You can probably count on one hand the number of people that live on the East Coast and make a living from skateboard photography. Sean Cronan has been one of them for the last 20 years (*with a short stint in California). Born in Hamden, Connecticut, Sean took up skating and photography in 7th grade. From shooting rolls of film to social media updates on his iPhone, he’s definitely seen his share of changes in the industry. Sean breaks down what it takes to last in this game.
What is your current title and what does your job entail?
I’m the staff photographer for Zoo York. I shoot photos of the team for everything they need: ads, POP, print and online interviews. I shoot a good portion of the photos that are used for board graphics and on apparel, too. I also shoot the majority of the photos that are used for social media: Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, everything.
What equipment do you use?
Canon 5DIII and assorted canon lenses and flashes for skating. A Fuji x100s and iPhone for lifestyle and social stuff.
Who are some of your favorite skateboarders you’ve gotten to shoot with over your career?
There are so many, but starting from the beginning: Tim Upson, Jim Gagne, Jim Greco, Brian Anderson, Donny Barley, Toebee Parkhurst, Kris Markovich, Leo Romero, Ed Templeton, Zered Bassett, Brandon Westgate, the list could go on and on.
Where have you gotten to travel to in order to photograph skateboarding?
Japan, China, all over Europe, Russia, South Africa, Australia, Argentina, Chile. It’s been amazing.
How long have you been making a living shooting skating?
Incredible. Over the years you’ve shot a number of covers for the biggest skate magazines. Do you have a favorite(s)?
Big Brother, Kris Markovich, frontside ollie on a mini ramp. The infamous “floating wheel” cover. Jeff Tremaine, who was the Art Director at the time, had moved Kris about a half inch up and over to make room for some type on the cover. He forgot to clone out one of the wheels, which was magically floating in a bush. At the time, I hadn’t really used Photoshop, so I didn’t even know that was possible. I remember him calling me saying that he was going to resign. I don’t think he did, but he was really embarrassed by it.
Another one is Thrasher, Brandon Westgate boardslide up the rail. One of the gnarliest things I have seen done on a skateboard. We went two separate days over a week or so. The first day he landed it three times I think. Then the second day he landed it two or three more times. He just wanted to make sure he got it perfect.
He’s unbelievable. When did you start shooting?
I started shooting photos back in ‘84 or ‘85. I did a zine in junior high and high school called Rage. I would shoot photos of my friends skating and hardcore bands.
What was your first photography job?
Freelance for Thrasher. Bryce Kanights and Phelps got it going. I had been shooting with Tim Upson and Jim Gagne, who are both from Connecticut. Both skated for Black Label and Lucero was running my photos of them as ads. I vaguely remember Lucero telling me to send my stuff to Thrasher. I did and everything started to fall into place.
What year was that?
1994 I think.
Where did you go from there?
After freelancing for Thrasher for a couple years, I started sending photos to Transworld, because Thrasher wouldn’t put me fully on staff. The people at Thrasher weren’t exactly happy with that decision. I tried to be upfront with them about it, so luckily I didn’t get banned. After a year or two of having photos printed in all the magazines, I got hired as a Senior Photographer for Big Brother. That part of my life was awesome. I was relatively young, getting a steady paycheck to do pretty much whatever I wanted. The Big Brother guys left me alone to go on any trips I wanted and to shoot whomever I wanted. It was awesome. From there I got the job at Tum Yeto.
So you did move out West for a bit? What did you do for Tum Yeto?
Yeah, I lived in San Diego for a few years in the early 2000’s. I was the Director of Photography for Tum Yeto. I shot all the ads, catalogs, etc, for Foundation, Pig, Dekline, Ruckus, Hollywood, and some Toy Machine. I also shot tons of tour articles and interviews for all the magazines.
What brought you back East?
I am here because I have a kick-ass job and am close to family, which is important with a kid.
How did you get the job at Zoo?
My wife and I had talked about moving back to the NYC area to be closer to family for a while. I happened to walk into Transworld the day that Grant and everybody quit to start The Skateboard Mag. Skin ended up taking me to lunch. I told him how we were thinking of moving back east. He hired me on the spot to be the East Coast staff photographer and that’s how we came back. From there I reached out to Pang to let him know I was available to shoot the crew. Zoo started hiring me for shoots right away, since they didn’t have anyone shooting at the time. Turns out my good friend Mark Nardelli worked at Zoo and I think he ended up convincing the higher-ups to hire me full time.
How is your time broken down? How much time do you spend shooting compared to editing, retouching photos and updating social?
It’s probably about 50-50. Editing can take a really long time.
You are in an extremely small group of people who have stayed on the East Coast and make a living documenting skating. How have you been able to achieve this?
