Remembering surf photography in the days before GoPro

Surf Photography before GoPro

Surf photographer Dan Merkel shooting in 1977 with an apparatus that looks about as cumbersome as a full keg. Photo: Courtesy of Encyclopedia of Surfing

If you focus really hard, and dive deep down into the darkest, most remote corners of your psyche, you might recall that there was a period of time in your life when you were forced to exist without a cell phone.

A time when all the information in the world wasn’t at the tip of your fingers on the Internet, and when seemingly every aspect of every person’s life wasn’t constantly being recorded in 4k resolution on a GoPro strapped to their foreheads.

While it might be frightening for the modern-day surfer to think about a time when he couldn’t instantly upload his most recent surf clip to Instagram, the reality is that technology has removed an aspect of charm and newness from nearly everything we do. And, as evidenced in a recent story on SURFER by surfing’s resident historian-at-large, Matt Warshaw, that phenomenon extends into the world of surf photography:

I fight the good fight, daily and skillfully, against nostalgia. Usually it’s not much of a contest. New boards and wetsuits are always better than what came before. The extended 10-day forecast has all but killed the surf trip skunk…Still, nostalgia will catch me off guard now and then…Today is such a day. And the nostalgia du jour is water photography.

Surf Photography before GoPro

While it looks like he’s rescuing a fax machine from drowning, the photographer is actually using that device to shoot surfers. Photo: Courtesy of Encyclopedia of Surfing

Quality isn’t the issue. In every way, from every angle, water photography now is technically better than it’s ever been. There’s just way, way too much of it. Terabyte after terabyte, still shots and video, in translucent blues and foamy whites and Mavericks greens, filtered and color-adjusted, 500 perfect images for every available surf mag cover and website homepage, glutting up Vimeo and YouTube… Maybe it’s just me, but the shot is always better when you get a feel for the suffering that went into it.

Warshaw goes on to say that while it takes only a couple hundred bucks to replace a GoPro, surf photographers of old had a deep connection with their expensive rigs, which were often homemade and extremely expensive to replace. There was a somewhat intimate bond between the photographer and their work.

Surf Photography before GoPro

Photographer Ricky Cassidy is seen here with what might be considered the GoPro before GoPro, in 1973. Photo: Courtesy of Encyclopedia of Surfing

Will it make you pine for the days before modern technology made us all constantly connected? Who knows? But, if nothing else, it’s worth heading over to SURFER or Encyclopedia of Surfing to enjoy more of Warshaw’s surf-history lessons just to see how far we’ve come.

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