Brian Bielmann

Brian Bielmann

BRIAN BIELMANN
INTERVIEW by DIBI FLETCHER
PHOTO of NATHAN FLETCHER by BRIAN BIELMANN

I’ve been extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to work with the greatest surfers, and cameramen, who spend their lives on the beaches, in boats, on jet skis and swimming in the impact zone, to capture the images that allow us mere mortals to experience for a brief moment the awe-inspiring exhilaration that the surfers and cameramen spend their lives perfecting. It is an honor and a pleasure to share a few moments of my conversation with my friend, Brian, a generous and gifted photographer. –DIBI FLETCHER

I’m really stoked to have a conversation with you about decades behind the camera. I think it’s interesting to talk about your career because we’re in the era of a 15-year-old taking pictures of his belly button on Instagram and having 100,000 followers or you have people’s pets given names and a voice and getting a million likes.
Yes. I know exactly what you’re saying. It’s such a changing time. There are fun things about the way things are going, but there are a lot of frustrating things for an older photographer. I’m sure that when we came along and had cameras that had 5.6, there were older photographers going, “Oh, man, we had to shoot at F/11 at 1/60th of a second. These guys got it so easy.” It’s the same way that we’re going. “Oh, everything is auto this and auto that. It’s on the internet in 15 seconds.” It’s crazy. It’s hard to have that much energy to keep up with everybody the way that it’s done now.

When did you first get interested in photography?
Well, I moved to Hawaii in 1975 from the East Coast. I surfed for three years and worked odd jobs and, at the age of 21, I realized, “What am I going to do for a living? I have to do something. What is going to be my career?” I was super frustrated for a month and then, all of a sudden, one day, I was like, “Hey, I’m going to be a surf photographer.” The funny thing is I told everybody for a year that I was going to be a surf photographer, but I didn’t buy a camera for a year, but I was okay, because inside my head I knew what I was going to do. For some reason, I didn’t have to start right away, but I knew that I was going to be a surf photographer.

You were getting used to wearing the idea first.
Yeah. It’s so funny looking back on it now. People were like, “Oh yeah, sure you’re going to be a surf photographer.” I ended up getting a bunch of equipment, but I still couldn’t make myself stop surfing. One day I got in a collision with the reef, head first. I got thrown over the lip head first at Rocky Point and went to the doctor here at Kahuku and he stitched me up and left the corral inside. It got super massively infected and I came super close to dying. I ended up in the hospital and they had to drain all this junk out of my head. It was one of those things where the doctors had all these different interns coming in to look at me because it was such a bad infection. Luckily, the infection had not gone to my brain and I made it out alive. Then I had a month to stay out of the water and that’s when I said, “Okay. I think it’s time I start grabbing that surf equipment and start trying to see if I can actually do this.” Even then, it took me a long time to get my act together, because I still kept surfing, but I was shooting more. I think the first time I got published was with Surfing magazine in 1979. They ran a sequence of Waimea shore break. It was three double-page spreads in a row of one wave breaking. That’s when I realized, “I really have to push this.” That was the beginning of everything right then.

Did you apprentice with other people as well?
Well, I moved to Los Angeles, in 1980, really close to the beginning of my career. I started studying with photographers who shot everything under the sun, like fashion, products, cars, just everything, to learn. I would live in Los Angeles for six months of the year and then live in Hawaii six months of the year. I did that from ’80 to ’90. It was a really great experience and it opened my eyes to all different types of photography. I think in the long term it made me a better photographer at surfing, for me to be able to see other aspects of photography.

Well, I think you were on that shoot with Annie Leibovitz when they shot Christian and Malcolm McLaren.
I was. I got Jim Russi the job too. Our whole job was carrying a generator down the side of a cliff.

[Laughs] That’s an apprentice job, right?
Yeah. Then I realized what it was really like because it was eight hours of doing make-up and literally half an hour of shooting.

That was Annie’s style because she did all the body-painted stuff. That was her genre.
Yes. That was the coolest shot.

