, which is a film about these two skaters from Palestine. 

What was it about? The idea of skateboarding as an outlet for freedom?

That’s really the angle of it. I worked with a friend of mine, Kenny Reed who co-founded a charity skate camp there and my DOP Joe Bressler. We interviewed like 20 people, which I will not do again. We have 30 hours of footage for a 13-minute film. So yeah, we did a lot of excess work. But it was totally worth it. It was awesome. 

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Sebo Walker & Mark Suciu in New Delhi by Jonathan Mehring @mehringsbearings

Where did you find the two kids that were ultimately featured? 

They are counselors at the camp. So they’re a little bit older, maybe 16 or 17. We just followed them around their daily lives and shot a bunch of the camp. It’s not overtly political. Over here, in the U.S., everything you hear about Israel and Palestine is all conflict based. So we wanted to find out what it’s like in the West Bank for normal people. One thing that’s interesting is the skaters there are really pushing to establish themselves within their own society as well as live with the pressures of the occupation, so it’s almost like a double whammy for them.

Do you have anything else coming up?

Last year, Red Bull approached me about doing a series called Greetings From, which is basically scene reports from different cities all over the world. The producer is someone I knew in New York, and I had let him know I was moving to Richmond. And he was like, “Oh, Richmond’s the perfect place to do a scene report. It’s the perfect size city.” 

There are pros here, and there’s a good scene, but it’s not really on the map as far as skating goes. People don’t really think of Richmond as a skating destination. I started filming content for that in ‘22. It was a great way to move back and get reconnected to the scene and all my old friends. And I got to meet a bunch of new kids who are coming up. That should be out next month. Super excited about that. 


Ed. note: We bootlegged this from the premiere of Greetings From Richmond last night. Catch it when its released HERE.

Follow Jonathan Mehring @mehringsbearings
Main photo of Tyshawn Jones: “Skitching” on our car in NYC, 2014

R. Anthony Harris

R. Anthony Harris

I created Richmond, Virginia’s culture publication RVA Magazine and brought the first Richmond Mural Project to town. Designed the first brand for the Richmond’s First Fridays Artwalk and promoted the citywide “RVA” brand before the city adopted it as the official moniker. I threw a bunch of parties. Printed a lot of magazines. Met so many fantastic people in the process. Professional work: www.majormajor.me




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