Woody Woodworth, newly minted Orange County surf photographer, warmed our hearts with a 1974 SURFER article called "Rubber Duck." He was 22 years old. First thing he'd ever published. Just snuck up on everybody with this winning little first-person article about mat riding. Rafting. We all knew about rafting, of course. It's what you did in third grade, before your parents let you get a real stick. And that was as far as it went. I mean, Gerry Lopez did not ride a mat. Tourists did. "Uncool" would be the "Family Feud"-winning word for how we felt about surf mats. Hold that thought for a moment.
People look back fondly on surfing in the '70s, and I will say that it was a handsome period; the sport was collectively 15 or so years younger than it is today, surfwear wasn't yet dictatorial, and our equipment was gloriously sticker-free. When the New York MOMA calls for a recommendation on adding a board to its permanent collection, I will steer them toward the nearest vintage white-on-red Lightning Bolt. But looks do not tell the story. In fact, on balance, we were more narrow-minded, petty, tribal, and full of low-simmering faux-righteous anger than at any other point on the surf-history timeline. Especially in California, where the sport was commercialized and, thus, by the reckoning of just about every top surfer, writer, and filmmaker, brought low. "Gidget," Beach Blanket Bingo, pop-out boards, surf contests sponsored by Jack in the Box and held in shit waves with flags and air horns and molded plastic trophies--that was all on us. So we responded by wearing black wetsuits, inventing localism, jeering when Mike Purpus came onscreen during Five Summer Stories (Purpus literally and figuratively surfed circles around everybody else in the state, but dared to be happy and flamboyant while doing so), and basically going about our surfing lives with inch-thick hair shirts to atone for our commercial sins.
The hearts of California surfers in 1974 were not easily warmed, in other words.
But here comes Woodworth, with "Rubber Duck," describing the good times he and his pals were having in vicious closeouts at south Corona Del Mar State Beach, or the long, churning rights off the jetty during big south swells, or some weird little reef in nearby Laguna that board-surfers couldn't be bothered with. "And when the blackball is flying," Woodworth added, putting the cherry on top of his already convincing case, "you're doing the same." It wasn't said outright, but Woodworth was having more fun than the rest of us. And he'd done so--although, again, it was inferred--by going retro. Rafting was retro. In 1974, fun was retro. Surfing was groaning beneath its own heaviness, and had been for the past five or six years. We'd gilded the shit out of it with art, God, and politics. "Just by going surfing," according to Nat Young, 1966 world champ and country-soul Jesus, "we're supporting the revolution." And we put our lips to that giant pitcher of Kool-Aid and drank it down.
So, yes, we very much needed "Rubber Duck." In its stealthy way, it was retro. The lowly air mat of our youth, wielded by a curly-haired optimist whose name itself was a reminder of happier days--Woodworth, as in, "We're loading up our woody with our boards inside, and heading out singing our song"--was a space heater in our endless winter of solemnity. (Fellow Orange County surfers Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson were doing similar good works, except they'd pointedly left California. By staying in Newport, Woodworth's job was harder.)
Meanwhile, as Woodworth the scribe gave us permission to lighten up, Woodworth the photographer showed us how beautiful California's beaches and waves still were. Turns out we hadn't ruined surfing--not even in the heart of the OC. There was some retro sleight of hand at work here as well. Woodworth was channeling Ron Stoner, the '60s surf photographer who had defined both his period and his genre. And, like Stoner, Woody didn't really hold a mirror up to the sport. He put it on velvet. He shot surfing the way Josef von Sternberg shot Marlene Dietrich, with the idea of turning something beautiful into something flawless. You see it right there in the opening spread of "Rubber Duck," a solitary mat-rider pulling into what looks like a moody blue Uluwatu barrel but is actually a closeout left in Laguna.
But by all means, give us that little lie. Make it clean and glassy and crowd-free. We need that still, right now, in 2017. But we really needed it during the 1970s.