Art Brewer SVA Show

Photographer/Artist Art Brewer is someone I’ve written about before, and someone I will surely write about again. I’m a big fan of cool people. I’m a big fan of good photography, and I’m a big fan of photographers who have poured their lives into creating an archive on one particular topic or subject. Art is all the above. Recently, I was able to stop by Art’s studio to check out a few of the images he is printing for a MASSIVE show at the School of Visual Arts in New York. This show will highlight over 150 individual pieces from Art’s collection on the history of modern surfing.


At 43 I finally feel like I found a subject I can work on the rest of my life. Starting now I’m way behind the game. Art has been covering modern surfing for over thirty-years and his archive is one of the greatest ever compiled. Years ago, when I worked for Kodak in Southern California, I realized there was an opportunity for me, and for the company, in working with the global collection of surfing photographers. Problem was I didn’t know a single surfing photographer. So, being a good corporate detective, I called around. “Talk to Art Brewer,” was the response I heard over and over again. Not only was Art open and receptive to learning what Kodak had to offer he also became my link to the entire surfing photography world.

What I love about Art’s archive is the range of work. Browsing the work you see every format imaginable from 35mm to 6×6, 6×7, 6×9, 4×5, point and shoot as well as an odd assortment of other formats and techniques. When you walk into Art’s studio you find yourself frozen and wanting to simply stand and look. Big prints and artwork adorn the walls, an incredible range of oil, ink and emulsion. And every time I go there is something new to feast my eyes upon.



And as you can see by the above images, Art is also a bookmaker. And like all things Brewer, Art publishes a range of books. From his Masters of Surf Photography monograph to his two-volume Blurb masterpiece on Bunker Spreckels you never know what he is going to come up with next. And if that’s not enough…he teaches as well, which you can see in the film below. I was going to write that Art is a great person for young photographers to study, but I’m going to amend that. Art is a good person for any photographer to study. There are certain people who are creatively restless. They are creative searchers, people who run the river of life and can’t wait to see what lives beyond the next bend. Art is one of those people.

North Shore Journal: Part Two

I lied. I did put some color in here, but the idea is the same. Like I said in the first post about this project, my underlying theme was 35mm black and white. But, each year I would choose another side project, native to a different format and concept.

You ever hear of the term “The Salt Line?” Well, the salt line is what you cross when you are driving near the ocean and suddenly you can smell the salt, the water and the tide. This is a critically important line. It is said that in places like Mississippi and Louisiana that the entire culture changes when you cross this line. I believe it, I really do.

So after returning to Hawaii over and over I began to notice a few things, and I began to notice them first in myself. Life was stressful at that time, just as it is now, so when I would exit the plane in Honolulu I could FEEL my body begin to relax. Even though the work ahead of me was considerable, it was different. I would exit the plane, rent a car, drive north and enter my home away from home, the Turtle Bay. I would grab my suit, my flip flops and I would walk to the waters edge and just stare. I would stop. I would freeze. And I was not alone.

I realized that the salt line in Hawaii represented something very dramatic. It meant everything. I began to track hotel newcomers as they arrived then jettisoned their bags and did the exact same thing I did. They would stagger to the waters edge and lust after something they couldn’t find back home…..peace. It was precisely this reason I made these images. I spent an entire trip wandering the salt line area looking for people, for things that represented this place. I wanted you to feel what I felt, what these other folks felt.

To do this I needed to choose a technique that would assist me in my quest. What struck me at the time was to make images that looked like charcoal sketches(I have zero ability to actually make them with charcoal.) Problem was I didn’t know how to do this. So, I started testing. And I tested. And tested. And finally I found a way. This was the fun part folks, especially when you consider it was film based testing, meaning it was SLOW. I wasn’t sitting at a computer “playing around.” I was torturing myself. I ended up with the Hasselblad and after landing on Oahu I started in.

I realized the power of the salt line transcended sport, development and my own brain. I saw things I never noticed before. One long exposure at a time. Working this way forced me to think, to really think, about what I was doing, what I was including. I also honed my technique, adding wrinkle after wrinkle, taking insane photographic chances like spending a half day doing one exposure then blowing it at the last minute. I didn’t care because I believed in where I was heading. And I had the Mai Tai waiting at the Turtle Bay. Just kidding.

You see, this is what pure photography is about for me. It’s about time. It’s about focus. It’s about working toward a greater good in some odd way. And I don’t mean greater good in the world. I mean a totally selfish greater good of trying to make insanely good photos. I fail most of the time. That is probably pretty obvious.

This salt line project will continue. Perhaps not in Hawaii, but it will continue. I have a current project that focuses on this area, but not in quite the same way. I sometimes dream about living on the North Shore, at least part time, or going even further and going off the grid in Kauai, trying to find a place that is all about not being found. I dream, but I think someday it will be a reality. You will hear from me no more, you will see me no more, but if you walk to the waters edge and relax….maybe we can still connect.

