On 19th September 2014, after a morning of fudge and coffee, Zofia and I climbed together at Brimham Rocks in North Yorkshire. You can follow Zofia Reych on Twitter and read more about her thoughts and adventures on her blog.
A few months ago I wrote a deliberately provocative article about the inevitable commercialisation of parkour. This polemic was intended to get a response and I was somewhat reassured by the number of people who got in touch via social media and otherwise to offer words of thanks for crystallising a feeling amongst the parkour community that is rarely articulated.
For some, it was perhaps uncomfortable reading and for that I feel a little guilty. I would like to re-emphasise the first paragraph: turning down morally questionable money that offers fame, progression and adventure would be very difficult if it were presented to me. In addition to this, I’d like to add that railing against this trend is not in my interests. By being difficult, I risk cutting myself off from friends and cohorts whose skills and abilities I value. I hope that whatever you feel about the article, the risk I’m taking can be appreciated.
A few people picked me on the suggestion that parkour and freerunning are two different things and I felt that a response was needed. For me, parkour and freerunning are identical and yet entirely different. They can be both at the same time, an ambiguity that I think is part of the movement’s nature. These labels are not fixed; they are contradictory, in the same way that a subculture that offers freedom can also give itself to commercialisation and institutionalisation. Or a photographer that sells the spectacular before criticising those who perform such spectacles. (The irony is certainly not lost on me.) Such inconsistencies are part of parkour’s nature.
What interests me at present is the notion that, in response to being co-opted by commercialisation and mediatisation, parkour has developed a mechanism to retain its authenticity: it has created a part of itself that is a commodity and developed a separate identity for it, whilst the non-representational aspects – ie, the spirit, the humility, the daily training in the rain – remain pure and, in a way, untouched. It means that there is something for traceurs and freerunners alike.
It’s a theory – one that might not stand up to scrutiny – and your thoughts would be very welcome. Please get in touch.
Below is the original article, first published here on the Parkour Generations website.
Spectacle and spirit; parkour needs better sponsors
My position on energy drinks is not something I’ve kept quiet about. Before I get started, understand this: if I were a top-level athlete and an energy drink came knocking, I would have a really hard time turning them down. This makes me sad. Hopefully this confession of hypocrisy will give you an understanding that I appreciate the difficulty that energy drink sponsorship creates. Now that’s out of the way, hear this.
Every athlete who does any work for an energy drink company knows in his/her heart that the product is toxic. Just like beer and deep-fried Mars bars, energy drinks are simply not part of the diet of a high-performing athlete.
It’s widely reported that sponsored athletes seen on screen sipping from a can are often drinking water. There’s a reason why there are virtually no Olympic level athletes receiving sponsorship: both the companies and the athletes know this stuff is not good.
Sponsorship and commercialisation is inevitable. The authenticity of parkour – the pure, alternative, liberating power of our subculture – is often damaged when money becomes involved. This is unavoidable: in our neoliberal world, commercialisation is par for the course.
However. The least that communities and individuals can do is try to choose companies that produce something beneficial towards parkour, health, or being physical. The beauty of parkour is that it requires nothing. The flip side of this is that parkour can be used to sell pretty much anything. By comparison, the climbing community is supported by a wealth of progressive companies engineering fantastic products and funding athletes, events and expeditions around the world. It’s a healthy symbiosis.
If there is a compromise to be made when choosing our path, then surely it should be towards something neutral – not something negative. Any degree of commercialisation entails a compromise of ethics and authenticity; we need to be more aggressive in deciding where we draw the line. And here’s why.
If you associate yourself with an energy drink or a casino, all of your inspirational words of wisdom regarding health, training, diet and philosophy is meaningless. It’s not just that you sold out; you sold out to a product that you know undermines the healthy body/healthy mind mentality of a traceur.
Energy drinks have bought lifestyle sports. The two are almost inseparable. These companies have created incredible events and sponsored athletes have pushed the limits of human capacity. Why? Because it taps into a youth market, and there is no way that these products can be marketed to children based on what it contains. The sugary, caffeinated water topped up with questionable chemicals is not the product. It’s all about the brand.
