There is an iconic image from the 1970s of a dusky woman in a swimsuit taking photos from a beach on the North Shore. Actually, there’s not just one, there are many shots of this woman staring into a bulky long-lens, her camera usually mounted on an old, Hollywood-style cinematic tripod with wooden legs sinking into the sand. In these photos, she’s young and fit and very exotic, often with a hand on her hip, sweat beading at her brow, her body language declaring, Perform for me, boy.
Shirley Rogers’ colleagues used to joke with her that were more shots of her in the magazines than by her. Certainly, she was an unusual presence on the beach in the 1970s, the best, if not only, woman surf photographer within that pivotal era. But despite her work being published throughout the 70s and 80s, and her name being listed on the Surfing masthead for years under contributing photographers, little is known of her. She stopped shooting decades ago. She moved away from the North Shore. She doesn’t have an entry in Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing. Yet.
It’s not easy to get an interview with Shirley if you are a morning person, like myself. I live on the Eastside of Oahu, Shirley lives in Town (Honolulu), and although that’s but a 25-minute drive, it led to more than a few failed attempts for us to connect. I could only imagine how many men she’s made beg.
“Call me at the crack of noon, sweetie,” she cackled into the phone. “I’m a night owl, baby. I don’t really turn on until 5-ish.”
It’s 7 p.m. now and even today she’s pushed the meeting back an hour or two, so I wait patiently at the bottom of her apartment building, listening to dog-barks echoing somewhere in the distance. Suddenly she blasts through the doors behind me and welcomes me in. I’ve crunched the numbers, I know she’s broken 60, but she’s still fit with those same stems I’ve seen in photos from the last millennium. She’s feisty and charismatic and wearing dangly feather earrings (she’s part Cherokee Indian, she’ll later say). There is a wildness in her hazel eyes. Like things could either go as planned or escalate into chaos. But you’d follow her because you are curious to see how disasters take shape. Like earthquakes, floods, and civil unrest. Like a few drinks with Shirley Rogers.
She lets me into her pad and I discover those barking dogs belong to her. Two slightly (surely) obese miniature pinchers in matching, bedazzled, baby-blue-and-princess-pink tutu-leotards that look like they were originally made for two human toddlers, though she assures me they were not. Custom-made, baby. One’s name is Zina and the other is Zola.
She leads me to her lanai, the two min-pins nipping at our heels, past a stack of CDs and onto a back patio with décor one could describe as Art Psycho. Christmas lights, raindrop neons, a couple of water features, some Balinese tapestries, and a few wind chimes jingle, blink, and drip all at the same time.
“Welcome to the disco, honey,” she says.
I sit down and both chubby canines in their matching tutus hop into my lap, awkwardly making it halfway, then requiring some help on the backend to finish the job. They look up at me simultaneously with adorable, matching, forlorn looks and I melt.
“Can I make you a drink?” she hollers from the kitchen, mid-pour.
Growing up, Shirley Rogers never really fit in until she got to Hawaii. Specifically, the North Shore of Oahu. Daughter of an American Air Force dad and a Japanese mother, she was raised in Japan before moving to Texas before getting to Oahu and was constantly caught in the classic, mixed-race conundrum. Too white for the kids in Japan, too ethnic for the white kids in Texas, and not brown enough for the Latinos there either.
“When we moved to Hawaii, I was like, ‘Ahhhh. This is more like it. Everyone looks like me here,’” she says
Sort of. Campbell High School in Oahu’s rough Westside town of Ewa Beach also required an adjustment period. Although Shirley did look like a local hapa girl, she also had a Texan drawl while everyone else spoke pidgin English. It didn’t help her case with the girls that she was also drop-dead gorgeous, tall, and wore miniskirts—because that’s what girls from Texas did in 1969. Thus every boy was drooling over the new babe from the Mainland and several stink-eyes and shoulder-checks later, the situation culminated when Shirley exploded. She called out the queen bee after class, picked up a desk, and threw it across the room at her antagonist. After that nobody screwed with her again.
