Photographer Dennis McGrath discusses skateboarding, the adult film industry, and Lennie Kirk

I interviewed photographer Dennis McGrath back in February of 2013. I met him at his home in Highland Park, where we talked about his career as a skateboard photographer and a documentary examination of the adult film industry. When we connected he was working on putting together a book about former pro-skateboarder Lennie Kirk. McGrath had been photographing Kirk since 1997, way back before Kirk started to regularly getting into trouble with the law.

I found out about McGrath when I picked up a HUF Worldwide t-shirt at a second hand store in Boston. The skateboard apparel company had used a series of McGrath’s photos for a line of their shirts. Shortly after discovering McGrath’s work, I saw his photographs in Girlvert, a memoir by Oriana Small (aka Ashley Blue).

This was intended to be a podcast, hence its length. The file ended up in rough shape and lost for nearly a year. We recorded this around February 13th of 2013, as it was one of the days Chris Dorimer was playing Rambo around L.A. We talked for well over two hours covering everything from Larry Clark to the state of skateboarding today to what goes on behind the scenes of the adult film industry. Here is a truncated version of that conversation.

As you might imagine considering the themes we touch upon, reader discretion is advised.

All photos come by way of McGrath / his blog.

Tell me a bit about living in Los Angeles.

I am settled here and I really like it. I used to say that I didn’t like it, but now I can say that I fucking love it which is kind of interesting. I never thought I’d say that. There is a lot going on here and there are a lot of cool people here. I like how you can be kind of anonymous because it is such a big place. This place is so big and spread out that you can hang out by yourself a lot, which is what I do. When I am hanging out and making art, I tend to spend time by myself unless I am going to openings or whatever. But really, there is a lot of shit going on here, a lot of cool people, a lot of pretty girls. The beach, the weather. I like the sun and I like being warm. It’s mild, mellow, and people are cool. It’s rad.

It’s interesting because I am staying in Hollywood, which is very much it’s own thing. Then we had an assignment out in downtown in LA and that is very much its own thing. Then I went out to the Getty Museum, which is its own thing. And now here we are in Highland Park, which is again its very own thing.

It’s on its way to Pasadena. They’re close. It’s a nice Mexican neighborhood and unfortunately it’s slowly gentrifying. I kind of think that it’s lame in a way, but it’s happening. It’s “up and coming” because it is cheap to buy homes here. This neighborhood is so different from anywhere else in that it’s not Hollywood or Silver Lake or Echo Park. It’s its own thing. It’s way more down to earth. I lived in Hollywood for 3 years and I think it su… I don’t know. I have friends over there and I like it but it’s like a bubble. Everyone is driving a Mercedes or an Audi or a BMW or a fucking Bentley. It’s kind of surreal, especially for people who aren’t from here I imagine.

Well everyone defaults to hating Los Angeles…

Because of that kind of shit and it’s bullshit kind of bullshit, though.

But I think it isn’t any different from how people who have never been to New York can only envision Times Square.

Exactly.

But this is what? 100 different terrains, cultures and neighborhoods?

Exactly. It’s so big and spread out and different into different neighborhoods. The difference between Hollywood and Silver Lake is so different. And Silver Lake is getting even fancier than when I got there in 2002. We had a little two bedroom house for $800 and now it’s probably $2,800. Maybe not that much, but close. But Silver Lake is not like Hollywood, it’s different. Hollywood is fun, though. Most of the Skateboarders I know now live in Hollywood.

To be honest I live over here but I don’t hang out over here too much. I have some friends here but not too many. Most of my friends are in Hollywood, Silver Lake, and Santa Monica. When I am home, I am here working on art and stuff but I don’t really hang out around here. I go skate around the neighborhood and stuff or whatever… People aren’t very friendly around here. I think it might be because the gentrification thing is happening and I can respect that. Like a lot of Mexican people, I will be like “fuck you” to white people too. I can totally dig it because it is totally driving them out of the neighborhood. I saw it happen in San Francisco and it is totally happening everywhere in New York, but I do hang out around here to skate a bit.

What was living in Hollywood like?

The funny thing is that I lived in some shitty apartment buildings there and everyone in your building is driving a fucking $50,000 car and you’re thinking, okay, you’re spending $1,000 for your apartment and you’re probably spending $1,000 for your car bill too. I can kind of understand it because you’re always in your fucking car here but it is kind of surreal too. Most of the people where I grew up, back in the middle of the country and back East, think you’d be crazy for stuff like that. And yeah, I can kind of understand it but yeah, it’s also really fucking crazy.

