Our Man in the Antilles

Chris Klopf shoots the Dominican Republic.

Light / Dark

“Pezman says this portfolio feature is your gold watch.”

Some 25 years ago, TSJ dispatched writer Steve Barilotti to Northern California to interview photographer Chris Klopf. Klopf was grateful for the attention, but unprepared for the tongue-in-cheek message the publisher had asked Barilotti to convey.

Klopf—46 at the time and decades into the game—was perplexed. What the hell was this? Some pronunciamento? Time to hang up the lenses and hit the porch? Under whose authority?   

It’s a velvet Caribbean evening in January 2021 and the night breeze is whatever degree of perfection you might prefer. We’re at the kitchen table, windows thrown open, at Klopf’s Dominican Republic winter pensione. He’s riding out the curfew with takeaway plantain-topped sushi, reprising his “gold watch” reaction with a head tilt and an eye roll. 

“I’ve always been freelance. I never shot for a magazine in my life,” he says. He means it by way of explaining his lack of fealty to any publication.

That response bears the freight of his avocation. Veteran surf photographers are historically a wary and prickly lot. They’ve dealt with a Jungian soup of competitors, feckless pros, uncommunicative editors, late-arriving checks, and the clacking, flood-prone tools of their trade. One must forgive the masters of the form for their occasional harrumphs. I’ve learned to be reserved and earnest, as in dealing with South American immigration agents. It’s best to feign a certain deference and have some baksheesh lipping out of your breast pocket.  

Dominican surf spots are marked with a now-you-see-them character, coming alive for an hour or two only to vanish with a wind shift or closing swell window. Here as in few other places, fortune favors the mobile.

Setting down my rum rickey on a paper towel, I look at Klopf and explain that “gold watch” undoubtedly meant a summation of his career to date. A chance to explain himself, photographically speaking, to the world at large. A reprise of his finest work. He chews on that, nodding his acceptance.  

“Bro,” he says. “You have to know I’m a rural guy. Back home, I live on a mountaintop in the redwoods. My closest neighbor is a Buddhist monastery, okay? I don’t do well with hidden meanings.” 

Cool, I tell him. My own late-onset maturity has me, too, favoring the blunt. Sin rodeo, as they say.

That out of the way, we are free to talk beginnings.  

“I started taking surf photos in 1965,” Klopf says. “NorCal, Santa Barbara, Baja. Art Brewer [at Surfer] gave me 40 rolls of film in 1978 to go to Puerto Escondido with Vince Collier and Richard Schmidt. I nailed it that trip, and I came back, gave them all the photos, and they went, ‘Um, these photos look too much like Pipeline and we’re not using them.’ And I went, ‘Huh, really?’ I sent a few to Surfing mag and got a couple full pages or whatever. And shit, the rest popped out in my book frickin’ 50 years after the fact.”

I was aware of Klopf’s work back then. A lot of us were. Tantalizing reef morsels from the Sonoma coast (“Ten Spots You’ll Probably Never Surf”). Black-and-white point lineups from Baja’s sage-to-cirio transition zone. The aforementioned Puerto. Kirra-Indo-North Shore.  But it’s his modern work that’s seen him become a steady presence on the Tour de Groovy. Multiple runs to Northern Peru. Long-form residencies in Costa Rica. Duty slogs in El Salvador and Nicaragua. All in the company of style hessians like Alex Knost, Tommy Witt, Jared Mell, Tyler Warren, Robin Kegel, and Justin Quintal. The new century rejuvenated Klopf creatively, if not practically. He’s been traveling the world making surf photos for 40-odd years, and he’s never bothered to shoot cats he wouldn’t otherwise shoot.

A human centipede of tripods on the beach for a surf contest? Pass.  

But it’s the place we’re sitting now that piqued me. While based in Mendocino, Klopf has traveled relentlessly, bunking down in Australia, Bali, the Philippines, Hawaii, and Costa Rica. Yet he’s spent the last seven winters in the Dominican Republic. Does he know something we don’t? 

In short, yes. Sure, well-traveled East Coasters already know that adjacent Puerto Rico cops more swell, but the appeal of the DR to competent (versus elite) surfers is real. Affordable, spot-rich, Caribbean blue, a touch overlooked…Just the sort of thing to lift them—and a stuffed-passport journeyman photographer—to at least half-mast. But if you’re looking for Klopf to pin drop—to hand over the keys—you’re exercising the sort of newb mores that he abhors. It’s not simple drawbridge-expat shit. Those who have earned their way into the game know that it’s not theirs to give. For that reason alone, Klopf says, the Dominican surfers retain all spot copyright. 

