Through explicit and frightfully mundane photography, skater-turned-firefighter Gabriel Angemi captures the impact of someone lighting up a crack pipe on a bombed out street as disturbingly as a simple environment shot of a building, captured with an Eggleston-esque unrest. He uses all of his experiences, from skating at Love Park in the 90s, to his occupation as a firefighter, to capture gritty realistic moments with his camera.
Though he’s careful to separate his work as a firefighter from his photography, Angemi gained notoriety by capturing the reality of Camden New Jersey via iPhone, broadcasting the quiet tension, danger, and destitution that few Americans equate with the Garden State. Camden ranks as one of the most dangerous cities in the US. Angemi is currently working on a zine shot on film for Deadbeat Club, as well as preparing for several group shows in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Most recently his work and new zine Accessible Repositories was shown at Tom Sachs’ Bodega gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Before finding his photographic style, the iconic Love Park in Philadelphia was Angemi's first window into encountering tensions head-on through skateboarding. What was so significant about a public park filled with marble ledges? During the 90s, Love was not only a launching pad for many East Coast skaters’ careers, but a microcosm of the shift in the skate industry from California. What happened there became as significant as any smooth Cali schoolyard, ramp, or contest. Through the highly influential 411VM—skating’s first video magazine, started in 1993—Ricky Oyola, Matt Reason, Fred Gall, and a local named Lil’ Stevie, along with a cast of regulars too long to mention, became the world’s first moving pictures of Philadelphia skateboarding.
Love would become a proving ground for pros from across the world, but the plaza wasn’t important simply because it turned out and attracted pro skaters. Love was an enclave for creativity—a grimy place to congregate and commingle, where suburban boys got their first taste of the city, where many had their first run-ins with overzealous police officers, where drug use was in the open, along with bums having intercourse and doing other unsavory acts in public. Sure, not everyone who rolled across those tiles went on to a successful skate career, but many leveraged their experiences into other out-of-the-box pursuits.
Like many young men growing up in the 80s, Angemi first found his freedom through the escapism of heavy metal, BMX bikes, and the pages of comic books, but skateboarding was the tool that stuck and sent him on a trajectory away from after-school sports and into the unknown.
“I started skateboarding and I heard my first Minor Threat album,” he said about the moment that he found the actual cultures of skateboarding and punk rock. “It was pretty much all over by 1987 for anything but hardcore/punk music and skateboarding. Watching Mark Gonzales in Psycho Skate and Savannah Slamma pretty much changed my life. I wanted nothing but skateboarding, art, music and tattoos by seventh grade. “
At age 13, Angemi’s parents split up, leaving him as a “quintessential latchkey kid who was pretty stable and grounded.” He’d skate 40 minutes to a train station in order to spend the day skating Philadelphia, soundtracked in isolation by Youth of Today, Turning Point, Misfits, and Fugazi cassettes he’d crank on the train, itching to get to the city. Oftentimes he’d travel almost two hours just to catch 30 minutes of light at Love Park, where he started to meet a tight clique of committed skaters. He even credits Oyola for teaching him kickflips in front of the defunct local shop Spike’s Skates, back then. Even though Love and the entire city was their virtual skatepark, it wasn’t without its hazards.
“There was nothing at Love but bums, rats, and skateboarders,” he says of those early days. “There were fights daily. Skateboarders fighting bums, fighting each other, fighting civilians and the police. All while those folks were fighting each other, too. There were a lot of kids everyday, some got their asses kicked, or mugged, or both. Kids weren’t showered for weeks, always hungry, always looking for and acquiring product they couldn’t afford. Kids ate from the church vans that were giving meals to the homeless. Yeah, it was grime, it was shady as fuck; I felt right at home.”
A few years later, Love would become one of the most recognizable spots in skateboarding, but that didn’t smooth over any of the grit or violence. Even though the presence of skateboarding had transformed Love to somewhere that people could actually hang out, the city started to crack down on things, at one point even employing motorcycle cops to zip up and down the stairs and even chase skaters into traffic, oftentimes against the flow. Internally, there began to be tensions between skateboarders.
Love Park didn’t land Angemi’s name on the bottom of a skateboard, nor did he become a skate photographer, videographer, or any facet of skateboarding, despite being sponsored for a period of time. Instead, at age 24, he followed his father and became a firefighter in the city of Camden, where he spent the majority of his life and currently holds the position of captain.
“I do enjoy lurking, but that all stems from growing up on the street—seeing reality as a skateboarder,” he says of the influence of skating and specifically his days at Love. “I see everything that way, I couldn't stop it if I tried.”
Early this year, Love Park was slowly dismantled. Love’s importance to skateboarding and the city itself transcends the red lettered sign designed by Robert Indiana—it was a symbol of a shared passion.
Gabriel Angemi's photography and drawings will appear on a deck for Philadelphia's Spectrum Skateboard Co. this May, with proceeds to benefit the Camden, NJ skatepark.