Beauty from the Fire

Remembering Warren Bolster, one of surfing's most talented photographers

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I caught Warren Bolster at a good time in his life. Maybe the best time. It was 1985, and he was halfway into a comeback that would make even the most dedicated Mark Occhilupo fan pause and say, “That is a damn fine comeback.” Warren was closing in on 40, detoxed, groomed, a bit leathery around the eyes. Had an upper torso packed with new muscle, and a bombproof suitcase filled with new Pentax gear. Fast talker. Great smile.

The son of a U.S. diplomat, Warren was by nature a political animal, and he sought me out not long after I landed in the SURFER editorial department. Wanted to open up a channel with the new guy. For my part, I was honored to be in contact with the man who, during my mid-teens, had cut himself out a bigger slice of pie than any surf photographer in history. In 1974, Warren had feature-length portfolios in SURFER and Surfing, and a year later was named editor at the newly revamped Skateboarder. (“It wasn’t just the new urethane wheels that caused the ’70s skate explosion,” Bolster once said of his till-your-fingers-bleed work ethic at Skateboarder. “A lot of it was me.” And it ain’t bragging if it’s true.) He was in with the hardcore locals at La Jolla and Sunset Cliffs, who were very hardcore indeed. As was Warren, who had a small fetish for both pain and the presentation of that pain. Always pushing the limits of tight-angle action photography, he took a lot of shots to the nose, head, temple, chin, each of which was vehemently shot and catalogued, the bloodier the better. Count the masochistic selfie among Warren’s many photographic innovations.

Though Bolster’s work ethic did contribute to his massive implosion that followed. Eighteen-hour days in the office were followed by however much whiskey it took to slow his brain down enough to sleep, then followed, in turn, by however much cocaine it took to sustain another 18-hour work day. Lost his job. Lost his wife and a beachfront house in Point Loma. Burned every personal and professional relationship he had, and burned ’em again just to make sure. At one point in the early ’80s, Warren conducted a kind of parade review of the troops, weaving his way down the line of assembled photographers on the beach at Pipe just as the morning sun was popping over the hills, eyes vacant, mouth slack, right hand holding a brown-bagged pint of something. Just showed up at Ehukai, weaved his way down a stretch of beach he once owned, past all the averted eyes, and exited near Rockpiles.

In 1983, with a suddenness fathomable only to other high-achieving rock-bottom substance abusers, Warren quit drinking and drugging, and over the next three years he crawled inch by inch back to health, back into the good graces of friends and family—while sober, he was amazingly generous and kind—and back, finally, to his station as a top-level surf photographer. Warren snatched three SURFER covers in ’86. Another three in ’87. Got his swagger back. Suggested that we start calling him “Rambolster” (Rambo/Bolster), and again, let it be said, the man was gym-pumped and on a mission, so was he out of line?

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On the other hand, even here at the height of his resurrected glory, it was clear that Warren was still grinding inside. I don’t know if he’d been diagnosed as bipolar yet, or if he was on medication. Surfers didn’t talk about things like that in the 1980s. What I do remember is that from one angle the man was clean and healthy and big-hearted; from another he was still up on two wheels with the pedal on the floor. He jammed 75 minutes into every hour, no doubt in an effort to make up for the lost years. Nervous energy swarmed off him like bees around a hive. Warren 2.0 at least tried to relax, which was an improvement, but he did so with the skill of a rookie slack-liner; grinning, tensed-up, easily knocked off balance. His lingering paranoia haunted him. Not counting Jeff Divine and two or three others, Warren viewed every photographer as a real or potential enemy. The masochism abided, too. A head-wound selfie he took at Tavarua, with blood covering his nose and upper lip, was a few degrees more ghoulish than anything previous.

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The work didn’t falter, but neither did the weirdness. In 1990, during my last few months at SURFER, Warren mailed an envelope to Divine. Inside was an NRA-approved shooting target, with a bullet-ridden surf slide mounted at the center. On the back of the target was a handwritten note: “Hi Jeff! Just responding to your request that I shoot more photos!” We played it for laughs. Published the shot-up target and Warren’s note in Sections. Warren’s second and final slide was much quieter. His body was giving out. He kept working, but his joints hurt, his back hurt, his neck hurt. He had a hip replacement that didn’t quite take. Oxycontin brought relief, but then addiction. In late August, 2006, Bolster’s car was rear-ended, the pain multiplied, and he just stopped fighting.

I flash back to 1986, sitting across from Warren at a Mexican restaurant in San Clemente, interviewing him for a SURFER profile. The last thing he told me before we paid the bill and left was this: “People say to me, ‘Gee, you don’t want to be doing this when you’re 60, still taking surf photos, do you?’ And I say, ‘Well, yes! I do! That’s my goal. I’d be absolutely stoked to be taking surf photos when I’m 60.”

Nine days after getting rear-ended, Warren turned the gun around and took his life. He was 59.
 

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ALL PHOTOS BY WARREN BOLSTER