So it was valuable seeing all this go on?
Absolutely. You know what else is funny that was also valuable? I’ve worked with photographers, her included, and I’m sure she was having an off day, but she was really mean to one of the assistants who was my friend. He would say something and she would just snap back at him. I’ve had some other photographers that were kind of mean like that and it made me realize I never wanted to be that guy. I never have been that guy. I’ve always been really nice to the people working for me and I’ve never had this huge ego. Again, she may be very nice. I’ve read enough about her that what I saw seemed to be sort of a normal, common thing with her. She wasn’t super duper sweet, but I think deep down she has a good heart. I talked to one guy that assisted her for five years and he said she was really rough on the outside but, on the inside, she was really nice. That was a learning experience that you don’t have to be an asshole to people. I mean you can, but you don’t have to. All that aside, Annie is probably the greatest portrait photographer of our generation.

Well, you get it from wherever it comes and, hopefully, you learn from it. Who knows who is going to be the bearer of these gifts of your growth and development on life’s road. As long as you get it, you know you got something of great value, right?
Exactly.

So we talked about how you started your surfing photography career. When you got those three spreads, were you able to sustain yourself through just surf photography or did you do studio work as well to help put food on the table?
When I first started taking surf photos, I was also working construction because there was no way in the world I could make a living at surfing photography. I remember getting a quarter page photo and I got $25 and I remember thinking, “Gosh. If I could just get a quarter page every issue, I’d be stoked.” It was $25, but that was back when I paid $50 a month for rent and mowed the lawn, you know? That was my rent. When you look at how much money you made back then it was a lot different compared to what you pay now to live here… It still wasn’t enough to keep things going, so I did work construction. That’s when I decided to move to Los Angeles to learn more about it. Then all I did was be a photographer. I didn’t make my living off surfing. It was just everything like studio work and all of that kind of stuff. I worked for free for a long time to learn. I literally would walk around with whatever money I had in my pocket at that time. I had no bank account. No nothing. Working for free so much, it seemed like every time I would get $50 in my pocket, my car would break down. For the longest time, every little bit of money I made, my car would break down and it would cost me the exact same amount of money I’d just made. It was the weirdest thing. I’m like, “Yeah. I made $75.” Boom. Car breaks down. “Oh, that’s going to cost you $75.” I couldn’t believe it. With surf photography, it was a long time before I could make a living off of that.

There’s value in that though. It sounds kind of old and tired, but you look at people and they don’t have much value in a job. They expect a lot of money for very little effort.
I think with digital, there is no having to learn about using a camera. It’s all auto and, because of that, most of the guys that are on top now have only been doing it for a few years, so they missed out on all the years of struggling. In surfing now, the turnaround is quick as far as who is on top. I look back at all those years of struggling and I think I really appreciated it when I finally made it. I pounded nails and dug ditches and assisted for free for years. I probably sound like an old guy and I guess that’s the way it is now. It just doesn’t take as long to make it nowadays, but how long is a career now? Will this new group of photographers burn out a lot faster? Who knows? I’m not saying that the new photographers are not hard workers. They are. It’s just that it took us years to master the camera and they have bypassed that and are really good really fast so they kind of missed out on the phase in between the start and the peak of their careers.

Being a water photographer can be particularly grueling. How did you handle that aspect of being a surf photographer?
Well, I started out making my own housing. I remember the first time that I took it out, a big set came in and I dove under and made it just under the lip. I was holding the camera and the lip came down right between my handle and my housing and when I came up, I only had the handle in my hand. I remember freaking out. I looked over and I would see it and then a wave would hit before I could get to it. That happened three times and I finally got the damn thing. That was because it was plexiglass glued together. Now you just plop down $3,000 and you get the absolute deluxe housing that does everything for you. Back then we had 36 photos with film. We had to focus ourselves. It was tough. I swam lots of days and came back out of the water with not much at all. The other thing that was good about it was that half the time you’d swim out and there’d be one to five guys in the water and that was it. Now as you know there’s 40 guys out every time you try to go shoot Pipeline. We had a lot more room to move, but we had a lot more restrictions with the amount of film we had to shoot. I remember guys strapping two water housings to themselves, just so they could get out there and have 72 shots versus 36 shots. We went through hell. Now you swim out there with 2,000 photos. You’ve got motor drives that shoot 12 frames per second and the autofocus is crazy. The only thing that hasn’t made it easier is that nowadays the kids are gnarlier. They’re swimming in with their fisheye housing and shooting bigger heavier waves. That’s definitely progressed and I can’t take anything away from them for that because they’re doing way heavier stuff than we did. We did have all the technical stuff that was much harder with the amount of film we had and having to focus and everything else.

