Words by Zander Morton
All photos by Steve Sherman
Videos by Tanner Carney
SHERM’S PHOTOGRAPHY HAS BEEN THE FRAMEWORK FOR MANY MEMORABLE ISSUES OF SURFING AND TRANSWORLD SURF. Numerous covers. Countless spreads. But what happened to everything else? Before the Internet and Instagram it was either print…or bust.
I meet Sherm and current SURFING photo editor Peter Taras in Sherm’s garage in Cardiff, California. Peter’s already spent hours flipping through countless folders stuffed into drawers of a dented white filing cabinet in the corner. Each drawer is plastered with stickers and overflowing with slides. Sherm is sitting in the middle of his garage, playing a guitar and surrounded by surfboards, wetsuits, bikes and assorted instruments. “Sherm has done an amazing job carefully choosing the peak moments out of every roll of film throughout his entire career,” Peter tells me, carefully examining another contact sheet. “But it’s amazing how much has slipped through the cracks.”
Or, more literally, been stuffed into a cabinet. As we review Sherm’s unseen slides a conversation ensues. Sherm and Peter reflect on film versus digital and Sherm’s unique relationship with Andy Irons and Kelly Slater. Sherm tells me his No. 1 rule is to “never think you’re killing it, because you can always be better.” It’s the driving force behind his 25-year (and counting) career behind the lens. After an hour I leave Sherm and Peter and a mountain of photos behind, thinking about how much different — and really, how much worse — the last 20 years of our sport would look if it weren’t for Sherm’s vision.
PETER: So Sherm, you’ve been shooting extensively in the surf industry since ‘94. And what makes going through this archive of film so interesting is that we’re looking back at proof sheets of images from when you only had 36 chances to nail a special moment. I thought it would be a good idea to dig through this archive and re-evaluate some of the iconic moments with Andy and Kelly and many others that never saw the light of day, and also to talk about how different your approach was to shooting film.
SHERM: I definitely had to pace myself. I’ve always shot conservatively. I still do. Even with digital I like to pick specific moments to shoot. But with film, everything had to be very methodical.
ZANDER: It’s crazy that you have all of these photos stored right here in your garage. There’s no backup for over a decade of your photography.
SHERM: Yep, this is my archive of that period. Up until the digital revolution in 2006, this is how everything was stored. Right here in a file cabinet.
ZANDER: What’s it like going through photos you haven’t seen in 15 or 20 years?
SHERM: Sometimes more. The best part about it is when you have 36 images on a contact sheet there are some that I don’t remember taking. On the first go-through I’m always looking for the decisive moment, but when I look back at a group of photos years later I’m always blown away by how interesting the “off moments” really are.
ZANDER: Any photos in particular?
SHERM: Andy. Everything of Andy. He was always the most animated subject. It keeps hitting me when I see photos of Andy and they bring back those emotions that I’m not going to see him again. We were really close and part of our relationship was shooting photos. I’d be lying if I said that these photos [points to a contact sheet of Andy from 2003] don’t make me really sad. He was such a sweetheart of a guy and with me, he would do anything. He never said no.
PETER: And that really comes through in your photos. The cigar shot!
SHERM: Andy had confidence in me. He knew I would make him look good. He always said: “Just make me look cool, Sherm!” [Laughs]
PETER: I think one thing that is super important in the process of shooting film is that you are creating the image on the front end.
SHERM: Exactly. The pre-visualization process is the most important part of the photo.
PETER: The contrast of the film. The feel. The push and pull of it all…
SHERM: And the end result is normally what you thought it was going to be. With digital sometimes people get lazy and just clean up the mess at the end. Even when I shoot digital, I still approach it like I’m shooting black and white film.
PETER: Nowadays photographers have a billion different looks. But Sherm, you’ve always had three specific film looks; you’ve had very concise formats to your photos.
SHERM: My look has always started with T-Max 400 black and white film. Tri Max and T-Max 400 have been my staples. I got into 3200 film because I could shoot it in low lighting. I pushed myself as a photojournalist with that film because I could shoot it in such bad lighting. With color film, I would always use Fuji or Pro V. I wasn’t experimenting with different films. I knew how that film was going to react so I would just use it. Same with my cameras. It’s funny; I’ve always had a reputation for being really rough on my cameras. Kelly used to heckle me about how I treated my gear. But, honestly, film cameras were built to last. Nowadays, you really have to baby your equipment. So many things can go wrong with digital cameras. So many moving parts.
