Imagine staring absolute perfection in the face, all day, every day, capturing golden moments of beauty on camera for a paycheck. And all those golden moments are made up of the very things you fantasize about. Oh, but you can’t touch those things. At least not while they’re all sexed up for their close-up. Your job is to sit there and watch, snatching little moments of the Platonic ideal of perfection for the titillation of all of us consumers. To put us there without actually being there.
Come on, now, get that head out of the gutter. I’m not describing a photographer on some tropical beach shooting lewd pictures of carefully coiffed models for a magazine centerfold. I’m talking about the humble, poorly paid, tenuous-grasp on-employment surf photographer bobbing in the channel, firing away at Kolohe Andino as he tears into a dreamy Indian Ocean reef pass—hair carefully coiffed, of course. There’s really not a whole lot of difference between the two scenarios when you think about it. Both the pinup photographer and the surf shooter are fantasy peddlers of the highest order.
But there’s no way the surf fantasy as we know it could exist if there was no such thing as surf photographers. Without them and their slobber inducing, plane-ticket-purchase-inspiring shots, the surf industry would be nothing. Wait, that’s not true; it wouldn’t be nothing. There would still be backyard shapers making irregular boards from terrible foam, and a handful of bearded dudes making their own wax in coffee cans, selling it out of the back of their beat-up Subaru wagons (so, San Francisco, basically). Surf photographers are crucial parts of the fantasies that sell the magazines, the boardshorts, the wetsuits, the surfboards, the fins, everything. We’re a visual culture, and the photographers are the cultural tastemakers. As much as I’d like to credit surf writers, it’s the photographers who are the Atlases on which our precious modern surf world is balanced.
But it ain’t an easy way to make a living. First, there are the psychological demands. As a surf photographer, one must fend off the bitterness and rage-inducing envy of watching the world’s finest and most coddled surfers do their dancing on the world’s finest, most pined-after waves while they tend to their tripods, sweat, and mind surf. You think that’s easy? How many times have you been at the office and opened a browser to a surf cam showing a perfectly pleasant, uncrowded day reeling off at your home break, only to snap the window closed, burying yourself in a spreadsheet, congratulating yourself for possessing the intestinal fortitude to maintain self-control and stay in your desk chair? Now put that desk on the sand at Salina Cruz and then try to fend off that urge. Is it any wonder that many long-in-the-tooth surf photographers tend toward the salty?
The digital revolution has actually made it harder for surf photographers to fill their personal wave quotas. Back in the film days, when you had to spoon coal into a tiny furnace in the bottom of the camera to power the ancient things (I’m assuming, anyway), the best photos were usually taken in the morning or late afternoon, when the light was at its moodiest and most flattering. That left big chunks in the middle of the day for surf photographers to, you know, actually surf. Nowadays, I’m not sure if you actually need to point the business end of a digital camera at the ocean anymore to get a good surf photo, never mind what time of day it is, or whether it’s cloudy and gray. Post-processing software is that good. Those midday glare shots will clean up just fine in Photoshop. This can glue the modern-day shooter to a camera all day, eyes glazing over, surfboard dry in its bag.
The long-term effects of the digitalization of surf photography remain to be seen. It’s easier than ever to crank out world-class photos now, and the democratization of surf photography has flattened the playing field considerably. Surf photography has never, ever been a sensible career choice, but you used to be able to carve out a marketable niche for yourself, mostly because there weren’t many other people who were versed in the magic arts of manually adjusted shutter speeds and ISO settings. Those days are gone, though, and with them went decent pay for good shots. Web space is much cheaper than print space, and online editors have more random photo submissions than they know what to do with. Lots of those submissions now come from pro surfers themselves. Whether it’s travel porn posted to Instagram accounts or look-at-me barrel shots taken with waterproof cameras fixed like bayonets on all sorts of pole mounts, lots of pros seem ever more willing to don the surf photographer’s hat too. A shame, because a talented photographer makes you forget you’re even looking at a composed photo; you’re in the moment with the rider and the wave. But when a surfer’s obviously holding the camera used to take the shot, it reveals too much of the man behind the curtain. The fantasy erodes.
Throw the flood of passable surf shots into a pot with the economic recession of 2008 and the rise of online media and you get a drastic drop-off in what old-school surf photographers could expect to get paid. Or, as longtime photographer Rob Gilley puts it, an economic trifecta that produced a “ramrod that went right where the sun don’t shine.” New-school photographers who cut their teeth in a world of easily accessible, high-quality digital photography don’t know any different, though, and aren’t much threatened by your iPhone photos ruining their gig. “The best photographs and photographers always rise to the top,” says Todd Glaser, and he would know, what with his penthouse view among the rest of the cream of the crop, looking down upon the lesser-talented rabble. How you feel about that flattening of the surf-photography landscape seems to be largely generational.
Truthfully, most of us not dragging around five figures’ worth of camera gear can’t tell film from digital anyway. We just want to flip through a surf mag or scroll down a surfy webpage and be stoked. Since the godfather Ron Stoner inked his first deal with John Severson, professional surf photographers have provided most of that stoke. For that, we raise our glasses to you. You didn’t blow the shot of that little tube ride we just got, though, did you?