There’s a part of me that sees parkour and freerunning as two distinct things; the first is a global community that trains not for the camera or a social media presence, but for itself. By contrast, freerunning is what we see selling beer, energy drinks and online casinos, with high fives and shouts of ‘bam!’ after nailing an extra twist into a sandpit landing and a sketchy, one-handed recovery cartwheel.
Parkour remains pure and authentic thanks to a vast, often silent majority. You can’t properly convey spirit and humility through YouTube and Facebook, and the subtlety of a showreel will never convey that the landing on this catpass-pre is unsighted and therefore terrifying. Parkour keeps its head down, quietly teaching, training, travelling and finding adventure. By contrast, freerunning, parkour’s brash, noisy brother, has sold a huge chunk of itself to the bright lights and boy, does it make it a lot of noise.
The spectacle is on sale. The spirit we keep for ourselves.
The argument over the proposed developments of the South Bank and the consequent relocation of the skaters from the revered Undercroft continues apace. You can read up on the various thrusts and counterthrusts by visiting southbankforall.org and llsb.com.
Merry-go-rounds and deckchairs, fake grass and street performers, graffiti alongside gaudy paintwork, food served from carts strewn with colourful bunting, and row upon row of second hand books; for tourists and residents alike, the South Bank is a magical part of London. A walk alongside the river brings playful, unexpected encounters that give a feeling of novelty and curiosity, a sense of being outside of the commercialism and control typically felt elsewhere in the city. For a moment, it feels as though you may have stepped into a world where everyday rules are not quite the same.
The geography of the South Bank helps: whilst the river is a reminder that we do not have complete control over how our cities are shaped, it’s often difficult to negotiate the South Bank’s terraces, tunnels and stairwells even with the bright colour coding that has been introduced in recent years. The blank concrete walls soon looks the same and the blurred distinction between inside and outside intended by its architects is often confusing; levels that should connect simply don’t. Getting lost and wandering unwittingly into loading bays, car parks and wheelie bins is all part of the experience.
Alongside its confusing terrain, urban arts have a role in creating the impression that the South Bank is a site for alternative behaviour; there are regular festivals featuring workshops and performances of breakdancing, parkour, hip-hop and BMX. There is a sense of charitable inclusivity, of openness and a recognition of the value that street culture can bring and a celebration of how they shape our perception of the city.
All of this is a carefully engineered façade. The graffiti is commissioned; the food stalls have paid for their pitch; urban arts are partially co-opted with security quick to step in if you’re not part of a controlled performance. The grass, deckchairs, bunting and sandpits are all fragments of a faux-carnival that deliberately toys with your understanding of what is permitted and what is subversive.
We know it’s not real and yet we don’t mind – for several reasons. We forgive this mild deception because the South Bank is not a giant corporation painting itself as friendly, approachable, socially conscious institution; it’s a collective of theatres, public spaces and galleries whose intentions are not undermined by any tactics to squeeze you for money.
And there is the Undercroft, the one genuine site of alterity, playfulness and physicality that the South Bank then builds upon throughout its concrete maze. The skaters are not selling; they are not commissioned performers or passing a hat around. And for the passers-by, they give an authentic sense of ‘fuck you’ to conventional behaviour. For the South Bank, however annoying it finds its unwanted residents, their otherness provides a platform from which it has built its culturally sensitive persona. It draws on the skaters to give itself edginess and create this sense of cultural inclusivity.
And now the South Bank wants (or perhaps needs) to move them. The presence of the skaters, BMXers and aggressive in-liners – and the fact that the space was originally borrowed from a city that didn’t know what to do with it – lends integrity to the South Bank’s cultural identity. The danger is that moving the skaters elsewhere, however close, may crack the façade. Replacing the skaters with shops and restaurants may undermine the South Bank’s identity altogether.
This article was originally published on Long Live South Bank on 18th September 2013.
Next to the Serpentine Gallery there is a sculpture entitled ‘Rock On Top Of Another Rock‘ by Peter Fischli and David Weiss, a pair of world-renowned Swiss artists. The artwork is two carefully positioned boulders, one sat on the other in a seemingly precarious arrangement.
