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Near disasters and scarred realism with photographer Corban Campbell.
Introduction by Tony John Andrews | Photos and captions by Corban Campbell
Light / Dark
I met Corban Campbell on the bright stucco corner in midtown Ventura where he runs his coffee shop, named Singing Sun after some poem he can’t remember. For the next week, I rode shotgun in his white ’97 F-250, around the boatyards and shaping sheds and beach parking lots where he crafts his surfing life in quest of “complete creative control.”
I found him in a state of frenzied animation. Campbell had been sober for four months, for the first time since high school, and he was in constant motion—slamming cold brews and non-alcoholic beers and pacing on the phone with real estate agents in a bid to expand his shop, finalizing his quiver for an imminent trip to Indo, dropping off and picking up his latest rolls of film, dropping off and picking up his son from preschool, working on his boat while the boy proclaimed “I WANT SNACKS AND CARTOONS,” then teaching the kid to turn a wrench instead, binging Ozark while tinkering with cameras late into the night, taking pictures of his feet while riding waves, blasting folk and indie rock as he went, until he’d realize he was starving. Then he’d race to the taqueria to crush some fish tacos.
“He’s a truck that only has fifth gear,” says Hayden Brosnan, Campbell’s friend and fellow Ventura-area surfer-creative. “He’s a shark. He can’t sit still. It’s a mania. He’s only interested in doing.”
He’s also interested in seeing, of course. It would be cliché to note a surf photographer’s “blue eyes,” but Campbell’s bear mentioning, because what he captures with them has been gathering attention—first in ads, then online, and more recently in glossy, tactile print.
What makes Campbell’s surf photography distinctive is that it’s not really about surfing. He isn’t interested in “surf turkey” images, which is how he describes the standard-fare snaps of high-performance moves on porn-quality waves. Instead, he’s drawn to the lines and gestures of today’s more expressionistic surfers: Ryan Burch, Derrick Disney, Bryce Young. His eye also likes to wander off the wave, to the atmospherics of the surf-junkie life: a black Cadillac in a palm-fringed lot, a Baja farmer’s golden teeth, a man in pink shorts passed out in hot sand.
His portrait subjects are often expressionless. His landscapes are stark, but alive, a sense of place itself his work’s main character. Amid the surfscapes, there are frequent, random-seeming cameos of Idaho. Somehow, it works. The images cohere and exude a certain mystery, a sense of desolation, a yearning for some distant, sun-bleached past.
“What do your photographs mean?” I ask, trying to understand these elements.
“I can’t put this stuff into words,” he says at last.
Because Campbell was introduced to me as a surf photographer, I was struck by the volume of other “stuff” he does. Browsing his midcentury bungalow, its retro furnishings littered with Legos and toy cars, I kept encountering his handiwork in new forms. The surfboards hanging in the rafters? He shaped them. The modernist painting on his wood-paneled wall? He painted it. The boat in front? He built it out. The poke we ate? He speared the fish.
My time with him was full of these “Wait, you do that, too?” moments, but he doesn’t sacrifice depth for breadth. Everything he does, he does seemingly well—if with a certain controlled recklessness. “Meticulous” was the first word his barista used to describe him. (The second was “goofball.”) Campbell also seems to apply his style across all of these pursuits, a sort of alt-Patagonia, Wes Anderson mélange with tattered edges, an aesthetic that sits at the rarely struck nexus of chic and core, a fusion he physically embodies.
Lean and wolfish and in his mid-thirties, Campbell is indelibly tanned in the way all serious surfers are. His beard is full but neat, blond with the first silver wires at the edges. He wears sweat-stained dad caps, faded band tees, weathered Chelsea boots. His Dickies are dusted with fiberglass. On his right knuckle sits a deep pink gash, riven by the gill plate of a white sea bass. The cut won’t heal because he can’t stay out of the water.
Not always, but often, those behind the lens don’t excel in front of it. In this sense, Campbell is different. He has photos of himself riding significant waves—“20-foot plus,” by Brosnan’s estimation. Campbell’s Instagram links not to his portfolio, but to a six-minute ripper reel titled simply, “Corban Campbell Surfing.” Tastefully edited and scored to the croons of Westerman, the clip is predictably vibey, but most striking is the physical skill it displays.
When I point this out to him, he deflects, saying only, “I love to surf.” When I press him, he admits that he likes big barrels and grades himself as “a strong C-plus,” to which I think, God, what does that make me?
His phone number still begins with 321, as in “blast off,” a relic of his Florida origins, where he traced the plumes of spaceship exhaust from the lineup. He’s one of those congenital shredders whose dad pushed him into wave one at some single-digit age. He’s never not known what he calls “the hunger.”
“When you’re a kid, all you want to do is surf,” he says. “I mean, nothing’s changed there, but now it’s about finding the means.”
