Tales from the Picture Stream

John Bilderback's Lens-Eye Literature.

Light / Dark

The mid-’90s were fat times for dead-tree surf media. Following a dark blip of recession triggered by Bush War I, the surfwear industry rebounded on a wave of women’s surf fashion, a serial US world champion in Kelly Slater, a Dream Tour, and a mainstream fascination with tow-in surfing at giant outer-reef waves. Bleed-through ad sales from fast-growing skateboarding and snowboarding markets fattened buyouts and travel budgets, and three preeminent American surf magazines were given marquee newsstand display at airports and supermarkets. 

By 1995, I’d found my feet as Surfer’s editor at large and had cobbled together enough paid travel assignments to maintain an international couch-surfing lifestyle that more or less fulfilled my Naughton-Peterson adventure fantasies. Each year during the midwinter Triple Crown season, Surfer would rent a spacious whitewater villa a short trudge up the beach from Pipeline. The mag staff and selected contributors would pack in, frat style, to produce a North Shore issue. The digs also provided the photogs a clubhouse where they could crash, store their gear, and resupply as needed. Each season saw wanton surf-image harvesting for the year—a forest of tripods perched on the berm overlooking Pipe or Rocky Point, resembling Yakama tribesmen lining the banks of the Columbia during the salmon runs. 

Andy Irons, Waimea Bay, 2001 I don’t really remember this day or much about this moment. It sure looks like I’m about to get cleaned up, though. Maybe that’s why I don’t remember it.

Each day, after the sun dipped below Kaena Point, the canisters of  Fujichrome were Sharpie-logged and tossed in a bag, cameras wiped off and cased, and it was time to make reservations for Haleiwa Joe’s or Lei Lei’s—if you were an alpha-pack carnivore like Art Brewer, Jeff Divine, or Tom Servais. The edit grunts like me usually tossed some leftover poké in with Top Ramen and kept writing up our log notes on first-gen PowerBooks. 

Come midnight, the shooters would return and, in the blue flickering light of MTV, the discount Foodland red and daily gossip would flow. Better yet, the North Shore lore would come creeping out like night-stalking octopi: early days North Shore as surfing’s Deadwood, complete with all manner of showdowns, drug deals, beatdowns, bitch-slaps, epic rides, deadly wipeouts, strip-club debutantes, Honolulu underworld haunts, lots of felonious mischief, and the occasional body dumped in the cane fields. 

Richard Schmidt, Sunset Beach, 1996. This was one of the craziest floater attempts I’ve ever seen. Everybody wants to know if he made it. Well, he made a real valiant effort. 

My biggest regret was not sneaking a tape recorder between the cushions.

Meanwhile, quietly seated at the counter would be John Bilderback, one of Surfer’s first-tier photo contributors, who would kibitz occasionally but mostly just listened. Lanky and rake thin, yet Bruce Lee tough from years of wrestling a water rig out to Sunset, “Bildy” cut a singular profile. A former apprentice to Aaron Chang, he was known for a bulldog work ethic and stunning water shots. 

Darrick Doerner, 2001. Darrick, doubling for James Bond in Die Another Day. He’s got a full Hollywood wetsuit and fake gun. In the movie, they show a commando team led by Bond infiltrating North Korea by night, surfing 50-foot waves to the beach. It was actually Peahi and shot in daylight. Pretty crazy, but pretty amazing. I often think James Bond wishes he was as tough as Darrick Doerner, you know? 

After a decade of paying dues on the North Shore, he was accepted and courted by the local heavies: the Marvins and Eddies and Johnny-Boys. By then in his early thirties, Bilderback survived and thrived within the North Shore jungle year-round while we mainland blow-ins would pull up the drawbridge at night to keep our shiny rental cars from being plundered. He was friendly, but infused with a well-spoken, New Jersey wiseass commentary I found refreshing—and he gave us the insider’s lowdown about what was really happening on his patch. In the ultra-competitive ecosystem of surf photographers, I marked Bilderback as the next generation and heir apparent. We became friends and would check in each year come contest season. 

Over nearly three decades since then, I’ve seen Bilderback (whose name translates as “picture stream” in German) evolve into a world-class lensman and an early adopter of digital photography, jet skis, cloudbreak exploration, and website marketing. He was one of the first surf photographers on the North Shore to learn, then shoot, kitesurfing—which led to even more postcard-destination travel and jaw-dropping images. 

I also learned of his life-altering adventure as the official photographer aboard the Hōkūle‘a’s three-year, 40,000-mile epic circumnavigation that was documented in the 2017 Patagonia book Mālama Honua: Hōkūle‘aA Voyage of Hope. The sheer diversity of intimate portraits as well as action, ocean, and wildlife images he produced mark this as Bilderback’s masterwork.

In his recently published book, Water Shots: 20 Years, All Wet,  Bilderback proves to be the rare exception among surf photographers: one who can bring home the visual goods as well as translate a lifetime of campfire tales into well-written, often ridiculously funny, accounts that toggle between adventure, big-wave heroics, and tragicomic blunders. To quote him totally out of context: “It was a mess…and I loved it.”

Jason Magers, Waimea Bay, January 28, 1998 After shooting from the helicopter, I was driving home from the airport and it was just mayhem on the North Shore. I came around the corner at Waimea and, of course, there were thousands of people lining the cliffs. Except there shouldn’t have been anything going on, because it was Condition Black. Then I looked, and there was a guy paddling in the middle of the bay. I literally slammed on my brakes, got out of my truck, grabbed my 300 mm lens, and started pressing the button as he stood up on his board and tried to dive off in front of this closeout set. That thing just straight-up ledged and threw out across the bay, and I thought, Oh, my God, I’m shooting somebody dying. It was really uncomfortable. Of course, I was blocking traffic and my heart was pounding, but then I saw him pop up. He’d survived! I pulled over and saw Jason paddle in, and the next shot I have is of him getting a ticket from a cop. He’s holding an 11-foot board with a 30-foot leash, and there’s this blue-uniformed cop writing him up. I can’t imagine what the official offense would be—maybe “being too gnarly.”

[Feature Image Caption: Tom Curren, Pipeline, 1990. The cool thing about Curren from a photographer’s point of view is that normally when you set up to shoot, you kind of have an idea of the specific moves that you’re looking for. Like at Pipe you always want to get the bottom turn, obviously, and at Rocky Point you’re always looking for off-the-tops. With Curren, the wild thing was his style was so continuous and fluid that a lot of the best shots of him were actually the transitions between moves. If you look at this photo, it’s a little bit late for the bottom turn. When he’s actually pinned it, it doesn’t look quite as cool as the way he’s leaning forward with both arms and in that Curren signature style. With Tom, it’s moments between the moments.]