JEFF DIVINE

JEFF DIVINE

INTERVIEW BY DIBI FLETCHER
INTRODUCTION BY DIBI FLETCHER
PHOTOS BY JEFF DIVINE

 

Jeff Divine has had a long and prestigious career in surf photography. By his own words he never wanted to be anything else. When you see the scope of his vision and the artistry he’s brought to what once was a very uncommon and specialized field of photography, you’re glad he made that choice. He’s captured characters, beaches and waves that helped spin the dream that’s become part of the lore of the modern day surf culture. Jeff and I sat at the conference table at “Surfer’s Journal” where he works, with the late afternoon sun shining burnt orange through the slates of the blinds while we talked about the changes we’d seen in surfing over the last few decades. It seemed the perfect setting for reminiscing about the past glories of the world we both grew up in. When I got up to leave, he signed a copy of his book “Surfing Photographs From The Seventies Taken By Jeff Divine” for me. As we glanced through it at all our old friends with their long hair, tie-dyed shirts and short tight neon trunks it was clear he’d captured the remarkable essence of a time. Thanks for the memories.

“IT’S WHAT THE PHOTOGRAPHER SEES AND CAPTURES, NOT THE TECHNOLOGY. ONLY A FEW OUT OF MANY REALLY COME THROUGH WITH UNIQUE MOMENTS.”

Hey, Jeff. This is your interview for “Juice Magazine”. They called and told me that they were honored to have you in the magazine.
I went online and looked at their website. My God, it’s extensive who’s been interviewed.

Well, they’ve been in business for 13 years.
Wow.

It’s a great magazine. I really like working for them. It’s fun. They have a bunch of skaters that do interviews and take photos, so it’s a cool format. It’s skate punk.
I’m so not punk.

I think what’s interesting about “Juice” is that it’s not that they’re just looking for punk, it’s more about anybody that does what they do and loves what they do.
Punk is really a veneer. If you strip away the veneer, we’re all the same.

If you’re doing what you’re doing, it’s a punk thing to do. Most people are stuck doing something they don’t like very well.
Yeah, in my era, instead of being punk, we looked like hippies, but we were surfers.

You were living on the North Shore in the ’70s, right?
Yeah, and when I talk about the veneer and the image, what’s weird is when you see the ’70s in the media, it’s all about bellbottoms and stylistic stuff. I distinctly remember that we didn’t give a shit about fashion. We just did what we did and wore what we wore, and that’s what turned out to be the fashion.

It wasn’t logo-driven then. This was when the surf industry was just at its inception.
The surf clothing then was ugly. It was competition bands, or what my dad wore, which was MacGregor, Jansen or Hang Ten. The first time that I became aware of fashion was the Mexican wedding shirt, blue Tennies, and a Penny’s t-shirt. We were into that. Then when I became aware of wanting to look better, you know when you become older and want to meet chicks, and there were these seamstress hippy chicks in North County that would make you a shirt. It would have that piping down the center with coconut buttons on deep maroon or velvety material. They were custom made shirts.

I used to hand embroider all of Herbie’s shirts. If you were living on the North Shore, you had to sew. You had to cook. The ’70s mentality I had was so much different from what’s portrayed. We weren’t thinking about making fashion. We were just making clothes.
It was more of a homemade fashion without being affected by the media.

That’s what they’re doing in fashion now. It’s the Abercrombie distressed look. They have pieces with embroidery, and nothing has hems on it. It all looks homemade. We dressed that way because that’s how we dressed.
I hate to generalize about how it was so different then because with certain groups of young guys now, say they’re 16 and they’re growing up somewhere in LA, they’re surfing and skating and doing the same things we were doing. Maybe they’re more money-ed up nowadays, but they’re doing the same things we did. The thing that I remember about that era was that we shared more. It was more of the hippy vibe of “Hey, brother.” We shared surfboards, which now everyone has a quiver of surfboards. Now you tend to be like, “Well, I don’t know, I guess you can try my board, but, you know….”

What goes along with that is, “Hey, dude, are you sponsored?” It’s just weird.
Exactly. When I was 19 living on the North Shore, my roommates and I would share food. We weren’t poor, poor, but we were poor. Our rent was $75 a month per person to share a house at Pipeline. We’d get split pea soup, make a huge pot and leave it in on the stove. It would last for two or three days. We would get papayas and make smoothies. I was talking to McKnight at Quiksilver and he was saying the same thing. They got these fish things with rice and they’d freeze them, or they’d get Spam and freeze it. He was pointing out that now when you go to the North Shore all of the surfers are at Haliewa Joe’s eating high-end dinners, because the surf industry is taking them to dinner every night. There is so much money in this five billion dollar industry.

Well, they take them to dinner but I’ll tell you something, they’re sure not sharing those billions of dollars with them. They’re being bought for a couple of dinners. They have no insurance. They have nothing. If they say one word, they’re out, because there are fifty young kids standing behind them ready to take their place.
What I learned when I was the photo editor at “Surfer” and I was handing out film, is that taking photos for a dinner, film and clothing is bullshit. Film is just gas in the car, you have to have it. But to kids, film is like handing out candy, and so are boxes of clothes and dinner at Dukes or Haleiwa Joe’s. Not that I’m down on the surf industry. I’m part of it.