Living in San Francisco people are like, “Fuck LA” because it’s like that here but it is so not like that at all.

I find, and I will probably make a shit load of enemies by saying this, but I find LA to be exponentially more interesting than San Francisco.

That’s the thing! I love San Francisco. I think physically it is the most beautiful city in America, more European than any other city in America. I moved there in 1994 and was skateboarding and all that. I lived there for 15 years. The 90s were the end of… And I know people say, “Oh we were saying the same thing about the 80s” but it has changed so much it is not the same thing. When I moved there, I moved into a 4 bedroom flat for $1,200 and now in that neighborhood 20 years later, studios are $1,500 – $1,600. It was raw and gritty and artists and skateboarders were attracted to it but culturally there are these tech workers. There is Google and Apple and whatever and people have these inflated incomes but they are fucking not interesting. I fucking hate it. I go there and it bums me out. It used to be interesting but it is not and it sucks.

Today my wife and I walked from Hollywood to the [LA County Museum of Art] and it was about a 5 mile walk. We walked through Hollywood and past all of those multi-million dollar homes and then we walked through a wave of crazy people and it alternates. The diversity of the kinds of dirty and seedy that you pass is astounding. It’s all over the map and it changes every other block.

If you go out to the outskirts of San Francisco, like the Excelsior District or the Outer Mission, to me that’s real San Francisco. 49ers fans and Samoans and gnarly people that are the real San Francisco. The Bay people that say “hella” and shit. That’s rad because that’s what San Francisco is to me. But now it’s, and I hate to say it, these white and Asian tech nerds. They might be hip to art, but they don’t buy it. I don’t get it. It used to be such a cool place culturally. I think that they think “It’s so cool, we live in the Mission,” but the culture is over. It ends with that generation.

So I discovered your work by way of the photos you did for the HUF t-shirt line. I found one at a vintage shop and I loved it and then looked up the rest of your work. Coincidentally that same week I picked up Oriana Small’s book Girlvert and you had done the author photos for that. Was that it’s own project, or…

Those pictures of Ori were part of this project where I followed this adult film director Jim Powers around from 2004 through 2007. I was living in San Francisco at the time and so I would come down for a week or two about every month or so. I met this guy when I was at Big Brother magazine. He was at Hustler and he was really cool and he used to skate and shit so he was interested. He invited me and my friend to this shoot and we went and it was really interesting.

Years later I hit him up and he invited me to his set and I started going and photographing. I think the reason he initially opened up to me is that when I first started going around the sets I wasn’t trying to get with the girls. When dudes go on a porn set and they’re not supposed to be there, I think they think that these girls are going to want to fuck anyone. It’s wrong, but that’s the mentality. I wasn’t getting in the way and I think Jim valued that about me. There were times that girls would start crying and I would get into their face and try to take a picture of them. One girl started freaking out and I realized I shouldn’t have done that. Jim didn’t really care. He was like, “That’s why you’re here, right?” He really got what I was trying to do, that I was trying to document what was going on.

So those pictures of Ori—she was under contract with the company—and Jim was the director. She was like their contract girl, and she used to direct all the Girlvert movies. That was her line or whatever. For a few years it was the biggest selling line in the industry. It was huge. So Ori was under contract for them and she was on set and she was a cool, smart girl. There were certain people. My ex-girlfriend, Kimberly Kane, too. Her and Ori were best friends at the time. They are cool girls and they are smart. The author photos were just portraits I had shot because I was always photographing her. One of the things she always did was to put her hand down her throat to get spit for lube or whatever. I had been thinking of shooting a photograph showing that and it came out great. I just shot those on set one day. When she wrote her book, her and her husband came to me and asked if they could use those photos. It was nice to give back, to be honest. She was so open to me photographing her on set. She was always so cool about it.

What I find so interesting about that is you had been shooting skateboarding since the 80s and then going from that to porn, it seems that it is sort of appropriate that your bridge between those two worlds was Big Brother. That magazine always felt like it took a pornographic approach to skateboarding.

That’s the one thing about skateboarding now is that it feels like it is lacking that.

It is really fucking boring.

Really boring, yeah. It’s bigger money, real serious, and just way bigger. Think about it. If it is going to get more mainstream, it has to get more corny. For it to catch on to a larger crowd, it has to lose the deviance and get real competitive. You know I read an interview with Tony Hawk, who is still so rad, and this older person asked him why he still rides even though he made all that money. You know? That’s what matters to people. The money. He is still doing it because it is who he is, but for people the success is in the money.