What’s the most challenging thing for you personally to stay in the surf scene with so few magazines now available as outlets?
Well, what’s happened now is that the Internet has become the new magazine. With the magazines, it’s a real treat to have something in them. We’re just watching them go away. In the heyday, every country had three to four surf magazines and every magazine had five to eight to ten photographers working for them. My personal experience was that I was the top guy at Transworld Surf getting so many pictures published then, boom, Transworld goes down. I went from one of the most successful surf photographers to now I can’t even find a magazine to work for. That was like going through a divorce with the feeling you go through from that. It was like, “Oh, man, what am I going to do?” I had the bitterness feeling and all that stuff. After a year, you kind of realize that you either have to evolve into the way it’s working now or you die. I’ve watched people do both things. Personally, I feel like I have been around for long enough that I still had people calling me. Even though I didn’t get a job with either of the magazines, I ended up shooting for all the magazines. Everybody knows me, and I ended up getting articles in a lot of different magazines. A few months ago, I had articles in five different magazines at one time, Geo Magazine, Red Bulletin, Surfers Journal, Hana Hou (airlines)… I get my stuff out to a lot of people and I stay connected. I’ve been working with Surfline and that’s a great way to keep people seeing your work. I still do stuff with Surfing and Surfer, but it’s pretty hard to get shots in those these days. I really like Surfline and they seem to be the leader now on the Internet. If you think about it, while you wait for the mags to come out once a month and you might get a spread, or not, it’s not that bad. The one thing that’s a bummer is it’s just not that much fun seeing your photo up for a day and a half, like a quarter page photo on your computer screen, compared to seeing it in a magazine and it being there for an entire month.

It’s much better to be in a magazine where people can pick it up and enjoy it. That’s the difference between reading a book and having a Kindle.
Yeah. Exactly. Competing now, there used to be ten photographers that could afford the equipment, and had the best stuff, and then the trend became to pull back on the beach a mile and focus on the tiny little surfer. Now you’re competing against hundreds and hundreds of surf photographers to get that $50 on the website. It’s crazy. It doesn’t matter if you’re Tom Servais or Brian Bielmann or you’ve been around forever or some brand new kid got the shot. Now you’re competing against a heck of a lot more people. There are a lot more places now to sell them, minus the magazines, but it’s just not as fun. Here’s one of the other things that Tom and I were talking about. I said, “With so many incredible photos out there, why do we feel like we don’t have any iconic images anymore?” We came to the conclusion that it used to be only magazines and the magazines would only come out once a month and you’d look through them and they were the surfing bibles. There would be an incredible photo in there and you would look at it for a whole month and everybody talked about it because that was the only place to see surf photos. Then next month a new magazine would come out, so you had these photos that everyone knew about and everybody talked about and they were the most incredible photos and they stood the test of time. Now, no matter how great the photos are, they last for a day. It’s like the Andy Warhol thing. You get 15 minutes of fame and then it’s gone. There is so much. It’s overkill. It takes a photo like my photo of Nathan Fletcher to stand out anymore. If you don’t have a photo that looks like that, forget it.

That wave of Nathan’s was on eight covers around the world in the same month, but it reverberated far wider than just surf and it will go down in history as one of the greatest surf photos of all time. Did that change your career in any way?
Yeah. For me, it was really good because there were 50 guys shooting from boats, and I’m not claiming I did anything other than being on the right boat. There were 50 guys shooting and everybody got great shots. I was shooting for Transworld at the time, and all the other photographers were sending their shots out and getting covers all over the world. I didn’t do anything with mine because I had to save it for Transworld, but I was okay because I saw all the other shots and I knew my shot was going to have a life of its own and it has. Now every time you see that wave, it’s my version. All the other versions have disappeared and mine is the one you constantly see. I knew, at that time, just relax, it’s going to be okay, even though everyone else was sending their stuff out everywhere. I knew it was that classic shot I had been waiting my whole career for. So I’m still on the cutting edge because I still got the best version of that shot. I hope that does not sound egotistical because God put me in the right place at the right time, and, luckily, I shot it the right way. I moved back and didn’t shoot it too tight. I knew it was one of the greatest surf shots of all time. It had much more to do with Nathan than with me.

