Evolutionary Stages of the Ectomorph

Bryce Lowe-White’s full-circle path behind the lens.

Light / Dark

i. Animation

The visual languages of color, light, composition, and all the other expressions of graphic media were first articulated for Bryce Lowe-White through a contrivance of mass-market plastic, glass, and circuitry. For this particular source of origin we travel all the way back to the low-res anachronisms of the mid 1990s to find an ectomorphic kid of about 11 on the beach in Palos Verdes. Given the epoch and his purpose, he’s making use of the most ubiquitous documentation tech available: the family camcorder.

There’s motion out to sea where his eye and lens are focused, tracking his older brother’s sept through the viewfinder, under mandate to immortalize their session via VHS for collective viewing (and potential heckling) in someone’s garage at an indeterminate point in the future. There’s motion on land as well, courtesy of the highly specific geography of his locus, a microenvironment called Portuguese Bend, where a landslide in the 1950s created a still-active tongue of shifting earth and thus a pocket of relatively under-colonized coastline amid the otherwise unmitigated sprawl of Los Angeles.

He is not yet a surfer, our small ectomorph, despite existing in an environment propagated by such life forms—his father and his brother and their extended circles. At this point, in fact, he’s a relatively rare variant of coastal progeny who, despite being inescapably drawn to the motion in the water, remains more interested in hanging out on shore, adjacent to the tongue of motion on land, in the act of documentation rather than in the act of subject.

This idiosyncrasy won’t last long, but for now it makes him a handy member of the collective: an embryonic attendant of record who’s awestruck by the camera and the subject matter, and who’s also willing to hunt and peck the fragments of any session, with the patent enthusiasm of an 11-year-old, for its duration. These character traits will work in his favor later, professionally, as they’ve begun to encode his young, pliant mind with the neural paths that every surf photographer requires, plus a suggestion of the societal rewards such work can generate.

“When I was even younger,” he says, as evidenced, “I saw my father and his crew were always documenting too. And on weekends they would throw the tape in the VCR and all the kids would be running around, me and my brother included, and everyone would stop whatever they were doing and watch the footage of them surfing. Then they’d start hooting and screaming, and I think that was the beginning for me, the reaction I saw from them. Documenting was just such a normal thing growing up. I grew up immersed in surfing and immersed in documenting it, like literally 11 years old, on the beach, saying, ‘Wait, no one’s filming? Give me the camera, let me hold it, I want to do it.’”

ii. Stimuli

Scanning forward, the timeline encounters a leap in tech: the DSLR camera, followed by the motion/still dual functions of yet-more-advanced digital implements. For the ectomorph, this symbiosis is a juncture that presents both opportunity and innovation. At 15, he has advanced in status and commitment. In addition to remaining the documentarian among his group, he’s also become a participant in the procession of events in the water.

Like all teenage surfer-creative hybrids, his mind has begun to funnel toward one natural conclusion: the only acceptable future is one that includes more surfing, and, should events align correctly, it would be beneficial if that future would also include, somehow, payment to either ride said waves or a path that allows one to continue to document the wave riding of others in order to facilitate, exclusively for the self, more wave riding and more documenting. 

His visual training with the family camcorder has allowed him to make the leap across to his father’s Nikon almost without friction. Now he’s expanding his immersion in the nuances of still photography. For the next three years, the crossover between video and photo functions allows him to multitask and multipurpose, adding output versus time spent and increasing his usefulness to disparate interests in his social group.

Pipeline, Hawaii. That winter, Surfer magazine rented a house at Backyards. I went to the roof and noticed glowing barrels way down the beach. I put on a 600mm lens and realized that I was actually watching Pipe from over a mile away. The gap between those two palm trees is so small that it’s practically invisible to the naked eye. Finding different perspectives on the North Shore is hard, but they’re still out there if you take the time to look.

He begins to consider more-formal training via higher education and applies to the Brooks Institute of Photography. Unfortunately, larger forces are at cross purposes in the world beyond his microenvironment, a subprime-mortgage crisis that leads to the worst global economic spiral since the 1920s. It is 2007 and he graduates from high school into the Great Recession.

Because his family’s business is primarily in real estate, the fallout is particularly trying for the ectomorph. He loses the chrysalis of Portuguese Bend when his family loses their home to foreclosure. He is now faced with a decision: His father has retained $7,000 for him to either invest in community college or disburse otherwise as he pleases, as long as he acts in the interest of fortifying his future. He makes the only choice that seems logical. He secures the funding, lays it on the great plains of venture, rolls the cubes, and expends it all on camera equipment. 