ZANDER: Has your excitement for photography changed since the digital age?
SHERM: Not at all. But one thing that’s changed with digital is you don’t get that thrill of getting your photos back for the first time. That was a rush. Did I do it? Did I kill it? Yes! Or, aww man I really screwed that up. Digital has taken away the anticipation. Now you can see everything you shot right then and there and you know if you killed it or not.
ZANDER: Do you have any examples of moments that went terribly wrong?
SHERM: I look back at my history and I’ve been pretty well prepared. I vividly remember going to Bells with Matt George in the ‘90s and we were doing this whole gonzo photojournalism thing. I saw Occy walking out of a milk bar at 9 p.m. and I missed it. I’d been trying to get a photo of Occy. I didn’t have my camera and I was so pissed. After that I made it a point to have a small point-and-shoot with me at all times.
PETER: Nobody has ever shot uneasy times the way you do. You’ve captured a lot of moments
when it would’ve been very uncomfortable to take out a camera. There aren’t many photographers who have the ability or the professionalism to document these occasions. You put relationships on the line when you shoot.
SHERM: I’ve always walked a tight rope with that.
PETER: Tell us a story about one of those times.
SHERM: There’s been a few. The Kelly moment at the Pipe house in 2003 when he and Andy were locked in a world title race is one of ‘em. Andy was eating breakfast and Kelly walked in the house and it was a really uncomfortable moment. I snapped one photo and Transworld SURF ran it and kinda inferred that Kelly was trying to play mind games with Andy. A few months after that was published, Kelly took me aside and said, “Sherm, can I talk to you about something?” I knew it was going to be a heavy conversation. He wasn’t stoked on that one at all, he felt like he had gotten exploited and it took him awhile to get over that.
There was another time with Andy in Brazil when Kelly was about to win his seventh title. There was a party at Andy’s house and all the bros were around playing poker. Andy said to me, “I know why you’re here, Sherm; you’re here to document me lose. You’re on Kelly’s side, aren’t you?” Parko picked up my camera and started taking photos and Andy got in my face. It was super intense.
ZANDER: He thought you were on Kelly’s side?
SHERM: Well, I kind of was. I was working for Quiksilver at the time. But I told Andy, “Don’t you remember when I was there for your third world title and took all of those photos for you?” We worked it out. Andy came around to it.
ZANDER: Do those photos Parko took of that moment still exist?
SHERM: Oh yeah, I have them right here.
PETE: But they were buried. Because even a few years ago there was such limited space for content. Back then, you would hope to shoot one big beautiful spread and that was it. Nowadays, photos have a much more extensive rollout. Instagram, Facebook, the website…
SHERM: I remember working with Flame early on and he didn’t really get what I was doing. He respected it, but just didn’t understand it. I remember thinking, “Man, it’s really hard to get this photojournalism stuff ran.” These black and white, dark, moody moments were unheard of in those days. I feel like I forged ground and I hope my legacy will be for that. I opened up the palette for photojournalism in surfing.
PETER: To add on to that, when you first started doing the over- the-top portraits — like dressing up Taj Burrow as a Road Warrior or Gavin Beschen as an alien, before that it hadn’t been done. And if it had, it came across as kooky. Even though your ideas were pretty out there, you made them work.
ZANDER: And I think it’s interesting to note that your career coincided with the best surfer in the world. Slater would have never been been shot the way he was if it weren’t for you.
SHERM: I think he knew that and that’s why he embraced it. Although, I didn’t start really covering Kelly’s world titles until he was already at No.7, which was in 2005.
PETER: Holy shit, here’s a photo of me back in 2002!
SHERM: [Holds up the contact sheet] Yep, that’s at Log Cabins.
PETER: Kinda makes me fall back in love with film.
SHERM: I had this magic ‘50s lens that I shot a lot of my stuff on and it still feels like a friend to me. That thing fires like a gun when it goes off. I think I shot those photos with it. It’s funny, even though I haven’t seen this stuff in years I’m so used to looking at all of it because of the time I spent processing every image in dark rooms. I’ve put in so many dark room hours in my life it’s unbelievable. I used to come back from a trip and spend 16 hours in there processing the film. As much as I love shooting today, it’s that process I actually miss the most.
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