Reconnecting with Minna by Jenny Sampson
I first met Minna Stess in Seattle in May 2017. I might have, in fact, seen her earlier that year in Santa Rosa, but I really cannot remember. Moniz, her mom, told me that she (Moniz) saw me in Santa Rosa. Minna’s parents owned an indoor skate park in Santa Rosa. They hosted the first Skate Like A Girl Bay Area event (the film release of Quit Your Day Job by Erik Sandoval and Monique O’Toole) –it would be another couple of years before I learned that this event was their first and I was fortunate to be there. I had thought I was late to the game as I had just learned about SLAG (and was ecstatic to go to a girl-centric skate event to make portraits). Kristin Ebling (Executive Director of Skate Like a Girl) told me about their upcoming event in Seattle, Wheels of Fortune, and at that moment, I decided I would be there. But I digress.
In May 2017, I photographed Minna at Skate Like a Girl’s WOF8 (Wheels of Fortune) in Seattle, where I set up my small portable darkroom and 4 x 5 view camera to make portraits of skaters for skaters my soon-to-be-published Skaters. Minna was nine or ten years old. My impression of her at that time was that she was simultaneously tough and adorable. Everyone hanging around seemed to know her and supported her sitting for me (exactly like the beautiful way skaters support and encourage each other in the skate parks). She expressed concern that she wouldn’t look “cool” while I helped pose her sitting on a stool, holding her board. Of course, I knew that there was no possible way she could look anything but cool, and I reassured her. She sat earnestly, staring into the lens, while I instructed her to remain as still as possible for the exposure. Her visage appeared on the plate while clearing in the fixer with her blue eyes glowing (blue eyes look very, very light in tintype). “Tough and adorable,” I thought to myself. “Do you think you look cool?” I asked her. Minna replied, “he he, yeah.”
When I met Minna at her home in Petaluma in September of 2021 to photograph her for the third time –this time collaborating with With it Girl—I arrived before the WIG team, giving me the opportunity to reconnect with her while setting up my (larger) portable darkroom and my (larger) 8 x 10 view camera. I mentioned to her that this would be the third time making her tintype portrait, and she couldn’t believe it! She remembered the first tintype –what it looks like, but had forgotten the occasion and that it had been me who made it. The second time was in 2018, also at WOF9 in Seattle. She had grown at least a foot if not more, easy, a gangly pre-teen. She had absolutely no recollection of this! (The first tintype I made of her that day wasn’t very good. In fact, I was so determined to make a good plate (portrait) that I attempted possibly two times –and yet she still didn’t remember! Neither of those tintypes came out well –yet it was clear to me that Minna was, and is an incredible subject.
Those eyes. But there is also something else…there is a mysterious quality embodied in some people that results in a particularly sublime tintype portrait. Old Soul, I call it. Minna has it.
I loved reconnecting with Minna and getting to know her after all this time. I had photographed her two years in a row. I didn’t know her except what I learned from her Instagram and the news. She continued to be invited to and win at competition upon competition, and she broke her arm, taking her out of the mix for a good part of 2019; of course, she is on the (first ever) US Olympic Skateboard Team. In 2017, I was very new to the girl skater scene, but not for nine-year-old Minna. She had been skateboarding and known some of the best female skateboarders for most of her life. They are her skate family, her support system –on top of two incredibly supportive parents and grandmother (who knitted the hat she was wearing). Minna’s unassuming nature combined incongruously with her confidence and talent as such a skilled young professional athlete makes for one impressive 15-year-old human.
Violet & Minna Post Olympics Pandemic Chat in Petaluma 2021
Violet: We are recording in Petaluma at Minna's house. Can you introduce yourself and tell me a bit about your deck setup?
Minna: Santa Cruz skateboard Independent trucks, Bones wheels, Bronson bearings, Mob grip with Henry Gartland Memorial spray paint stencil on it from 3rdLair... What am I missing? Okay, trying to think. Bearings, Bronson bearings. Independent trucks hardware and trucks [Us both laughing] Bones Lizzie Armanto wheels that Lizzie Armanto gave me in Iowa
Violet: Huge flex. All right, I heard that you started skating really young. So can you tell me a bit about what motivated you to continue and why you still continue now?
Minna: It's just fun. and meeting new people is pretty good, because everyone, like, has something related or in common already
Violet: You originally started skating with your brother; how does his skating style affect yours?
Minna: I don't know. When I was really young, he started skating, so I just wanted to do whatever he was doing. I guess I tried to mimic whatever he was doing. He skates more streets. I skate more transitions, so we kind of have different styles. I do a little bit of street but not as good as him.
Violet: Who are your biggest influences when it comes to skating?
Minna: I'm trying to think… Bob Burnquist has always been ....one of my favorites because I remember watching his documentary or some sort of movie he made about skating the mega ramp, and I always wanted to do that. *I still haven't done it. Actually, I dropped in the quarterpipe when I was eight, but I haven't done it [the mega ramp]. But hmm, Mario Bard, Vanessa Torres, Leo Baker, Nora Vasconcellos, I don't know if I said that right!
*Mom confirmed that Minna has in fact skated Bob's Megaramp too!
Violet: It's good!. I've always heard that skating is a very community based sport. Is that true?
Minna: Yes, skating is a pretty community based sport. That's a very, like, technical word. I mean, everyone is just skating and having fun. Everyone is working off each other. That's like a big part of it.
Violet: Any local skate parks or Bay Area skate parks that you particularly like? Or any parks abroad --because you have been traveling a lot?
