The Decades with Jeff Divine

[Photographer Jeff Divine post-shoot]

Jeff Divine’s photographs mirror the utopian vision of perfect peaks and good style that every surfer is chasing. In the '70s and '80s, before the internet, his photos gave surfers a peek of freewheeling talent as they explored the world’s untapped breaks. Today, Divine’s photos serve as artifacts of surfing's history, binding defining moments of the decades together.

“Beyond all of the technicals,” says Divine, “the hardest thing is to place yourself in a wilderness environment, at the optimum time for wind, swell, sun or lighting moods and combine that with talented surfers (herding cats is sometimes easier). Nature is your biggest challenge.” Here Divine gives us insight to the stories behind the photographs. 

[Divine, 1975, Honolulu]

“Growing up two blocks from the beach at La Jolla Shores predestined my love of the ocean. There were empty dirt lots for baseball, forts, sidewalks for flexie flyers, and neighbors driveways for skateboarding. But nothing compared to the thrill of riding rafts in the swimming areas and finally getting a surfboard in 1964 when I was 14. Initially I surfed with the neighbor kids whose waterman Dad taught us, or actually just told us to get out there. We had a paradise to grow up in. There was still a small town vibe. A mom’s whistle from a quarter mile away could be heard and interpreted as we were running with the pack. The worst one was being whistled in for dance class. At Scripps pier the pilings were covered in starfish and sea life. The adjacent sea wall and tide pools were teeming. Population growth in California has contributed to tide pools being denuded today. We became Junior Oceanographers so we could fish off the pier while many of the world famous ocean scientists would stop and chat and describe what we had caught. Thinking back it was amazing how we just mingled with them while they were involved in major experiments in the nearby deep sea canyons. As I got a bit older and really hooked on surfing we lived in a parallel world to the scientists. We understood the waves, the weather, the sand bars and configurations that made a good wave. We had names for places not on any maps. We had a language that was verbal and nonverbal. Outsiders had no idea the beautiful world we were in. We looked like hippies but really we were athletic wilderness explorers. Paddling out in ocean conditions such as strong offshore winds, on shore choppy stormy, glassy, foggy, and with up close looks at dolphins, whales and pelicans are all things hard to describe. Catching a giant wave itself was almost indescribable. (William Finnegan’s book Barbarian Days has the best descriptions of how it is.)  In the 1970s, Surfer magazine called our sport 'The Secret Thrill.'"  

[Photographer Jeff Divine, 1976]

“I was inspired by Tex Wilson, a local surfer who gathered us around one day to show us black and white prints of a swell at Windansea. I worked in a local bookstore and parlayed my cash into a Pentax with a 400mm telephoto lens. At first I wandered around and shot whatever I saw, light reflections, the tuna fleet in La Jolla cove with sun setting and an agave plant in the foreground, etc. Within days I shot a small glassy day at the Shores and a bombing day at Black’s beach. I started circulating the photos to Surfer and my first shot published was of a perfect day at Black's on New Year’s day, 1968. With a roll of Kodachrome film and 36 shots per roll, I could memorize what I had shot. It could take a week to get your processed film back. Meanwhile I’d keep visiting what I thought I’d captured. Some came out way lesser than you remembered and others would blow your mind how good they were. That would put you on a high for days. Nothing compared to dropping into a wave but the thrill of capturing 10 great shots out of 36 soon became close. As years went on, by the late ‘90s, I would return with hundreds of great shots after yacht voyages to the Mentawai Islands in Sumatra with pro surfers. Editing those images from those experiences was a rush. I was always trying to get a photo of a perfect wave with surfer. That was a baseline goal.” 

Frieda Zamba, 1981, Rocky Point, Oahu, HI. “I had always thought the channel on the lefts at Rocky Point looked doable for a water shot session on my raft. Things can look so calm from land when actually just below the surface runs a rip tide similar to those Grand Canyon river runs you see on TV. Well, I’m exaggerating a bit but not much. It was really difficult to maintain the proper distance while kicking hard against the rip, while shooting with a 135mm lens, manual focus. Four time World Champion, Floridian, Frieda Zamba went flying by as I was being pulled right into the takeoff zone. I reversed direction and went in.”

Rell Sunn, 1979, Haleiwa, Oahu, HI. “We had a sticker to drive through the military base coming from the westside at Makaha to the North Shore. It’s a beautiful drive that is restricted and all the way you are watched by sentries up on the hill. Rell was a renaissance woman, highly educated, stylish and loved by all. Going to Haleiwa to surf had a small town vibe, you knew everyone. Smiling, laughing, talking and waving to friends took up a lot of the pre-surf time. No machismo displays here.”

