All photos by Nate Lawrence and Rachael Rothstein.

Through a combination of subterfuge, embargoed evidence, and tight lips those ensconced in San Francisco’s surf scene tend to do everything in their power to keep the city’s seasonally world-class surf to themselves. But while they’ve historically done a good job of keeping things under wraps–doing their damnedest to dissuade the multitudes of techies who’ve descended upon the city’s ocean adjacent neighborhoods from entering the lineups–a non-profit organization is trying to introduce surfing to the city’s underrepresented populations.

Founded by local high school teacher, Johnny Irwin, The City Surf Project started as a way to bring his students to the beach—through his own research, Irwin learned that something like 80% of youths in San Francisco had never visited the Pacific Ocean, which reaches the coastal districts of the city just about seven miles from any neighborhood.

As the City Surf Project grew, the organization has drawn more and more volunteers from the ranks of the area’s traditionally underground surf scene, including former “Surfing Magazine” editor Leo Maxam, and OBSF outsiders like photographer, Nathan Lawrence.

“The look on the kids faces—pure excitement,” says Lawrence of his first experience with CSP. “It got a feeling that was different than any other experience I’d had surfing.’

Lawrence, whose photography has been featured in “Surfer Magazine” as well as “Surfing Magazine” and “What Youth,” was so inspired by his experiences with CSP, that he and Maxam set out to collab on a beautiful coffee table book “City Surf—The Book” to document how surfing is changing lives in the city by the bay. Featuring stories about CSP’s youth participants, as well as the firefighters, doctors, teachers, and others who volunteer with the organization, “City Surf” is filled with Lawrence’s compelling surf, landscape, and portrait photography, all of which makes for a unique look at one of the world’s most distinctive surf cities.

We caught up Lawrence to learn more about the “City Surf” and the Kickstarter campaign he’s launched to support the efforts of CSP and get the book published.




What’s The City Surf Project and how’d you get connected with them?

The City Surf Project is a non-profit that connects underrepresented youth to the ocean. The founder, Johnny Irwin, wanted to do something meaningful that would impact the youth in the city he grew up in – San Francisco. Working as a high school teacher, he learned that 80% of the youth have never been to the ocean. He started small and took kids from his local high school to the beach on a field trip. Slowly by the word-of-mouth of students and volunteers, City Surf Project grew. Today Johnny works with six high schools and one middle school. Their three pillars for success are respect for nature, a healthy lifestyle and personal growth. 

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How’d the idea for City Surf – The Book come about? What kinds of stories were you hoping to tell through your photos?

The idea for the book came when I attended one of the surf classes. The look on the kids faces – pure excitement. I got a feeling that was different than any other experience I’d had surfing. It wasn’t about the waves or conditions or maneuvers. It was simply about being in the ocean and feeling its power. Seeing the freedom it gave the students, I got curious to see where these kids were coming from and what their lives were like outside of the ocean. The stories in the book follow six students from different parts of the city on a journey from their San Francisco neighborhood to the untamed waves of Ocean Beach. 

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Tell us what’s inside the book? 

I decided to shoot the entire book on film and use different film stocks for different locations throughout the city. In all, I used six different cameras – Canon EOS 3, Hasselblad X-Pan, Hasselblad 501c, Contax T3, Contax G2, Nikon 35Ti. Leo Maxam, a San Francisco native and former editor at Surfing Magazine, wrote and edited the book. He interviewed each of the students featured and told their story from hardships to happiness. He talked with volunteers who are firefighters, teachers and doctors. He listened to the stories. For me, visiting the students’ homes was my favorite part of the documenting process. Some lived in apartments and some in housing projects. Seeing where these kids came from and the journey they take to do the act of surfing was incredible. I can’t wait to share this experience with everyone through the book.

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What’s unique about surfing in SF? And how does this project reflect that distinctive scene?

San Francisco is home to a one-of-a-kind surfing culture – diverse, tough, and proudly low profile. As an outsider, I really enjoyed seeing how much pride everyone has for their city. Giants hats. Niners shirts. Kelly’s Cove tattoos. In The City, everyone wears their heart on their sleeve.

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You’re running a kickstarter to get this project off the ground. Where will the funds go? And what options do folks have who wish to contribute/get a copy?

Publishing a premium hardcover coffee table book is expensive. As an independent photographer working with a small non-profit, we can’t afford to publish this book on our own. But “City Surf” is a story that needs to be told. So we’re turning to our community to help us tell it, and tell it the right way. The funds raised via Kickstarter will go directly to the printer where we will print a beautiful hardcover book on certified forest friendly premium matte paper. You can help out by ordering a copy of the book for $60.

To order a copy of “City Surf”, click here.

For more about The City Surf Project, click here.

For more of Nate Lawrence’s photography, click here.

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