When I was a teenager I learned how to love something and I started out loving skateboarding.

I remember seeing some documentary on Danny and Damon Way and they had this crazily fucked up past and they were skating and playing with guns and all of this shit. I can only remember pieces of it in retrospect. But I was sort of exhilarated by that. And then Kids. I grew up in Maine and so my friends who saw it feigned feeling scarred, or maybe they really were somehow. But I saw it when I was 13 and…

That’s the perfect age for it.

I just felt like that aesthetic spoke to me so intimately and I couldn’t tell anyone that because everyone talked about how fucked up it was and how uncomfortable it made them. And I was like, oh, this movie actually understands me.

Larry Clark was always so inspiring to me. When I first started getting into photography, his books were so inspiring to me. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing really but my friend showed me Larry Clark’s book Teenage Lust and it was kids having sex in the back seat of a car and doing drugs or sniffing glue in the woods. I remember seeing these pictures while I was in school and really thinking to myself, “I know people like that.” They were like me and my friends and I had never seen stuff portrayed like that before. I am in school and looking at Robert Frank and it was amazing photography but I couldn’t really relate to it necessarily. Larry Clark books… I was like, wow.

A year later Larry Clark was down in New York and he was hanging out down there. My brother was the manager of Supreme back then when Larry was researching for Kids. I was in school and my brother called me to tell me, “There is this photographer Larry Clark here and he is going to make a film about Harold [Hunter] and all of the other skate kids around.” That was when I got hip to Larry and what he was doing. That film is an example of what I liked about skating there when I was a kid. There are parts that I don’t like, like when they’re talking shit to the gay dudes or when they beat up the dude in the park. I kind of hate that part of it and I think that’s Larry more than anything and not those dudes. I guess Harmony [Korine] is friends with all those guys and he wrote parts for all of them because he knew them so well. Some of those kids could be fucking idiots, but they’re all rad dudes.

But yeah, there is something about how it was shot. It was gritty and not highly produced. It is hard to explain. But then there is how real the sex is. That’s what made people think it was creepy, but that’s how we all are in our lives. One of the things I like about Larry’s movies is that, like in Bully. In Bully when the kids are having sex they go straight to it. That’s what you do when you’re a kid. You’re not going to fucking talk and shit. He sort of gets it.

And so Big Brother sort of felt like a whole institution that looked at skating through that lens.

And that’s what skateboarding lacks now. What’s funny with Big Brother… It transcended into mainstream society with Jackass and everything Jeff Tremaine is producing, all of those shows and I think it’s fucking rad.

So you were documenting the adult industry for about 4 years?

I was still doing skateboarding photography in 2004, but then I went on this really crazy trip around the country and I started to feel like I couldn’t do it anymore. I really, really felt that way about it. Traveling around the country with a bunch of teenagers is fun but I was getting older. In 2005 I went on a really fun trip to Japan with mostly older crew dudes, mostly friends. But I felt like after that trip I should just step away from it at that point and to end it well. I didn’t want to straggle along just to make money. It was a big decision but I just fucking stopped doing it. I sold all of my cameras and I really miss traveling and I miss seeing people sometimes but I don’t really miss being around it. It is not something I could just do for money. You have to be so 100%, like dudes calling you at midnight to come and shoot this photo and it’s fun in a way but it’s just… I just couldn’t do it anymore.

Since then I have been working odd jobs like trimming weed and moving furniture and other crazy, humbling jobs. I was just hustling, trying to make money. But when I started shooting that porn full on, I was kind of working shitty jobs in the city and I would rent a car and drive to LA. I miss this time in my life, I have to say. I think I am addicted to being around it. Who wouldn’t be? Every morning I would wake up, call the Production Manager, and I would get the address and I would go there and hang out. I did that for a few years and then in the Summer of 2006 I moved down here after saving a little bit of money. My goal was to go and shoot Jim’s sets Monday through Thursday. That was when I did most of the work.

It was a really fun time and I miss it in ways. But it’s funny, I got invited to a shoot this week and I didn’t go. I was thinking about going and shooting some stuff, but I didn’t go because I don’t look at it the same any more. It was fun and fresh. In 2007 I started dating a girl that works in the industry and it kind of became more… I never really shot porn, per se, but I was around it a lot because she directed and performed. Most of her friends work in the industry. Being around those kind of girls was addictive for a while.