The coffee shop is one such means, the latest and best he’s found so far. Campbell doesn’t come from money. To launch the venture, he and his wife saved up and took out a loan. She manages the finances while he doubles as marketeer/handyman. Their bet is paying off. In past lives, he guided surf tours in Nicaragua, valeted cars at the St. Regis, worked and lived on a boat in Dana Point. In high school, he cycled through every restaurant in town, in every function—dishwasher, busser, waiter, host—because whenever the surf came up, he’d quit.
Homeschooled by his born-again Christian mother, Campbell recalls his upbringing as strict. If that’s true, he must have been untamable. A thick purple scar vertically bisects his abdomen, a souvenir from age 19, when he was driving around in a hurricane and ran out of gas, which prompted him to siphon a refill. He accidentally swallowed “about a mug’s worth” in the process. The fuel first ate through his stomach, then started in on his organs. Rather than the hospital, he rushed to the beach for a surf.
At 17, seatbelt-less, he hit 120 on A1A and flipped his car five times. He somehow walked away and, I couldn’t help but note, still doesn’t wear a seat belt when he drives. These misadventures were augured as early as age 6, when, implausibly, the wolf his neighbor was attempting to domesticate went rogue and nearly dragged Campbell off into the woods by his ass cheek. His sister grabbed his little arms, playing tug of war with the beast until their shrieks brought Dad running from the house. Mr. Campbell grabbed a shipping pallet and smashed it over the creature’s back, then used a piece of wood to bat it around the neighborhood. The news ranked the incident as the second-worst wolf attack in the state that year—a list only Florida would keep.
Campbell’s other greatest-hits story concerns the crucial organ of his art. He was surfing in Nicaragua when a hot, sharp jolt hit his eye. Weeping blood, he did what any reasonable person would do: He kept surfing. Flash-forward several weeks and he was in Idaho, the pain now unbearable, eyelid swollen shut, the only doctor on call a self-proclaimed inland “shaper” who had been working on the same board for ten years and had never before attempted eye surgery. The man offered to “take a stab” anyway, but Campbell politely declined and flew back to California, where a seasoned surgeon produced the inch-long beak of a needlefish—upper and lower jaw with full rows of teeth fully intact—from Campbell’s optic nerve, preserved to this day in a vial.
Though taciturn when asked to reflect, Campbell eagerly volunteers these near-death yarns, which, while rich with shock value, might also hold a key to understanding his photographs. Despite his pristine compositions, his subject matter bears the scars of realism, often on cars and other vessels: a mud-spattered board, a rusted-out chassis, windshields dew-streaked and spiderwebbed with cracks. He sent me something he wrote, linking each of these stories together. In it, I can’t help but see flashes of his pictures. “I enjoyed the eerie solitude that came with the storm,” he explains of his hurricane joyride. Before the crash, “a car pulled out on the desolate moonlit two-lane road.” Of the needlefish: “It played darts with my eyeballs.” It’s all there: the starkness, the grisly uncanny, the redemptive gallows humor.
Brosnan offers a simpler analysis of Campbell’s artistic philosophy: “The theme of Corban’s photos is Corban has to be doing stuff. Corban lives through action. To him, photography is an action.”
“But what about his approach?”
“The reason Corban doesn’t have a photo of someone on a wave above head-high is because he’d rather be in the water.”
Campbell doesn’t deny it. “Unless someone like Bryce Young or Ryan Burch is in the water, I want to surf,” he says.
There’s an old quote, apocryphally attributed to Mark Twain: “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” This tracks with a younger version of Campbell, perhaps, though he lives a bit less headlong these days, time’s weight beginning to slow him down.
After four knee surgeries, he no longer does airs. Sobriety is helping him keep control of the wheel. He must for his son. On my last day with Campbell, he takes me for a final drive, and as we traipse Ventura’s cruddy sprawl, skinny palms flitting like matchsticks above the 101, I turn to him and ask a journalist’s question: “What motivates you?”
“Fun,” he tells me. “All the work is to have fun and get barreled.”
“And the photographs?”
“I don’t know how to explain that part,” he says. “It’s what I see…what I bring back.”
In an essay, Thad Ziolkowski, a fellow Space Coaster and one of surfing’s poet laureates, explains the pointlessness of trying to verbalize the pursuit’s appeal: “In surfing, there is no pining for speech and clarification,” he writes. “It is not signaling anything; it is not a representation; it is not for others.”
I wonder if it’s the same way for Campbell and his photographs. Ziolkowski goes on to write that, if at all, surfing is best captured through images: “A tube is a kind of camera obscura, and when the photography finds its way inside, it’s like a return to origins, one signaled by the mist that’s spit out at the end.”
Maybe Campbell’s photographs are one such return. Maybe his pictures speak their own language, a speech understood by the eye. Or maybe things don’t have to be that complicated—just fun, or whatever they are.
[Feature image: Lip augmentation by Colin Moran. It’s trippy how the foreground chop’s contour is parallel with the wave. I couldn’t have asked for a better natural composition. I took several beatings while bobbing around the inside that afternoon, but this photo was worth the rinses]