Northern Exposure

A Dave Nelson Portfolio

The sun is rising over the cow pastures somewhere north of Santa Cruz, California. Its golden rays beam through the dirty windshield causing Dave Nelson, a.k.a. “Nelly,” to squint into the early morning light. He pulls a bent cigarette from a mangled paper box; his hand quivers a tad, cold from this wintry weather as he sticks the cig between his chapped lips. It dangles with awkward balance, almost falling out. A clove, one of many that will be smoked on this mission up the California coast, is sparked as the car barrels forth with Nelly urgently steering the wheel in search of someplace to shoot golden images on this deserted coastline.

The heater blasts through the dusty vents. Its purpose is to warm Nelly and take the frost off a damp and mildewed 7 mm fullsuit. The smell of the wetsuit and the clove is a weird combo. Both aromas have stained the interior of Nelly’s Toyota 4Runner, which is littered with coffee cups, cigarette butts, fast food wrappers, dog hair, film canisters, and lint. It speaks work is first, neatness second. All good artists follow this etiquette.

Nelly says the surf should be solid. We come around a bend in the road where pine trees lean out over an off-shore-wind-tapered coastline, pointing out toward a mint-green Pacific. And there it is in all its glory, perfect four- to six-foot sand-bottom barrels-the studio is open for work. Many a shutter will be clicked this morning. Nelly’s crew will get ad photos today, as well as potential covers, spreads, and full pages. Nelly shoots for three hours straight in the 52-degree water. As he returns to his car with the biggest of grins, his salty mug says it all-Nelly’s on cloud nine. Mission accomplished. The drive back home will be long, but it’s okay-Nelly still has six cloves left, and one will be consumed every ten miles or so. But what’s even greater than the waves, the crew, and the cloves is that he has created art on this chilly morning.

Welcome to Santa Cruz, California-a large town, one that’s broken down into three sections: east, west and midtown. Nelly lives right on the border of midtown and the east side, right at 25th Street-the epicenter for east side surfers. But these weren’t always his stomping grounds. Nelly was born in West Covina, California. His family moved to Saratoga, Florida when he was four and then to Santa Cruz when he was seventeen. Even as a young tyke, Nelly was interested in photography. He recalls shooting with a Brownie camera as early as age eight. As he got older, he began getting other photographic equipment, and a Pentax was his first legitimate camera. He took it everywhere with him. Whether it was on surf trips or skate missions, the camera strap was around his neck.

In the late 80s/early 90s, Surfing magazine photographer Tony Roberts exploded onto the scene with his compelling images of modern progressive surfing. Every shutterbug’s goal was to capture surfers doing method airs and grab variations. Tony was on the front line of capturing its revolution. Images of Ratboy, Flea, Barney, and their aerial antics were everywhere. As if surfing wasn’t explosive enough, the photography was fresh and more radical than ever. Tony was shooting high-performance maneuvers with his wide-angle lenses and putting himself in harm’s way. Getting underneath the surfer, above the surfer, and with the use of the pole cams and different waterhousings, Tony was breaking the rules-getting in a surfer’s line of fire to capture a maneuver. This was a no-no-here was a photographer capturing moments that should only be seen by someone getting ready to be hit by a surfer. Tony’s photography was too close for comfort. Nelly was mind-boggled. It reminded him of skating. A lifelong skater himself, this combined both of Nelly’s worlds-surfing, which he loved, with the look and feel of skateboard photography. Tony took Nelly under his wing and taught him the basic elements to shooting surfing. He toldim how to shoot with a wide-angle lens from the water. He told him about which films to shoot, cameras to buy, how to keep the water off the lens port, and other secrets of the trade, and most importantly he sold Nelly one of his old and crusty waterhousings. Nelly was hooked. He shot for three years straight every day, regardless of swell, rain, and wind-all of this to perfect his style.

Fast-forward to 1999 when TransWorld SURF was born. At the time, Nelly submitted his photos to Surfing magazine, getting the occasional photo run and being reimbursed with a couple rolls of free film here and there for his hard work. Tony Roberts had moved to Costa Rica, but Nelly had competition in Santa Cruz. Mark Whitney, Nate Lawrence, and others were all shooting images in his area. And to make matters worse, some of them were submitting to Surfing magazine, making the publishing pool that much smaller. But good news was in Nelly’s future as he got invited to go with Ozzie Wright to the Mentawais-finally, a big trip.

He contacted Surfing to tell them the good news and hoped they would back him on this trip with a plane ticket and film, but they turned him down. Nelly was bummed. But soon after being denied, he received some positive news. Steve Sherman from TransWorld (photo editor at the time) called Nelly with an offer. He said they wanted the Ozzie trip, and in return he’d run a story with his images, put Nelly on a retainer, pay for his film, and send him on other surf trips around the world. This is what he’d been waiting for, and Nelly went on a shooting bender. His photography was immediately noticed by the surfing world as he racked up more and more coverage in TWS. He established himself as a photographer who was trying to shoot surfers in a skate-style manner. His photography stood out from the rest, no doubt. In 2001, Nelly got five of ten covers for TransWorld SURF. He had arrived.