What about it was addictive?

Kind of like having an open, no nonsense view of sexuality. When porn is someone’s living, their daily topics of conversation usually involve things most women never think about in their lives. But it is their job, you know? It is the craziest job. It is way crazier and way more sketchy than any other job. Especially with the Internet, it’s everywhere. How can you hide it? What does someone tell people they do for a living in that situation? Now the family of the woman I dated knows so it is cool, but for a while when they didn’t know she was trying to keep it under wraps as much as she could.

But just being around those kind of girls all the time it’s… they’re not normal, I hate to say. My ex-girlfriend is one of the sweetest, most normal girls in the whole world, but then she is not normal because she does this for a living. I think I like that. I like the way that they know themselves sexually compared to some girls that… and I am not saying that a girl who does not do that can’t know herself sexually. There is something where the girls in porn can fall into themselves sexually and maybe it is fake, or half of it is, but they know themselves and they can slip right into it. Something about that is very interesting to me. It’s like drugs, kind of, to be honest.

Someone asked me to do a zine about that stuff and I was going through the crazy shit I had seen and I thought it was interesting. The zine was called Recreational Drug Use, because I kind of look at it like that. I wanted to make a book about it and call it Addicted

I want to start off by saying that I am not a sex addict. I kind of hate that word too. In a weird way there is a stigma with addictions, like you’re a fucking junkie and shit. I don’t think I am a sex addict, but I feel like I got addicted to that world for a while, and I guess you could say that… Sexual addition is bad when you’re spending all of your money on it or when you’re married and you are having sex with hookers and bringing disease home to your wife… Am I wrong?

The thing that I hear in what you’re saying is that… For me, I have had however many relationships and for me what feels like a big waste of time in retrospect is the dance around which you figure out when you are allowed to be frank with each other sexually. Sometimes that happens instantly for whatever reasons but other times in feels really touchy. Like you have to hope you don’t sound like a pervert by asking about anal sex or attempting it or whatever. It sounds like what you found refreshing by way of the attitude is that there wasn’t that… And not in the way you talked about earlier, where bros show up to a set and wants to know “Who wants to fuck?” But…

Yeah, the inhibition and the openness. My ex knew people who were swingers and I could never do it even though I could say I am a pretty hyper-sexual person. There are a couple of people who wanted to do that with us. You know, a girl would want to have sex with us but then her husband would want to watch and I am not too into that. I am not a porno dude. I am freaky but I am not that freaky.

Being around it for as long as you were, were you ever turned off by what is considered to be the sex industry’s exploitative nature?

I think that the degradation is bad. Men making women do degrading shit is bad, but you know what? I was never on a set when that happened. There was one time I was uncomfortable on a set, but it wasn’t because the director was making the girl do anything. She was all gung ho before the scene started and then she couldn’t do what she needed to do. It was a gang bang. That was the only time I left the set, that I was too uncomfortable. But it wasn’t like the guy was making her do it. That was the time I tried to photograph this girl when she was crying and she got pissed and pushed me away. I kind of felt horrible and thought I fucked up and that’s when I looked at Jim and he was like, “That’s what you’re here for.” That was so gnarly. I thought that he was going to be angry but he didn’t care.

There were actually two other times when I saw girls cry. That time I just described was with dudes gang banging a girl and she couldn’t deal with it, but the other two times it was girls gang banging a girl. To be fucking perfectly honest… I’ve seen more women in… It is bad. Porn in general. I am not going to say that men aren’t bad in the porn industry. They probably don’t like their moms or their mom left and they have some mommy issues. They don’t like women and that’s why they do it… Not all of them, but most male performers have real problems with women.

But when I started hanging out with my ex girlfriend and she was directing, I saw women do gnarly shit to other girls. There is that feminist view where it talks about degradation and yeah, it can be and it can be sketchy and there is the sketchy side where there are bad people or whatever, but for the most part it is not like that. Other than when I was on set with Jim, it was with women directors.

But it’s a crazy thing to do for a living.

So what are you working on right now?

Right now I am working on this book about a skateboarder named Lennie Kirk. It has been a while. I started photographing him when he was 15, back in 1995. He grew up in North Carolina. I grew up in Texas when I was growing up. He was friends with my brother John, who is younger than me. Lennie used to come to Houston to skate with these guys. I have known him since then.