Sheer luck. And a lot of hard work. I honestly don’t know. I wake up everyday and am still amazed that I get to do this for a living. I’ve been lucky enough to shoot some of the most talented and gnarly skateboarders from over here, so that’s been a big part of it. I’ve also been willing to stick with it through the ups and downs, move when an opportunity presented itself and just kept shooting no matter what.
New York and the East Coast are getting a ton of attention in the skate world. Is it easier to work from here now?
It’s still difficult, but it’s easier than it was twenty years ago. Now it’s cool for magazines and videos to have New York content. Before people didn’t really come here or care about it like that. Now you get requests for New York stuff. It’s almost getting oversaturated. That being said you’re still 3,000 miles away from the so-called center of skateboarding. There is the whole “out of sight, out of mind” thing. The weather is the biggest problem. You lose so many days to bad weather. And of course, all the spots have at least one thing wrong with them as well haha.
Coming up were there times when you were struggling financially? Did you ever have to take on other jobs outside of skateboarding to pay your bills?
Yeah, I worked at Starter for a few months in the warehouse packing jackets. I also worked at an art store and a photo lab part-time for a year or so. As soon as I was making enough from shooting, I quit.
When was this?
The photo lab was the last job I had and I quit in 1998 or early ‘99 I think.
What kept you shooting during that time?
I kept shooting because I love to. I had an awesome group of friends that I was able to make great photos with. I was still making ok money shooting. Just at that time I needed to supplement it a bit.
To make a good living being a skateboard photographer, do you need to be staff for a magazine or brand?
Definitely a brand if you can. A lot of the magazine guys shoot for a brand on the side. It really depends on how much you can sell a photo for.
How much can a freelancer sell a skate photo for?
It can be as little as $50 all the way up to and beyond $5,000. It really depends on what the photo is going to be used for. If I were to be strictly freelance at this point in my life, there is no way I would be able to continue shooting skating out here. I would have to change what I shoot, or find another job.
With the growth of social media and online content, how has your job changed?
It has totally changed. It used to be that you would go on a trip, come home and get the film developed, then send the photos out to the company and magazines. Now, I am processing and editing all the photos each night and sending them out to my Brand Manager or whoever needs them the same day. I totally think about photography differently as well. Things that I would not shoot as much back in the day, like putting together a board, the traveling, the behind the scenes, all the “lifestyle” and lookbook stuff, I shoot that stuff all the time now. A lot of times I still have to force myself to do it, since it’s not something I automatically think of.
Do you think brands and media outlets today need great photographers more than ever?
Totally. The photographer is the one who makes the image of a particular company come to life. You can’t post filler stuff just to make a daily post anymore, because everyone is posting stuff. For people to actually care and notice, you need compelling photography. You need something actually interesting.
Do you still think there is value in print?
Absolutely. There are still a lot of people out there that want to hold a magazine in their hands and tear out pages and stick them on their wall. I think Thrasher is proof of that. The actual magazine is as thick as it’s ever been, plus they have a website that seemingly has a new crazy part once a week. They tie everything together. A tour article in the mag comes out when the video drops online.
You’re not personally very active on social. You have a website, but don’t have an Instagram that is updated frequently with your work.
Yeah, I’m not a very social person. I honestly don’t like people knowing what I am up to. I don’t look at Facebook either. I get enough social media time from my job haha.
What advice can you give to someone who wants to work in the skateboard industry or become a skateboard photographer?
Move to California. Seriously. It’s not what people want to hear, but it is so much easier being out there. The amount of sponsored pros and ams that live in such a small concentrated area is staggering. And most of them need photos. Shoot as much as you can with your friends. If you have a photographer that you really like, it’s fairly easy to get their email. Ask them questions. Most of the guys doing this full time will happily answer a few questions. Don’t be annoying about it though. And don’t expect an immediate reply. Experiment with different shooting angles, lighting, composition. Save up and buy the best camera/lens/flashes you can. I can’t tell you how much money I wasted over the years trying to save a few bucks by buying the cheaper whatever, only to have to replace it because it sucked.
You’ve made a living doing this for 20 years. What does it take to last in this industry?
First, you have to love skateboarding. It sounds cheesy, but it’s the truth. It’s the love that will get you through the low points. And there will definitely be low points. Skating as an industry goes up and down. Also, work hard, be good to people and don’t burn bridges. If no one wants to shoot with you or run your photos, you won’t have a job. You need thick skin, too. There’s going to be times when the magazines and websites turn down your photos, or tell you you’re shooting the “wrong stuff” or the “wrong guys”. You’ve got to let it roll off your back and keep shooting. Be true to yourself and keep doing what you do.