He tells the story of that photo and how it changed his life. I think it makes the photo that much more interesting because a photo is a story all on its own and a photo has a life of its own, but there are only a few photos that stand out through the test of time. I think you’re right. I think it changed his life, so I was curious to see how it changed yours, or if it did, knowing that you have it now as your career photo.
Yeah. It’s the kind of thing where I might not ever get a better shot than that. I might get other shots that are more creative, but I don’t think I’ll ever get a better action shot than that. I’m just talking from my experience, but I look at big wave surfing, tow-in and everything, and it’s kind of like, that wave came along and set the bar so much higher than it had ever been before, that now when something comes along and happens, people are like, “Oh yeah, no big deal.” It’s almost hurt big wave riding. It’s almost put it in a stagnant period now, where nobody cares about anything unless it surpasses that wave, and will it ever surpass that wave? I don’t know. I just don’t see how it’s possible. It could.

You made it. You made it as a surf photographer! Yeah!
Yeah. I think my shot will stand next to Greg Noll standing with his longboard, which is my favorite surf photo of all time. I think it’s in that category. I have a photo of that caliber. No matter what, I’ll never ever be forgotten because of that shot.

Okay. Let me ask you this. What aspect of surf photography is the most personally challenging for you?
As I get older, it’s the water shots. I sit on the beach on days when it’s just too heavy for me. I’m 57 years old, so I’m not going to swim out to Backdoor when it’s 8-10 foot, and that’s what the limit is now. That’s what the guys are doing. It’s kind of hard sometimes. knowing that, physically, emotionally and mentally, I’m not there anymore. I’m not at the peak as far as strength and conditioning. I figure out other ways of being creative and versatile, so I’m still valuable. I realize that I can’t compete with my nephew who is 25. I can’t compete with Zak Noyle. These guys are heavy. That’s been the hardest part, knowing that these guys are better in the water than I am because I’m just past my prime shooting from the water. I still shoot big Pipeline when it’s the right conditions. I’m just really picky now.

But you know what? You’ll be successful at this because you recognize that changing of what’s going on. A lot of guys don’t. They don’t see that in themselves. They still want to be that guy or compete with that guy, even though their abilities physically have changed. You look at life differently. At least you’re recognizing this, so that gives you a real step forward in the process.
Thanks. My whole underwater photography thing, which I started doing years ago before everyone that had a Go Pro thing was doing the same thing, was something really unique and different. At the time, I was already getting up there. I was 40 or 45 and I started doing all this underwater stuff, which is my favorite stuff in the world. That’s where I started getting the most notoriety outside of the industry. You don’t have to swim out in 8 to10-foot Backdoor. You can go out on a 4-to 6-foot day and just learn how to operate underwater. That was another smart way of getting myself to thinking outside of the box to do something different and creative.

Well, Ansel Adams went out in the world and did all that photography and then, later in life, he took all that photography he had done as a young man and reworked it in the studio as an older man. He created new images out of the images he had first done. I thought that was so interesting.
Wow. Yeah. It is.

He didn’t have to go out and take new photos. He already had them. So that’s how you turn the corner. With going on boat trips and things like that, are there certain people that are easier for you to work with as a photographer?
Yeah. There certainly is. There are times when I go out with a bunch of young kids and I’m just like, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t relate with these kids.” I start thinking that every kid is 18 and acts like he needs a babysitter. Next thing you know, I’ll go somewhere with Nathan and other people who I completely relate to and feel comfortable with and then I’ll realize, “I can do this stuff for a long time.” I can’t hang out with the little kids and go out and party with them, which I don’t want to do, but there are definitely guys I can relate to and guys that I can’t. There is one thing that’s funny, thinking of all that. I look at everything that’s happening in the surf industry right now and some companies are in big trouble and people are losing their jobs and stuff, and I think, “When I finally decide to walk away from this, will there be anyone left to say goodbye to? Is anyone even going to remember me anymore, because it’s going to be all these new people?” Think of all the new people running the ASP now. Who are they? I don’t know them and they don’t know me. They have no history with the sport. That’s one thing I didn’t count on was things changing so much that people didn’t even know me anymore, no matter what I’ve accomplished. That’s one of the things I think about.

