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Sun-drenched photos capture the golden age of surfing

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

Amid the glistening waves and youthful grins in Jeff Divine’s photos of 1970s surfers, there’s something conspicuously absent from the sun-drenched scenes: logos.

This was a time before sponsorship and mainstream attention turned the sport into a lucrative global industry. And the American photographer, a long-time picture editor at two of the scene’s bibles, Surfer magazine and Surfer’s Journal, was on hand to capture the hedonistic lifestyles and DIY approach of what he dubs the “pre-commercial” era.

“It was a time before we were branded — before the outdoor lifestyle industry clothing brands started giving us free gear,” he said in a phone interview from his home in California. “If you look at the photos, there are no backpacks, sunglasses, hats, watches or any of that stuff that’s really common now.

Divine's images also capture the friendship and camaraderie of the era's surf scene.

Divine’s images also capture the friendship and camaraderie of the era’s surf scene. Credit: Jeff Divine

“The ’70s was a time when the general audience and society — like your parents, grandparents, or even your brother — just didn’t understand what you were doing. You’d go home and you couldn’t describe it.”

This is why, despite having documented the sport extensively for five decades, Divine chose the 1970s as the subject of his new book. In it, he pays homage to the California and Hawaii scenes that he was actively involved in, bringing together more than 130 images from his vast archive.

Some of the collection’s most striking photos capture the graceful stillness of surfers hurtling down huge, sculptural waves. The pictures often feature small details that only surfing aficionados will appreciate — renowned surfing champions, technical moves or “guys who were our heroes doing maneuvers they were famous for,” as Divine put it.

But the athleticism on display is evident to all — and it is reflective of the sport’s evolution during this period. The decade’s (often garage-made) surfboards were shorter and lighter, which opened up new possibilities for the sport, according to the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist William Finnegan, who contributed an essay to Divine’s book.

Surfers pictured at Waimea Bay, Hawaii, in 1977.

Surfers pictured at Waimea Bay, Hawaii, in 1977. Credit: Jeff Divine

“Suddenly,” Finnegan wrote, “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.”

It was also a time when Divine began taking his craft more seriously. Born in La Jolla, a seaside community in San Diego, he started out by shooting friends and fellow surfers in the mid 1960s. By the time he joined Surfer magazine in 1971 he was heading out onto the water with huge telephoto lenses designed for wildlife photography.

“When I first got my camera, I would surf first and then shoot photos,” said Divine, who was recently honored with a plaque on the Surfing Walk of Fame at Huntington Beach. “Then, as I got more professional, by ’70 or ’71, I would shoot and then surf. By the 1990s and 2000s I just shot.”

Insider’s perspective

Being a surfer offered Divine obvious advantages, such as recognizing wave patterns and simply “knowing what the ocean was doing.” But the photographer’s insider status proved especially valuable as he set about documenting the culture — or subculture — surrounding the sport.

Photos featured in the book are intended to “reflect the characters and the people, rather than just men on waves,” he said. As such, they depict surfers and their friends hanging out, skateboarding, watching waves crash into the beach and loading gear into their cars. In one shot, an unidentified man poses for the camera as he fans out huge bricks of hash, acquired via what Divine described as “surfer smuggler guys.”

The late Hawaiian surfer Montgomery "Buttons" Kaluhiokalani, who is considered among the sport's most influential figures.

The late Hawaiian surfer Montgomery “Buttons” Kaluhiokalani, who is considered among the sport’s most influential figures. Credit: Jeff Divine

Being part of the very camaraderie that he hoped to capture gave the photographer “an edge,” he said.

“I was one of them, and surfers can tell whether you’re one of them or not. Outside photographers … would come into the sport and visit over a week and come back with a whole different take from what someone like me might do. They knew me and trusted me — it was bit like hanging out with a rock ‘n’ roll band.

“Everybody wanted to see a picture of themselves on the waves, so they put me on a pedestal because they knew I might get a photo of them and, if they were lucky, they might get in the magazine. It was like being what, in the modern day, you might call an ‘influencer.'”

Related video: The photographer who helped make 1970s rock stars legendary

The photos will undoubtedly drip with nostalgia for those who lived through the era, though Divine takes a documentarian’s approach to his work. Surfing’s subsequent commercialization may have attracted what he reluctantly called “wannabes” who were “attracted to the romance of the sport,” but the photographer still has plenty of praise for the state of modern surfing.

He described the sport’s inclusion in this summer’s Olympics Games in Tokyo as an “incredible thing” that may inspire a new generation of athletes. And amid the declining sales experienced by many of the world’s big surf brands (labels like Quicksilver and Billabong have reported sinking profits in recent years), there appears to be something of a return to the values of old, he said.

Indeed, looking back more than 40 years later, Divine said he sees connections between the ’70s surfers and today’s — and he doesn’t just mean the tousled haircuts and beards that wouldn’t look entirely out of place in 2020s California.

Jeff Divine, captured by fellow surf photographer Jon Foster in 1970.

Jeff Divine, captured by fellow surf photographer Jon Foster in 1970. Credit: Jon Foster

“I think it’s so interesting how a lot of young guys now look the same as we looked then,” he said, pointing to clothing choices in particular. “The commercial aspect of everything now has made young people want to wear something unique, which is like in the ’70s, when you wore something from your travels.

“(Big brands) try and give you that look of being an athlete rebel outdoorsman, but it’s commercial, and I think people are now seeking out more unique, boutique-y or ‘found’ things.”

Jeff Divine: 70s Surf Photographs,” published by T. Adler books, is available now.
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