I felt the North Shore long before I’d actually been there. Through the 1975 movie “Super Session” I knew that, as Jeff Hakman put it, “Sunset jacks so much,” and that, according to Gerry Lopez, Pipeline was “a cakewalk.” In wipeout sequences from a bunch of different surf films I’d vicariously gone over the falls at Waimea Bay, slapped the cement-hard water, and been thrashed and rag-dolled and held under so long I wanted to scream, “Mom!” Via “Free Ride,” in 1977, I’d shared a tube with Mark Richards and Shaun Tomson.
Then there were “the mags” (aka Surfer and Surfing). In photographs that served as portals, I’d whipped low-slung, tight-arced cutbacks at Velzyland, eaten cherry shave ice at Matsumoto’s with Buttons, and knocked back beers with Rory Russell and Herbie Fletcher on the balcony of Gerry Lopez’s beachfront Pipe house. I’d hung out in front of Kammie’s market, checked the surf from Comsat Hill.
Which is to say that the North Shore is one of most well-documented and hence most vivid myths in the surf odyssey. With the exception of the kids who grow up there, it typically takes root from a distance, expanding and fleshing-out in our imaginations. It begins as a place in the mind and later becomes a real, physical place.
That’s how it went for me, growing up in LA. And that’s how it went for Brazilian photographer Vava Ribeiro, who explores this liminal space in his new book, “North Shore.” As a surf-stoked teenager in Rio de Janeiro, Vava pored over “the mags,” entranced by pics of the North Shore. But he would not get there until the winter of 1998/99.
“It haunted me for decades," he told me, “and then I woke up and I was in that imaginary world, except it was no longer imagination, it was reality. I felt this strange sense of a déjà vu, like I was reliving the experiences that I dreamed as a kid. That’s where this body of work developed from.”
Vava worked on the book for nearly a decade. He’d go to the North Shore for several winters in a row, then take a couple off, spending long hours in the darkroom printing up his photographs. He pinned them to the walls of his New York apartment and obsessed. He thought a lot about the North Shore of his Rio grommethood.
“The characters exist, the places exist,” said Vava. “But with these images I want to suggest possibilities. It’s a suggestion of a place and a feeling rather than a descriptive documentary.”
On a recent rainy night in my modest Malibu guesthouse, Vava and I went through “North Shore” page by page. He told me “the North Shore kind of shaped my work—and also my life.” I pointed out a few of my favorite images and Vava gave me the backstory—
“Joel Tudor, alongside his house at Velzyland. You feel all these spirits and frequencies on the North Shore, like the sort of ghosts walking around. Joel’s T-shirt says, ‘Rest in Peace, Miki Dora’—a small detail that you find inside the photo that tells a little story, that has a little hidden message.”
“Shark’s Cove on a big swell. I like this image because it hides more than it shows. And that reflects a part of how I felt on the North Shore. There’s so much that you feel but you don’t see. It’s hidden in the shadows.”
“This was on Christmas morning. Christian Fletcher showed up at the Jones’s house where I was staying at Rocky Point and he said, ‘I’m ready for my photograph.’ And he handed me a razor blade and said, ‘I want you to shave my head for this portrait.’ So I sat with him, and I shaved his head on Christmas day, just me and him at the house. And I shaved it to the point that he liked it, and then he looked at me and said, ‘Now, I’m ready for your portrait.’ And that’s when this photo was taken.”
“Emi Erickson in her bedroom with her single fin. Emi is the daughter of legendary big wave rider Roger Erickson. You sense that it’s in her blood to surf big waves. She has such an elegant presence; she just dances with the big waves as naturally as possible.”
“Young John John Florence checking the surf at Pipe. Even as a kid you could see his poise and his style and his approach and his body language. It’s almost like seeing a matador.”
“Part of the process of photographing the North Shore has a lot to do with fear. Not everyone is welcoming you to be photographed. With Kala Alexander, you have to respect his space. He doesn’t let anybody into his private space very often, specifically photographers. So it’s about being sensitive, knowing when it’s the right time to shoot—and when it’s not.”
“On the North Shore you have this juxtaposition of beautiful paradise, peace, love, aloha. But there’s an underbelly of darkness or violence. And I’m not saying that that is ugly. I’m just saying that that is there. It’s a heavier tone. It’s almost like you have a symphony, a beautiful symphony, played over a death metal bass.”
“There’s mystery in the way that Anne Laure holds herself underwater. It’s almost like she’s drowning. So there’s beauty, but there’s also darkness to it. And to me, again, it’s the thread that I go in and out of in this book, which is this duality of something that is light and beautiful, but at the same time, it has that sense of danger. It has that layer of what’s going on here?”
“All of the images were shot in Hawaii, but not all on the North Shore of Oahu. The North Shore is more a state of mind, a play between reality and imagination.”
To purchase “North Shore” go to www.jesusblue.co.uk
For more of Vava’s work go to www.vavaribeiro.com
Follow him on Instagram: @vavaribeiro