Well, they grew it so big that outside interests became interested in it and came in and ruined it. It’s like Abercrombie and Fitch’s company, Hollister, became the biggest surf company, with no surfer in sight, no contests, no nothing… It shows that there was something lacking in the industry, if people from outside the industry could come in and take the entire imagery and not pay anybody or really be involved in surfing. It’s very interesting how it turned a corner. Everybody wanted it to get bigger, so the surfers and photographers would get paid, but once it got bigger, people are no longer interested in the actual surfing part of it. They use it like Ralph Lauren used a polo pony on his shirt.
Yeah. You’d think that all the photographers that had been there forever would be like, “Yeah, now it’s big. This is great for all of us!” All that really happened was it imploded within the surfing community and it exploded outside the industry. All these people now are following the tour and they’re the photographers that are most involved and the rest of us are not even in the picture. It’s really bizarre. A lot of them are not making any money because they are ASP photographers. ASP pays them a rate and the photographers don’t own anything. These guys walk away from their jobs, ten years later, and they don’t even own anything.

Think of the lesson of Hollister. It wasn’t about shortboard progressive surfing. It was about that Endless Summer, dreamy longboard mood. It wasn’t about progressive shortboard or aerial surfing or big wave riding. That’s a very unique sport and it’s almost like an adventure type thing, but the Midwest doesn’t understand it. They bought into the shirt that had a Woody on it or looked like a Beach Boys song. That’s what Hollister sold and that became worldwide. People from all over the world were interested in that because that’s what those people think about surfing. They think about surfing from the time of my dad’s generation.
It’s funny you say that because I look at some other photographers shooting surfing and we would never consider them some of the great surf photographers, but they have got that whole vibe where a bunch of people from Malibu and New York have all decided that they are going to start surfing and riding longboards and go on a little trip. They love the shots of someone with a longboard walking down the street and smiling over their shoulder or shooting something off the nose of the board from some weird angle in the water. That’s great. They are beautiful shots, but it’s not what I consider a surfing photographer. It’s surfing lifestyle photography, kinda hipster surfing photography, not hardcore surfing photography.

That’s the Hollister world. That’s almost like the guy on Wall Street that decided to go on a boat trip. It’s hipster surf.
That’s exactly what it is. That’s what’s happening to surf photographers like us. We understand the high performance aspect of it, but we neglected what you’re talking about.

That does not check at retail and mass market. They want a drink with an umbrella in it. They want to be on that vacation. It’s not about competition shortboard gnarly cutting edge surfing. Hollister proved that and it’s interesting. They sold lifestyle. They didn’t sell surf.
Exactly. I remember trying to get a job with a photographer representative agency and they were calling me up and courting me and then, at the last minute, they said, “We decided to hire this guy from New York.” I looked at his site and I called them back and I said, “Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but you have to tell me why you went with this guy instead of me, because if someone is looking for a serious surf photographer, they’re not going to hire him.” They said, “You know what? It’s all about the lifestyle and what he’s doing.” He’s from New York and he shoots all these people wearing wetsuits and walking to the beach.

It’s hipster surf.
How long is it going to last? Is it going to go away or is it going to be there for a while or what?
I think it’s going to be there for a while. I’ll tell you why. The average person can understand that. They do not understand dropping in at Pipeline. They can look at it and go, “Wow. That’s rad,” but they can’t even relate to it. The guy sitting by his old car at San Onofre with the BBQ and the ukulele and a couple of girls and a campfire, they can relate to that. It’s Bruce Weber surf.
Yes. There you go. That’s it. You know what? I just realized that Bruce Weber is the godfather of hipsters.

He made it accessible to the average person to have the dream. The average person doesn’t dream of big wave riding.
They want the lifestyle and they don’t want to have to die for it.

Yeah. Not only that, the lifestyle in Hawaii is just a little too rad for them. They want it more like San Onofre. You go there for the day and it’s kind of dirty but, afterwards, they can go to their expensive home at night behind the gate. Back to photography. What inspires you photographically? What is your best day?
For the perfect day, at Pipeline, I’d swim out in the evening when it’s just perfect and backlit. That’s my dream session, depending on how many people are out there. Honestly, if I could just shoot underwater photography and that would be it, I would be the happiest photographer around. I absolutely love doing that.

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