I understand that, but there are a lot of pros and cons to it. That kid doesn’t look at that box of clothes like it means anything, and it’s cheap for the industry to pass it down. But…
It warps them.

What happens to that kid when they’re 30?
My son is like that right now. He expects a box of clothes.

They all do. The parents call me up and want their 6-year-old sponsored.
What I like is when they’re 12 or 13 like Greyson. When they’re more innocent, a box of clothes is a big deal. When they meet someone it’s a big deal. When they’re a certain age, no matter how wealthy their parents are, if they get a freebie or they meet a pro surfer, it’s a big deal. By the time they’re 14, because of the media and everything else, they’re just jaded.

The last time that I was at the skatepark, instead of the kids talking about what new trick they could do, they were talking about who they’re sponsored by. I was like, “Oh my God, this so gnarly.”
But the sponsorship is a big nothing. There’s nothing behind it unless you are really in the very top 44 in the world.

It’s just a few stickers or clothes. Instead of pushing the envelope of what they were doing on their board, the kids were talking about what company they’re attached to.
I asked my friends that work at Billabong about that, because my son is a world-class surfer down in Cabo. Steve Clark at Billabong said, “It’s so competitive to get on the Billabong team that it’s ridiculous. There are like 5,000 hot surfers in Huntington Beach alone.” I asked what sponsorship boiled down to. He goes, “A box of clothes.” It’s a big nothing, but in the society hierarchy at high school or junior high, you’re king shit if you’re on the Billabong surf team. What I like is when I meet a guy that is completely in right field and instead of being into all of that he’s the exact opposite. He could care less and he’s doing his own thing in his own world. He’s doing it more for himself. Those guys are rare.

I have kids that have been sponsored. You can’t stay on that level without financial help, because you wouldn’t be able to surf all the time. You’d have to be working. You wouldn’t be able to go to all of these far out exotic places with no money.
Well, I like to think back to when Tony Alva and Jay Adams were groveling and skating and surfing in Venice. They had no money. They weren’t going on any Indo boat trips. They were dealing with what they had, versus my son, for instance, expecting a boat trip to Indonesia. There are hundreds of kids that take a bus from somewhere in the valley with their surfboard to go surf. Or they hitchhike.

That’s because they love it, and they’re driven to be sponsored. They want someone to pick them up.
I know. It’s so harsh.

I hate being introduced as Christian’s mother or Herbie’s wife. No one introduces me as just Dibi. And I see all these young boys wanting to attach themselves to a company and I’m thinking, “You have no idea what it’s like, not standing up in the world as yourself. You’re in such a hurry to attach yourself some corporate entity.”
It’s the media. Here’s another thing. I go on all these boat trips with surfers who are like 20. They’re so templated in what they have. They all have iPods, laptops and cell phones. They’re all great guys, but it’s rare to meet one, that’s not just all, “Surf, surf, surf.” A very few that you meet are great surfers and into all of that, but you can also sit on the boat and talk to them about something totally out of left field that they’re experts at. It’s like the kid we did in the “Surfers Journal” that makes ukuleles. They’ve got some interest that’s not media homogenized.

They’re artists.
Yeah, or they know all about insects or lizards. They’re deep into it. They’re deep into piano playing or whatever. That’s what’s been going on. Now to be a musician, artist or a photographer has become homogenized in a way. Everyone wants to be that.

That’s almost a given now. When you say that you’re a surfer, you’re also expected to say that you’re an artist, etc.
Actually, now it’s, “I’m not a pro surfer, I’m a soul surfer, therefore I’m an artist.”

Nathan definitely lands in that boat. He dances to his own drum.
When we went on that trip, I talked to Nathan about that. He’s exactly what I’m talking about. He’s the kind of guy that could have zero money and he’d hitchhike to the beach with his beat up board.

Bruce Irons said, “I invited him to stay, but he goes and stays in a tent somewhere.” I told him Nathan is a dirt merchant.
Or there’s the guy on the North Shore that would creep around and get surfboards in the trashcans and he’d fix them and ride them and he got on the cover of “Surfer”.

That reminds me of a question. I was looking through your book and I saw a picture of yours with David Nuuhiwa and Johnny Gail surrounded by Rainbow surfboards in the early ’70s. Do you know the smuggling stories about those boards? I interviewed Mike Hynson and he was knocking on the bottom of the board we own and insisted that, “One got away”.
Maybe it’s over at the Surfing Heritage Foundation.

It could be the one that got away.
That probably started the customs guys x-raying surfboards. I think they raided them because of that movie “Rainbow Bridge” where they hid the hash in the surfboards. The fire department came and axed a whole quiver of Rainbow surfboards and there was nothing in them.

