Something Out of Nothing

Scavenging with Will Adler.

Light / Dark

Will Adler recently purchased his third Chevy Astro van. Not as in he has a fleet of them, although there was a brief overlap of two. Rather, it’s the third in a succession of white, nondescript, former cable-company vehicles by which Adler is often associated by those who know him.

Adler’s vans are, in a way, an extension of himself. He keeps them clean, but there’s always surf wax stuck to the various assortment of blankets and towels, and salsa is perpetually spilled on the dashboard. Bertrand Russell and Charles Bukowski books can be found tucked into the drawer of a small cabinet the new van came built with, next to miniature chess sets that are missing a few pawns. There are dinged surfboards and a tangle of fishing poles. And cameras, well, there are plenty of cameras laying around.

Artistic inclination seems to run in the Adler family. His mother, Janet, is a fine artist. His uncle, Tom, is the venerable book publisher. His brother, Travers, is a surf/guitar/painting prodigy. When Adler first began to follow his own creative pursuits by picking up a camera at age 19, it was only natural that his subject matter started with the ocean, the place he spent most of his early years while growing up in Santa Barbara.

Tandem surfers, Duke’s Oceanfest, Waikiki. I’d seen a photo series of carnies who did gymnastics on motorcycles, and I wanted to find something like that in the ocean. It’s weird but reassuring how surfing movements are often related to, and can be reflected in, so many non-surfing people and actions.

“Photography has been an excuse to go outside and do things,” he says. “It’s an excuse to travel and look closely at the world—but it’s also an excuse to spend time observing my everyday surroundings.”

After working briefly in the dark room of a local print shop, Adler’s path took a fairly steep trajectory toward photography full time. It hasn’t really stopped since. There’s a record of notable achievements within his career that get run through fairly uniformly when his story is told: Assistant to some of the biggest fashion photographers in the industry, highly successful art shows in New York and Paris galleries, traveling the world as a filmer and photographer for some of the largest brands in surfing and otherwise.

And he’s done it all while working with a variety of camera types and formats. He heavily employs that background from outside surfing in his “surf” photography, toying with how it’s traditionally been documented. Adler tends to shoot peripherally, focusing on moments that fall just outside of the main event. He makes photos of people surfing that seem to become something other than surf photos. It’s a process he learned from being largely self-taught.

“Starting with a very limited wealth of knowledge made me have to learn by trial and error and experimentation,” he says. “Through that process, I realized that I liked some of the errors as much as the things that came out technically correct.”

As he’s progressed, these imperfections—a blurred surfer on what appears to be a wave, a low-light portrait in front of a muted sunset, an out-of-focus cutback shot from behind a dog with the wave cut from the frame entirely—have become conscious and technical choices rather than accidents. They’ve become things he looks for.

“I continually give myself a little list of cues to kind of keep an eye out for—categories of things to take photos of, whether it’s a stranger, an ocean shot, or interesting signs I see when driving around,” he says.

Adler’s self-assigned marks often serve as catalysts for individual series, which recently includes a cross-section portrayal of the circus that is Waikiki, as well as an ongoing project on the concept of the Pacific.

Adler says he’d rather be a writer than a photographer, that he would at the very least prefer the process of sitting down and telling a story. In many ways, his work does that. He’s a collector, a scavenger of moments and occurrences. Although as viewers we rarely see him, we always sense him in his photographs. He lets us see what he sees, not just what is necessarily there in front of him. And what we do end up seeing in his photographs is what he chooses to let us see.

“I’d like to make work that isn’t necessarily just pretty photographs,” he says, “but that is serving some sort of purpose. Something I’ve been thinking about more recently is the function of photos. I’ve been looking for shots that hopefully inform someone of something.”

I’ve heard plenty of people describe Adler as a master of the “in-between,” a term he cringes at. I’d argue that he simply takes pictures of life, and makes a point to look at what is in front of him, not beyond it.

In the often oversaturated world of surf photography, it’s commonly the shots of some unfathomable location that garner attention and clamor. But at what point does the novelty override the subject? Adler’s work, on the other hand, brings us “home” in the best way. It reminds us that home may not be the most exotic place in the world, but at and in the right moment, it can be the most exciting.

“If you can’t make good pictures at home,” Adler says, “what’s the point of trying to make a good picture anywhere else?”

Like looking into one of his vans, walking into Adler’s studio space in Santa Barbara is a way to get a full look into the photographer himself—and it never fails to entertain.

Some days you’ll enter to find a small army of seagull portraits staring down at you from the walls. On others, there’s a full video-mixing station set up in the corner. Recently, there was a photo shoot involving packages of crayons. As haphazard as all this may seem, Adler manages to keep a running theme throughout as a common thread for viewers to follow.

“I like work that shows a glimpse into an artist’s inner world,” he says. “Where you can get a grasp of what a person is really like.”

Adler’s days are never boring, because he refuses to let them be. His work so easily embodies everything that feels good about surfing and, in its finest moments, about being human. He captures the minutiae that make up the whole day, from spilling coffee in your car on the way to the beach to the sand and wax caked on your arms by the time you leave. There’s a sense of
enjoyment, a focus on pleasure, a lack of urgency. Making fast go slow. A little bit of everything, a whole lot of nothing.

The subject. Photograph by Colleen Conroy.