Beachside, street life, and other intimate moments through the lens of San Pedro’s Nick Green.
Words by Whitman Bedwell
Light / Dark
Amid the sprawl of Southern California coastal enclaves, San Pedro is an oddity. Situated in the hook of its eponymous bay, it’s defined physically by the Port of Los Angeles, America’s busiest trading post, which occupies a major portion of the city’s land area. In attitude, Pedro has more in common with its neighbors to the east, Wilmington and Long Beach, than it does Palos Verdes to the west.
In short, San Pedro is unabashedly working class. Longshoreman jobs are one of the few remaining high-paying careers where a high school diploma isn’t required. There’s still a main thoroughfare, Gaffey Street, framed by legit mom-and-pop shops. And it’s a place proudly protective of itself and its identity. The surf scene, naturally, follows in that mold. There are a handful of different setups dotted around the bottom of its cliffs, some of them good on their day. But for those not of town, don’t expect welcome mats. Or smiles in the water. And should an outsider misstep, Pedro’s players don’t mind walking it like they talk it, 911 calls and legal action be damned.
Despite being born and raised within city limits, Nick Green still found surfing in San Pedro “rough” when he came to it at 13, a sentiment strengthened by trips south to more-populated waters. “I’d go to Huntington or Newport or San Clemente or San Diego,” he says, “and I’d see all these people surfing and hanging out. I’d think, ‘Man, people here have it nice.’”
Still, as it often does to those of a certain age, surfing provided a line away from home. After high school, Green began tagging along with fellow Pedro surfer Tony Adams, who worked in the surf industry in various capacities and got Green started by having him film sponsored punters in whatever conditions were on hand in the industry hub of Orange County. And it was through working with Adams that, shortly after, Green met Shaun Ward, O’Neill’s team manager, who helped the young shooter book it out of Southern California entirely.
By the time he was in his early twenties, Green found himself behind the camera on trips to far-off paradises with name-brand surfers like Jordy Smith and John John Florence. He was being paid to document the hero moments—the biggest airs and widest barrels—in high-definition motion video for the purpose of branded content. But Green also made use of his time in those constantly changing surroundings to put to practice a similar but more artistically slanted craft: still photography shot on film.
While he can edit a web clip with the best of them, it’s that other avenue that separates Green from the surf-centric pack. His street-life captures reflect the work of photographers like Diane Arbus and Robert Frank, who, among others, defined the genre in midcentury America by pointing their lens away from the extraordinary to present an intimate portrayal of people, places, objects, and moments often overlooked, but nevertheless relatable. What you might actually see day to day. But also how you’ll remember it, frozen in a single frame. Real life, in a word. Certainly as emotive. In this vein, Green’s work is reflective of his environment and his upbringing, even when he’s stepping outside of it.
“I’m passing up what everyone else is looking for,” he says. “People will be like, ‘Oh, I know this really cool spot where there’s an amazing sunset.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not really looking for that.’ Try to find me a guy who’s going hunting or smoking meth, or someone who’s going to be upset that I took a photo of them. Find me cute colors on the sign of a flower shop, or an old man laying out on the beach. Find me a rapper to photograph in his neighborhood. I like all that. That’s what I grew up with.”
Some of the effect of his work can be traced back to his only shooting on film, which absorbs light and color in a way that more technologically advanced options just can’t replicate. For Green, it also forces him to be selective with when, and at what, he chooses to release the shutter. There’s only 36 chances at the shot, and it’s always a gamble. And, on a larger level, it offers the most surefire way to get at what he’s ultimately after: timelessness.
“I don’t want my photos to feel dated,” he says. “I want them to be memories, sure, and for me they are. But I really want them to look like they could be from whenever. My goal is to show you something you might’ve seen a million times before, but maybe not in the way I’m showing it to you. That’s what makes photography relatable, and that’s what tells a story in a single image.”
Despite a fast rise through surf media and the worldly benefits it’s entailed, the now-28-year-old has recently ditched the beach entirely. He’s currently learning how to refurbish classic cars in Johnson Siding, South Dakota, just west of Rapid City in the Black Hills. Think bike rallies, cowboys, presidential faces carved into the side of a mountain. Blue collar. Not a touch of surf culture anywhere. But for the right eye? Pure Americana to pull into the viewfinder.
“I could stay here forever,” he says, “and shoot 10,000 photos. But the last time they did the lottery at the docks, I got my card. I’m number 24,000 or something like that. One day, I’ll get a call and I’ll be in. I’ll have to go home for that. I couldn’t pass that up. Just go to work every day, bust my ass, and be set. And try to sneak some photos down there.”