About halfway through the recently-released HBO documentary "Momentum Generation", a film by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist focusing on the New School crew's swift rise to fame in the '90s, there's a scene where Kelly Slater and Rob Machado recount their competitive rivalry, which came to a head in 1995 while the Momentum gang was in France.
While at shaper Maurice Cole's house, Slater told him that the quiver he'd made for Slater's European run wasn't really working out. Trying to rectify the situation, Cole told Slater that three of Machado's boards were downstairs and that he should grab one to test out. Slater didn't need to be told twice and threw one of his traction pads on the board before taking it for a spin at one of the nearby beach breaks. Machado, shocked and irritated by the fact that Slater ha helped himself to one of Machado's new boards, told Slater to scrape the traction off the fresh stick and give it back to him like new. Few people were around to watch this rare, tense moment between two friends and competitive rivals at the peak of their powers, but photographer Steve Sherman was one of them.
"Kelly had to hack away for 45 minutes to get the decking off," Sherman told me recently at the SURFER offices, pointing at the infamous photo he'd snapped of the moment (which you can find on page 55). "Ross Williams and Shane [Dorian] were there watching the whole thing. Kelly was so pissed."
If you examine the photo, Williams stands next to Slater, observing the traction-removal process, while Dorian looks straight at the man behind the camera with an expression that says, "Are you seriously taking a picture of this right now?"
Over the past few decades, Sherman has focused on capturing these kinds of intimate moments, offering surf fans a glimpse of something that few outside of pro surfing's inner circle would ever witness. "My work is about trying to show the viewer something they don't normally get to see," he says.
Long before he started shooting with Slater, Machado and the rest of the Momentum crew, Sherman was a pro skater and got his photographic start as a darkroom technician for Transworld Skateboarding. He began working with skaters and even directed films for the Powell-Peralta skateboard company.
But, inevitably, the surf-obsessed Sherman wanted to blend his love of the surfing lifestyle with his passion for photography. "I was shooting skateboarding in the gutter one day and just thought, 'I'm tired of shooting skateboarding,'" says Sherman. "I wanted to shoot the surf world, but I didn't want to shoot surfing, so I came up with this idea to shoot portraits and lifestyle, using a lot of black and white. I brought a skate sensibility in my photographs to surfing. Skateboarding at that time was all 16mm Nikkor manual lenses. That was my go-to, so I just thought, 'I'll use this wide-angle lens.'"
Sherman first met the Momentum crew on the North Shore of Hawaii in 1992, when he showed up to Benji Weatherly's house—the group's winter headquarters—to do a catalogue shoot for Rusty. "I rolled up to Benji's house and there were the Malloys, Kelly was in the front yard and I just started shooting," he recalls. That's when Sherman snapped the iconic photo of Weatherly wading through the shorebreak with his board, about to paddle out at maxing Second Reef Pipe—an image that landed him his first two-page spread in SURFER.
Shortly after that, "Momentum" director Taylor Steele—who frequented Seaside Reef in North County San Diego nearly as much as Sherman did—asked Sherman if he'd be interested in shooting a group portrait of the Momentum gang. The resulting image became one of Sherman's most well-known: a black-and-white, fish-eyed perspective of Weatherly, Machado, Williams, Dorian, Slater, Greg Browning, Taylor Knox, Donavon Frankenreiter and Conan Hayes—all of them glaring at the camera in a way that made them look like they belonged on the cover of one of the Pennywise albums they listened to on repeat.
According to Sherman, his goal was always to make this new generation of progressive surfers look like rock stars, at a time just before many of them actually amassed notable wealth and celebrity.
Since then, Sherman has documented some of professional surfing's most famous behind-the-scenes moments while following Slater and co. on the World Tour and beyond, as well as a host of other pivotal figures in surf (you may recall the black-and-white photo of Andy Irons smoking a cartoonishly large cigar or Lisa Andersen wrapped up in a white bed sheet, seductively holding a glass of red wine. Both shots are Sherman's).
"Capturing moments where something important happens is an instinct, and I've got it," says Sherman. "It's cool when other photographers tell you, 'I wish I had been there to take that shot.' That's the ultimate."’