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Thursday, April 21, 2011
Updated: April 25, 1:15 PM ET
Divine thinking


"A couple of guys from Florida just living the '80s dream on the North Shore," says Jeff Divine, who released a new book of MTV-era surf images.

Following up on his hit book "Surfing Photographs From the Seventies," Jeff Divine has just released "Surfing Photographs From the Eighties by Jeff Divine." A brilliant collection of day-glo, Zinka, new wave hairdos, and radical ripping, "it was a lot of fun to put together," says the iconic lensman, who's more well known for capturing Gerry Lopez's soulful moods at Pipe. We caught up with Divine to talk about what made '80s action so spectacular and why it's book worthy.

Your '70s book seemed pretty successful, how'd the idea to follow it up with an '80s book come about?
The 70's book is on its third printing through Artbook.com. The idea was to just tap into the '80s archive and move it more into the public domain rather than the inside of my storage bin domain. There is so much material that it's hard to judge for myself, but after the art director Tom Adler worked with the images and started pairing them up it really became something. Adler really has an eye for what works. It's something all great art directors have. Many surf photographers are terrible at picking their own work.

I used to work with art director David Carson at Surfer magazine and he would wander into the photo department, nosing around, ignoring photos culled for the issue, slide mounts with stars on them, examining bulletin board photos, looking through drawers, random visa-file stacks, making his own found picks, and a few days later he put it all together into a really compelling use. He'd pick a moment three milliseconds after the carve and it would look like something never seen. So it started with a talented art director going through my archive and making it all work.

What harder taking photos or working as a photo editor?
Photo editing by far.

What was different about shooting in the '80s vs. the '70s?
In the '70s if you were there shooting it pretty much made it into the magazine. There were only a handful of surf photographers. By 1981 there were about 140 worldwide, but growing exponentially. In the '70s there was a knowledge wall that took years to figure out. How to expose Kodachrome 25, where to go and when, who to call, where to get a housing, how to eliminate water off the front port, checking for leaks and repairs, angles at surf breaks, where to swim or paddle out with your camera. In the '80s that wall had begun to break down, and as Aaron Chang once described it, it "became a maggot scene out there." Shooting from the water at Sunset in the '70s used to be lonely and kind of scary. There was no one to observe and follow. In the '80s there were a gaggle of us blabbing away for hours as we bobbed up and down in the channel. There's a big difference in vibe of showing up with raft and housing, alone, looking out to ten-foot waves versus racing to get out to the lineup before the other ten guys with their cameras do.

Without Christian Fletcher's high flying, punk rock antics, there is no Kelly, no Taj, no Dane or Julian. The master airman in flight circa 1987 ... a massive punt even by today's standards.

Who were some of your favorite guys to shoot during the '80s?
Willy Morris had this power snap that was really great. His body type, board and the momentum he would get would always come together with a big powerful "Snap!" His surfing was photogenic. Simon Anderson had the same thing going on. Big guy, lots of speed, hard turns, big snaps. Christian Fletcher was a great example of being photogenic. At Lower Trestles there were a lot of boring straight-line surfing going on, but when Christian was there surfing, every wave he caught had its moments. It seemed like for a period of time he was there every afternoon like clockwork. Boosting airs that no one had ever seen before. I used to love going to Off The Wall and shooting Matt Archbold. He was just like Christian, he showed up every day like clockwork and went to work perfecting his thing. At the time we really appreciated that reliability because many of the talented foreigners had fallen into the party hole and hardly showed up at the beach.

One of my favorite stories from the '80s is ...
Seeing surf historian, intellectual Matt Warshaw launch the Scrabble board into the ceiling of Surfer magazine's North Shore rental at Log Cabins three times in a row. Junior college educated surf photographer Tom Servais had beaten him once too many times.

The late Mark Foo as seen from the channel at Sunset in 1987.

We recently interviewed Art Brewer and asked him about the current state of surf photography, what's your take on where surf photography is today?
I think there are much higher, technically educated guys who are in the staff positions at the mags, which is the top rung of surf photography. Many have graduated from photography schools. The "Spicoli" version of surf photography is over.

There are basically a lot more different styles than there used to be. A lot of moodiness is in vogue. A lot of the portraiture is beginner and seemingly no one approaches the time, thought and technical technique that Art Brewer used to put into his portraits used in Surfer. Check out his book Masters of Surf Photograph and you will see what I am talking about. The American surf mags have a conservative style in their look that is contrasted with Australia's Stab magazine. Stab is probably the most stylized look in a surf mag since Severson's '60s issues of Surfer. And that stylized look and vibe is through the attitude/editorial and the portraiture. Slowly I think they are changing how surf mags are in their demographic.

Nothing in the "photo of man on wave " area has really changed much. There are a lot more people doing it, therefore every swell is photographed at every spot as it emanates around the oceans, and usually the photos are up online the next day. It's like CNN news online.

The wide-angle barrel shot is now as common as a land shot. What makes a surf shot different from others today is still the climate, swell direction, size, tide, season, talent and angle from which the photo was taken on any given day. It's not the technicalities, it's the variations of nature filtered through the photographer's eye.

Jack Cassidy and friend slumming in Hawaii.

Are you impressed by the work that some of the younger guys are doing?
Yes and no. Morgan Massen, Will Adler, Chris Burkard, Tyler Cuddy are some that have really broken out and stylized their work. This adds a fresh feel to the mags edit well. Thomas Campbell was one of the first to deliver a whole new stylized look, a whole unique way to take the surf photos and deliver the edit package, which I think changed surf photography in recent times. His visual presentation changed much of the imagery in our surf world. Dane Reynolds has a unique vision, which is reflected in the mags and his blog, and shows that some of the high-end surfers are taking more control of their vibe that goes out to the public. That's a big change.

Still, the mass of surf photography is the wide-angle water shot, land telephoto, lineups. The other day I got a submission to The Surfer's Journal that really encapsulated the whole thing. With digital cameras you can shoot hundreds of shots rather than a roll of film with 36 shots. So I got a take of Fanning and Parko at a perfect reef break with the right swell. It was like a studio: perfect lightning, perfect swell, with every wave captured, mechanically peeling off the reef and every wave was the same. Perfect wave approaches, surfer paddling, surfer takes off, surfer faces wall, surfer speeding down wall, surfer dramatically barreled, surfer passes by, photographer follows, dives under. There were 356 photos of 17 perfect rides. Not so long ago that would have been the take of the year. Now it's common.

What advice would you give to somebody just getting started?
Don't. Or make sure to think of a backup to pay the bills. Pay scales haven't changed since 1967. There is no medical, retirement, etc. But if you are in love, roll with it.

My dream trip is ...
Down the Nile on a yacht with a professor in Antiquities from UCSD, then off to see the emperor's unearthed Terra Cota army in China, followed up with a Mentawi boat trip with Joel Tudor, Saxon Boucher, Sonny Miller, Rasta, Mickey Munoz, Tom Ortner, Louis Graziadio, Mark Healy, Taylor Divine, Peter McGonagle and Steve Pezman. I guess we'd need the Indies 3, with the helicopter ... and the lemon drop recipe from Gulfstream in Newport.