I spent a gloriously sunny Sunday afternoon with Bobby attempting to climb a tricky line up the steeper side of the two boulders. Reaching the crux was relatively easy but we were shut down by two factors. First was the stopper move: a slippery pinch that needs to be matched before releasing a knee bar and sorting your feet out. The second was the Serpentine Gallery’s ban on people climbing the artwork.
The boulders stand in direct contrast to the two works by John Frankland, proud features of public parks in east London. Frankland’s sculptures are intended to be climbed and both of his boulders receive regular ascents from adventurous children and keen climbers alike.
That afternoon as we rested between attempts, we watched people’s reaction to seeing the Serpentine boulder for the first time. As well as being intrigued by its precariousness, every child – and countless adults – immediately wanted to climb it.
The Serpentine Gallery describes Fischli and Weiss as having “a spirit of discovery that encourages us to take a fresh look at our surroundings”. As we watched, this spirit of discovery led countless children to clamber a metre or so up one of the easier faces and pose for photos, shortly before being hounded down by an overzealous Serpentine employee.
Fischli and Weiss have a similar sculpture in a mountain pass in Norway. It seems that climbing this one is perfectly acceptable.
I strongly urge all climbers to go and demonstrate their own true spirit of discovery. I’m not suggesting that we should be entitled to climb all pieces of public art but I resent the hypocrisy of installing something that provides such a fantastic opportunity for physical interaction, coating it with wordy, artistic notions of adventure and exploration, and then telling children to get down.
[My estimate is V5-V6. There are some easier warm ups elsewhere on the boulder but these faces are directly in sight of the gallery’s entrance and may prompt swifter visits from vigilant Serpents.]
On the day that I arrived in Berlin, the traceurs that I’d contacted were training in Kreuzberg in the city centre. Across the road from the U-Bahn station Platz Der Luftbrücke is Familienzentrum Mehringdamm, a complex of white buildings with white walls and distinctive yellow window frames. It seemed an ideal spot: in addition to the various rails and wheelchair ramps there is a small playground with a sandpit, perfect for drilling flips. Training was undisturbed; being a Sunday the family centre was quiet with only a handful of people passing through.
The scene in Berlin felt tight despite those training together having different focuses and interests. Some drilled complex but efficient sequences whilst others worked specific jumps and flips. I really appreciated that one of my hosts, Basti, trained entirely in bare feet. I was made to feel incredibly welcome despite wandering around like some mute zombie, having only had a tiny amount of sleep the night before.
My thanks to Basti, Eric, Panda, ToBe, Tomek and everyone else training that day.
Over the last few years I’ve given numerous talks, run various workshops and taught lots of people about how I work. When asked for advice on how to take good parkour photographs my answers include: take a LOT of shots, get low, use a wide angle lens, use a fast shutter speed, pre-focus, don’t put the body in the middle of the frame, create space underneath the body to increase the sense of height – lots of rules that work about eighty to ninety percent of the time. Of course there are plenty of other ways to capture parkour but this is what works for me and forms the basis of my approach.
I’ve since realised that amongst these rules there is one that works for me almost one hundred percent of the time when creating what I call ‘performance’ shots: the architecture must determine the frame. I don’t track the body’s movement with my lens; I compose in advance, visualising where the body will be, all within a frame that is decided by the shapes and surfaces in front of me. Within many of my pictures, the body is almost incidental. If it were to be removed, you would hopefully be left with a photograph that is still effective in terms of its composition.
This led me to question why it works out this way. For me, the interesting aspect of parkour is not the movement itself but rather its physicality combined with the architecture. Without architecture, parkour is just gymnastics or dance. This is not to say that these disciplines aren’t interesting, it’s just that parkour’s significance comes from its setting. When you take it off the streets and into a studio or amongst purpose-built structures, parkour loses both its impact and its importance as a spectacle.
Our feeling for what impresses us is linked to an understanding of familiar textures and surroundings and seeing them negotiated in new ways. It’s when I’m able to capture the perfect form of both body and building together that I’m able to produce my best photographs.
April marks ten years since I took my first parkour photograph.