“Let me be clear about that right now,” he says.

Where his immigration here is concerned, it was a process of elimination. 

“Well, I thought about the Philippines. I was on the island of Leyte in 1990, where Douglas MacArthur landed. I met a Filipina and I ended up falling in love with her, but I had to fly back to Australia to edit footage. When I was done, I flew back and found her. It was before the internet, before any of that shit, and when I pulled up on a little frickin’ tricycle, she was shocked: ‘I never thought I’d see you again.’ The mayor married us and I gave her dad, like, 100 bucks to go buy beer and stuff for everyone. We’ve been married ever since. I bought her a little restaurant near Mendocino. But to live in the Philippines? No. Too damn hot and too damn dangerous. Your life is worth ten bucks. I know. I’ve been there at least ten times.”

Post-PI, Klopf worked his NorCal acreage, surfed his home breaks, and decamped to the Southern Hemisphere during the rain and cold of the northern winters. Driven and willfully recalcitrant, he’s always taken pride in the old-school photographic disciplines. Follow focus. Continuous tone. Stopping down Fuji Velvia, then pushing the film past spec in processing for that gum-numbing late 80s color. It wasn’t until deep into the aughts that he even tried digital.

Californian (now Bali-based) surfer Jared Mell remembers, “My first trip with Klopf was when I was 18. Costa Rica.

We were hanging out after a good day and he gave me that Cheshire grin, holding up a Ziploc bag of exposed film, and said, ‘Fuckkk, grom, we did it.’” 

Justin Quintal is more effusive regarding Klopf’s craft. 

“I think there’s something different that Klopf does,” says Quintal. “A little more old school, probably from shooting film for so many years. It’s rare you see him hold the button down on his camera. He once told me, ‘It’s not a machine gun.’ I feel like he takes images with intention, and you see that in his work. I think his images stand out, and over the years he’s retained a certain feel and a common thread.”

Curious wedges and shore dumps abound at a nearby whomp and bodyboard beach. Such novelty setups offer standup kicks when the trades blow out the go-to spots. Ryan Conklin in the right corner at the right time.

As he tracked around the Pacific with his measured sniper’s finger clocking Kentucky windage—Peru, Lombok, Queensland—he wasn’t officially looking for a winter nest. But he wasn’t not looking either. He almost found it in the most unsurprising location one might conjure.  

“Yes, I ended up with a place in Costa Rica,” he recalls. “It worked. Like I said, I’m a long-term guy. I’m not a ‘surgical mission’ guy. Today, CR is played out. It’s like a global contingent of every nationality lives there and owns all the businesses. The locals are the ones that work for [them]. And the money to fund the businesses comes from all, you know—they’re South American or European or American or Canadian or whatever.

“And as a guy that likes to swim and shoot from the water, the crocs [are a pain]. Nowadays every river is filled with crocs, from Tamarindo to Ollie’s. Every goddamned river. 

“And if you leave anything in your car, it’s going to be gone in Costa Rica. Instant smashed window. If you’re in a parking lot of a ritzy hotel, your shit’s gone. It doesn’t matter if there’s a security guard. So yeah, Costa Rica’s done, man.”

“What, Mexico? The places that I like don’t have enough infrastructure,” he says. “You end up living in the dirt. Nicaragua? El Salvador? Same deal as the Philippines: too hot, too dangerous.” 

Finishing dinner, he lays out a plan to give me a survey of the Dominican coast, a soup-to-nuts rundown that he says will voice his love for the DR in ways words can’t. Over the next couple of weeks, we do just that. 

The North Coast—centered around the town of Cabarete—is a complex of sand banks, coves, and reefs. Each of them glows and wanes under an ever-changing set of conditions. One can be faced with onshore doggerel at Reef A and, 300 yards away and unseen, Reef B is coming alive. Local knowledge is absolutely required. That’s where the boys come in.

Manuel Selman, hitting the jackpot in a fickle zone.

