Volume 7 • Number 3 • November, 2014
Surfing the Southwest
Surfing the Southwest
by Huntington Witherill
Have you ever stopped to ponder just how similar the art of landscape photography is to the sport of surfing? (I didn’t think so.) Undoubtedly, the art of photography is far more often compared to music. Maybe this is because there are so many photographers who received musical training at some point in their lives. Yet, if you think about it, music can’t really hold a candle to the sport of kings when it comes to the sheer number of fair comparisons that could be made.
Discounting the fact that there are likely far fewer photographers who have experienced the exhilaration of an 8-10 ft. right-hand point break than those who have played a musical instrument, the analogies between the art of landscape photography and the sport of surfing continue to roll-in... in epic sets, dude!
Now, before I get too far afield here, a bit of a disclaimer. I do not consider myself to be a surfer. Yes, I did spend several years, as a teenager, surfing on a fairly regular basis. I grew up in Southern California where surfing was considered to be, more or less, a fait accompli. However, that was fifty years ago and, truth be told, as a surfer I maintained far more enthusiasm, than aptitude. So, calling myself a surfer would be downright misleading. (Not unlike many of those gremmies who pull out a camera a couple of times each year and then call themselves photographers.)
Anyway, if you’ve never surfed before – and of course here I’m referring to the act of riding an ocean wave while standing upright, balancing on a length of board (i.e. a surfboard) as opposed to perusing the internet, or searching for something to watch on television – you may well have some trouble making these connections. Nevertheless, see if the following makes any sense…
A typical day of surfing begins with a decision about where one is actually going to go surfing. (In this case, I headed out to the American Southwest, arguably the Banzai Pipeline of landscape photography.) So many awesome rides have been gathered at Hawaii’s Banzai Pipeline just as so many great photographs have been made of scenes in the American Southwest. Yet (and here’s the crux of what may at first seem a somewhat dubious analogy) going to the Banzai Pipeline with any expectation that an epic wave riding experience will follow (after all, Pipeline is rightfully considered to be the penultimate surf spot) is no different than going out to the American Southwest with the expectation that you’ll pass by a quaint little New Mexican village just as the moon is rising out of the east over a band of lenticular clouds. It’s just not likely to happen!
Chances are far more likely that when you finally do get to the Pipeline, the surf will either be completely blown-out that particular day, or flat and calm as in… you really should have been here… last week! Or even more likely, the conditions will be (as they so often are with both landscape photography and surfing) just plain marginal. And in that more likely event – and because you maintain such a high degree of passion for what it is that you’re doing – and have gone to such great lengths to get there in the first place – you’ll paddle out into the line-up and with great patience, will sit and wait for conditions to hopefully change while continuing to catch the best of as many marginal waves as you possibly can. Not unlike a typical day of landscape photography.
Now of course, just as it is with photography, a bad day of surfing will always beat a good day of just about anything else (by a country mile!). And on those days when the surf is closing out, you’ll continue to have a great time despite the fact that you won’t come away with a totally radical tube ride to brag about.
Such has been the case with my most recent trip to the Southwest. This was (as best I can recall) my thirty-second trip to the American Southwest for purposes of photography. And, like so many past trips for the purpose, the photography conditions were predominately marginal (i.e. lots of bald skies together with an overabundance of wind). You see… there’s another one. Both photographers and surfers absolutely hate the wind. (As my friend Charlie Morrell used to say: The wind doesn’t blow… it sucks!)
Now don’t get me wrong. The trip itself was, in the aggregate, a qualified success. And I am ever thankful to have been blessed with yet another opportunity to experience the American Southwest. Being able to spend time with a camera in any southwestern desert is, for me, an exercise that I shall never grow tired of. And of course, the conditions were not exclusively marginal for the entirety of the trip. During the six-week journey there were perhaps three or four days in which Mother Nature put on rather spectacular displays of what I like to refer to as: divinely orchestrated sky music (i.e. lots of clouds and atmospheric conditions to enhance the overall lighting conditions, together with maybe just a little bit of wind). Suffice it to say, there were just enough of those tantalizing light displays to keep the passion going.
In very much the same way as landscape photographers so often do, dedicated surfers continue to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Grail of their pursuit (in this case, the Pipeline) because they know that, eventually, they’ll get there and the surf conditions will be truly spectacular. And, when that happens, if they are somehow able to summon an accumulation of acquired skills and a lifetime of experience – together with the ability to set aside whatever the distraction du jour might be on that particular day – they know that they’ll have at least an outside chance of coming away with… the ride of a lifetime!
I don't personally feel that I came away with what could rightfully be considered a radical tube ride, this time. But that outside chance that it could happen is precisely what keeps passionate photographers (and surfers) continually returning to the same spots for just one more chance to achieve that seemingly elusive, yet decisively epic once-in-a-lifetime ride. Kowabunga... dude!