On Sunday 20th April 2003, I drove to London to meet up with a random collection of people who were gathering to train at PK3, the third ever gathering of traceurs in the UK.
At this stage of its evolution, parkour had not entered mainstream consciousness. I stumbled upon it randomly on late night cable tv and wondered if it might be worth investigating as part of a research paper for a Master’s degree that, thanks to parkour, I never finished. I started searching online, finding a handful of badly compressed videos (this was long before YouTube) from the Parisian suburbs and a couple of French-speaking forums. Eventually I came across Urban Freeflow, the only English language website at the time and whose forum served as the main means of communication between fledgling UK practitioners.
Facebook and Twitter were still several years away and it was normal to use a nickname when posting on internet forums, both to protect one’s identity and to create an online persona. Soon enough, as Kiell, I was chatting regularly with ez, Kerbie, Asid, Cable, Bam and many others. (To this day many people in the parkour world still call me by my nickname.) The group were planning to meet and I asked if I could come along in order to interview them and watch them train. It made sense to take my SLR camera along as part of my research, despite not really knowing how to use it. Blue Devil was living in Redditch and I arranged to pick him up en route from Birmingham.
The group of around twelve gathered outside the McDonald’s at Liverpool Street station. Meeting a number of strangers and knowing them only by their internet handles was a curious experience. All young men aged between 14 and 35, it was an odd mixture of people. Many were athletic with backgrounds in martial arts and breakdancing. Others were less sporty but drawn to parkour through what they saw as its subversive tendencies. I think these guys left after an hour or two, possibly a little disappointed that it was not quite the anarchy that they had envisioned.
After introductions we wandered a short distance to the back of St Botolph-Without-Bishopsgate, a small, church that only just survived the Great Fire of London in 1666. In the shadow of a shiny, city office block we warmed up, making use of the rails and low walls. This was also the site of what was dubbed ‘The Leap of Faith’ by the community, a gap between sections of roof connecting part of the church with the office block’s large air conditioning enclosures.
For the most part, the jumps weren’t pretty or skilful. Our understanding of what constituted parkour was extremely limited. Attempts by the Urban Freeflow community at contacting the French to gain insights were few in number and largely unsuccessful. The language barrier didn’t help and I can understand the apparent French disdain for what was happening in the UK; we were taking something of theirs and making it our own. Our limited knowledge and skill made our appropriation even more objectionable, building on a natural, pre-existing protectiveness amongst the French practitioners.
Being Sunday, the City was quiet and we drew little attention. In the coming years people would realise that housing estates offer much better terrain than the city centre, and much less chance of encountering security guards and the police.
After lots of rocket vaults and rollerblade-style grab jumps, attention shifted to another rooftop, this time much higher, much more visible. We later realised that it forms part of Liverpool Street Station, one of London’s busiest public transport hubs. I stayed on the church, switching to a longer lens as I wasn’t sure of my abilities to keep up. It proved a prudent choice as, suddenly, police arrived on the rooftop and everyone made a run for it, dropping back down to street level using what was possibly the only bit of parkour that took place that day.
Attempting to shake off some police attention we made our way to The Barbican, its coarse walls and courtyards offering a couple of jumps and vaults. My memory is vague but I think we returned to Liverpool Street a few hours later, prompting a quick visit from the police who were justifiably concerned about gangs of youths climbing onto rooftops. The day came to an end eating chocolate and relaxing on the roof of the church as the sun dropped.
So many aspects of parkour and its community has changed since then. A supremely talented global scene exists, both hugely fragmented but, in some respects, also united and always progressing in ways that one would not think possible. I never envisioned that ten years later I would be living in London with a life that is almost completely dominated by the sport.
To all of those that were present at PK3 – ez, Bam, asid, Hasan, Kerbie, D-Man, Cable, Blake, Skin and Blue Devil – thank you. It was an incredible introduction.
If you ever get the opportunity to go and train in Finland, do not hesitate. Go.
In December last year I was invited to Jyväskylä in Finland to train, speak, and take photographs at the Finnish Parkour Association’s annual training event. This year it was entitled “The Most Apocalyptic Supreme Parkour Armageddon Nuclear Lightning Storm”. The Finns tend to have a rather unique sense of humour.