“The main surf spot—which I will mention because it’s on Surfline [with a wave cam]—is Encuentro,” says Klopf. “There’s a surf camp, and the surf guides hang out there. Encuentro has about four or five peaks that have different moods. So all you do is look around and ask around. Jorge Mijares or Chepe Gomez or Bobo Peralta or Brandon Sanford or Pedro Fernandez—those are names to remember.  If you see a guy surfing good, ask him, ‘Dude, can you help me?’ He’ll point you in the right direction. Or he’ll become your personal guide. If you think you’re going to fly in and wing it and backpack it around the island and find all these waves, you’re not going to find a goddamn thing. Because they’re all hidden. There’s so many little directions and nooks and crannies, and so many swell angles at different spots that are close to each other. There will be five different spots and they all break on different swell angles. Or different winds, you know?”

Driving the point home, we roll up to a guard kiosk fronting a gated community. The guard sees Klopf, offers an unsmiling thumbs-up, and waves us through. 

“No way random Billy from Daytona Beach is getting in,” Klopf says.

Finding a hole through the jungle to a hidden two-track, we bump past equestrians and shotgun-toting security. After a few minutes, the trail ends. Blinding white sand. The sort of blue water that has you questioning any allegiance you might have to tropical Pacific waypoints. A handful of beach creatures are lazing in the morning sun. Out on the reef, a three-wave set stands up, finds its footing, and offers itself up to the scant handful of surfers who chase one another into the bay. To the inexperienced Caribbean visitor grasping for comparisons, it feels like Kauai in, oh, 1978. On an extraordinarily glassy day.

“The trades, bro,” he says, reading the vibe. “So it’s basically a southeast-angled wind. You don’t usually get pure souths, but they have them from time to time. The south-angled wind is offshore on the North Coast. It’s usually a morning wind.”

Klopf can’t help himself, and double-taps a pair of handheld photographs.

It’s cloudless, but the weather is splitting the difference between cool and warm: 74-degree air, 80-degree water. 

“I didn’t come here trying to find anything,” Klopf says. “I was trying to escape the winter and the temperature was perfect, and I had some bros down here and then got introduced to a lot of the local surfers and I became friends with them. And, I don’t know, I was mostly shooting lineups because no one believed there were waves here. And the spots, up to pretty much a year ago, were almost completely empty except Encuentro, which has a European influx of beginners and kiters. 

“The affordability aspect is a factor, of course. In Costa Rica, a 5-gallon jug of good water can be ten bucks. It’s a dollar here. You could live here on $1,000 US, no problem. Once you figure it out and make some contacts, you can find an okay place for $400 a month.

“Food-wise, it’s the typical home-kitchen casado style you’d find in Costa Rica: rice, beans, plantains, a little chunk of some protein. But everything’s cheaper. Everything. If you want to eat cheap, you can. Fresh dorado, fresh mero. And you know what? You’re probably getting fresher chicken than you would be if you were walking into a fancy restaurant. Because they’re just taking one out in the back and fuckin’ snappin’ its neck and throwing it on the grill for ya. 

“The people are chill. Maybe a little indifferent. They have to be chill because the tourist police are pretty heavy here. But there are ghetto-type areas farther away where some of the Dominican locals are pretty fuckin’ rough. I mean, you can go right across the fence there to the river mouth. You don’t want to show up there without a local boy, ’cause it’s [crime-ridden]. You might get poked.

“This is a country on a level with the Philippines as far as how much people are getting paid, and the Haitian workers work for even less. I want to see the local guys get the opportunities. Guiding, small surf shops. Rentals and surf lessons pay them pretty good, you know, but they need an influx of people. Encuentro is the spot. It has the soft, easy, hair-dry paddle out, and it’s also got a shallow, urchin-studded Latin reef where you can get barreled.”

There’s something comforting about seeing a pirate at rest. At 70-something, Klopf has found his Goldilocks “just right” bed. Midway through the assignment, we trip down to a local novelty wave. Klopf has fired maybe a million frames of other guys surfing in the DR, but a severe neck injury has kept him off the wax for nearly a decade. I watch him paddle into a backwash-troubled right, stick the drop, and run down the line. I expect him to coast in on this small, remarkable victory. He executes a whippy kickout and commences to paddle back up the point.   

Corners and beachbreaks aplenty—though you’ll have the devil’s time finding them. A nose for the wind vane will also serve you, as the DR is a Mad Hatter’s pocket watch of eddies and gusts.