Island Style

Bernie Baker and Leonard Brady photographically tag-teamed Oahu, leveraging their hustle, their contacts, and their smarts. The resultant file still speaks for itself.

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Long before Bernie Baker became the éminence grise of Hawaii’s Triple Crown of Surfing and Leonard Brady served as filmmaker John Milius’ consigliere, the duo ran Island Style, surfing’s first full-service photo agency. For more than a decade, the pair produced iconic images: the enigmatic Michael Peterson pulling into a massive tube at Backdoor. Shaun Tomson’s hands-free backside arch at Pipe on the Pink Banana. Ben Aipa putting his bulk and Sting hard on the rail at Number Threes. Mark Richards in a cheater five threading an Off The Wall barrel.  

Even more arresting, at least to me as a Southern California teenager growing up in the ’70s, were Island Style’s atmospheric photos: two  locals brawling at Ehukai Beach. A bloody knee at Velzyland. Topless Teri Melanson’s precise backside bottom turn at Rocky Point. Nobody captured the mood of the Hawaii-centric beginnings of professional surfing better than Baker and Brady. 

Island Style was born in 1974, when Baker, then Surfer magazine’s resident North Shore photographer, teamed up with Brady, an aspiring  filmmaker. The pair had first met in 1970 on Maui, where Brady was attending college. “Our clan of friends were always saying, ‘You guys should form  a team.’ Nobody had ever done that in the surfing industry,” says Baker. “It made sense: I lived on the North Shore and Leonard lived in Town. It was a crazy puzzle that fit perfectly, because he was shooting [motion] and I was shooting stills. So there was no competition.” 

 If it happened on Oahu, the Island Style duo utilized a pincer approach, handling any swell occurrence—be it Town or Country—with an unmatched documentary efficacy. Unknown Ala Moana surfer using the Ala Wai channel marker to his advantage.

The Embassy, as Baker’s house on Hoalua Street at the foot of Val’s Reef was known, became surfing’s equivalent of center court at Wimbledon. “A guy from the East Coast asked me if I wanted to rent it,” says Baker. “He said, ‘You’ve got to mow the lawn, you’ve got to buy the lawn mower from me, and you’ve got to pay the deposit on the property.’ So I paid $150 as a security deposit, then $150 for the lawn mower, and it was mine.” The weekend after Baker moved into the one-bedroom bungalow, Brady came out from Town with a riding lawn mower and mowed the whole yard. That winter, the world’s best surfers began to congregate there. Not only was Baker’s house always open, but surfers’ valuables were safe there and everyone was welcome. On any given day you might find locals Eddie Rothman, Vince Klyn, Phyllis Dameron, and Ben Aipa, Australians Mark Warren, Peter Drouyn, Terry Fitzgerald, and Cheyne Horan, Californians Owl Chapman and Mike Eaton, and South Africans Shaun Tomson and Paul Naude mingling on the lawn, coming and going from the surf. Photographer Jeff Divine describes Baker’s house and yard as an “African water hole where all the wildlife passes through, coexisting while there.” 

“If you saw Gerry Lopez and Rory Russell,” says Baker, “you knew that Pipeline was no good.” 

Mr. Gerry Lopez arrives at a North Shore contest with everything he needs: shades and a self-shaped, leash-free shooter.

Before Pipeline was the center of professional surfing, every pro, male or female, had to make their peace with the North Shore’s most consistent and challenging wave: Sunset Beach. “Owl Chapman put it best when he called Sunset ‘the best wave in 10,000 miles in either direction,’” says Brady. “In those days, if you wanted to be a pro surfer, you had to make your mark at big Sunset. Barry Kanaiaupuni was head and shoulders above everyone else, whether it was a bottom turn, a snap, a late takeoff—whatever it might be, he was the man. Period.” 

Another of Baker and Brady’s favorites was Aipa, the 5’8″, 240-pound former semi-pro football player. “Ben was amazing to watch,” says Brady. “He had such a different and powerful style because of his physical build.” “He was an absolute surfing genius,” concurs Baker. “Right up there with BK.” 

When it came to time spent in the water at big Sunset, both Baker and Brady considered Ken Bradshaw and Charlie Walker in a league of their own. “They were my buoys. By watching them, seeing where they were sitting,” says Baker, “I’d get an understanding of the swell—more north, more west. They had it down.” 

Others who impressed the pair were Jeff Hakman, Reno Abellira, Larry Bertlemann, Mel Kinney, Chuck Andrus, Keone Downing, Bobby Owens, and Dane Kealoha. “I hate to leave anyone out,” says Brady. “There were so many standouts during that period of time.” 

Although Richards, Warren, and Rabbit Bartholomew were Embassy regulars, the overseas surfer who made the biggest impression on them was West Australian Ian Cairns. “The first year he came over, we were having a late-afternoon Thanksgiving dinner on a neighbor’s lawn,” says Baker. “We saw this guy take off from the point on an easy 10-foot wave. He made it all the way across to the Saddle, came into the peak from the left side, and then made it all the way through the inside wall. It was some of the most insane charging I’d ever seen anybody from anywhere other than Hawaii ever do—absolutely brilliant surfing!”

Island Style’s strength was largely a result of Baker and Brady’s own stylistic differences. Baker shot stills, saw himself as a journalist, and thought in terms of the single image. Brady, on the other hand, had a cinematographer’s eye. “Leonard had the motion side of capturing images down,” says Baker. “He was not a still photographer per se. He captured movement. His photos just had a different look. Leonard is also the best portrait photographer that I’ve ever seen in the sport of surfing.” 

