Reminiscing with Legend Rusty Miller's Photographs

There’s something magical about looking back in time through a photograph, a waft of nostalgia overcomes every moment, both the significant and insignificant. Even more enchanting, hindsight puts everything into place, reflection allows for digestion, and history is told through a perspective.

It’s this type of reminiscing that makes iconic surfer, philosopher, and journalist Rusty Miller’s new book of photographs, Turning Point: Surf Portraits & Stories from Bells to Byron 1970-1971, so magnetic. The portraits -- or rather candid portrayals of “behind" the scenes -- Miller snapped while hanging out with fellow surfing legends (but also surfers forgotten), allows for a rare frame of reference into the energy and personalities that occurred out of the water. In fact, the only photograph that includes the act of surfing is the cover.

We sat by the East River in Brooklyn and listened to Miller, the 1965 United States Surfing Champion, as he told stories of his experiences captured in the book, his appreciation of New York surfing, and his philosophies:

On his relationship with the subjects in the photos...

"There was a real feeling of comfort. I was related to the people, they trusted me and it wasn’t posed. The other unique thing about the book is that most books about surfing have surfing in them, the only surfing photo in this one is actually on the cover. There’s a surfer in the background. They were all portraits of people in the context of where we were, mostly at the beaches but not always at the beaches, portraits of surfers rather than people riding waves. Most of them were wave riders but some of them weren’t."

[Good Ol' Days at Lennox Head]

[Rolf Aurness: Winning Interview]

"The cover photograph is very symbolic because it’s on side of the bluff of Lennox Head, a really good surf spot. It was a time when we had a particular kind of board. The boards had gone through the shortboard revolution. Then there was the competition in 1970 at Bell’s beach where all the Australians had really short boards, the V-bottoms, and they were really fantastic boards. But there wasn’t any surf at Bell’s so we moved to a place called Johanna. It was a pretty good size and a gnarly break. The shortboards didn’t perform as well as they could have, and the board the winner, Rolf Aurness, was riding a 7-foot board. Rolf had the right combination at the right time and he just caught the waves very smoothly and connected all his lines. Two years before that it was in Puerto Rico in 1968 and Fred Hemmings won. He caught the largest waves and rode the longest distance -- and that was sort of the last year for that style, though he did it beautifully."

['Bikini Girl' Valerie Tredrea]

"The other unique part of the book is that it includes women in it who were the girlfriends or wives of the surfers. They had a big part in a lot of that lifestyle that we executed in Australia in the early ‘70s. They were key figures, but were never really recognized before, and their stories are just fantastic because they were actually quite significant. One was involved in setting up Tracks Magazine, now Australia’s most popular and oldest surfing magazine. And one lady was very significant in our trip to Bali, which we have our famous section in 'Morning of the Earth' when we were the first people to surf Uluwatau on film, and I doubt anybody surfed there before us. And she was the one who set up the trip. The boys always got all the credit."

[Reno Kissing Joanne]

"Well it’s sort of romantic, the photo of Reno kissing Joanne, and actually what we figured out is that she might be mad at him. And then there’s Dale Dobson in the background, who’s a Californian, a really fantastic surfer. He’s a trick rider, he’s one of the first guys to do 360’s, or helicopters, as we called them. And there’s another guy there that we haven’t identified, I think he’s Hawaiian. He’s got the t-shirt on that says 'World Championships' -- a sort of a mystery character."

[Peter and Victor Drouyn, Phyllis O'Donell]

"The woman in there is Phyllis O’Donnell, she had won the Manly Competition in 1964. She’s about thirty in that photo; she’s about 80-something now. She’s a world champion surfer. And then of course there's Peter Drouyn, and that's his father in front."

About the time period...

"Then there was the World Competition in 1970 and that was a time when the world was going through a questioning time, and obviously Vietnam was happening. Wayne Lynch was being  drafted and in the pictures he was actually running from the draft at that time. There’s a picture I labeled as 'pensive' but it’s probably more paranoid than pensive, because they were looking for him."

[Donald Paarman, Wayne Lynch, Julian Knox at Johanna]

"When I grew up in the '50s on the beach in California, the guys that I were influenced by were progressive and free thinkers. Surfers, traditionally, are very conscious of the environment because that’s where they spend their time, it was organic in that sense. But it sort of started in the beatnik era, where we started questioning what the condenses of society were. We also got into health foods, organic, growing your own foods, compost toilets, solar energy -- a lot of these alternative lifestyles I grew up with in California. Timothy Leary, the Harvard professor who discovered LSD, said something along the lines of, 'Surfers were at the tip of the spaceship.' I always liked that description. What we’re talking about, basically, is a resurgence of an Age of Reason and an Age of Enlightenment, which came in different forms, starting from the 16th century, throughout the eras."

[David 'Baddy' Treloar]

[Miki Dora and Russell Hughes, Byron Bay]

"Not every surfer is a groovy, free-thinking, progressive person, but I think there is something conducive to that style of thinking, which comes through riding waves. Because you are physically connected to the earth. I think it’s in Gerry Lopez’s book where he says that the sun heats the air, and the air heats up and causes the winds, the winds blow across the water, and then waves are formed. Swells come along and we ride them, and it’s actually a breath of the planet. It’s the pulse of the planet. Going out surfing is getting you back to basics, and I think that’s what so attractive about surfing. The wave goes beyond that, beyond doing your dance on the wave. You should look at your wave as your companion, that’s getting into real philosophical form, going out there and thinking ‘this is my companion’ -- there’s an organic connection."

[Tommy Taylor, Sade Keys, Nyarie Abbey]

On New York...

"I’m lucky to come to one of the biggest cities in the world and feel at home because of surfers. All those buildings over there, there’s probably one surfer in each of those buildings. Maybe they want on holiday to Hawaii and caught a wave, but there are surfers everywhere in New York. There’s a lot of surf on the east coast, I used to come here in the 60’s and it was interesting, but of course now it’s all expanded."

On his process...

"It was a long laborious project, sifting through the negatives. A lot of it was junk. But it’s keeping your eyes open to what it could be. There was a discovery aspect as I was going through these black and white negs, because you couldn’t see it until -- bang! -- there’s Wayne Lynch."

"My wife and I publish a guide every year, called Rusty’s Byron Guide, but creating a book is much different. We had photo exhibition for a couple of years and we had little captions, and then the captions became the stories in the book. Then we went out and got stories from Wayne Lynch and Nat Young, we got people to write to the pictures. So it became this big whirlwind of people I communicated with in the past. Now it’s just continuing, we’re going to do a second one. This one will be Hawaii, from 1967 to 1970, and some in France and some in Bali. "

All photos courtesy of Rusty Miller's Turning Point: Surf Portraits & Stories from Bells to Byron 1970-1971. See more about Rusty Miller here

Pick up a copy of Miller's book at both Pilgrim Surf + Supply locations (Brooklyn and Amagansett)

[The Stoke] 

[Garth Murphy]

[Big south swell rolling by, Lennox Headland]