My good friend Perttu (aka Mr Spidey to more experienced readers) was keen for me to get some shots of some of Finland’s best athletes and, given the snow, it made sense to find an indoor location. The prospect of a derelict factory on the outskirts of the town seemed too good to be true. When Perttu told me, I asked him to find as much lighting as he could lay his hands on, packed my strobe kit and flew to Helsinki.
The factory is an old papermill and most of its innards had been ripped out and moved to China a few years ago. The shell remains and one of its huge rooms was transformed into the perfect venue for the training event – warm, dry and with plenty of space for a scaffold structure and a good selection of other obstacles. Before things kicked off, the space was mine to explore and photograph with Perrtu, Jarkko, Nikko, Monster, Juho and Juho from Parkour Akatemia.
Shooting indoors is not something I do very often and I was anticipating the possibility that a fair bit of improvisation was going to be required. Perttu had managed to dig out a handful of freestanding halogen work lamps which were bright enough to light the walls but no where near bright enough to freeze any action. I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to balance this light with my strobe and the first hour was spent experimenting with various lighting setups before I found something that worked. It was easy to flood the area with enough light but I was keen to try and keep the dark atmosphere of the factory’s huge spaces. About 6 years ago I made a snoot out of cereal boxes and gaffer tape and for the first time in my life it came in handy, allowing me to focus the strobe and avoid swamping the glow from the halogens.
Perttu was my first model, quite useful given that he understood that it would take me a while to get things set up. Once I’d figured out how to balance everything together (for the geeks: ISO500, f/5, 1/160, 5 halogens + Vivitar 285 at 4-5m with snoot + PocketWizards) finding the shot was relatively straight forward. Perttu had already spotted two huge hooks hanging from a mechanism on the ceiling and after playing around, we found a movement that allowed him to swing between them.
Now that I understood how it worked, transferring the lighting set up to the next shot was simple but we were starting to get pushed for time. Nikko was my next model and I was reluctant to change locations. Instead we grabbed some oil drums and a massive tractor tyre and set about building some obstacles. Pete McKee made a brief cameo and suddenly it was time to go and eat dinner.
Jarkko, one of Parkour Akatemia’s most senior coaches, was my next subject. Again short of time, it made sense to exhaust all of the opportunities inside this first room and I asked how he felt about doing some climbing. As the shot seemed to feel a bit empty I dragged along the ropes and barrels that had already served as filler and shoved the tractor tyre in at the back. The warm sidelight from the lamps was creating some really nice textures and this ended up being my favourite image from the entire shoot. We both had to put in a lot of effort to get the shot to work and I like the fact that Jarkko’s position doesn’t really make much sense.
The last shot of the day was with Monster. Time and availability of obstacles was now a concern so we built a tictac movement across some of the props that we had been dragging around. A little rushed but still a good result.
The following afternoon we returned to the factory. While the Finnish guys were busy assembling scaffold for the event, I spent an hour exlporing deeper into the factory searching for ideas. Various parts of the vast complex were made a little more intimidating by the rumble of machinery (doing what, I have no idea) and there was the occasional sound of fast-flowing water from the diverted river that ran underneath the enormous building. I found what remained of a staff room; one of the few remaining partition walls was covered in postcards and pictures of half-naked women. These little details added to the tremendous sense of thrill as I explored, intensified by the noises and the fact that I was alone. I could have carried on for hours but I knew there were photos to be taken.
My final two models, Juho and Juho, were fantastic athletes, ready to improvise and take direction despite having little experience of being photographed.
Looking back, it was a fantastic opportunity to do something new, both in terms of location and technique. Little work was required in post-production and contrast of the cold light of the strobe with the warm glow of the halogen lamps was not as severe as I had initially feared and was easily balanced in Adobe Camera Raw.
Being a perfectionist, there are a ton of things I would go back and do differently but time, pressure and resources are often determining factors. I’m proud of the way we all worked under unique and challenging circumstances. You can find the gallery here.
My thanks to Perttu, Ville and all of the Finnish traceurs. And a shout out to Pete McKee, Martin and Marcus from Denmark, and Chau and Yann of the Yamak.
