I grew up on the photographs of Jeff Divine. They helped shaped my idea of what surfing is, and what surfing means. In his 50 years of deep immersion, he has managed to capture all facets—the sport, the art, the culture, the soul.
I first met Jeff in the mid-‘80s. I was lucky enough to work with him, or I should say, be photographed by him. He had a relaxed way about him. He never seemed to be trying too hard. But he always got the shot. We’ve been friends ever since.
He has a new book coming out, and to celebrate it, we had a long chat, so long that I’ve broken it into two parts. Here’s the first. Much more to come. Thanks.
So Jeff, how'd you get started as a photographer?
A couple of guys in La Jolla were taking photos, probably like in '64 or so, which in those days was really rare. There were just a handful of people doing that kind of stuff. So anyway, I remember this photographer Tex Wilson was showing us photos of David Nuuhiwa at Pacific Beach in black-and-white prints that he’d made, and I became enamored of it really quickly. I worked at a bookstore in La Jolla, and so I got money together to buy a camera. That was in 1966.
What keeps you going? What keeps you inspired?
I've been doing it for 50 years, so I'm on a whole different planet. Now I'm retired. And I'm working on my 50 years of archives—shooting all over the world and everything you can imagine. So it's really fun when you cull through everything and find the ones that were overlooked or not published. That's really, really exciting for me. And then with the computer, I can enhance everything, because we were shooting with Kodachrome 25, which was hard to expose perfectly. So on Photoshop you can bring up shadow, details, and all that. You can enhance them dramatically, which is really exciting.
Is there a recurring theme that comes up when you look at your archive?
Everyone gets so wound up in the personal aspect of the photos. Like a lot of shots at Sunset Beach, which might have been for me personally a big deal, like some kind of wildness in the water––that actual photo I might have taken during that personal experience might be a crappy photo, like other people wouldn't respond to it. So there's that aspect of it. And so you get so wound up in it, it’s so incestuous to your own work that it’s hard to see outside of it, that's why it's fun to show it to other people. Another thing I’ve realized is that we're so addicted to surfing, we're so “core” that you want to see a man on a wave, and the wave is offshore, and it's perfect, and it's Santa Ana conditions, or it's perfect trade winds in Hawaii, or it's glassiness in the Mentawais. So you're always going for a man on a wave. And actually, a lot of what's going on is surf culture, or guys hanging out, or what's behind you, because you tend to focus on the next set rather than what's really going on in the culture around you. So I'm kind of glad that I actually pointed my camera in all directions and kind of got all of it, or at least I got a lot of it.
Are there any favorites surfers or spots that you love to shoot over the years?
The favorite surfer thing is really hard because there are so many. I mean, I could rattle off 20. But I really like guys who are more animated on a wave or do power moves, like Willy Morris used to do that, or Dave Rastovich, or Kelly, or Barry Kanaiaupuni, or Lopez. You could always count on them when they take off that you're going to get something good. The favorite places? I used to go to Todos Santos a lot in the '90s with Brock Little and Mark Foo and Mike Parsons when the swell would get really big, like 22-second intervals from the north or northwest, and that was a really great experience. I did that for about five or six years. Then the one that is really the Aspen or the Park City of surfing is the Mentawai Islands in Sumatra. It's like you roam around on a yacht with a chef between these smallish islands and there’s these perfect reef pass waves everywhere and it’s tropical. If you want to have somewhere on your bucket list, that should be it.
Anything super heavy that’s stayed with you?
Probably the most intriguing one is when these guys, Tommy Holmes and Dale Hope, rode a canoe at Avalanche. I think it was about 1980, on a big wave on a big day, about a 20-foot day. And a whole bunch of things happened. Reverend Akaka blessed it; it was like at dawn, or 7:00 a.m. And Flippy Hoffman was out there at Avalanche and they paddled the canoe out and they got in. There was a boat with Steve Wilkings, and then there was a Zodiac with Leonard Brady filming, and then Jeff Hornbaker and I paddled out on our rafts and I immediately started getting sucked into the brink and Hornbaker was in front of me getting sucked in worse. I think he got caught inside. Then, within a minute of me getting in position, these guys, Aka Hemmings, Tommy Holmes, and Dale Hope, caught a wave. They wiped out and Dale hit his arm on the thing that goes across and wasted his arm. So they all had to go in and he went to the hospital. Then we went out again and the same scenario happened within one minute. Tommy Holmes and Aka Hemmings got a giant bomb wave and then they wiped out and jumped off about three-quarters of the way down. It's probably the biggest wave ever ridden in a canoe, I would imagine. So that was pretty interesting. Other than that there's all kinds of mini-stories. One of my favorites is just coming upon places, like the first time you've seen it or very few people have seen it. I went to Iceland with Mark Renneker and Kevin Starr and Donavon Frankenreiter and Dan Duane and I guess the etiquette is if you're the first to catch a wave at a spot you can name it. So we were roaming around and we pulled into a beach parking lot and I saw a tiny little left peeling off and I go, "That's Divine’s." So I got to name my spot.
More of Jeff Divine in the next installment of The Dazzling Blue: “50 Years of Jeff Divine (Part Two).” In the meantime, check out https://jeffdivinesurf.com.