With nothing to arrest his fall into the chasm, he now draws upon the same resolve and enthusiasms of his younger self to ascend the concentric circles of the aspiring professional surf photographer. The most obvious impulse is also his first and he sets out to assemble a portfolio of images, working in conjunction with Alex Gray, another enterprising and sanguine Palos Verdian.

“All he wanted to do was shoot,” says Gray, “and when I looked at the photos after the session, it was never the typical image I expected. He could take places that had been shot over and over again and make them look completely new and different. He began to start messing with lighting, depth of field—he was always using a different lens than you’d expect for a scenario.”

As augmentation to this still work, he attains his first contract to film and cut an edit of a boat trip through the Andaman Islands. An internship at Fuel TV follows, shooting and editing branded and promotional storytelling. This dovetails with paid commercial employment as a junior editor for Nike, in addition to a tutelage with the hard-boiled surf photographer Jason Kenworthy.

Through these conduits, and carried by his production, the ectomorph witnesses his first editorial success when a handful of his images run in Surfer magazine. Subsequent submissions continue to draw the attention of then–photo editor Grant Ellis. With his work ethic established, his photographic talents becoming ever more apparent, and with his videography and film editing credentials merging with the general (and still ongoing) drift in surf media—a video/digital paradigm—he receives a concise and unexpected email from Ellis. I need an assistant photo editor, it reads. We also need a film editor. I think you should come work with us.

iii. Diversification

As the timeline scrolls again, we encounter a frenetic and busy period for the ectomorph. For nearly all sentient beings, the black-hole gravity of an existence within the editorial cycle can seem to bend the laws of physics, as time peels and drags, expanding and contracting in conjunct with the cold terror and Sisyphean rigors of deadlines, page counts, and the inherent hall of mirrors of social media and digital publishing. Weeks pass like years. Years, tallied in deadlines and content, pass like days.

In the ectomorph’s case, he arrives for his first day at the magazine with a staph infection from a wound he’d received on a photo trip, which is now festering on his hindquarters. While this temporarily precludes him from physically occupying his new space—he literally can’t sit in a chair—he deftly navigates the adjustment period and assimilates. It also marks a characteristic trait of his era at the magazine: a sort of multipurpose existence, anchored by responsibility, yet also untethered, a flexibility in directive that allows him to apply his talents well beyond the ergonomic confines of a cubicle.

He’s tasked with not only the traditional duties of an assistant photo editor—managing submissions, grunt image processing—but also with filmmaking assignments that take him across the planet. In this latter role he sets to work editing, shooting, and producing everything from editorial shorts to full-length features. Six years pass at varied differentials of speed in this service.

Meanwhile, he continues to augment his photo catalog, increasingly approaching his still work with the type of preparation and storyboarding of a film director, further blurring his aptitudes. 

Malibu, Hurricane Marie, 2014. The night before the swell, I was thinking about how to get a lineup shot with the pier in the foreground and waves wrapping around the point. As I was driving down PCH the next morning, I spotted a ridge, parked, and hiked up. Within five minutes, this set came in with lines stacked to the horizon. The exact frame I’d envisioned was happening in front of my eyes.

“He never seemed like he was out to document everything he saw,” says Ellis of the ectomorph during this period. “Photography can be about reacting to fleeting moments. Filmmaking is more pre-mapped in what you want to achieve, and that’s how his brain works creatively. He had a vision of what he wanted beforehand and he went and got it.”

Some instants stand motionless amid the sequence of this era, like a morning in 2014, during Hurricane Marie, when he pre-envisions and bags a truly exceptional lineup shot from the hills above Malibu. Others are wrapped in the forward motion of his filmmaking and its expanded focus on storytelling. 

This new documentary trait—or, more accurately, a very old one, pivoting on the importance of context, narrative, subject, and place, elements he’s always been attuned to channel—becomes increasingly prominent and creates further opportunity. Thus in 2017 the ectomorph is spirited, via recruitment, from Surfer to The Golden State Company, a marketing and media firm based in LA, to lend his faculties to clients like Google, Toyota, McDonald’s, and other monoliths.

The transition allows him the financial resources to return, with his high school sweetheart and son in attendance (plus another offspring currently in utero), to a new property in Portuguese Bend, closing the migration loop that pushed him out of his original habitat a decade ago. Surf projects, such as a documentary about Bing Copeland, remain important components of his activities.

“Why do I do what I do?” the ectomorph says on a contemplative Friday afternoon, decompressing from a shoot for Mitsubishi. “I think it just goes back to how I started this whole journey. It’s all I’ve ever known, and I do it because it’s something that’s a natural extension of how I’ve always thought about who I am and who I’m with and what’s around me.”

The subject. Photograph by Alex Kilauano.