The Feeling

Remember that feeling you had as a kid? That feeling of being able to do anything? Nothing was outside the bounds of possibility. The world was your oyster, and then you got educated, trained, confined, conformed and molded into what society, and your family, thought you should be.

“When are you going to get serious?” “When are you going to settle down?” “When are you going to get a job?”

This is a strange concept, but it happens to most of us. I can still remember feeling the pressure of these questions, and I can remember watching my friends go through the same thing. Our culture demands it of most and because of this, in my opinion, we have a lot of talented people who will remain nameless, tasteless and unknown because the conformity got the best of them. A house, a car, 401k, suburbia, and the idea of spending thirty to forty of your most productive years doing something you may or may not want to do.

I’m writing about this for two reasons. First, the content of the image included here. I can’t look at this and not laugh. This is a guy named Nick, someone I haven’t seen in years. This image was made in the hills near Mono Lake in Northern California. Nick is doing something that I’m not sure has an official name. I’ll just call it “Hill Running.” The point? To eat complete and total S%$%. The premise, start at the top, start running downhill at top speed until you hit that velocity where there is no ability to stop and then….well….just see what happens. Nick ate complete and total S%$# on this run, and the runs after and people that was the point(He also had a few successful runs.) It was about doing what he wasn’t “supposed” to do. Now you might label this as “stupid,” and maybe it is, but maybe it’s genius. I can only tell you how entertaining it was to watch.

Sometimes when I look around at the creative world I wish we had a bit more hill running in our lives.
The crossroads we find ourselves at is one of success verses failure, and for whatever reason failure is rarely looked upon as a learning experience and natural part of being creative. My personal belief is that this decline in acceptance of failure is tied to technology. I really like technology, but I am also very capable of calling bullshit on most of it. Does it make our lives easier? More efficient? Maybe, maybe not. Ever notice in the spy movies how the commander calls up intel on some fugitive and some lackey hits one key and their real time criminal history pops up on forty-foot-wide screens in real time? When in reality the system would have crashed, the headset the person was wearing would be cutting out, the firmware on the mainframe wouldn’t have been updated and one of the screens would have been littered with dead pixels. In theory I love it all, and I surely love the movies. In reality I wonder if we are better off now or if we are slowly walking into proverbial quicksand. Massive plots of poorly constructed soulless houses being hastily erected, MILES from public transportation, is still labeled as “progress.” If anyone can tell me anything progressive, healthy, forward thinking or sustainable about that I’m all ears.

Several weeks ago I was with a classroom filled with second graders.
This was my second trip to this particular school. I was fortunate because I got to visit art class. I stood in a room filled with paints, glues, papers, inks, brushes, tablets, etc, and all I could think about was gathering a group of my adult friends and putting them in this room. I wanted to turn them loose and say “Don’t worry about what you were supposed to be, just create something.” I wondered what this could do for moral. I wondered how many unknown Picasso’s were in my circles. I wondered how many of my friends had hidden creative skills? And I wondered how we transfer this feeling and belief BACK into our normal lives.

I don’t know about you but the horizon seems a lot closer than it ever has.
I believe less in the traditional theories about life, capitalism and the ever growing sense of needing to have more and more and more. How about have less create more? What if we could share this collective mindset. What if your daily life FELT like hill running? Maybe yours does?

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.


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.

Brewer + Bunker

Years ago I worked for Eastman Kodak. I started here in Southern California as a rep for the labs and photographers, then quickly made the jump to being the rep for only the photographers. This was done because one, I knew NOTHING about labs, but two, because obviously photographers were what I was most interested in.
My job required me to cull an enormous database, which I managed to hack down from 10,000 photographers to roughly 500. This 500 was the who’s who of the professional photography world from Los Angeles to San Diego.
For those of you unfamiliar with Southern California, there is this thing called the Pacific Ocean which lies just offshore from where the sand ends. This ocean has wind blowing across it which forms something called a wave. Man, women and children of all ages, race and religious beliefs standing on fiberglass platforms called “surfboards” are propelled along the wave face. This is an enjoyable pursuit. A multi-billion dollar industry has formed around this simple act. Okay, so now that we have the background out of the way, we can move along.
After I began my Kodak recon of the area I realized that there were many surf photographers located in the area as were many of the publications devoted to the surfing industry. The only problem for me was that literally 99.9% of the surfing photography industry was using Fuji Velvia film. In fact, there was a general rule for most surf photogs and that rule was, “if you are gonna submit to the mags, you gotta shoot Velvia.”
Now being the enlightened individual I was and still am, I knew that Velvia was a damn fine film. It was. And for certain situations, it was the best.
But, for OTHER situations, it was just not the right flavor. So, I began my quest to wedge my Kodak beliefs into the world of surf photography. Only problem was, nobody knew me.
Now I was looking pretty cool. I had a denim Kodak shirt, a black Pontiac Grand Prix corporate command vehicle and the ability to give free samples, but after a few months I realized I wasn’t really getting anywhere.
And then someone said something seemingly harmless in passing. “Get Brewer to test it.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Art Brewer, you know, basically the Godfather of surf photography, staffer for decades, famous photographer, cool guy, a foundation of the industry, and someone who lives about a mile from where you are standing.”
Plugging my forty pound laptop into the cig lighter in the Pontiac I scanned my all-important database. And there he was. I called. He answered. And in a blast of leaded gas exhaust I headed to my first meeting with Art Brewer, someone who would have an immediate impact on my corporate career, and more importantly my creative life.
Walking into Art’s studio was like coming home. There were people scattered about, tanned people tinkering with tables full of odd equipment. There was a Peter Beard print over the desk and it felt like ground zero for everything cool. I had zero street cred and my denim shirt suddenly looked frayed and aged. But Art didn’t care and made me feel right at home. I gave him my rundown of what Kodak had to offer, how it was different from what he had, and how I best thought he would utilize the Kodak offerings. And to his credit Art went out and tested the film.
Before long he was using it, and not only using it but telling others he was doing so. Suddenly the magazines, some of them, and other photographers were calling and asking about Kodak(Yes, we actually used the phone).
Art taught me a lot about surf photography, the industry, where to be, who to show, etc. But more importantly, I got to know him a little and also got to know the range of his work, which is truly, truly impressive. Sometimes when you mention someone is a “surf photographer” you can see the stigma being attached, but in Art’s case it simply does not apply.
Cruising through Art’s world was looking at history, a rich history of the entire world of surfing. Yes there were peak action images, but more importantly there were the bones of a culture that was exploding on the world. The people, the tradition, the travel, the portraits and even the commercial and advertising aspects. I would say he was behind the scenes, but actually he WAS the scene, or at least a part of it. I don’t know many people like Art, but in my mind he is a national treasure. The days of creating archives like his are long gone. Today we are impressed with the right now, the temporary, the trendy, but Art’s work goes well beyond that.
And, when you mention his name in the field, there is nothing but respect.

