“We folded Jimmy Metyko into our scene,” said 63-year-old writer and director Sam George. “And because of that he had an insider’s perspective.”
We were seated at the dining table of George’s Malibu mobile home, the Surfer issue with Metyko’s “Goodbye California” article laid between us. The opening spread features a shot of a gorgeous barreling left, plumes of offshore spray coming off the lip, a bird flying right where the dreaming surfer might slot themself. George remembers Metyko being timid, earnest, quirky—and mighty fortunate to have landed in Santa Barbara when he did.
“He was there when everything was coming together. The thruster happened. Tommy Curren happened. Shaun Tomson moved to town. Willy Morris broke from every protocol that every Californian knew and started getting boards from out of his zip code, coming up [from LA] and ordering boards from Channel Islands. All this was happening, and it happened during the El Niño winter of super-consistent surf. It wasn’t just the big Wednesdays, it was the super-consistent Tuesdays and Thursdays, where Al could make boards for Tommy and he’d go surf, come back, shape a new one, surf. Tommy was refining his double-pump bottom turn because every day he had the medium to do it. And it wasn’t just Rincon. It was Sandspit, it was Hammond’s, it was Santa Clara River Mouth.”
I first met and started shooting with Metyko around this time. At age 16, I joined the Channel Islands team and made a bunch of new surf buddies from Santa Barbara. We’d meet Metyko at first light, usually at Santa Clara River Mouth in Ventura. There was no swell forecasting back then. You gathered whatever intel you could find and coupled it with your own animal instincts. Shooting with him added stakes to otherwise routine surfs. It was a new thing, the idea of surfing for the camera—the posing, hard-hitting lip bash that might cost you the rest of the wave. It was all about getting the shot.
We wore brightly colored wetsuits partly because they added flair to the pics, but also to help Metyko nail tack-sharp focus. There was a performative element that extended beyond the water and into the parking lot—you never knew when Metyko might aim his camera at you. This was especially subversive in Ventura and Santa Barbara, where the black-wetsuit, clear-board set still reigned supreme. But those Santa Barbara kids, that Channel Islands team—Tom Curren, Kim Mearig, Davey Smith, Tim Smalley, Dana McCorkle, Matt Mondragon, Chris Brown, etcetera—collectively ushered in the new guard.
The Jimmy Metyko story has the all makings of a film. It starts with grainy footage of a seven year old riding his first waves in Galveston, Texas. Then we see him in his early teens poring over surf magazines, studying the finger placement of his favorite wave riders, paying close attention to the way in which they’re photographed. These are the 70s. Moody, backlit shots abound.
Metyko gets his first camera in 1973, a Pentax SLR. On a family trip to India his father gives him an assignment: to shoot Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying Destitutes. With a camera, Metyko begins to see the world in carefully composed rectangles. He pays attention to lighting, color, contrast.
In the winter of 1979 he moves to Santa Barbara to attend the Brooks Institute of Photography, a venerable college a few miles up the coast from Rincon. He wants to up his photography game. He also wants to shoot surfing.
One bright December day he walks into the Channel Islands surf shop on Helena Avenue. He’s familiar with the boards. He’s heard of this wunderkind named Tom Curren. He’s shy about being from Texas. Back then Texan surfers could cop a hard time in California. He buys a bar of wax and the latest issue of Surfer. He pays for it with a personal check. The guy behind the counter asks to see his driver’s license. Nineteen-year-old Metyko hands it to him.
The guy studies it. “Texas huh?”
Oh shit, thinks Metyko, here it comes.
The guy looks up. “That’s cool,” he says. “I’m from Texas.”
Metyko’s Santa Barbara odyssey begins. The guy is Kim Robinson, shop manager and respected figure in the local surf scene. Robinson introduces Metyko to all the key players—Tom Curren, Davey Smith, Shaun Tomson, Kim Mearig, Willy and Steve Morris, Matt and Sam George. Metyko’s freshman year at Brooks coincides with budding friendships with the aforementioned surfers.
