Ahead of the Wave
Pioneering artist Dan Merkel looks back on surfing's golden era
Published in PDN, December 2008. This is the unedited version.
Michael Peterson in 1975. Photo by Dan Merkel.
By Kristina Feliciano
It’s difficult to imagine now, in a market saturated with surf magazines that overflow with crisp digital imagery, but there was once a time when there were only two major glossies devoted to the sport—Surfer and Surfing—and the guys who supplied them with photos dodged wipeouts while operating heavy manual cameras encased in homemade housings.
The time was the early ’70s, and surfing was about to get a serious overhaul. Fueled equally by ambition and unparalleled athleticism, young surfers like Shaun Tomson, Ian Cairns, Mark Richards, and Rabbit Bartholomew were working to elevate the sport from a pastime to a professional—and lucrative—pursuit. In spearheading worldwide competitions, chasing sponsorships, and turning in exhilarating performances that even the beach-bound could appreciate, they laid the groundwork for the multibillion-dollar industry that surfing is today.
If surfing would never be the same, neither would surf photography. A genre was being established, and photographers like Dan Merkel were risking their lives to do it. Merkel was a hard-swimming, high-energy, part-time oil-rig roustabout who went from casually taking pictures of his surfer buddies to approaching surf photography as if it too were a competitive sport—ultimately becoming one of the legends of the genre and, soon after, a pioneer of surf cinematography by way of movies like Free Ride and Big Wednesday.
“Back then, [surf photography] was an art as well as a skill,” notes Aaron Checkwood, photo editor of TransWorld Surf magazine. “You just couldn’t go out, buy a 40D, and start shooting till you got something. You needed skills. You had to know all the little tricks that made the images what they are—classics. There were no blogs giving away tips. You had to do your time and make thousands and thousands of mistakes before you got ‘that image.’”
Three decades later, Merkel’s photos still generate revenues for him through licensing and print sales—last year, a clothing company licensed one of his photos for $30,000—and, just as important, they continue to tell the tale of surfing’s golden days, most recently in the book Bustin’ Down the Door: The Surf Revolution of 1975 (Abrams), whose pages are splashed with Merkel photos, many of which have never before been seen.
“There were a lot of surfing photographers around who were really great at capturing the action, but he captured the action and he captured the interaction between us and each other and us and the environment,” says Shaun Tomson, the author of Bustin’ Down the Door and one of the era’s biggest surf stars. “That’s quite rare for a sports photographer. That’s why I definitely consider him more of an artist—he’s one of surfing’s great artists.”
“You got in front of me [in the water], I’d punch you,” is how he remembers himself. “I had this reputation.”
Dan Merkel was in Las Vegas packing up a group of framed photos he’d planned to exhibit at a friend’s gallery there when we reached him on his cell. The show was supposed to travel to Hawaii next, but his friend cancelled the plan, so Merkel was retrieving his work and driving it back to California. He wasn’t happy about it, since the photos are enormous—some of them 7 x 8 ft.—and it’d be tough to find a suitable place to store them for any length of time. But if he sounded a little annoyed with the task, it was probably because there other places he’d rather be. Lots of other places.
Merkel is 62 years old—“but not like a normal 62-year-old,” he says, and describes a nomadic life that has him taking long, lonely road trips and long, lonely hikes to reach locations where he’d like to shoot. Lighthouses in Oregon or vistas in Glacier National Park, for example. He travels probably 300 days a year and lives “nowhere”—he just stays with friends, of whom he has many worldwide thanks to his years on the surf circuit. A few years ago, Merkel resolved to become a panoramic photographer. He likes the format because it reminds him of film. But he doesn’t want to be just any panoramic photographer. “I want to be known as one of the top guys,” he says firmly.
It was just this sort of fire that stoked his photography career when he started out, back when he had a full beard and long hair, like a hippie only less peaceful. “You got in front of me [in the water], I’d punch you,” is how he remembers himself. “I had this reputation.” Surfing was the first magazine to publish his work, but it turned him down the first time he submitted his photos. The rejection only made Merkel, who at one time was ranked in the top 5 surfers at the 3A level (one level below pro), more determined, and he pushed himself hard to get better.
The equipment was barbaric and heavy, and if you couldn’t pull focus, you didn’t stand a chance. Merkel used a water housing cobbled together by fellow surf photographer George Greenough: a fiberglass box with hose clamps and a piece of rubber in front with a piece of round Plexiglas. “You had a wind a push lever. You could push down to get the picture, and then you could wind it,” Merkel says. “Because there were no motor drives back then. There was no such thing.” Later, he heard about a guy in Long Beach who made gear-driven glass housings so that you could follow focus. “And that’s when my water photography career took off,” says Merkel, who went on to design splash housings for the Photo-Sonic brand.
