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An Ode to Analog Surf Photography With John Hook 

Which inspires the other? Photo: John Hook


The Inertia

Imagine any surfer you want. Now, imagine an artist. Did the same name come to mind? Chances are, it did. With legends George Greenough and Rick Griffin, to modern day Dave Rastovich, Ozzy Wrong and Thomas Campbell, it seems as if surfing stands out among physical activities with such a strong culture of creation woven into the activity itself. Whether it involves shaping, filmmaking, making music, or drawing cartoons depicting classic lineup situations, creativity exists at the heart of surf culture.

Let’s start with the fact that many surfers are creatives. Take JJ Wessels, a modern-day longboarder and artist, for example, who says working with his hands is an integral part of his existence. Whether he’s surfing or collaborating with surf brands, creativity allows him “cultural freedom.” This is the case for most surfers: creative energy is only increased by dipping into the ocean.

There is also psychological evidence that creatives may be drawn to surfing because it is an individual pursuit and often enjoyed alone. A study from the University at Buffalo found that people who prefer to be alone tend to be more creative. And who hates crowds more than surfers? 

Or perhaps it is the culture of documentation within surfing that allows for creative juices to flow, spurring surfers to be more creative than people who do not surf? Both photography and filmmaking sit at the heart of surf culture – you can’t have one without the other. Great surfers become elevated to legends because of certain footage. Surf trips are fueled by film ideas requiring exotic locales. And the more you travel, the more “you become aware and question what you are doing,” says surf filmmaker Kai Neville. 

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Historically, surf filmmaking traces way back: the oldest surf footage ever was shot over 100 years ago, in 1897, by Robert Bonine in none other than Waikiki. From there, we’ve seen the beautiful marriage of wave riding and filmmaking. It’s brought us Morning of the Earth, Five Summer Stories, and more mainstream hits like Gidget and Big Wednesday. 

The stiller side of documentation is insanely creative, too. Take a look at the works of Ron Stoner, Jeff Divine, Art Brewer or LeRoy Grannis. They depict surfing, yes, but they rely heavily on artistic influence — composition, color, a creative embellishment of some sort. The best surf photography stirs emotion in the viewer through reflecting an overall outlook on life, along with, usually, light offshore winds or a stylish drop knee turn. 

The best surf photographers are really artists at their core. Stoner’s photography, for example, depicts surfing, but it also depicts a colorful culture and a distinct way of life. And while Stoner is primarily celebrated for his contributions to surf photography, especially in magazines, he’s also celebrated for his unique eye and his overall outlook on life. In other words, for his artistic genius — not just his technical skill. 

Modern day surf photographers and artists John Hook, Tommy Pierucki, Brigid Lally, and Matt Clark prove that surf photography is more art than documentation with their stylized works, adding beauty to surfing, even if surfing is inherently beautiful to begin with. 

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Or perhaps creatives are drawn to surfing because virtually every aspect of surfing requires careful thought. Surfing is an activity that can be, and constantly is, bettered by innovation. 

The equipment itself is an art form, and a connection with one’s board matters. As legendary surfer Skip Frye once said, “Surfing to me is like playing music. You play different melodies with different boards.” 

Shaping can be done by hand, and the results are no different than a piece of art in a gallery. Sometimes, the boards actually end up in art galleries. And why shouldn’t they? Aside from the colorful, artistic medium created by glassing, the board shapes themselves are often experimental, pushing the limits of what can be done by hand to create beautiful rides on a wave. The designs on the boards often have spiritual significance, too, such as the sacred geometry found on Gary McNeill Concepts, done by artists Sharon Blair and Jonathan Quinton.

Comparatively, while skis and snowboards feature colorful designs, they’re generally not made by hand, and there’s really no advantage to a hand-shaped board on the mountain. Manufactured shapes are just fine. It’s specifically about the artistic movements of the athlete. With surfing, there’s a clear advantage to a custom board. Every shape provides a different ride, and the board is unique to its rider — their size, experience, and, of course, style. 

If one is a creative, wouldn’t they be more drawn to choosing and customizing every aspect of an experience? Surfing allows for that kind of thinking and designing. 

Then again, surfing may spur creativity from surfers because the way one looks on a wave is just as important as the technical aspects. Unlike other sports, the flow and beauty matters arguably as much as the maneuver. Style is unique to surfing, and style requires complete commitment. As Mark Richards said, “Style is a natural extension of who you are as a person.” And style requires attention to detail, in and out of the water. 

On that note, it is worth mentioning that total and complete commitment is really a necessary element of both surfing and art that few other pursuits require. The greats of surfing are celebrated not only for their wave riding ability, but for their commitment to chasing waves.

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Icons Miki Dora (“Da Cat”) and Gerry Lopez (known to many as the ultimate soul surfer and shaper under legend Dick Brewer) both have books celebrating their lifelong, global search for pumping, remote perfection — and this often meant sacrificing more traditional life paths like family or holding down “respectable” jobs. 

The fact that waves don’t always exist may also play a role in the creativity required to be a surfer. People have to fill their time somehow, and surfers are known to get creative when things go flat. In this way, surfers are forced to become creatives whether they like it or not. 

And, sure, wave pools exist, but at the heart of surfing lies travel: Bruce Brown’s famous 1966 film The Endless Summer is, perhaps, the most iconic surf documentary of all time. And, new research shows traveling boosts both happiness and creativity— correlation or causation? You decide. 

To try to answer the question of whether surfing makes us creative or if creative people simply gravitate towards surfing is a chicken or the egg dilemma. But the parallel between surfing and art comes down to the way these things make us feel. People pursue what they find rewarding. Whether it’s surfing, traveling, or making art, for whatever reason, it makes us happy. And when we’re happy, we create — it’s the best kind of endless cycle. Simple as that.

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