In yet another reminder of just how cruel technological progress can be, SURFING Magazine announced last week that it was closing its doors. The U.S. based publication was a cultural mainstay for 53 years, playing the lead role in altering surfing's global balance of power during the sport's initial boom years of the 1980s. It went on to consistently break new ground ever since.
Tributes flooded social media feeds as fans, former pros and employees, old and new, recounted their most sacred memories when cracking open a new issue. "SURFING is survived by hundreds of editors, writers, photographers, and artists, thousands of fans and the millions of people it touched during its half-century run," wrote former editor Taylor Paul on his Instagram.
SURFING was lucky to survive its early days. It was launched in 1965, five full years after Surfer magazine had claimed a dominant position in the space. By the early '70s Surfer's legendary cast of staff photographers like Jeff Divine, Art Brewer and Warren Bolster had a tight working grip on Hawaii's biggest icons like Gerry Lopez, Barry Kanaiaupuni, Larry Bertlemann and Buttons Kaluhiokalani. They were the undisputed rulers of the surfing universe, and Surfer was considered the "bible" of the sport.
None of this bode well for SURFING. "When I got there in October of 1975 we were so far behind Surfer they couldn't even see us in the rear view mirror," said Dave Gilovich, who rose to the editor's chair in the early '80s. "We had all kinds of meetings to figure out what we could do to catch up. They completely owned us on the whole Gerry and Barry scene. Dan Merkel was our guy over there in Hawaii, but he didn't have the same rapport. So our only real option was to turn to the next generation. We decided we were going to identify the next crew of guys coming along, attach ourselves, and grow with them."
Those guys, it turned out, were a brash crew of Australians and South Africans invading the North Shore of Oahu that winter. Rabbit Bartholomew, Mark Richards, Shaun and Michael Tomson, Ian Cairns, Peter Townend and Mark Warren made a dramatic show of things during the winter of 1975/76.
"Merkel was working on a movie with Bill Delaney that year," recalled Gilovich. "He was shooting this incredible water footage of Rabbit and Shawn and all those guys at 400 frames per second. It was our first major coup because we had the exclusive behind-the-scenes story about the making of Free Ride."
Free Ride quickly became one of the most influential surf movies of all time, and it has remained one. The gorgeous slow-motion footage from Off-The-Wall and Honolua Bay showcased a fresh brand of wave riding that was more aggressive and radical.
But truth be told, U.S. mainland audiences were just as impressed by the footage of Bartholomew tearing up sloppy two-foot surf in Australia. That a filmmaker would actually highlight a surfer ripping in rather junky backyard surf was a huge departure, but it wasn't lost on Californians who were inspired by Rabbit's tracks.
SURFING's staff dove deep into the lives of the Free Ride crew, who were all articulating big dreams about a professional World Tour. "It wasn't advocacy journalism or anything," says Gilovich. "We were just reporting on what these guys were doing, and pro surfing was it, so we decided right at that moment that we were all in. We were backing it."
Given California's regressive landscape this move wasn't without controversy. Through much of the mid-'70s, Lunada Bay-style localism was rampant all over the state. In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, the misery index was at an all-time high in the U.S...Disco, oil shocks, rampant stagflation and a crazy hostage crisis were all having a negative impact on the American psyche. Locals everywhere had gone decidedly underground into Mad Max-like tribes. Competition of any kind was frowned upon. Black wetsuits and Lopez-inspired spears were required wares. Even expressing the slightest doubt that there might be somebody who surfs better than Gerry Lopez was worthy of a beat down and puka-shell whipping.
But when Free Ride made its way down the California coast, playing in vet halls, high school auditoriums and a few crumbling theaters, it immediately opened up a few young hearts and minds. Generation X was coming of age, and they didn't exactly agree with the reigning orthodoxy. By the time the Free Ride stars arrived on the U.S. mainland in person, they had no problem finding young disciples, especially at SURFING Magazine's office.
California's black curtain was pierced in places like Newport and San Clemente first, turning throwback centers into forward leaning engines of surfing progress. Boards started getting airbrushed. Wetsuits got brighter. Stubby swallow-tailed twin fins came along, followed by beefy, bump-squash thrusters. Newport's 56th Street, Dana Point's Salt Creek, and San Clemente's Trestles were invaded by outsiders trying to tap into the new energy, and ever so slowly a few more towns, usually one break at a time, were transformed. Santa Barbara stepped into the light, as well as parts of Santa Cruz and a handful of spots in San Diego, South Bay Los Angeles and Malibu.
"It was a perfect storm," recalled Bill Sharp, who joined the SURFING staff in 1983. "There was this fusion of punk, ska, new wave, and all these radical new surfboard designs coming along so fast. MTV and cable television, it was all changing. And back at the mag, we were all for it. We were banging the drum pretty hard, neon colors and all."
This new movement in America found its spiritual leader in Tom Curren, who set the whole thing ablaze.
Curren was the perfect American hero for the time: a blend of old-school fluidity and new-wave aggression. His silky style and hardcore family roots (his dad Pat Curren was a Waimea Bay pioneer) appeased even the most resistant purists. And when a cocky Australian rival named Mark Occhilupo arrived on the scene, it seemed as if central casting at SURFING magazine picked the perfect nemesis. The American hero had a battle on his hands, and the energy of that movement was irresistible. By the early '80s surf contests like the Op Pro were looking more like rock concerts. SURFING was dedicating large chunks of editorial space to coverage.