Buttons Kaluhiokalani, 1974, Velzyland, Oahu, HI. “The surfer on the inside was pissed off, screaming f-bombs at Buttons. Buttons had dropped in on him. A quick, funny verbal response from Buttons calmed the irate voice and in that moment, 1/500th of a second, he paddled by me and yelled out ‘Peace, bro!’ Seconds later the angry voice paddled by me smiling and laughing. We miss Buttons.”

Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, Pipeline, 1978. “The beastly wave at Pipeline can start out at the takeoff way over head with an elevator drop and four seconds later you are on the four foot shoulder. On a west swell the wave has a triangular v shape to it. Historian Matt Warshaw describes Bartholomew’s body language, ‘ … charging out of a huge tube at Pipeline, Bartholomew might casually examine the fingernails of his right hand while gliding into deep water, then buff the digits on his chest in a quick gesture of self-congratulation.’”

Hydro Tech water housing. “In 1970, you could buy a ‘How To’ booklet from Mart Toggweiler to make a plexiglass house for your camera. He was a genius engineer who helped design miniature submarines and was famous for his dive films. It took me awhile to find his house amongst dozens of large pumping oil wells in Huntington Beach. He had a frazzled look as I walked up to his garage, Skunk Works. He explained he had just had a fire. A whole wall area of the garage was scorched. I spent a lot of hours in the '80s with this housing paddling around Sunset beach and Pipeline.”

Hollister Ranch, Santa Barbara, CA, 1972. “Looking straight through the viewfinder into the harsh afternoon glare always reminded me of that certain time in boyhood when you figure out a magnifying glass can be used to roast ants or any other organic object. Out at sea looking into the glaring sun is a feeling all surfers know but is hard to capture on film, manual focusing while shooting from a Hodgeman raft.”

Dale Dahlin, 1980, Haleiwa, Oahu, HI. “Dale lived across the street from the Haleiwa beach park. She stood out to me in a time when the best women surfers were trying to start a pro circuit and she didn’t seem to want to participate. She surfed better than many. Haleiwa is a difficult wave for anyone and she had it wired. She was one of the best women surfers I had seen. Completely off the radar. Her son Kanoa is a champion longboarder waterman.”

Rory Russell, 1973, Pipeline Oahu, HI. “In the ‘70s at Pipeline there was a certain style of approach to one of the most dangerous waves in the world. Look as casual as you can by maintaining control and arching your back as in a modified bull fighter pose. This was Hawaiian style influenced by the early surfers at Waikiki, like the Achoy brothers, Buffalo Keaulana and Rabbit Kekai. Calm in the center of the storm while many others would be barely in control.”

Randy Pidd, 1972, St. Augustine’s, Hollister Ranch, Santa Barbara, CA. “The Ranch has the best waves in California. It is an area with a guarded gate and 100 acre parcels. To our disbelief the then Ranch manager Dick La Rue, a cowboy, invited myself and friends to help market the 100,000 parcels through photos in Surfer magazine. The local surfers were apoplectic. I don’t blame them. We went to the private, secret fishing hole and would put it out to the surf world. But, they had a gate with a security guard. Private property. The debate and pressure to allow public access still goes on today."

Rocky Point, 1974. “Many surfers would ride a wave and then paddle in and run 100 yards up the beach to paddle out again. This was to avoid the strong rip tides funneling around the point. Or -- as many did, they have just listened to Santana or Jimi Hendrix, smoked a fattie and are charging out to keep the amp going.”

David Nuuhiwa, Greg Person, Les Potts, 1971, Salt Creek, CA. “In certain veins of Laguna Beach surf culture the hippy, psychedelic look was embraced. Not where I was from in San Diego -- our hippy take away philosophically was that we are all one, big egos were not good. Don’t draw attention to yourself. We wore black wetsuits, clear boards, and the loudest look we had was a Mexican wedding shirt.”

Steve “Beaver” Massfeller, 1978, Honolua Bay, Maui, HI. “Here at a pristine cliffside overlook you can see one of the best waves in the world. When the swell is big the best surfers in the world come to Maui to surf giant waves at Jaws, or perfection at Honolua Bay. Many surfers pace themselves before a go out, watching where the big sets of waves break, the crowd level, the best place to paddle out or simply chat while imbibing Maui home grown. Many of the local surfers are waiters in the nearby restaurants in Lahaina.”

More info about Jeff Divine here. 

-- Interview by Chelsea Slayter