There were two very good reasons to hook up with Parkour Generations in order to photograph the ADAPT Level 2 course taking place at the end of November. Firstly, this was a unique collection of traceurs gathering for a week in one location. Students from the UK, France and beyond were meeting with the likes of Stephane, Yann and Chau to study and train incredibly hard. Secondly, it was taking place at the huge, derelict housing estate in Elephant and Castle which I’ve visited on many occasions. A few years ago I spent a morning photographing its desolation and handful of remaining residents, the results of which can be seen here.
A unique gathering in a unique setting. The atmosphere around the housing estate is now subtly different; it’s said that one or two residents remain but other than the traceurs working hard, there’s little sign of life beyond a renegade gardening project that has produced some strange objects dotted around the walls and walkways. Previously, the surreal was tempered by the occasional inhabitant wandering about. Now it is increasingly overgrown and deserted to the point that even the gangs, homeless and alcoholics seem to have abandoned it. My phone felt like the best means of capturing the strangeness, some of which can be found amongst my Instagram feed, all of which gets posted to Twitter.
I had huge admiration for those taking part. The course challenges one’s knowledge, leadership and creativity, whilst punishing the body. The highlight was spending ten minutes with Pete Mckee as he contemplated a precision jump as part of Dan’s ‘Breaking Jumps’ module. (See photo above.) It’s a reasonable distance but it isn’t the size that presents the challenge; the difficulty lies in sticking the landing as the twenty foot drop behind the target rail makes it hard to convince yourself not to overshoot.
As well as a great chance to catch up with my good friend Thomas, it was an opportunity to start discussing January’s trip to Thailand to visit Stephane who is hard at work managing the rapid growth of Parkour Generations Asia. Roll on 2012!
Until writing this article, composition is something that I’ve never really given a lot of thought. There are rarely any conscious decisions when I compose a shot, in the same way that there is rarely a conscious decision of when to pull the shutter. I just know (or at least I hope I do). And my assumption is that other experienced photographers are the same; I feel my way to what’s ‘right’ and in terms of composition, sometimes that’s as simple as making sure I don’t stick something slap bang in the middle of the frame.
There are various principles – rule of thirds being the most obvious – to give us an idea of what creates a pleasing image, and of course, there are plenty of occasions when those principles are irrelevant, forgotten entirely or deliberately undermined. I can’t think of one instance where I’ve looked through my lens and tried to find the four intersection points, nor have I ever used a viewfinder with a grid in place. The principles are a way in, an early nudge to start considering composition and, through repetition, to establish some unconscious habits.
In each frame I seek a sense of balance that pleases me, that feels right, and this is something that is quite difficult to describe. I want all parts of the image to work together which is perhaps why many of my images feature clean lines, diagonals and perspective. Anything messy can easily disrupt this balance and this probably explains the love of buildings and absence of trees throughout my work.
Parkour was my route into photography (and vice versa) to the extent that the two are inseparable. Thinking back to when I started, composing a parkour shot followed some basic logic; to create height and make a movement more dramatic, it made sense to create space beneath the athlete’s body. Instantly, this was an improvement when compared to simply placing the the subject matter in the centre of the frame. I guess I was fortunate to be photographing something that showed me how to compose photographs: creating this dramatic space led me to give more thought to how an image can be framed. Over time, and through lots of repetition and experimentation, photographing parkour began to inform all of my work. Whatever I shoot, you can usually see its influence.
Away from parkour, the subject matter does not always inform how one frames a photograph in such a direct way, but perhaps this is what makes good composition; that moment (and you can bet it’s not always deliberate) when composition and subject matter work together. Suddenly you’re creating images that speak to people, rather than just presenting something that was once in front of your lens. Instead, you have framed it and the medium is suddenly part of your message.
My sense of composition came about as a result of shooting loads and loads of photographs and spending hours editing them. I can only speak for myself, but there is no short cut; I shot as much as I could, developed my eye, and over time I absorbed a methodology. From this came my own style and judgement to the point that it became instinctive.
Just like parkour, there are no secrets. Just training.