Island Style’s photography was also unique because Baker and Brady were both surfers, first and foremost, and regulars in lineups from Ala Moana to Sunset Beach. “Bernie was 1975 Hawaii state men’s surfing champion and charged Jocko’s and Sunset,” says Brady. “I can still see him doing a full snapback on a giant wave at Sunset on his 7’4″ blue Parrish Bolt. It was jaw-dropping.” 

“One thing was for sure,” says Baker. “At the end of the day, we were both in the water.” 

Baker and Brady often looked outside of surfing for photographic inspiration. “Both of us are car guys,” says Baker. “One of the things that we did with Mark Richards was based on something that they do in Road & Track called ‘Test Reports.’ They take a particular model of car, and you see that car in motion from two different angles.” The pair bought walkie-talkies and set up their cameras 100 yards apart at Chun’s Reef. They shot Richards doing a board test between a twin-fin and a four-fin. When they got the film back from Color Prints in Kaka‘ako, they matched their photos. “You’d get a snapback from his angle, then you’d get a snapback from my angle,” says Baker. “You couldn’t tell if it was the same wave because you get angled enough opposite each other and the wave looks different automatically.”  

Teenaged but by no means easily dismissed, David “Kalani” Foster steers his Willis Brothers shape into a hand-dragging barrel prelude.

In the late ’70s, after Gary Gerberg, an East Coast surf-movie promoter who lived in Hawaii, joined Island Style, they expanded into video  and commercial work. “It was a really wide-open market in the ’70s, and we went way beyond surfing. We bid and got most of the local jobs,” says Baker. “Island Style Productions did commercials for Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Sony. It was much more than a surfing company. We were pros, and we were highly regarded in the state of Hawaii for the work that we did outside of surfing. It was a full-time job.”  

In addition to running their company, Baker and Brady both continued to pursue their respective passions. Baker was becoming one of the  key figures behind Hawaii’s Triple Crown. By the late ’70s, the Pro Class Trials, the first contest Baker and his neighbor Randy Rarick created, had grown into the most important big-wave contest in Hawaii for dark horses, local legends, and aspiring pros from all over the world. “Randy was one of Hawaii’s most influential surfers, and he came up with the idea,” says Baker. “‘Baker,’ he said to me, ‘we’ve got too many guys to run an event in a two-day period. If we run a junior event, we can include the 16 quarterfinalists in the main event.’”

Baker, Warren, and Lightning Bolt Surfboards owner Jack Shipley made three lists. In column A, says Baker, were “the guys we knew were insanely great, like BK. The known up-and-comers were in column B, and the unknowns were in column C. Randy and I also agreed that we would not run it at Sunset Point, but if it was breaking big in the middle, we had a competition.” 

Absolute state-of-the-art full gun display in the early 1980s, a time that found Waimea out of vogue. Not to these men—and their total involvement in craft and commitment. From left to right: Pat Rawson, Tom “Tomahawk” Hawk, Jack Reeves, Owl Chapman, and Richard Brewer.

The Pro Trials ran from 1975 to 1983. Sunset standout Kanaiaupuni won it the first two years. Aussies Col Smith, Cairns, Jim Banks, and Richard Cram also captured titles, as did Hawaiians Owens, James “Bird” Mahelona, and Fielding Benson. “For the Pro Class Trials and Triple Crown, I must give a great deal of credit for these and my successes in surfing and business to Randy Rarick,” says Baker. “I learned more from him than anyone other than my parents.”

While Baker was becoming one of the most important behind-the- scenes figures in Hawaiian pro surfing, Brady was  beginning to work in Hollywood through John Milius. Brady first saw Milius surfing at Sunset while the filmmaker was in Hawaii shooting Big Wednesday and was immediately impressed by the larger-than-life writer and director. “John is a very magnetic guy,” Brady says. “I used to eavesdrop on him in the lineup. He rode a 9’6″ Lightning Bolt that Gerry [Lopez] shaped him with no cord, and surfed Sunset well.”

After Lopez introduced Brady and Milius at the 1978 Surfer Poll Awards, they stayed in touch. In 1980, Milius sent Brady the script for Conan the Barbarian. After the Hawaiian read it, he called the screenwriter and told him he loved it. Milius then told Brady, “You should come to Spain and see how a movie is made.” Brady took him up on the offer and worked as an extra in the film, living with Lopez—who had a supporting role as the archer Subotai—outside Madrid. Not only did Brady learn how movies were made, but he also “got to know John really well, thanks to Gerry.” 

In 1986, after Brady helped Milius shoot a scene of a boat getting smashed at Waimea Bay for the film Farewell to the King, the director asked him if he wanted to go to Borneo for six months to work on the rest of the film, an offer he accepted. Then, in 1988, Brady moved to LA, where he worked for Milius for the next 25 years. 

“Bernie realized that I had to move on and was just fine with it,” says Brady. “He’s still one of my closest friends.” 

“Sadly, but not for Leonard, he got the opportunity to work in Hollywood,” says Baker. “I lost my shooting partner. But look, if I had that opportunity, I would have gone too.” 

Although Island Style as a working entity has shuttered, the frames hold up in timeless fashion. “I saw Rory Russell the other day,” says Baker. “He said, ‘Throw Leonard a kiss for me!’ Forty-five years later. It just doesn’t stop.”

[Feature Image Caption: Being situated at the top dead center of the Sunset Beach gladiatorial grounds, Baker and Brady enjoyed 24/7 access to every scrap of Paumalu’s sturm und drang. Unidentified sky-faller on the inside and Owl Chapman out front.]