In the winter of 1971, the world’s best surfers gathered on the North Shore of Oahu for an impromptu exhibition. The surf was pumping at a break called Pipeline, a thunderous, left-hand barrel that detonates on brutally sharp coral reef in a few feet of water. “It was about as good as it gets,” recalls Jeff Divine of the day’s conditions. At 21, the lanky, shaggy-haired Californian was on his first trip as a professional photographer.
All eyes were fixed on a mustachioed young Hawaiian named Gerry Lopez. Riding an elegant, lipstick-red board, Lopez drew a casual line across the face of the 12-foot wave, and then leaned into a looping barrel. On the beach, Divine quickly adjusted his hulking telephoto lens and clicked the shutter. “Gerry was considered the world’s best stylist,” Divine says. “He’d do these casual poses on the most dangerous wave in the world, at the most critical moment on the wave.” In the photograph, Lopez is poised like a matador, radiating grace under tremendous pressure; other surfers who attempted to ride Pipeline that day looked like frightened turtles by comparison. Neither the photographer nor the surfer knew it at the time, but this single capture, now on the cover of Jeff Divine: 70s Surf Photographs, would soon alter the way surfers approached Pipeline, and in turn change the sport forever.
The North Shore of Oahu was then, as it is today, a pressure cooker for surfing’s elite, where reputations are made and dismantled. The rugged seven-mile stretch of tropical coastline has an extremely high concentration of world-class surf breaks, earning it the moniker “the seven-mile miracle.” Among them is Pipeline, which remains the most revered and dangerous wave on the planet—no other break has claimed more lives. Lopez proved that a surfer could not only maintain his composure but also attain artistry while riding a wave of such consequence. As Divine says, “I was backing that up with the imagery.”
Jeff Divine grew up in the La Jolla Shores neighborhood of San Diego. He started surfing in 1964, at age 14. It was around this time he bought his first camera, a 35mm Pentax. “It was a beautiful place to have a camera,” he recalls. He and his rakish crew spent their days chasing the sun, bikinis and feathering south swells from Black’s Beach down to Windansea. His early work showed promise, and in the late ’60s he began sending his images into the Surfer magazine office up the coast in Orange County. By 1971, the magazine was impressed enough to send him on the fateful Hawaii trip with a new stable of cameras, lenses and unlimited film.
“California has great surf, but it pales in comparison to Hawaii,” he says. “Going to Hawaii in ’71 was like going to the mountaintop.” He took up residence in Oahu throughout the ’70s, sleeping on the floor of a decrepit, wind-lashed wooden house a few paces from the beach. Hendrix and Santana records blared all day as scores of bloodshot surfers filtered in and out. “That’s where it all began, in a bigger sense,” he says. “From that point forward I was involved in traveling and supplying photography to Surfer and other magazines for 50 years.”
The majority of the images featured in Divine’s book were taken in Hawaii, and the timing of his move there was serendipitous. During the 1960s, the music of The Beach Boys and the surf-a-go-go films of Frankie Avalon helped spread surfing’s lore and popularity, but also turned it into a California caricature.
As Divine came of age in San Diego, the sport was just beginning to distinguish itself from the sanitized version seen in film and television, but there was still no such thing as a professional surfer in the modern sense. The ’70s ushered in a golden age of innovation and purist dedication, what Divine refers to as “core” surfing, and if you wanted to see the core surfers pushing boundaries, you went to Hawaii.
At the time, surfboard shapers on the islands were leading a design revolution that shrunk boards from a towering 10 feet to a nimble seven feet, from 30 pounds down to less than 10. As New Yorker staff writer and memoirist William Finnegan notes in the book’s introduction, “Suddenly, people were turning twice as hard, going twice as fast, and, most transformingly, pulling into heaving barrels that had been unrideable, off-limits, the stuff of idle fantasy until yesterday.”
Divine was there to show the world. “It was mind-blowing,” he says of the quantum leaps in craft and ability. Each month a new batch of Divine’s photos appeared on the pages of Surfer magazine, which was dropped on the doorstep of surf shops from Burleigh Heads, Australia, to Honolulu to the French Basque Country. The images he captured on the North Shore, beginning in ’71 with Lopez at Pipeline, exploded conventional beliefs of what was possible on a wave.