When his instructors give him assignments he uses those surfers as his subjects. His circle expands to the up-and-coming Santa Barbara High School kids, and to the shaper building the magic carpets under their feet: Al Merrick. By the time the fabled El Niño winter of 1982-83 arrives, Metyko’s photography chops are peaking and he’s shooting these guys everyday.
He submits his photos to Surfer and Surfing. They run them. Metyko’s still a student at Brooks, but he’s getting checks every month for his photography. This goes on until he graduates in 1983. For his senior project he showcases the last four years of his work: Tom Curren ducking behind a curtain at Santa Clara, Willy Morris fanging off the top at Rincon, Al Merrick holding up a freshly shaped tri-plane hull in front of the Channel Islands factory.
“This teacher comes up to me,” said Metyko, “and he goes, ‘You know Jimmy, you’re the only photographer that I’ve seen to date that has published work before he graduates. Your whole show is published work.’ And I was like, ‘Is that good?’”
So good that Surfer runs a sort of retrospective of Metyko’s work in 1984—just a few years after he’d begun shooting professionally. By the time it hits the newsstands Metyko’s already packed it up and moved back to Texas, and his photos of the Santa Barbara area disappear from the mags.
Metyko’s memories from this period are characteristically humble. “I was basically learning how to shoot. It wasn’t about skills. It was about getting equipment. It was about ultimately getting a water housing and eventually getting a long-enough lens. I was just trying to get progressive shots,” he told me.
As his shots got more and more progressive, and as he got more and more of them published in the mags, he started setting goals for himself. “One of my goals was to get a photo in every department in Surfer. I wanted to get a Tips article, I wanted to get an Extra, I wanted to get the cover.” He did all the above, including a sequence of Davey Smith pulling off a frontside air—the first sequence of a landed air in the mag.
“I grew up wishing I was a part of that world,” said Metyko. “It was all about being deprived. When you don’t come from surf central you have this ‘lack of’ that you want to fill. I wanted to soak up California culture and be a part of it and contribute to it and have my photos go out in the magazines and have people see my work the same way I saw Art Brewer’s work and Jeff Divine’s work.”
Many surfers from that generation still talk about the impact that Metyko’s photos had on their surfing lives. There was a shot of Tom Curren doing a spinal twist on the beach before paddling out. He wears a blue-and-white Rip Curl wetsuit. He’s a sort of coiled snake about to strike. For me, this represented the beginnings of a more serious athleticism in surfing.
Jeff Divine was the photo editor at Surfer during the Metyko era. “We craved new material that was quality,” he said, “and especially from different areas because we were kind of center-weighted in Orange County. And there’s Jimmy Metyko from Santa Barbara turning in sharp, crisp photos. If Metyko hadn’t been there at that point in time we would have had no photos of it. Jimmy legitimized that Santa Barbara scene.”
Sam George concurs. “What Jimmy meant to California surf culture was very important,” he told me. “There were more famous photographers, there were technically better photographers, and I would say there were even cooler photographers. But there haven’t been many that have been as influential as Jimmy in the whole state of California. He took this place and portrayed it as being a hub of progression, and that led to Al becoming the shaper he was, Tommy becoming the example he was, and all the guys that have come afterwards out of Santa Barbara. They might not have happened without Jimmy. There’s a direct line from Jimmy Metyko showing up in Santa Barbara in 1979 and the Coffin brothers now.”
Today, Metyko lives with his wife and daughter outside Austin, Texas, where he runs a design company. Speaking with him brought back all kinds of great memories—the cracked mud at Santa Clara, Curren’s love of The Who, Willy’s relentless practical jokes. At that time Metyko seemed destined to become one of the world’s great surf photographers. Yet he packed it up right after graduating from Brooks. I always wondered why.
“My dad got cancer,” he told me. “I was supposed to go on some surf trips. I probably could have gone on and shot a lot more. But my dad reached a certain point where I knew I had to go home.”