Road Notes: Todd Glaser

Talking process, water angles, and the benefits of shooting with an 11-time World Champion

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As is often the case, the sessions that Todd Glaser documented on the fringes of last year’s WSL event in Portugal were better than the contest itself. Glaser was riding shotgun with Kelly Slater. In the span of three days Slater had what just about any other surfer would consider a career-high run. Most of it instantly made rounds on the web: “The 720” and a surf at the world-class Portugese slab Cave. But the subject of Glaser’s photo feature “Kilometer 80” from issue 24.4 of TSJ features a session that never surfaced online—four hours at an empty 8-foot sandbar with Slater. It was the kind of surf that turned out to be worth burying the rental car up to the axles and nearly missing an afternoon heat. The goods from that session unfold in the magazine. Here we caught up with Glaser to talk about his photographic process and working with the 11-time world champ.

Tell us about the run of surf leading up to the session Kelly had at the sandbar in Portugal last year.

He surfed that session at the right slab, Cave, one morning. And the next day he pulled the 720 when he was out free-surfing. Then we had that session at the sandbar the morning after—about an hour away from the contest site— and he went and surfed a heat in the afternoon. While we were in Portugal the weather was windy and rainy for a few days, so we decided to start exploring, driving down every dirt road we could to find different spots. That’s how we found the sandbar. We knew the next time it was offshore that we should go back and we ended up scoring it all morning with no one else out. It was about 6 to 8 feet. There were two locals in the water to start but they went in because the waves were pretty big.

How did you end up scoring that session at Cave without a huge crowd from the contest?

We just drove down there and there was nobody out. Any time you can get a session like that at a contest with no one else it’s pretty special. We weren’t even sure how to get in the water. We watched it for a while before Kelly paddled out. He ended up surfing it for about an hour before Aritz Aranburu got in the water. That was another five-hour session with phenomenal surf. It’s one of the better slabs there is. Practically everyone who’s surfed there has been injured in one way or another. Tiago Pires named the wave Cave. It means “basement” in Portugese and he named it that because the wave has a lot of steps to get to the bottom. But most Americans think it’s just called “The Cave” when they see it spelled because it’s a big gaping tube. I guess both interpretations work.

You initially got into surfing as a bodyboarder, chasing barreling waves. How does that inform your approach as a water photographer when you’re swimming in heavy surf?

I grew up bodyboarding Del Mar and Seaside Reef at a time when there were a lot of other bodyboarders who were really into it. Then, at 13, I got invited to spend two weeks in Hawaii and fell in love with trying to ride big waves. More than anything, bodyboarding taught me how to find good surf. I learned to read weather maps, where to get the best waves, and when, which a lot of photographers don’t learn. It also helps a lot when I’m shooting from the water. With a bodyboard you’re naturally drawn to barreling waves and bigger surf, so you’re already comfortable being low to the water and inside the tube.

“A couple years ago I was traveling eight months a year and shooting a lot at home,” says Glaser. “I got burned out, so I had to make a rule to only shoot the first and last hour of light at home. That’s where both these images come from.” Mid-winter mornings in Cardiff: (Left) Rob Machado, first-light tube. (Right) Ryan Burch, toes to the tip. Photo: Glaser

Do you ever want to grab the sponge instead of the camera on these trips when the waves are good?

I get as much satisfaction shooting heavy waves from the water. If I were standing on land all the time, I’d probably have a different answer. Plus, given the surfers I get to travel with, they ride waves far better than I’ll ever be able to, so it doesn’t feel like a trade-off when I shoot them. I still surf every day when I’m home and a couple times on every trip. But if Kelly’s out alone on a day like the one I shot for the magazine, it’s an easy decision. It’s worth documenting a cool story and bringing it back home with me.

How do you decide whether to shoot from land or the water?

Typically, the bigger waves get, the fewer waves are ridden in a session. If the waves are huge at Puerto Escondido and the current is really strong, you’re probably going to miss the best one or two waves people catch in a day. So I have to be smart about it before going out, even though I love swimming. A lot of it is preparation. It takes a while to learn the right moment to pull the camera out.

“This is Joel Tudor at Windansea in La Jolla,” says Glaser. “He was riding the nose a lot this session but also doing these huge carves. It’s hard to believe that board is ten feet long but that’s Joel’s power surfing for you.” Photo: Glaser

What are some of the more frightening moments you’ve had shooting from the water?

I’ve had some scary sessions swimming at Cloudbreak. When it’s 6 feet and breaking on the inner ledge, one of the best parts of that reef, it can start washing through if the sets get too big. If the swell is coming up fast there, you can get hit with non-stop 10-foot walls of whitewash. When the tide’s swinging low to high the current will suck you farther outside. The scary thing about Cloudbreak is you’re two miles out to sea. Unlike Teahupoo, for example, which pushes you in to the safety of the lagoon after a beating, you have to keep swimming at Cloudbreak. Hopefully the boat sees you at that point. Otherwise, you have to swim all the way back.

What are some of the other memorable off-the-beaten-track sessions you’ve had while traveling?

A couple years ago I went to this reef break with Kelly and Shane Dorian. For three days we surfed without another person around. It was just them in the water all day. They were getting really competitive and I was kind of egging them on. I’d see Kelly get a really good wave and he’d paddle by and ask, “How was Shane’s last one?” And I’d say, “I don’t know. I think he got a little deeper in the tube.” And then Shane would paddle by and I’d tell him the same thing about Kelly’s wave. They both kept pushing each other up the reef. By the end of the session they were way farther up the reef than where they started, getting some of the best waves I’ve seen.

“Kilometer 80,” the highlight session from Slater and Glaser’s trip to Portugal, is featured in issue 24.4 of TSJ