Over the years his name has turned up in a range of odd little places. One such place was the living room of LA artist Michael Napper. Napper has been a Brewer fan for decades and when Art’s name came up Napper looked at me and said, “Oh have you seen his Bunker Spreckels work?” “Who?” I asked. “Bunker.” “You gotta see it.”
Now this little encounter happened years ago, and since that time I’ve learned myself on Art’s work regarding Anthony Bernard Spreckels III, a legendary figure in a culture of legendary figures.
So a few days ago when I received an email from Art with a link to a two volume series on Spreckels, I knew a post was in order. This work resonates with me for some many reasons, but I’ll narrow this to just one. Relationship.
This is so overlooked in our world today, but without it we are left with only superficial imagery. Take a look at this work and just know it came from the basis of a relationship.
My advice is to get your hands on a copy of these books. Sooner as opposed to later. I know I will. For anyone wanting to pursue photography, or documentary photography, I think you can learn a lot from a book like this, and I don’t mean about technique. There is so much more about being a photographer that you can pluck from these pages.
And just know, as you and I dabble in our daily pursuits, Art is out there adding to his archive.

The links below will take you to the online previews.

Volume 1 –

The Visual Ride of…
By Art Brewer

The Visual Ride of…
By Art Brewer

What you get.

I have photographer friends who live in places like Bangkok, Beijing and Bogota, and I often wonder how great it must be to live in a place with such an abundance of…of…stuff. There are plenty of things, and plenty of stuff, around where I live too, but it just isn’t the same. Perhaps it is because I’m used to it. Nothing here is really exotic, or is it? Have I just learned to turn things off, like my mind? Have I “unlearned” the ability to see?
Every now and then I just snap. I hit the wall of frustration and leave the house, camera in hand, on a desperate search for something. Anything.
The last thing I want to do is drive around looking for images, not only because we have $4 gasoline, but it is also very difficult to work from a moving vehicle.
Problem is, can’t really walk and get anywhere I would want to begin this process. Our public transport, unless you have all day to spend, isn’t really going to cut it either.
So, I ride my bike. In 20 minutes, I can be where I need to be, but still, I’m back in vanilla so to speak, and find myself looking out over that ocean, towards places like Bangkok and Beijing, and wondering what it would be like to LIVE there. Not just to visit but to LIVE there.
Orange County, for me, is an easy place, very easy, and I mean this in a good way. In terms of places I’ve lived in the United States, it is probably the easiest. No blazing summers or tundra-like winters, just middle of the road. However, in terms of culture and diversity, it is nowhere near the best place I have lived. The OC has diversity and multiple cultures, but they are spread out over hundreds of square miles, and are hidden behind rows of houses and strip malls. You can find it, but you just had to dig.
So, when I need to get out and shoot something, anything, on my own, I head to the closest culture, beach culture. I can get there easily, without trying to navigate a smoggy Inland Empire void of bike lanes, and I’m almost guaranteed decent light, at least in the afternoon.
I’m not excited by these images, they are just a release value for me. Beach culture is interesting, but I wouldn’t say, as cultures go, it would be in my top ten. But, it is what I have to work with.
I think I’m so driven to move, to change locations, to travel is because I have traveled in the past. I used to think I traveled a fair amount, but in today’s age it seems that everyone is on the go. I once took a workshop and I was the only student who had not been to basecamp at Mt. Everest.
So I haven’t really traveled that much, but enough to know what is out there. Not only in Bangkok and Beijing but in Boston and Brownsville.
So, my goal for 2009. Be gone. As much as possible. Searching for something, but what I’m not exactly sure.

By the way. All of these images were done as single pictures. One roll of film, 36 different images. After all, I’m trying to think.