Jeff Divine’s photographs have been the quintessential images of the evolution of surfing for nearly fifty years. His work captures the essence of the sport and has given us an insider’s look at the greatest surfers and tropical locations in the world. From his early photographs in the 1960’s to his current role with The Surfer’s Journal, we talk to Jeff Divine about his life’s work documenting surfing and the culture surrounding it.
Nick Santora: What was your inspiration to first pick up a camera and start documenting what you were experiencing everyday? Were you attracted to the sport or the lifestyle?
Jeff Divine: Actually, I was inspired by a friend who had been making some black and white surfing prints in 1966. I was enamored with it right away. We were already completely addicted to surfing. We had our own language and knew where to go, and when and where there might be good waves at certain places. We had a complex set of guidelines. We were hippy, environmentalist athletes with a strong influence of recognizing raw nature, health foods, and the brotherhood of mankind. Everyone who surfed pined to see themselves on a wave. It all started with that.
How did your professional career begin?
By 1969-70 the main photographer at Surfer Magazine, Ron Stoner, had come unglued mentally for a variety of reasons and became dysfunctional. There is a great book, Photo Stoner, about his life and mysterious disappearance. There weren’t many of us doing surf photography at the time so I was soon brought on board at Surfer and began shooting with the magazine’s 1,000 mm lens that had formerly been used by Ron Stoner, Art Brewer and John Severson. I was 20 years old and was stoked. I went all in.
Tom Wolfe said that ‘Surfing was just 25% sport and 75% way of life.’ Is that accurate?
My basic premise is that it all boils down to a man on a wave and all of the rest is BS. It’s such a pure selfish feeling of riding a wave and all else stems from that. Of course there is a lot of lifestyle that goes with it, but I think those are two different things. In the water it is a level playing field. No one cares who you are. It’s just yourself and others out in nature. There is no scoreboard. If no one saw a wave you rode, it is only a personal memory. A friend once called it ‘The Secret Thrill.’
Do surfers and non-surfers appreciate the same things in your photos?
No. Non surfers see things really differently. At gallery shows, I like to put some images in that I know core surfers will understand and be attracted to, such as a BK bottom turn or a Gerry Lopez soul turn. During the show non surfers will comment about completely different aspect of those same photos, such as the symmetry or feeling it evokes. My grandmother used to look through Surfer and she couldn’t really tell the difference between photos. Whereas core surfers will be noticing all kinds of other things: body language, the wave itself, the conditions, who it is, where it is, water color, mood, etc.
Can you tell me more about the Buttons photo? Do you love that photo as much as I do?
We all loved Buttons (R.I.P.). This shot was at Velzyland in Hawaii. It’s an intense, shallow reef wave. Buttons had dropped in on another surfer and as he paddled by me he was verbally chatting to the guy, ‘Sorry, sorry, peace bro.’ Everyone is attracted to that photo.
What are the keys to taking a great surf photograph? What do you focus on when shooting, and what do you look for when editing for The Surfer’s Journal?
A great surf photo is one that both the core surfer and general public can recognize or be attracted to. It could be man on wave, lifestyle, or scenic of wave and environment. Photo editing is a complex act of balancing what you need to use, what is available, what is needed, and what has been used in other parts of the magazine. Sometimes quality does not exist and sometimes to coordinate a look you use all of one photographer’s stylized photos. Between myself, the art director, and editors, it is all a very subjective process. Creative photographers with their own vision will often be bummed with how their work is used. Sometimes they are shocked in both ways, how good it looks or how bad they think it looks in the final layout or design. That’s par for the course.
What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned about other people and cultures throughout your travels?
When you really travel to many of the third world surf locations you start to realize how spoiled we are here in the U.S.A. We are lucky to be here within these borders in many ways. For instance, we like to feel we are sensitive to the environment here in California but when traveling, you realize how much of the world is out to lunch about the environment. All of Central and South America, Africa, and China are really polluted in their oceans and air. Not that we are that highly evolved either. As a Californian surfer we are sensitive to crowds and other people visiting, but traveling you realize true isolated locals love meeting, interacting, and hosting other surfers. The ‘Locals Only’ territorial vibe in California is truly a westernized, over populated, wealthy outlook on the world. There is a lot of hypocrisy with all of that.
Did you really dislike the corporate 1980’s?
When the surf garment and outdoor lifestyle industry really emerged financially in the 80’s it allowed surfers to make a living in the sport. I kind-of look fondly to the 1960’s and 70’s era when no one was branded with logos. We didn’t wear branded back packs, sandals, sun glasses, hats, logoed t-shirts, watches, and the surfboards had minimal ID. But now the industry is $5 billion a year, which is really all based on the idea of a man on a wave. We are now branded, we are the cowboys. Once out there in our environment of waves and now brought into the media as an iconic American image as a romantic, raw, individualist out in nature. It gets a bit homogenized really. I have been part of all of that with my photography which has been used worldwide for many years in the surf industry. In the recent past, in conjunction with the U.S.A. recession, some of the industry has reorganized financially and has become more corporate in many ways. It’s definitely changed, but change is one of the hardest things for a human to adapt to. So it is just life, the world turns, times change and social mores change. It’s all good.
Are there any people or places that you still would like to photograph? Anything new coming up for you?
My wish list is to shoot big waves from the channel at Jaws on Maui, Mavericks in California, Teahopuu in Tahiti, a golden wave from the inside looking out, and to once again go flying down the line at low tide, four foot, Tamarin Bay in Maurititus.
Is The Surfer’s Journal back to the roots for you?
The Surfer’s Journal is kind-of a roots type of environment. We are like a small family; a garage band crafting what we do and trying to be more about the experience itself, which includes all of the characters, art and history, design, vibe, and that. It is all handmade. We have a lot of fanatical subscribers who basically support and appreciate what we put out there. What we do balances a lot of the other surf media.
Meet Jeff Divine at his gallery show at Mollusk in San Francisco on April 12, 2014.