Case in point: At a spot called Off the Wall, 100 yards south of Pipeline, Divine captured local ripper Buttons Kaluhiokalani in a relatively new maneuver called a full-rail cutback, in which the surfer climbs up the face of the wave and aggressively carves back towards the curl, spraying a rooster tail of water in the process. It’s become a defining move of modern surfing, prefiguring the powerful style of today’s surf royalty Tom Curren and Kelly Slater. “[Buttons] brought that radicalness to the North Shore; he became famous for that,” Divine says. But Kaluhiokalani’s influence was felt out of the water, as well. Skateboard pioneers Tony Alva and Jay Adams saw these maneuvers in the same magazine pages and started mimicking them on the concrete banks of Venice Beach, inspiring yet another revolution, this time in skateboarding.
Aside from conveying breakthroughs in athleticism and surfboard design, Divine’s work also registers as a significant cultural artifact. “I was documenting the era,” he says, “just following my own intuition.” His intuition led him beyond merely capturing “the man on the wave,” as he puts it, to the characters who enlivened the sport and its surrounding culture. In the Southern California images (the second-most photographed location in the book), there are moments of poignancy—such as the three unnamed surfers wandering down dusty trestles in the languorous afternoon light, or surfer Bunker Spreckels, looking worse for wear, a year before his untimely death—that recall the work of Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, an honest appraisal of on-the-beach surf lifestyle, with its hippie culture hangover, both vacuous and exhilarating. “Most of the people in the book were stretching their lifestyle as long as they could before the inevitable realities of life kicked in,” Divine says.
At the time, surfers exuded a rock-star mystique in the sense that they were still iconoclastic and unpredictable; their behavior wasn’t governed by clothing sponsors or managers, because neither existed. The best example of this is David Nuuhiwa, one of a small cadre of surf icons. “He was so revered and so unique,” Divine says. “He was a hero because of how he surfed, and how he looked on land.” By 1971, Nuuhiwa was already a shade past his prime, but in these photographs, he still oozes a kind of harried cool—whether shirtless on the Pacific Coast Highway, or after a session in Oxnard, as he consigns his surfboard to some unnamed toady, just like an aging guitarist would with his battered Stratocaster after a concert.
Most of the clothing and equipment spotted on the beach and in the lineup was hand-made and hand-painted. “A fashion statement in the ’70s was something you found on a surf trip: a Mexican wedding shirt, or a necklace from Bali,” Divine says. But flickering in the margins of these photographs, there is also what Finnegan calls the impending “landslide of commercialism.” Without a doubt, the book’s overriding marketing display is the glossy lightning-bolt logo that appears on most of the surfboards. This was the insignia of the Lightning Bolt company—founded in Oahu by Jack Shipley and Gerry Lopez in 1970—the first surfboard company with a bona fide global influence. “The result was that virtually every ripper in the mags was on a Bolt,” Finnegan writes, “which made everybody else want one.” The success of Lightning Bolt portends brands like Quiksilver and OP, with logos that became ubiquitous in decades to follow, found even in landlocked outlet malls. “By the early ’80s, the garment [industry] began to flourish,” Divine says. “It changed everything, because Middle America started buying the surfer look.”
As the end of the decade drew near, so too did Divine’s Hawaiian residency. He returned to Southern California in 1981 and became the photo editor of Surfer magazine. (He stayed with Surfer until 1998, when he became photo editor of The Surfer’s Journal.) The curtains were drawing, too, on the free-surfer lifestyle. Day-Glo wet suits, competitions and million-dollar endorsements soon entered the fray; identities were no longer associated with rebellion or individual style. “It became more about what you were wearing. That was the big push that dragged the surfers along with it.”
If the book is an indication of how quickly and drastically style can change, it’s also a barometer for the cyclical nature of trends. Over the last ten years, a class of surfers has begun to identify with the same carefree, bohemian ethos exhibited in these pages. The loiterers in the parking lot at Surfrider Beach in Malibu wear the same shabby threads and hairstyles today as their predecessors did back in 1971, when Divine photographed them.
“[Style] was more handmade, unique, found,” he says. “The surfing emanated from the spirit of the ’70s. Now, you see companies try to market or create that vibe.”
In 2016, Divine retired from his post at The Surfer’s Journal and now manages his personal archive of surf photography, which is one of the largest in the world. The upshot has been that his work is in higher demand and more valued than ever. On any given day, he’s busy licensing photos to his former editorial colleagues or arranging installations for galleries, hotels and restaurants from his home in San Clemente, California.
Although mostly retired from shooting, occasionally he drives down to Seaside Reef in San Diego County to photograph his son in the water, back where it all started. When he took his first surf trip down the Baja Peninsula in 1966, all he brought was a dollar for gas and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “My last trip was on the fanciest boat you could imagine, with a flat-screen TV in my room and five-star dinners,” he says, amused. “That was the arc of my career. But the visual aspect of the trip was always more important and meaningful than how I got there.”