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.

Portrait of a Place

So I’ve got a few workshops coming up. Two of these workshops are about travel, storytelling and books. The third is about making documentary portraits. So, I’ve been thinking. I look at a lot of portfolios. A lot. And I look at a lot of books. Many of the books I look at are created by consumers. In many ways I think pros and consumers are all striving for the same thing, and if you reduce this down to one simple idea I would classify it as “The need to tell a story.” The longer you do this you more you learn about not only how to tell the story but you also learn what your audience needs to fully understand what it is you are trying to visually explain.

A lot of the consumer portfolios I see are random. Lots of travel, lots of places and lots of faces, some faces who know they are being photographed and others who don’t. Many of these portfolios are random because that is how the photographer came to photography, simply bringing a camera along and shooting whatever it was they encountered. This is totally fine. However, if you are trying to accurately portray a place, a people, a story, sometimes as the photographer you must think in terms of story or theme. Even within the idea of the story, each piece, whether that be a landscape, a portrait, an action shot, can also have a mini-story attached to it. These small stories, and their information, make up the overall piece.

I’m a little odd because I’ve always worked with theme or story in mind. Always. When I head out and try to work randomly, I find myself falling back into the idea that what I’m working on is a small part of a larger story. Now I’m realizing I need to move even further back and consider that all my stories are actually a part of an even larger idea that will encompass, perhaps, my entire career with a camera in hand. Scary to think about that edit. This idea was presented to me by a book publisher who flat out told me that I should look at everything I’ve done and look for a “master” theme if you will. Again, I can’t imagine sitting down to begin that process. Maybe if I get a nice, long, prison sentence I can start this baby up.

The pictures in this post are from a series I did in Hawaii, on the North Shore of Oahu to be exact. I went to this place, at the same time each year, for almost a decade. Each year I had a mini-theme in mind, sometimes landscape, other times a specific person or place, but overall the images all played together. When I broke down the portrait idea I realized that pulling back was as important as moving forward. What I’m treading around here folks is context. Context simply puts me in the place, beyond a tight face. Context answers things like “Where?” “How?” or “When,” and is essential for telling a story. The goal is stand alone images that all fit together. Think about that. Images that are good enough to completely stand on their own yet fit together like a visual puzzle, ultimately presenting one, enormous, clear theme. It ain’t easy.

So many of the consumer portfolios I see are filled with tight faces because these are very simple images. These images are easy to read. The wrinkled face of the mountain tribe person. The hands or feet of the mountain tribe person. Woman in market, etc. We’ve all seen endless amounts of these images. The are expected, but in many cases they tell little about a place. Again, nothing wrong with these photographs, but I think there is much, much more to explore when it comes to actually telling a story. I think an easy way to begin this journey is to think about creating a picture package, something small, like five or six images. Give yourself a goal. “I’m going to tell the story of Venice Beach California, and I have six images to do so.” Do you think your images will all be tight portraits? Maybe. You might be able to pull this off, but getting the idea of place or story, with only faces is a tough go. So you begin to think about story first and then images. Maybe you need something that says beach? Maybe you need something that says California Beach? Maybe you need something that says Southern California Beach? Maybe you need something that says unique, Southern California beach? You see where I’m going with this?

Now the fun part of working this way is you have the ability to edit the final images into a variety of stories. And, if you show your work to ten different editors, chances are, you will end up with ten different final edits. This is where making books, working in themes, really gets interesting. You being to edit, see your idea coming together then realize, “Hmm, I’m missing something.” You then head back out to figure out that final piece that works as the visual glue to keep the piece together. And believe it or not, many of these type images are NOT the most visually stunning. I call them transitional images, pictures that link sections of a story together, images that provide very small pieces of critical information that assist the viewer. Nobody likes talking about these pictures because we all want to be top guns and talk about the brilliance of our most successful snaps. Again, that is great if you are showing a portfolio perhaps, but when it comes to storytelling sometimes we have to play by different rules.

When I do workshops I’m normally working in theme mode. Information or transitional images are a big part of what I’m doing. If I just walked and looked for lifetime, stand alone pictures, well, I might get lucky but then again I might not. Now here is where things get really tricky. You can’t tune yourself OUT of looking for those incredible one-frame wonders. You have to do both. You have to react to what is happening. You have to anticipate. You have to predict. But in the background your overall theme hums along. I don’t know about you but I talk to myself almost nonstop when I’m working because all of these ideas are flowing without pause. It can be a lot of voices going at one time. And yes, from time to time, I lock them all out and look for a zen-like connection.

So when you look at the images in this post just realize that each one represents a chapter of the overall story. Competition, landscape, portrait, culture, sense of place, are all represented. There are many ways of getting from point A to point B. We each work in our own way. My goal with this post is to get you to think in terms of theme, of story and of the idea that whatever you are working on….there is something larger just outside your view.