If you were to hop in a time machine and travel to Santa Barbara in 1979, you'd find a surf culture on the brink of sweeping change. Pro surfing was still in its infancy, the thruster was about 3 years away from being unveiled and a small-time boardmaker named Al Merrick and a 15-year-old upstart named Tom Curren were about to become two of the most influential people surfing has ever seen.
This is the world that 20-year-old photographer Jim Metyko stumbled into when he moved to Southern California in '79. Born in Houston, Texas, Metyko was raised on a steady diet of Gulf Coast wind swell and spent his free time poring over surf magazines.
"Growing up in a very surf-deprived area, surf magazines were everything," says Metyko, now 58. "So moving out to California was a way for me to be a part of all that. I went out there with the direct intent of being a photographer for SURFER magazine. But with that said, I just lucked into a phenomenal situation."
Shortly after arriving in Santa Barbara, Metyko walked into the Channel Islands shop on Helena Avenue to buy a magazine and a bar of wax, and by the end of the transaction had already become friends with the store manager, Kim Roberston, who was also a Texas native."He sort of became my conduit to Al and the rest of the Channel Islands team at that point," says Metyko. It didn't take long for Metyko to work his way into Merrick's shaping bay to document the board builder's early days mowing foam and trying to grow his fledgling business.
"At that time, Channel Islands wasn't what it is today," says Metyko. "I still have a CI brochure from before I moved out there and it was all 7’2″ pintails with three stringers. But Channel Islands was the progressive brand of that area and it was on the brink of becoming a world powerhouse."
In the late '70s, Merrick was starting to gain the attention of the surf world after shaping boards for 1977 World Champion Shaun Thomson and began attracting a cadre of talented team riders, working with aerial pioneer Davey Smith, future pro Willy Morris, and, of course, the quiet style-master-in-the making, Tom Curren. Metyko, always toting a camera, put himself right in the mix.
Metyko met Curren on the beach one day and it didn't take long for him to realize that there was something special about his new photo subject. "Everyone knew he was going to be the next big star," says Metyko. "There hadn't really been a Californian on that level since the 'We're Tops Now' article [asserting that Australia had become the center of surf progression, from a 1967 issue of SURFER] by John Witzig. I understood that Tommy was going to put California back on the world stage. Not just that he was going to be a surf star for California, but he was going to dominate the world."
Metyko admits that, in addition to Curren's inimitable talent, part of what drew people to him at that time was his enigmatic personality. "He knew what was coming to him and he didn't have to worry about running down the magazines," says Metyko. "That trait is what made him so great. I remember one time he told me to meet up at this specific spot north of Santa Barbara. So I showed up there at 6 in the morning to perfect waves but no sign of Tommy. I waited for an hour and left. Then I hear later that he's killing it at Hammonds, 5 minutes from my house. You'd just have to live with that part of Tommy. He just kind of did what he wanted."
For four years, Metyko watched the symbiotic relationship between Curren and Merrick take hold. "They were feeding off each other," says Metyko. "Tom was growing and Al was growing. Even though the limelight is always focused on the hottest surfer in the world, this fame developed for Al as the shaper.
Metyko continued to document Curren, Merrick, and the rest of the CI team throughout the early '80s—a time of tremendous transition for them all—before heading back to Texas to take care of his ill father. In that brief period, Metyko amassed a collection of photos that provide a unique window into a time and place when the surf industry as we know it was still taking root, and some of surfing's greatest legends were born.
"When you look back in surf history, you tend to think, 'Oh, I wish I was on the North Shore when they had the first Pipe Masters, or I wish I could have seen the Duke Invitational or some other important moment in surfing," says Metyko, who continued documenting surf culture even after he left California. "But then I start thinking to myself, 'Hey, I was there during an iconic time.' If I'd been there too much later I would've missed that spark that kind of ignited all at once. But I was there at the right time."