Today, Nelly has become one of TransWorld’s best and most creative photographers. No longer does he sit in the midday glare shooting images with his Pentax zoom lens. Nowadays, he’s either in the water after dark at an undisclosed secret reef break swimming with the sharks and shooting with multiple flash units (a process that takes his assistant Cory Hansen to swim out with him and hold one of the flash units while he shoots) or he’s on his jet ski shooting surf tow-ats.

In a small cafe on the east side, we sit together sipping hot coffee. Nelly snaps at his dog Roxy to sit, while the dog stares off, eyeing birds and other live things in the distance. I ask him what he thinks the next big thing is going to be with surf photography, and in his low-pitched, monotone voice, he says, “Flash photography is the future.” It’s no surprise to me that Nelly would believe in this technique that allows him to shoot at night. Since the arrival of flash photography and double-flash photography (which consist of radio transmitters and other high-tech photo gadgets that allow photographers to light up surfing and waves even when it’s pitch black), no one has conquered this area like he has. He is relentless in perfecting this style of photography, sometimes waking up in the wee hours of the morning, scraping ice off his windshield, gassing up, and going. Keep in mind, this is in sharky waters, at night, in freezing water, with big fish-no thanks. I continue to press him about new advances in the technology of surf photography. He speaks with this tone of secrecy as he tells me of his inventions, and they sound like they’re straight out of a 70s sci-fi flick. I ask him if I can disclose this information to the rest of the world, and with little hesitation he replies, “Ooooh, I don’t want to talk about that. I haven’t nailed that yet. This year for sure, though, you’ll be seeing some of that.”

What I can say about Nelly’s top-secret idea is that if things keep going according to plan, Nelly will be able to shoot 24 hours a day. Nighttime photography will no longer be a pain in his side as it has been from time to time in the past. When I ask him about other advancements, he notes and gives props to fellow lensman Dustin Humphrey: “What Dustin is doing is really cool, shooting from a helicopter. It’s been done in the past but not with modern, progressive surfing such as airs.”

He talks shooting from a jet ski: “I really love shooting from my jet ski in early-morning light. I think you see a lot of new angles this way. With shooting from a ski, you see backdrops you normally wouldn’t because you’re facing toward the beach or toward a cliff that is noticeable in the frame. You can’t get this kind of long-lens perspective from the beach. I think we’ve opened a new door to shooting with the skis. We’re shooting places that are illegal-motoring out of the harbor all stealth, before it’s even light, shooting as much as we can, and then getting out of there before we get busted. We’re not sure how long it’s going to last or how long we’ll be able to do this, but we’re doing it.”

It’s getting late, almost midday. Nelly will go home and take a nap now and hang out with his wife Kristy, who is due to have a child any day now. He’ll wake up around 3:00 p.m., go check the surf, call his crew, meet with them somewhere, and shoot around town ’til 7:00 p.m. with Kristy right by his side, and call it a day. I ask him if his soon-to-be daughter will be a photographer like her old man, and he says, ” I don’t know if she’ll be a photographer, but I’ll tell you what, she’ll be a surfer before she becomes a ballerina.”

otography will no longer be a pain in his side as it has been from time to time in the past. When I ask him about other advancements, he notes and gives props to fellow lensman Dustin Humphrey: “What Dustin is doing is really cool, shooting from a helicopter. It’s been done in the past but not with modern, progressive surfing such as airs.”

He talks shooting from a jet ski: “I really love shooting from my jet ski in early-morning light. I think you see a lot of new angles this way. With shooting from a ski, you see backdrops you normally wouldn’t because you’re facing toward the beach or toward a cliff that is noticeable in the frame. You can’t get this kind of long-lens perspective from the beach. I think we’ve opened a new door to shooting with the skis. We’re shooting places that are illegal-motoring out of the harbor all stealth, before it’s even light, shooting as much as we can, and then getting out of there before we get busted. We’re not sure how long it’s going to last or how long we’ll be able to do this, but we’re doing it.”

It’s getting late, almost midday. Nelly will go home and take a nap now and hang out with his wife Kristy, who is due to have a child any day now. He’ll wake up around 3:00 p.m., go check the surf, call his crew, meet with them somewhere, and shoot around town ’til 7:00 p.m. with Kristy right by his side, and call it a day. I ask him if his soon-to-be daughter will be a photographer like her old man, and he says, ” I don’t know if she’ll be a photographer, but I’ll tell you what, she’ll be a surfer before she becomes a ballerina.”