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It is the story of a skateboarder who ran away from home, moved to California when he was a teenager and then turned pro. For a few years he was one of the best skateboarders in the world. He was doing kind of groundbreaking, crazy shit. He was already a crazy kid, always drinking and smoking weed and nothing bad, but he was just a crazy kid and being out all night and doing what he wanted. But then he hit his head.

It was interesting, back in 1995 after Larry made Kids, that summer Larry was in New York and Lennie shot a PSA with him. This is ironic too. He shot a PSA about guns with Crime Dog McGruff back in the 90s.

Wait. Larry Clark shot a Crime Dog McGruff PSA about guns?

Yeah, and Lennie was in it. I never saw it but my mom did. She called me up to say, “I just saw a commercial with Lennie holding a gun on MTV.”

But he was interesting. He was the kind of kid you wanted to be photographing, you kind of gravitated to him. So Lennie was just around a lot and he lived down the street. He and all of these other kids, Josh Kalis was one of them, were always around and hanging out with my roommates or whoever was around.

Lennie hit head and knocked some screws loose. Screws were already loose,  but sometimes you hit your head and things change due to brain trauma. A week later he got hit by a van and then a week later he called my house and was reading the bible. It was so weird. I guess he grew up Christian because he is from North Carolina but then he was full bore, crazy Christian. Everywhere we went he was preaching and if people weren’t going for it he would tell them that they were going to Hell.

But going back to Larry Clark, in 1997 when I had just started to become a photographer, just out of school and taking skateboard pictures, I went around to some photographers to look for their input and I met with Larry. He was looking through my pictures and there were quite a few of Lennie in the mix and Larry said, “I remember this kid, I shot this kid.” And he said this to me and I will never fucking forget it, but he said, ” You have really good pictures of him. He is really interesting. Whenever you see this kid, take a picture of him.” I remember having my head up my ass and saying sure and having no idea what he said to me but then I did do that. I started following and photographing him and I didn’t realize until later that I really took that advice.

Lennie was always around. There was this guy Dirty Gary from New York and him and Lennie were both derelicts and they hit it off. Before Lennie was Christian they started hanging out because Gary shot a bunch of amazing pictures of him, but it’s mostly Gary’s photos, my photos and my brother John’s photos. That’s what this book is. It is about his rise and fall. He has been in and out of jail for the past ten years. He got out of prison last year and by that point he had burned a lot of bridges.

He is back in jail, probably for a long time now. It has been another year. I don’t know if he has three strikes. He got sentenced 3-7 back in 2004, I think, for armed robbery, which makes that PSA really ironic. He got out, went back, then was out for another year or so…

Why do you feel compelled to put this book together?

It is an interesting story. I have always been interested in books like this, that have a lot of text and ephemera that go with it. Just real things. And I think that the story with Lenny… it’s not like he killed anyone or anything. But he had so much potential to do something with his life. For example, his best friend from when he was younger was Josh Kalis. Josh is probably a millionaire from skating and he has done very well for himself, but it is because he had a good head on his shoulders. He and Lennie were both living in a car down by the Filmore and these two white kids kind of having an identity crisis listening to hip hop and thinking they’re all tough… And Josh went one way and he is still a pro and Lennie went the other way. Dudes who are pro now looked up to Lennie. He was doing groundbreaking shit that people weren’t fucking with.

What’s interesting is that there are both these paths related to skateboarding, but it sounds like there were two skateboarding related accidents that helped to send him down the path he ended up going down. And also some people are brilliant, but totally incapable. Like you don’t want to have been friends with Rick James when he was alive, it sounds like, prodigy or not.

That’s true. Rob Dyrdek was really good friends with Lennie and the last time I saw Rob we talked about him. Dyrdek is all famous now and I told him I was making this book. He seemed interested, but one of the things he said was, “I have too much to loose now and I can’t be friends with him now.” I totally understand that and it makes sense. I sort of feel the same way sometimes. He burned so many bridges in San Francisco.

And I don’t feel obligated to him by doing this at all. I used to feel obligated to him if I was going to do this because it is exploitative in a way. If anything, it will help him remember that he was someone in his life. Maybe Lennie will see it and maybe it will make him want to do something, you know what I am saying?

It is something I have been photographing since I got into photography. When Larry planted the seed years ago, I never realized until 6 or 7 years ago that the person who inspired me planted this seed. It couldn’t be more perfect for me. Like I said, when I first saw Teenage Lust I thought, this is what I am going to photograph, my friends and shit like that. This is what I know.

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Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.