Life is a dance, as my mama says; and those who live it well move with a certain grace: an undefinable, often even unnoticed, way of being-in-the-world that separates the charismatic among us from the rest of the great human herd. It's a certain way of walking, a certain way of talking; it's the way you use your hands, the way you stand, the way you smile, the way you give and receive energy from the people you interact with. Those conscious of their own particular grace understand its power, and often augment it with a signature sense of style -- their clothes, their house, their choice of vehicle, their job, their choice of friends -- all of it becomes a creative act, a statement of purpose, a life lived as a work of art.
There is no dearth of style-consciousness in the surf world. The surf industry is financed by fashion, and it is sales of t-shirts, hoodies, board shorts, flannel, and footwear that contributes most to the bottom line of the big surf brands. If sales were confined to surfboards and wetsuits, the entire industry would go under. But surfers has always set themselves apart through fashion. From the Woody and the Marachi sandals of the sixties to the hoodies, flannels, and skate shoes of contemporary surf fashion, surfers identify themselves and recognize each other through fashion and style.
But all of that is just so much window dressing for what really matters in surfing, which is style in the water. And style in the water comes down to one thing: body language. You may be able to pull into screaming barrels, beat out everyone in the water for the set wave, boost six-foot airs, and smack the lip with the best of them, but if you don't look good doing it -- if your movements are awkward, you flail your arms, your stance is bow-legged-- in short, if you lack grace -- then you've only got half the picture. Contests, especially these days, are won and lost on style points; and the greatest surfers dominate not just because they can land a reverse 360 air or drop into a triple-overhead monster or speed through a fast-closing barrel, but because they look good doing it all. Because they move with grace. Because their body language oozes style.
Take, for instance, this shot of local hero Jesse Hines. This wasn't a contest day, just the first really good day of surf in about three weeks, on September 30 -- a day that will probably pass as this year's "Big Wednesday." So even though there were photographers both on the beach and in the water, there were no contest judges around, and aside from the vague hope of getting a shot in Surfer magazine's annual "East Coast" issue, everyone was out just high on pure stoke. Surfing for surfing's sake.
Okay, so back to the photo. Though Jesse obviously gets big points for pulling six feet of air, the thing that makes this photo a keeper is his body language: his left arm raised to the sky, palm up to receive blessings from on high; his right arm extended forward as if it were controlling the board with marionette strings, wrist down, thumb and forefinger joined in a yogic mudra; his spine straight as an arrow and a profile that would instantly identify him to anyone who knows him well. In this moment, he radiates the grace of a T'ai Chi master, his body extended like an ancient Greek study of the human form. Regardless of whether or not he "lands" or "sticks" this move, he has achieved, in this moment, a pure expression of the natural art that is the essence of surfing.
It is moments like these that have always attracted photographers to the shoreline to capture surfing in still imagery; and the evolution of surfing in the twentieth and twenty-first century has been documented obsessively by photographers and filmmakers alike. Early on in the surf-craze of the '60's, landing a great photo in a surf magazine became a source of income and notoriety for both rider and photographer, so a unique collaboration has evolved over the decades between surfers and shooters. By working together, each pursuing their art at the highest level, they co-create imagery that, at its best, communicates to the viewer the sense of movement, fluidity, and sheer joy that makes surfing such a powerful experience.
Did Jesse land this move? Does it matter? To a contest judge or a videographer it would, but not to a still photographer. That's the beauty of the decisive moment: what happened before or after is immaterial. Only the moment matters.
No, he didn't stick it, but he went down in style...