North Shore Journal: Part One

I’m trying to do a better job of posting about things that people have expressed interest in(Strange I know). So, a few days ago someone asked about my North Shore Journal project, so I thought I would create an in depth post regarding this work. I haven’t worked on this story in two years, but I did spend two weeks every winter for ten years to make these images. There are MANY photographs in this story, so what I decided to do is break this post into two parts, each highlighting a different aspect of the project. I also have color work, in multiple formats, but I’ll leave that for another time. Over a ten year period I shot 35mm, 645, 6×6, 6×9, 6×7, 4×5 and thanks to M. Napper, even a Yashica half-frame camera. In short, I like to mix things up.

The North Shore of Oahu is a unique place. The Hawaiian Islands are the most remote land mass on Earth, and the Hawaiian culture is as diverse and proud as any I’ve encountered in this world. The landscape is vertical, dense, vivid. The ocean is humbling and the elements are very much a part of life, things like the tide, the trade winds and the sudden squall like conditions that can explode on you at a moments notice. It’s tropical, lush, green, musty, moist and thick. When you are on the North Shore the North Shore is on you. You sweat it out, drink it in and wash it from your feet each and every night.

The North Shore is also the epicenter of surfing and surf-culture, which is what my project is about. I first landed on the North Shore while I was working for Kodak, and believe it or not I actually convinced them to send me to Oahu for the Triple Crown of Surfing, a year end showdown starting in Haleiwa and ending at the Pipeline Masters, the beast of a contest held at the legendary Banzai Pipeline. Yes, I got Kodak to send me. Two years in a row, which is perhaps my greatest achievement. Do you realize how difficult this is. In December, when Rochester is BURIED in snow and slush, I’m asking to go to Paradise. Trust me, epic maneuvering.

When I first went to the North Shore color was the name of the game. At the time, Fuji had a nearly 100% market share with Velvia being the film of choice. Kodak was attempting to break in with their E100 films, and I was the “Man in Havana” so to speak. At the time, the Pipeline Masters was big but not nearly as big as it was to become a few short years later. We stood on a friends balcony, with our 600mm lenses, blasting away all day long. I remember things like Indonesian cigarettes, cold beer and photographers working me for more film samples. We perhaps didn’t know how truly good we had it.


LOOK CLOSELY

Sometime during my second trip I ran into a French photographer who had been coming to the North Shore for YEARS. He was cool and I liked him right from the minute I met him. He was a Leica shooter and stood out from the crowd in terms of how he worked. He had been working on a black and white project on the North Shore, more about the culture than the actual surfing and it resonated with me. The color imagery wasn’t doing it for me, not only because there were SO many guys who were better at it than me, and who understood it far more than I did, but I realized I saw this world in black and white and also found myself more drawn to the people and events happening on the land verses what was happening in the water. This was partly due to the fact I didn’t surf, and I knew enough to know the waters of the North Shore were no place for me. Had I been looking to end my life, sure, a perfect spot, but like I do today, I felt a need to go on living.

This place is so interesting. You have so many underlying story lines. Religion, surfing, culture, landscape, politics, localism, environmentalism, development, race-issues, and a wave of commercialism that in a few short years changed the entire dynamic of the region. Over the years I would choose to descend on the North Shore with one main idea, all the while trying to maintain an underlying theme of black and white, 35mm. PS: The second North Shore post will detail one of my secondary projects and looks.

As the years went by this project became more and more interesting for me. It was also an incredibly enjoyable way to end my photographic year. And remember, I’m hanging out with guys like Brian Bielman, John Bilderback, Art Brewer, Jeff Divine, Ted Grambeau, Jeff Flindt, Tom Servais, Sean Davey, Hank, the Regnard brothers and a host of other legendary surf photographers. And look, anyone can stand on a beach with a 600mm lens and shoot surfing. I’m proof of that. But these guys go WAY beyond anything I ever did. These guys LIVED surfing, LIVED the water and their knowledge of conditions, surfers and the inner workings of North Shore politics was beyond anything I could hope for. I was a guy with a Leica trying to make quiet gestures about this unique location and amalgam of tribe-like humanity.

Every year the same thing would happen. I would have blisters on my feet, a sunburn and a few selects to add to the pile of my project. I wasn’t trying to say anything about the North Shore. I was a bystander trying to find moments of significance. I photographed people, contests, surfers, landscapes, waterscapes, still life images and made copious notes about my observations. And, most importantly, I drank as many Mai Tais as possible.

