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All manner of photographic might is unleashed upon the surf world. Innumerable pixels explode from the pages and screens of surf media globally, swallowing whole our memories of recent sessions. The hyper-saturated colors of tropical perfection parade through the minds of surfers as they don black wetsuits for a dip in a cold, grey sea. Cylinders heave and surfers soar as a no-hope shorebreak becomes a dream tube and fly-away airs become the surf move of the moment. We feast on these images, devouring dreamscapes and dream sessions as inspiration for our own more mundane surfing lives. Though compelled by photographic indulgence, we also sense a dichotomy at play; there a fantasy, here our reality.
“My feet are cold as hell.” A daily dawn surfer grins through a chattered mumble. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” He stands on a seaside bluff, below him cascade small but clean peelers. There is only one other surfer in sight. Wetsuit is pulled tight. Gravel crunches underfoot. Scents of coastal sage and diesel exhaust mingle as familiar pre-surf rituals are performed- wetsuit, wax, board check, stashed key. Later there will be a few good rides, a few moments of pride, a few humbling wipeouts. All of this is part and parcel. All of this is a surfer’s reality. How distant it is from the packaged pictures streamed to us as a representation of surf perfection.
Those visions of perfection provide inspiration for our daily surfing pursuits. They are fuel that keeps the creaking joints and gnaw of responsibilities from stealing our surf time. The hyperbolic imagery of the athlete in his arena, as much gladiator or acrobat as surfer, rekindles a sense of awe for the human potential in surfing. Certainly there is beauty in modern surf photography. Certainly there is awe.
But there are moments of beauty and drama in every surfer’s reality. These are moments captured in a glance. The grey-scale mornings, the boards at rest before the paddle out, the glimpse of a bottom turn juiced with a bit of body english are at least as visually relevant as a fins-free lip slide. They are simply relevant in a different way. Swelling ranks of surf photographers have turned to analog equipment and individually purposed composition in order to access this difference in vision.
The cameras used by these photographers range from large format film cameras, to Polaroid cameras for which no new film is being produced, to thirty-five millimeter point-and-shoots, to cameras created as toys. They offer visual affectation that is more impressionism than realism, more mood than assertion of technical performance. There are blurs, light leaks, soft edges. Colors are muted or saturated and forms become more evocative, more elemental in the frame. The landscape of surfing is uncovered; macro peeks illuminate a flex-fin’s foil while a panorama of an entire wave, crisp barrel to the warbling shoulder gives context to the surfer’s ride. The images linger not only on the tanned, tuned, and tropical but also on the New England surfer in the snow, the north coast surfer in solitude.
The overall effect of this emerging visual genre is to slow the conceptualization of the surfing experience into a series of moments tied together in balance. The episodes of surfing as a lifestyle become equally weighted. Certainly, the centrality of the ride as the transcendent moment in surfing is maintained, but the small instances along the way are offered as context that compliments, indeed, defines the ride itself. The viewer is asked to consider that the surfer is not the central element in surfing. Rather, he is a participant in a grand pursuit with each successive and peripheral consideration helping to craft a beautiful act.
The analog aesthetic echoes a larger trend towards divergent sensibilities in surfing. The championing of the “ride everything” ethos has been broadly distributed, with singles, stubs, fish, logs, gliders, and finless craft of all types sharing lineups across the globe. To be sure, the three-finned thruster remains the tool of choice at premier heavy water and performance waves, but these are the waves of the eminently bold and capable. Those waves and those surfers are the fantasy. The reality is less idyllic, but more accessible thanks to the variety of boards at play in today’s lineups. Correspondingly, low fidelity surf photography allows access to the elemental aspects that define the most average, but most profoundly important, of surf experiences- our own.