"Curren made the whole movement viable," said Peter Townend. "We couldn't pick a better talent to rally around." The Santa Barbara star fit perfectly into Townend's master plan of growing the sport. In 1980 Townend and Ian Cairns moved to California to push the dream forward. They took the helm of the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA), got one look at Curren, and almost immediately pegged him as America's great hope. By 1983, Cairns and Townend had successfully wrangled control of the fledgling World Tour with the launch of the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP). The sport's global headquarters moved from Hawaii to Huntington Beach, just up the road from the magazines.
The Curren wave transformed the entire U.S. surf scene. New apparel brands were being launched at a rapid speed and surf retailers were expanding. SURFING rode the Curren wave to new heights. And by the mid-'80s they had not only closed the gap on Surfer, they were smashing them in revenue, page count, and energy. Staying squarely focused on "what's next" proved to be the right recipe in an era of rapid change.
"Let's just say those were indulgent times," Sharp laughs. "By the mid-‘80s we were making ridiculous amounts of money and dreaming up new ways to spend it. I remember Aaron Chang came and pitched us on these Vanity Fair-style advertorial spreads to attract new brands. It involved model searches and the whole thing. Pretty soon we were dragging little Christian Fletcher out into the middle of the desert with Buzzy Kerbox, David Lee Roth, and a bunch of bikini models...We had camels and everything."
SURFING also set itself apart aesthetically, with a lighter, brighter, more sophisticated appearance that popped on newsstands. That was the direct result of their famed photo editor, Larry "Flame" Moore, an absolute obsessive compulsive on everything, including the finer details of cameras, film, photography, the entire four-color printing process, keeping sand out of his car, and keeping a tight grip on the talent he nurtured.
"He was practically a chemist," says Pete Taras, whose tenure at SURFING started as a photo-department intern in 1997. "Larry wasn't just searching for a feeling with a photo, it had to be 100% technically sound: Super sharp, well lit, with the best reproduction qualities, and the best color correction. He knew the limitations better than anyone."
Moore's number one rule was the front-lit photo. He ran them almost exclusively during the late '80s and '90s because of how much better they looked on the printed page. "We wanted more of a vibrant Sports Illustrated look," said Gilovich. "Back-lit photos looked good on the light table, but never transferred properly to the printed page." Moore's lighter and brighter ethos fueled SURFING's more youthful look, garnering them legions of young fans.
"He was without a doubt the guy who's most responsible for my generation of American surf stars," said former CT surfer Pat O'Connell. "He turned Salt Creek into his own photo studio. Anytime the sun was out, every pro within a 50-mile radius would show up. It was like being a ball boy for the Lakers growing up there. It was all right there, totally obtainable."
Moore was famous for being possessive with his photo subjects like O'Connell. "He liked to claim athletes as his own, keeping them away from competitor's cameras. He taught guys like me, Taylor Knox and Rob Machado how to work with photographers and the media, which is a whole other important side of the business when you're a pro."
Moore armed his global army of contributors with his knowledge. "He made everyone on his team better," said Sharp. "He didn't horde any of his technical expertise like some guys did. He gave it out freely, mentoring anyone who showed an interest." In the '80s and '90s those were guys like Aaron Chang, Jeff Hornbaker and Don King.
By the 2000s there were dozens of new faces. "Pete Taras, Pat Stacy, Chris Van Lennep, Russ Hoover, Russ Hennings, Jeremiah Klein…his reach goes far and wide," says Evan Slater, SURFING's former editor. "That includes a lot of his competitors, too, because guys moved around over time."
When Moore got sick, finding his replacement was an impossible task. "I'll never forget the lunch meeting we had," said photographer Steve Sherman, to whom Moore passed the baton. "We had different taste, and we'd even battled a bit back when I was with Transworld, so I wanted to be sure he was comfortable. I told him I had to have his total blessing. He was really sick, so I'll never forget this. He grabbed my hand, looked me in the eyes and said, "Steve, you already do."
During the 2000s, Slater and Sherman eased Moore into a new look, proving that printing backlit photos and even some artsy black and white shots was finally doable with advances in color correction and digital photography. Surfer, meanwhile, had enough of Flame's former disciples in the building to update their look as well. Soon both magazines were starting to look and feel similar, but their historic rivalry continued. Surfer would still dive into its archives with chin-scratching perspective pieces. SURFING, meanwhile, prided itself on never looking back. "SURFING is the verb," says Slater. "It was always about the act, and what's coming next. We were always looking for the latest punks."
Surfing kept breaking new ground, too. The Cortes Bank strike was a massive success. As was their Google Earth Challenge, which resulted in one of the best discoveries in surf history in West Africa.
"I was raised at SURFING," former editor Travis Ferre posted on his Instagram last week. "I learned to be both a pro and a punk there. I have stories to tell when I am around campfires because of SURFING. I also still maintain a deep hatred for Surfer magazine that only those who've slugged Tecate together around a computer screen at 2 a.m. trying to just 'send it' have."
"I'm not going to lie, this sucks," said Taras. "It feels like a death in the family."
Taras is far from alone. But editor Taylor Paul made a solid attempt at identifying the brighter side in his touching Instagram tribute. "Honestly though, SURFING was young at her core -- she probably wouldn't have wanted to be so old anyway."