North Shore Journal: Part One
Posted on December 15, 2011
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.
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.