But it was also at Campbell where she got into photography, took classes, even won a national award for her work. Shortly after high school, her parents decided to move back to Texas but Shirley wasn’t coming with. She was best friends with surf-star Jeff Hakman’s girlfriend, so after high school they all moved in together on the North Shore and she started to shoot surfing.
“I dunno, I lived on the North Shore, spent all my time on the beach, I already had a camera, so I figured, what the hell.”
Beyond beach-boredom, she credits Jack McCoy and Dick Hoole for jumpstarting her career. It was during a massive day at Waimea Bay, and the two were shooting from the water for their forthcoming film, Tubular Swells. They wanted another angle for the new Aussie surf magazine Backdoor. They handed her a 650 Century long-lens and Shirley was hooked.
A 650mm Century is also no easy piece of equipment. Originally designed for Hollywood cinematography, it was paired with 25 ASA, which is some slow-ass, high-resolution slide film. This required tedious framing skills, not to mention the ability to pull focus while panning on a moving surfer, but Shirley learned through trial and error and began submitting her work.
“The thing I remember most was how quick to learn she was, and how soon she was taking great photos that were published not long after she started, which was saying something,” says McCoy. “Sure, there were some standard rules you had to learn to get your exposure and shutter speeds right, however it was a real art to learn to follow focus manually to get a sharp shot. There was such a small area of depth of field where your shot was either tack sharp or slightly soft.”
“If it wasn’t crystal, absolute, frozen-water sharp…the mags wouldn’t use it,” Shirley says.
While she kept to the beach, she’d take notes from photographers like Dan Merkel and Brian Bielmann, describing Colonel Albert Benson to be particularly helpful. She had an eye for off-moments. She produced stunning, candid portraits, or “people shots” as she refers to them. Being the most gorgeous woman on the beach during a time when there weren’t, well, any women on the beach, she got backstage access to the entire era.
Besides shooting the rising stars of the time like Shaun Tomson, Gerry Lopez, and Rory Russell, she brought lesser-known, local heroes into the spotlight like Marvin Foster and Louis Ferreira. She also quickly realized what every successful surf photographer eventually discovers—that in this specific field of the craft, no matter what art school you graduated from, whether you’re a Fulbright Scholar or a Pulitzer Prize winner, your relationships with the talent trumps everything. The surfers have to like you, never the other way around.
But I can mostly give a shit about Century 650 lenses and 25 ASA—I want the fun stuff. I want her to dust off some memories from that “Wild West” era and snort the residue through a rolled up dollar bill, maybe off the back of Zola’s tutu in this psychotic lanai. “Tell me about the North Shore in the 70s,” I say, my lips hitting the rocks on my second vodka-I-don’t-know-what.
She tilts her head back, closes her eyes, and smiles deeply. “It was just a fun time in surfing, when it was still wild and crazy. When surfers really lived up to that rebel-image they’d created.”
She lights a cigarette.
“You know those boulders they have at the bottom of the hill at the Haleiwa-Waialua traffic circle?”
“They put those there because of me.”
Now, we’re talking.
Shirley was in a zippy BMW with Michael Tomson, who was sitting shotgun. They were coming home from Wahiawa when she decided to have a little fun. She hit the dirt embankment hugging the traffic circle at 50 miles an hour, yanked the steering wheel, and tail-slid the Beamer like Buttons at Off The Wall, essentially drifting sideways with Tomson screaming in terror.
The money and the contests had finally arrived with an actual pro surfing circuit and she details the scene at the Kuilima (now, Turtle Bay Resort). The picture she paints includes icons of the time getting naked and stoned, climbing from balcony to balcony to bypass locked doors. She recalls Jeff Hakman coming home one day with Quiksilver’s first prototype.
“‘They’re called boardshorts,’ he told me. They just looked like swim trunks to me, but that’s how they were marketing them in Australia. I’m still kicking myself for missing out on that deal,” she says, shaking her head and laughing. “Also, Da Hui started in my kitchen.”
I nearly spit-take my vodka.
“Pardon me?” I manage…
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