Minna: Mill Valley skate park is fun. Napa, Sebastopol, and St. Helena are really fun. Those are, like, the main four in Northern California. I skate the Phoenix Theater and downtown Petaluma a lot with friends, too.
Violet: I was just about to ask about the Phoenix! But you know, but since you just mentioned it, when did you start skating in events? How did that come about?
Minna: My brother and I used to go to smaller castle contests for fun and free products and stuff. And so I started doing that. And I was one of the only girls --or maybe like one other girl, maybe, MAYBE but not usually to compete like that with my brother, and then started skating more girls competitions and started going to Exposure and started going to the Vans Park series. All the Olympic qualifiers came up traveling to Brazil and China.
Violet: You've mentioned in the past --and just now-- that when you started skating competitively, you were often the only girl there. How have you seen that change, and why do you think it changed?
Minna: I always hate being asked those questions! It's like, I'm gonna say something really bad. Can you repeat it again?
Violet: Yeah, for sure. You've mentioned in the past that when you started skating competitively, you were often the only girl there. When did you see that start changing? And why do you think it started to change?
Minna: I think just having a lot of social media coverage of other skaters like Nora, that a lot of people know. Most girls know Nora and Lizzie Armanto. Just seeing all of them skate and just, you know, being influenced by amazing people, and really good skaters. I think a lot of girls get into it by [seeing] other girls skating. So they meet other people. I went to this skate camp and met a girl who started skating only a year ago and she learned from this other girl that was there, too. I think it's really cool to see girls coming off each other and skating, which is like, I wouldn't have seen happen maybe six years ago.
Violet: What's your current favorite trick? And can you tell me a little bit about your "signature" trick?
Minna: My current favorite trick? The front side smith, I guess, or back side airs. They're just fun. And pretty easy, or easier for me to do. I'd rather do that -- I'd rather do those two tricks then finish up and do a kick turn. But the kickflip -- I wouldn't say it's my signature trick. It's just a kickflip! But like, on a really steep 11-foot bank, I guess that's pretty hard. I [once] saw some comments like, "it's just a kickflip like it's not that hard." But if you see the bank, it's literally, like, like a wall. Straight up and down so it is pretty hard! But it's also not as hard as you'd think. For that... [laughs]
Violet: I did watch some videos where commentators were like, "we're looking for the kickflip we're looking for-
Minna: I know!
Violet: How did that come about?
Minna: Because I was trying it in practice before for the competition and I wasn't landing it. For some reason, I just couldn't land it. Like, it would just get away from me or be in front of me. I finally landed some practice [ones] and every time I landed it, people would go crazy for a few seconds. So I guess it was because I wasn't landing it too much in practice. It got/had this big thing about it. So when I landed it in the contest it was like, "Yay, kickflip!"
Violet: Is there any specific trick that you've been working on trying to land for master right now?
Minna: I was trying to kickflip down stair sets. That's not really like a transition trick, but it's down things. And I did it yesterday and kind of hit my head on the ground. So that wasn't good. I did land it though, before I hit my head, actually. I just wanted to get it filmed on my phone but I didn't.
Violet: So did you get the crash filmed?
Minna: I do I have [that], you want to see?
Minna: Okay. You can't really see me hit my head though it's just, like, I just fall.
Violet: At this point, aside from winning more competitions and qualifying for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, where do you want to see your skating grow? And in what areas?
Minna: I just want to be like, an all-around skater, skating transition, doing contests. It's getting interesting also not doing contests and just having fun and doing street -- having both sides of skating like the competition, skating, the transition skating, and street skating. All of it, because it's all fun. I want to film some skateparks or something in the future and hopefully go pro, that'd be cool.
Violet: I want to ask one more question that isn't on the thing [google doc]. We talked a lot about your skating but, is there anything that you like to do, that isn't skating, that a lot of people don't know about?
Minna: I don't do that much besides skating, that's all I do! I hate these questions at the end because they're like, "Is there anything else we should add?" I'm like, "I don't know."
Violet There's always the last cram.
Minna: Yeah, I'm trying to think. I don't know, I draw sometimes, but not really that much. I have this little film camera. I've been taking pictures with. I have three rolls of film that I haven't gotten developed. I don't even know what's on it anymore. I need to get more film for it. And my friend dropped it. So it's, like, kind of broken now too! We were running to the beach and it fell out of his bag and just *pshhh* onto the ground. Yeah, and now the thing kind of doesn't close too well. But it still works!
I do find this girl Minna fascinating. From the moment she was born, (instinctively doing a pushup on my chest and attempting to look around, shocking all of us ** gasp!**) she has surprised me. She's an old soul, quite witty and she really doesn't give herself as much credit as she should with her skating. She's really an all-terrain vehicle skater and she's been having the most fun out there skating even when she's pissed off at a trick. I am very proud of her and love that she loves what she's doing every day. (Moniz -Minna's Mom)
Jenny Sampson was born and raised in San Francisco and currently resides in Berkeley, California. She earned a B.A. in Psychobiology in 1991 at Pitzer College and has since dedicated her time to her photographic endeavors: wet plate collodion, traditional black and white photography and commissioned portraits. Sampson is a member of The Rolls and Tubes Collective. Her first monograph, Skaters, was published in October 2017 by Daylight Books and Jenny’s Skater Girls in September 2020. The Rolls and Tubes Collective published their book, A History of Photography, in October 2021.
Violet has been contributing to withitgirl since the relaunch in 2020. Her father Matt was one of the founders of Cosmic Debris which sponsored many of the Withitgirl activities in the early 2000s. Violet publishes her own zine BUCKY and enjoys, surfing, skating, and going to as many music concerts as she can.
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