This week I met with a surfer in Cornwall to shoot some portrait photos for my project. She was one for the ladies I connected with via my Facebook post. Leading up to the day we discussed the logistics of when and where to meet, as well as what would be required, via Messenger so all communication was online. I only asked that we meet somewhere she normally surfed, that she sign a model release before we started, and confirmed that she just needed to turn up as she would normally for a surf, i.e. normal wetsuit etc. and normal board.
On the day I explained more about what I was wanting to do/show through my project and we discussed a little how women surfers are portrayed in media and advertising, and how that image does differ to our own experiences of being a female surfer, and how it differs from our own observations of what we see in the water when we’re out. It was reassuring to have confirmation that another person shares the same views and experiences of the subject, and it was also great to be able to discuss it in a fairly relaxed, and non-photography course context. Even though I was there to photograph her, our conservation was more focussed on female surfers, surfing in the UK, and generally surfing as an activity.
I took some portrait photographs of her on the beach before she went in, I also tried to get some of her actually surfing but weather and waves were not on our side so those images weren’t as successful (this is where I think in-water surf photography could come into play – as if I’d been in the water as well I could have potentially got some shots of her paddling/in the line-up etc.), and I also took some of her after the session on the beach.
I was attempting to capture her in quite a natural state. I was hoping to show her natural spirit and show the resilience and strength (both inner and physical), she has that helps her to take part in what is still a fairly male dominated sport, and to do it in cold water and often less than perfect conditions. I didn’t ask her to pose in any particular way, a couple of times I asked her to look at the camera but mostly I photographed her as she prepared to get in, and as we talked.
For the first of these sessions I am pretty pleased with how some of these images turned out. There are some that upon reflection I maybe would have done differently technically, different composition or exposure, for example this one I would have liked to have captured her more to the left of the frame.
But there are some that turned out as I hoped they would. They are quite simple in terms of set up/composition, but I think do show her in quite a real way, without being overly staged. I think they show a real surfer, in a real environment, whilst showing her natural beauty, strength, and spirit – this one, below, for example:
A prominent photographer in the area of surf photography portraits is Joni Sternbach. She creates tintype images of surfers in various locations throughout the world and has been featured by various publications such as World Photo Org[i], Huck Magazine[ii], The Guardian[iii], The New York Times[iv], and I’m sure many others, and won second place in the 2016 Taylor Wessing Portrait Photography Prize for one of her tintype images. I came across her work a few months ago during research for this course (well technically I first came across her work when I visited the 2016 Taylor Wessing exhibition in London and saw the tintype image on display but that was before I had decided on a surf/surfer photography project so I wasn’t looking at it in the same frame of mind as I am now!). I did and still do love her work, I think her images are beautiful and the technique is fascinating. However the more I think about and plan my project the more I see Sternbach’s images as quite romantic portrayals of surfers, both men and women, and in a way quite timeless. The colourless nature of the images helps the details in the images to be less of a focus, more a secondary factor of the images. Because of this looking at these images one could easily imagine that they were taken 50, 60, 100 years ag – not necessarily within the last year or two. Whilst the images are lovely to me they don’t “say” much about current surf culture or the environment of the sport.
Conversely what I am trying to do with my project is keep my images firmly in the present. I want viewers to be able to see that they were taken recently because I want to show who female surfers are now, in this day and age. I want to show that they are more varied than a cursory glance at surf photography media and advertising would have you believe. To do this I am using modern photography techniques, shooting and editing the images in colour, and also keeping in details such as wetsuit/board logos and stickers etc. I want it to be clear that the photographs and the subjects in the photographs are of the here and now.
[i] OXLEY, M. Surfland by Joni Sternbach. World Photography Organisation. Available at: https://www.worldphoto.org/blogs/14-12-16/surfland-joni-sternbach [accessed on 13Nov2017]
[ii] SAVAGE, N. 2016. Joni Sternbach’s Primordial Portraits Capture Surfing’s Lost Tribe. Huck Magazine. Available at : http://www.huckmagazine.com/art-and-culture/photography-2/joni-sternbach/ [accessed on 13Nov2017]
[iii] The Guardian. 2016. Female Surfers Photographed Using Century-old Technique - in Pictures. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/gallery/2016/sep/01/women-surfers-photography-old-technique [accessed on 13Nov2017]
[iv] CARDWELL, D. 2015. Capturing the Stillness of Surfers in Portraits. The New York Times. Available at: https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/20/finding-stillness-in-surfer-portraits/ [accessed on 13Nov2017]