Merkel was based in Southern California, but in the early to mid-1970s, Hawaii was understood to be the sport’s ultimate proving ground, both for surfers and photographers. It had the most challenging surf spots—places like the Banzai Pipeline, Sunset, Off the Wall, and Rocky Point. Anyone who wanted to make it big would have to make it there. “I decided I gotta go over there,” Merkel says.
One of his favorite images from this time appears in Bustin’ Down the Door (a documentary of the same name, narrated by the actor Edward Norton, was released in early 2008). It’s a series of shots of Shaun Tomson riding the tube; Merkel captured the action with a bulky 21-pound high-speed camera at 200 frames per second. Tomson, who also names this as his favorite set of images from the book, calls the photos “revolutionary,” both for what they caught and how they caught it.
“At the time, I was re-creating the way tubes are ridden,” he explains. “I was actually riding inside the tube as opposed to surfing in a straight line. I really felt that the world was moving in slow motion because I was experiencing the situation so intensely. And I think Dan’s shots captured that experience. For me it was a re-creation of what’s most often just a fleeting experience.”
If the photos Merkel got were great, the dangers he faced were even greater. A surf photographer has to position himself where he thinks he’ll get the best shot when the guy takes off, which often means being in the worst spot for his own personal safety. As Tomson himself notes in the caption for those revolutionary tube photos in Bustin’, “Photographer Dan Merkel got so close to me in the tube that it felt like my hands were brushing the lens.”
Through the years, Merkel’s mishaps and injuries have ranged from having his housing smashed by a descending surfer to being speared by a board. Four years ago, he had to be taken by Medivac from the North Shore of Hawaii after a surf-photography accident. He had dived under a wave, and the wave had driven his head into a reef. (Fortunately, he was wearing a helmet; Merkel always outfits himself in an O’Neill wetsuit—because it floats, and if you get knocked unconscious, you want that—and a helmet.) “I heard this ca-rack,” recalls Merkel. He couldn’t move; he was paralyzed. “I’m facedown. I’m floating, and a wave rolls me over. I see a guy next to me on a boogie board, and I yell help. It was the hardest thing in the world just to say ‘help.’”
Merkel was helicoptered to Honolulu and checked into a hospital. Which he immediately checked himself out of as soon as he regained feeling. “I told them, ‘I know my rights, and you can’t keep me in here,” he says. The day after he got out, he was back on the beach, albeit wearing a neck brace. “It’s like a fighter: You get knocked out, you better get back up or you’ve lost,” he says, then adds, “But I have respect for the ocean, I tell ya.”
"We used to pick the moments we shot. Now they let the guy come at them, and they just start firing the motor drive away. And if they get a couple of shots, they’re stoked.”
For someone so closely identified with surf photography, Merkel didn’t actually devote himself exclusively to it for all that long—less than a decade, in fact. A year after surfing had its turning point in 1975, Merkel had one of his own when he began shooting his first film. Free Ride, released in 1977 and directed by Bill Delaney, with cinematography by Merkel, documented Hawaii’s Pipeline and Off the Wall in the winter of 1975–76. It was an instant classic. “Delaney and cameraman Dan Merkel set a film-quality standard with Free Ride that wouldn’t be met until [surf filmmaker] Jack McCoy hit peak form in the mid-’90s,” according to surfline.com.
Merkel’s next contribution to the canon was 1978’s Big Wednesday, a coming-of-age film about a trio of surfers starring Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, and Gary Busey. He went on to shoot commercials, windsurfing, and anything else that had to do with water and action, and won an Emmy for his work on a 1980 episode of American Sportsman. “I really enjoyed the movies. It was a challenge,” says the self-taught cinematographer. It paid much better, too—as much as $1,500 a day, no small sum back then or even today.
Although he now spends his time perfecting his panoramic skills and constantly agitating toward his next photographic conquest—toward the future—Merkel will forever feel the pull of the past. Because of the licensing deals struck on his behalf by A-Frame Media, a San Clemente, Calif.–based company specializing ocean-related images. Because of the surfing photos he sells at his website. Because of books like Tomson’s and interviews like this. He’ll grant the interviews, and he’s too ambitious not to cultivate the licensing and print-sale opportunities. (Those photos that he was packing up in Vegas? He’s planning to sell them on eBay.)
But he won’t sit still while he does it, just like he won’t shoot digital. “Now that it’s a digital world, everybody’s a photographer,” he says. “It’s autofocus everything. We used to pick the moments we shot. Now they let the guy come at them, and they just start firing the motor drive away. And if they get a couple of shots, they’re stoked.”
He does have patience for one thing, though, patience as endless as the summers he made iconic. Merkel will go somewhere for an entire month and wait for the right light. Not for the hell of it or out of stubbornness but because he’s trying to get a certain kind of image, like romantic photos of lighthouses. “A lot of people like that,” says Merkel, thinking ahead to future stock sales. But he must wait if he wants it; there is no single thing he can do to hasten the pace. “Mother Nature,” says Merkel, who knows her very well, “doesn’t work that way.”