That’s why Mike was pounding on that board. That was really great. I just interviewed Art Brewer and Tom Servais. Your book was the first in the “Masters of Surf Photography” series. Then it was Art, and then Tom. You’ve worked with both of them?
Oh yeah, I’ve worked with Tom, and I met Art through “Surfer” magazine in the early ’70s, when he was living in Hawaii. He was with “Surfer” magazine before I was.

He lived next door to me at Pupukea with John Severson.
He hooked up with John and then there was Stoner and Art. Drew Kampion was around then, too. Art was the link between John and Stoner. Art was the young new guy after Stoner. I came along after that. I’m really close to Art, and I’m really proud of him. He’s one of the first surf photographers to be driven enough and talented enough to evolve out of the surf photography world. He’s well known in our surf photography tribe, but now he does a lot of high-end commercial jobs. He’s doing things for Coca-Cola in Europe and things like that. He’s so good at it. He had a game plan. He did all of these marketing pieces and mailings and then he got an agent, and now he’s there. He’s one of the few guys that has broken out of surf photography and gone on to another world.

The thing that I thought was interesting about Art is that he can separate himself from giving the client what they want and what his art is. I think a lot of people as artists have a hard time doing that. He doesn’t want to control it as an artist. He seems to be able to allow himself to let them have their own voice.
He’s an artist. He knows how to be professional and do the commercial aspect of it and make money, yet in his DNA, he’s an artist. He’ll throw a tantrum. He’ll punch the wall and scream at you, and yet he’s the biggest sweetie. He’ll share information with you. He’ll be concerned about you. He’s an interesting combination. He’s probably the most talented of any so-called surf photographer by far.

You’ve been taking photos for 30 years?
I’ve been shooting photos since ’66.

There’s seems to be some controversy about who took over at “Surfer” after Ron Stoner. Can you clear that up?
Art Brewer had been with “Surfer” and Severson-Stoner by ’68 or ’69, before I was hooked in. They started to notice me in ’68, or so, with photos of Blacks, Margo at Hammonds, etc. Art Brewer shot the swell of ’69 and the Tom Stone “Surfer” cover, and was with “Surfer” when they were working on Pacific Vibrations. Brewer was there when Stoner was fizzling. I was still outside the loop. Stoner was fading and Brad Barrett gave me his equipment while Art was still there and also had “Surfer” equipment. Brad Barrett the photo editor at the time was bummed with Stoner because he wouldn’t shoot when the surf was good. My first winter in Hawaii in ’71, Art had begun shooting for “Surfing”. Hard to say who took over, I just kept shooting and delivering and so did Art.

In the early ’70s when you were living on the North Shore a lot of surfers were smugglers and didn’t want their photos taken. Had that changed by the time you left?
No one cared about having photos taken. All of the surfers loved to see themselves on a big bomb swell at Pipe or Sunset. Everyone wanted to be in “Surfer.”

Didn’t you move to the west side after the North Shore?
I hung out there for a year or so. The biggest thing I noticed or learned is that us “haoles” completely generalize about all of the people out there. The biggest, baddest looking guys can be the nicest. Most people have jobs, and are highly educated through Kam School and Punahou. There’s a neighborliness that just doesn’t exist on the North Shore unless you grew up there with all of your family. The traveling surfer haole just doesn’t get it. The people on the West Side worry about all of the crime on the North Shore.

How long did you work for “Surfer”?
36 years. I worked for 17 years as photo editor in the office. I’m still on retainer and travel budget.

You now work for “Surfers Journal”, too. Do you still travel much?
Two or three grand trips a year for “Surfer” and usually three weeks on the North Shore of Hawaii.

With all the new technology it’s allowed anyone to become a photographer. Do you think it’s made for better images?
It’s kind of diluted more now by the sheer numbers of photographers. There are 400 or so now. A good surf photo all comes down to the wave and the surfer, how big, how good, the mood, lighting, etc. Whether those great days are captured with film or digital doesn’t really matter. As “Surfer” editor Mike Perry once said, “It’s all just little dots on paper.” It’s what the photographer sees and captures, not the technology. Only a few out of many really come through with unique material. Thomas Campbell is probably the best example of this.

Where’s your favorite place to film?
I like the North Shore of Oahu or the Mentawaii islands off Sumatra.

How did you get started as a photographer?
When I started out with “Surfer”, I was giving them photos from La Jolla, because that’s where I grew up. Then I went to Hawaii. By the early ’70s, I’d started working with Steve Wilkings. He was a Pasadena Art Center grad with a thriving commercial business in Honolulu. He hired me on as his helper. I got into the commercial world of jewelry, food, condominiums, rock bands, etc. and then dealing with clients. It was a nightmare. That’s why I admire Art. I realized by the mid ’70s that I wasn’t going to be a commercial guy. I’m not going to shoot models. I’m not a people person.

I would think that you are.
The weird thing is that I am, but I laid it down in the mid ’70s. I was like, “All I’m going to be, because I’m good at it, is a surf photographer. That’s it. I’m Jeff Divine, surf photographer. I’m not a portrait, bikini model photographer guy.” I’m not going to strive to be something that I’m not. That’s why I’m so happy.

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