All during the time I was voyaging to the North Shore my wife was also. She was, and still is, working for Canon and was hosting a yearly photo-event during the Triple Crown. In the early years these parties were held in her room at the Turtle Bay, the ONLY hotel on the North Shore, at least at the time. The hotel had yet to really land on the world map, or in Hollywood movies, which would happen in due time. The balconies were crumbling concrete and exposed rebar. There was a plastic hot tub in the yard and I once witnessed an epic battle between a hotel security guard and a woman from Honolulu was was at the hotel for profitable motives if you know what I mean. Kam Highway was littered with burned out, stolen vehicles and everything smelled like weed. It was, pure and simple, paradise.

Because I was working for Kodak I was working under a conflict of interest statement meaning I couldn’t do assignment work nor publish my images. I was making pictures only for myself, which all these years later I realize is the way I should have been working my entire life. Lesson learned. I would shoot my ass off, come home and head to my friend Eric’s house in San Diego where he had a darkroom in a hollowed out cave under his parents house. NO I’M NOT MAKING THIS UP. HIS FATHER LITERALLY TUNNELED INTO THE MOUNTAIN. I would stand in the dark, Metallica blasting from the stereo, my eyes closed and my hands working in that developer routine of the Gods. Five seconds every thirty seconds……one, two, SLAM on the counter top(Those of you running film know exactly what I’m talking about.) I would process then hang negs in the dark, hop in my black Pontiac Grand Prix Kodak corporate machine and drive toward my Orange County home at 100mph, across Camp Pendleton, wondering, DREAMING about what lived on the precious drying emulsion.

Days later I would make the high-speed burn South for more time in the cave, sometimes working until sunrise. Thick, precious sheets of Ektalure paper would snap into place in the enlarger as I worked to bring the North Shore to life. It was so damn good and so damn fun. It was pure. At least for me, at that moment, in that place, entombed in stone with my mind blasted my memories of that green land in the middle of the ocean. The project was about place, about friends, about clarity and about simple observing in the way that photography allows.

29 Responses to “North Shore Journal: Part One”

  1. mike a says:

    Great post Daniel. I could have kept reading, as usual.
    You’re so right about shooting the guys on the waves with the 600, there are many photographers who shoot sports well with a long lens but to tell the behind the scenes story and tell it well, that’s where in my opinion the real skill comes in. ( I was a bystander trying to find moments of significance) that’s a great way of putting it.

    • Smogranch says:

      Mike,

      Autofocus and digital really changed the surfing world. First, it put a camera in the hands of a lot of kids of who would just stand on the beach motoring every sequence then burning discs and giving their work away. In many ways, like many other genres, digital began to erode the value of the image simply by flooding the market with average, super inexpensive or free imagery. I a lot of my old friends are no longer even going to the North Shore.

    • mike a says:

      yeah I see it that way to. I talk to (pros) where I live and they tell me the stay at home mom with the kit lens is killing their business. The images aren’t great but they are cheap. Sad.

    • Smogranch says:

      Mike,

      Well, it’s happening across the board. But, not sure there is anything you can do about it. The great work will rise to the top, but whether anyone is interested or willing to pay for it…not sure anymore. Well, I am kinda sure. I’m pretty sure nobody is interested and nobody wants to pay.

  2. Great post! I’ve seen these photos before and really like them. But combine the pictures with the really outstanding writing in this post, and you have put together a great story.

  3. Dj says:

    Beautiful ! Awsome!
    Love the backstory-about the “back time”-way back when” I can feel the salt sea air- just as if I am there with you.

    Ah yes.. the one – two– slam on the counter top – I remember it well.

    Love this piece of insiration ” I was making pictures only for myself, which all these years later I realize is the way I should have been working my entire life. Lesson learned.” –Oh how true- follow your passion – shoot what you love.

    Nice story — Thanks Dan !

    • Smogranch says:

      DJ,

      I think the story of what we are doing in the field is so much a part of the overall piece. The backstory is critical. Shooting what you love……

  4. Randy says:

    Beautiful & very inspiring. I can sense so many stories still to come from you. Your images, amazing. Your story telling, makes me feel as though i was there.

  5. lionelb says:

    Their activity seems to verge on gambling, with their lives as the chips. In Soweto young men pursue ‘train surfing’ and in Gaza ‘free running’, in both cases dicing with death to try to penetrate the boredom and the absence of hope. I suspect that under the glitzy, macho aspects of North Shore there is lurking a deep melancholy.

