Life Before GoPro

Tears and pain and revelation

Greg MacGillivray (right), filming “The Sweet Ride” in 1967.
Greg MacGillivray (right), filming “The Sweet Ride” in 1967.

I fight the good fight, daily and skillfully, against nostalgia. Usually it’s not much of a contest. New boards and wetsuits are always better than what came before. The extended 10-day forecast has all but killed the surf trip skunk. In 2016, we have Bill Finnegan and Rory Parker, among others, to help articulate our wonderful fucked-up obsession. World Tour contests are live-streamed and Twitter-sprinkled. Sure, the lineup is crowded and getting worse, and that hurts. Just like it did in 1945, when LeRoy Grannis and his brother drove to Malibu for the first time after a long slog through WW2, looked out to see a half-dozen surfers in the water at the same time, and LeRoy’s brother turned away in disgust, saying, “It’s over.” Whatever the ratio is in surfing between struggle and joy — seven parts struggle, one part one joy, give or take — it’s the same today as it was yesterday. Except today is better because it’s new.

Still, nostalgia will catch me off guard now and then, sit me down, rub my neck a little, pour a shot of sentimentality, then another, and next thing I know, I’ve got my arm draped around the past and we’re singing old Tom Petty songs through tears and laughter. Today is such a day. And the nostalgia du jour is water photography.

Quality isn’t the issue. In every way, from every angle, water photography now is technically better than it’s ever been. There’s just way, way too much of it. Terabyte after terabyte, still shots and video, in translucent blues and foamy whites and Mavericks greens, filtered and color-adjusted, 500 perfect images for every available surf mag cover and website homepage, glutting up Vimeo and YouTube. We are drowning in water photography. The inside-looking-out tube shot? Rare as a unicorn when I was a kid. Now its as magical as a speculum-assisted gynecological exam.

And I know this doesn’t make sense given what I just said about boards and wetsuits, but I miss the old water photography equipment. Or, not the equipment itself so much as the intense and deeply fraught relationship between photographers and their highly customized gear. George Greenough strapping himself into a homemade camera-harness rig — a Seussian device made up of metal gears and buckles and Plexiglass weighing 28 pounds, or, and I kid you not, 172 GoPro Hero4 Session units — submarine-paddling his way into the Lennox lineup at daybreak, ready to film inside the tube or die trying. He was the only surfer in the world in 1968 capable of getting the shot, and his camera setup, needless to say, was a one-off. No backup, no insurance. Lose that thing underwater and it’s back to the Square One. Lose a GoPro, you pull a spare from your wax pocket and keep surfing.

Maybe it’s just me, but the shot is always better when you get a feel for the suffering that went went into it. “God it’s so painful when something that is so close / Is still so far out of reach.” Pain helps bring out the beauty, is what I’m trying to say.

George Greenough, and a big camera for Big Wednesday. Photo: Hoole
George Greenough, and a big camera for Big Wednesday. Photo: Hoole
Doc Ball, around 1940.
Doc Ball, around 1940.
Ricky “Rocketman” Cassidy, 1973.
Ricky “Rocketman” Cassidy, 1973.
Dan Merkel, 1977.
Dan Merkel, 1977.
Don King, 1990.
Don King, 1990. Photo: Divine
Cheyne Horan with Warren Bolster-rigged camera, 1995.
Cheyne Horan with Warren Bolster-rigged camera, 1995.