An Afternoon with The Florences

A photo essay from Jamie Brisick’s 2005 visit to the Florence compound on the North Shore

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Jamie Brisick’s writing for The Surfer’s Journal has brought an eclectic mix of characters to life over the years. He also doubles as a photographer while on assignment and some of the images he gathers out in the field are usually featured alongside his stories in the magazine. A portfolio in issue 24.3 of TSJ focuses on unseen work from Brisick’s photo archives—taking readers to Jamaica, Brazil, France, and Hawaii.

One vein of photos that Brisick sent was from a 2005 trip to the Florence house on the North Shore. By that time, much of the praise typically heaped on child surf prodigies had been heaped on John John. That’s probably the worst thing you can do to a young kid just trying to enjoy surfing. So Brisick hung back and observed. As he found, the Florence house was an ideal micro-environ for combating the pressures that can erode a simple enjoyment of riding waves.

Here Brisick breaks down the understated wonders worked by a bodysurf, a skate session, and a matriarch like Alex Florence. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s no surprise John John has established himself as one of the surfers who continually revises our collective understanding of what’s possible on a wave.

Ms. Florence’s ’68 Dodge Dart

Alex Florence is well known as one of the primary surfing and skateboarding influences on her sons John John, Nathan, and Ivan. She can also crack the whip. I have watched her make Ivan change out of his lime green New York Dolls t-shirt because he had been wearing it for five days straight. I have also watched her and her sons take to the lineup at Pupukea like a pod of dolphins.

Beachfront at Pupukea

I was drawn to the Florences because I grew up with two older brothers and a cool mom who drove us to the beach and to skate parks. This is probably what inspired me to spend a couple days shooting the Florence family, though I told myself it was photojournalism.

Vegetarian Kickflip

The Florences eat much healthier than we did. After a lunch of vegetarian sandwiches and surf videos Ivan went out to the backyard—actually, it wasn’t after lunch. When Ivan began this series of kickflips he had half a sandwich in his hand. Later on, Greyson Fletcher came over. The Florences live on the beach at Pupukea. Greyson had been with his uncle Nathan at Sunset. “Looks so fun,” he said. Three minutes later I found myself chasing Nathan (Florence) and Greyson up the Ke Nui bike path. We stashed the bikes under a tree at Sunset.

Sunset Beach Shorebreak

It’s snapshots. From my own childhood it’s the Berts in the alley behind my cousins’ West LA apartment on Z-Flexes in ’76. That first proper cutback on a 5’9″ Town and Country twin fin in 1980. For Greyson this little fleeting glimpse of bodysurf divinity is part of a seamless ride that includes skateboards, bikes, sand castles, and whatever video game he and Nathan were playing. I did not know this before, since my eyes are more conventionally scanning the outside, but on the Velzyland side of Sunset there’s a terrific little shorebreak for bodysurfing. Nathan was the first in. He and Greyson were vocal about their tubes. They whooped, hooted, whooooa-ed. No four-letter words emitted from their mouths. In fact no actual words emitted at all. They spoke a language that my grandfather would have called oonga-boonga. It is the language of swinging from trees, a kind of primitive stoke. On the ride home Nathan found yet another wave.

Photos and captions by: Jamie Brisick
A collection of road shots from Jamie Brisick’s photo archives is available in issue 24.3 of TSJ.