    • Smogranch says:

      Lionel,
      Interesting take and also very accurate. There does seem to be a melancholy feel on the North Shore, some times worse than others. Some darkness there for sure.

  6. Steve says:

    Enjoying every words… and images

  7. lionelb says:

    I remember when Agfa and Halina churned out unmemorable film cameras for every household. A flood of cameras did no big harm. I think it is less the cameras that have caused the shift, more that we now view digitally. ‘Proper’ paper has substance and relative permanence, so an image on that has more apparent value. An ‘eBook’ has no smell and no feel.

  8. Eric Labastida says:

    Love the painterly quality of the first image. Is that just slow shutter speed?

  9. Bill Allen says:

    Great article. I was at the Pipeline Masters in 2007. Even though the waves were the smallest they’d had in 25 years, there was still a great showing from the crowds and surfers. I’ll never forget seeing Kelly Slater defy gravity and carve up a small wave. It really is a place unto itself, even more so in the early days, I’m sure.

    • Smogranch says:

      Bill,

      You and I were there at the same time…..I’ve seen it 20 foot and perfect glass and totally small and blown out in the storm chop. Early on I caught a perfect contest and thought they were all going to be that way….

  10. Some beautiful photographs there, Dan! I absolutely love that grain.

  11. Dj says:

    Mike- they are interested in seeing what we shoot and willing to buy **but not at super duper high prices**.
    I have been shooting film,scaning and printing on good watercolor cotton rag paper- small sizes[no larger than 13×19].
    Print on good quality papers that they cannot get at the local print kiosk. Make your art different than what they can do at home.

    I have also tried having the lab print 5×7’s with white borders on them- people like these- they are different than all the mass produced color they are bombarded with.
    Many of the younger people have not really had exposure to film/fiber black and whites. And the older crowd loves them because they are a throwback to an older time.

    Get creative with film/developer combo’s and make a unique product –products that are not mass produced or on facebook.

    My workflow is peak of action and feature images- not pray and spray.

    Online sales are low- I do better in person- so this means having the prints ready to go- like in the old days.
    Staying local and of course being able to find the folks again.
    Putting the actual photograph into their hands- they can feel it, see it and sometimes smell it[chemicals from wetlab work].

    I have been shooting coastal images,surf, and sailboat type of genre.
    Next week I start a project on “Support Local Muscians.”

    My work is self funded- longer term projects and then of course- trying to recoup costs and turn a profit.
    Shoot what you love and what you have passion for.
    Read everything you can that Dan has written about- He has a goldmine of information posted.

    Start slow
    Don’t quit your day job.
    Build a following.
    Stay low key- fly on the wall.
    I never get into pushy sales. I show ‘em and if they want to purchase them –fine- if not- that is fine too- and if they ask me to hold them until payday – I do that too. It is also about personal service and building relationships.

    It is the same reason I go to my local smalltown hardware store instead of the big box place. I can walk in and say “hey I need one of these things” and they walk me over to the section and hand me what I need. Service- it is about service too – not just making art and selling images. Often my projects turn into other gigs-“Hey can you come by my house ? I need a photo of …..”

    I am looking foward to Part 2 of NSJ !

    • Fredrik says:

      That is truly what I was searching for, thanks for the good advice ! And that answers my question how to make pictures that I love and how to make the money to keep in doing it.

    • Smogranch says:

      Hey Fedrik,

      no problem, glad you found something interesting..

    • Fredrik says:

      I find this blog to be son intresting that I am considering giving analog processing a secound chanse.
      In my town there is only one place that develops 35mm film nowadays, and they charge like $30 for a 24 pic film to develop and scan. So if this is the way to do it, you need to do it yourself. And beacuse I love the analog finish, I tried to do this myself, and that was (how to state this) exciting :) As I have had no help learning this ‘art’ (if you want to make a post about how to process color film and b/w I would be very happy to read it).

    • Smogranch says:

      Fredrik,

      Processing is a lot of fun. When you learn to really nail what you are doing. I do know those that detest it because of years in the darkroom, but I really enjoy it.

  12. Cathy says:

    Daniel,

    This is one of the most enjoyable pieces I’ve read in a long time. Wow…talk about evocative!

  13. Fredrik says:

    Great article, I love the way you tell storys and that in combination with you lovely work is a great inspiration to me ! Keep em coming !

Leave a Reply