The Surf Photographer: Elizabeth Pepin Interview

Elizabeth Pepin was one of Europe’s first female surf photographers. We find out how she infiltrated the industry and take a peek at her portfolio.

Describe yourself in few words…
Fun, driven, and obsessed!

How did you get into photography?
I’ve always been fascinated by pictures. My grandfather enjoyed taking family snapshots and home movies, and would let me play with his photo equipment. He and my grandmother bought me my first camera for Christmas when I was 11. It was a Kodak 120 point-and-shoot and I would take it everywhere! I got a professional camera when I was 15 – an old Nikon 35mm. I’ve been shooting with Nikon ever since.

How did you get into surfing?
Growing up in Northern California right near the coast, my mom always took us to the beach as a cheap way to keep my sister, brother and I entertained. I really wanted to learn to surf but didn’t know anyone who did. It was before there were surf schools, board rental places or camps, so it wasn’t very easy to begin. In 1986 my friend found an old board and gave it to me. That weekend I took it out for the first time and managed to stand up. It was the most amazing three seconds of my life and I was hooked! I’ve been surfing regularly ever since.

Was it tough being the only girl on the waves?
I hardly saw any other women surfing my area until the mid 1990s, when all of a sudden it went from people thinking I was completely insane to surf in the cold water of Northern California, to everyone wanting to give it a go. What bothered me was that the surf magazines were not reflecting this change. They still were showing girls in bikinis sitting on the beach, waiting for their man to get out of the water. Women were never shown on a surfboard. I thought this was ridiculous when so many women were surfing, so in 1997 I began taking my camera to the beach, and would shoot portrait shots of women surfers I met. I then decided I wanted to learn how to shoot in the water, so I added a water housing and water camera to my gear, and a few years later a 600mm lens and medium format camera.

Was it difficult making the transition to surf photography?
Yes. I had to learn to shoot surf through trial and error because I didn’t know any other surf photographers and I was too shy to contact male photographers at surf magazines to get tips. At that time there weren’t any other female surf photographers that I could find. I ended up having a few exhibitions of my photos in art galleries as the regular surf magazines had no interest in them. People responded really well to my imagery and I even sold some pieces. Then Wahine Magazine came out – the first surf magazine for women – and I began shooting photos and writing for them. Things really took off after that.

What did you do before photography?
I’ve had quite a varied career and I’ve always done lots of things at once. In the ‘80s I was at university studying journalism, but I also had a full-time job in the music industry. I put on concerts, had a short-lived record label, and later became the day manager and historian of the Fillmore Auditorium. Then I lived in London for several years working at record stores and writing about British bands for American magazines, came back to the States and opened a record store, shut the store down and began an entirely new career as a print journalist. I made the transition into making documentaries and television shows in 1997, the same time I started my women’s surf photo project. So now I make my living by making films, shooting surf photos, and writing books. Kind of crazy, I know!

What inspires you?
Everything! I can’t understand how people can get bored. I’m excited to wake up and see what’s going to happen that day. I’m constantly looking around and getting ideas and taking photos in my head or making a movie as I walk down the street. I’m especially fascinated by the coast and the people attracted to it, which is reflected in my films and photographs. I could photograph and film at the ocean for the rest of my life and be very happy. I have a list of about 20 books, photos, and film projects that I want to do, and that list gets longer every year. There are so many amazing things I still want to do, see and experience. I’m going to be on my death bed and saying to the big guy upstairs: “Wait! Not yet! I have one more project I want to do!”

For a photographer who loves surfing, you must have the best job in the world?
I can’t believe the way things have turned out. I do things I love to do and I actually get paid for it. I’m so lucky. But it’s also been a ton of work and many years to get to this place. And if I’m on assignment, the job can be torture because I have to take photos when the surf is best and watch other people get rides I wish I could have, and then I get to surf when the conditions turn bad and people I’m photographing don’t want to surf any more. But believe me, I’m not complaining.

Talk us through your five favourite shots…

Keren Katz, Pacifica, California
I love this photograph for many reasons. It’s one of the first water shots I took and I had no idea what I was doing. It was a foggy day at Pacifica, which is a beach right near my house and the first place I began to photograph women surfers. It’s often not very good, and generally crowded, but you can still have fun. My friend Keren agreed to surf so I could practice getting shots with my water camera. I was treading water and freezing because there was a lull in the sets, so I swam closer to her and got a shot of her sitting on her board. I was so excited when I got the film developed as I think it perfectly captures the biggest part of surfing – sitting on your board, looking out at the horizon, waiting for a wave. It was my first photo to sell a lot of copies so I think many people felt the same way about it.

Diane Mattison, Pacifica, California
Diane Mattison is a local shortboarder who has gone pro. This was taken at a women’s surf contest and the reason I like it is that she has her hair cut super-short and you can’t tell if it’s a guy or a girl. All you can do is judge the photo by the surfing – and she is completely ripping. Anyone who says women can’t surf as well as guys just needs to look at this shot. Diane combines power, energy, beauty, and grace all in one moment.

Kia’i Tallett Learning to Surf, Age 2, Big Island, Hawaii
Kia’i is my film partner’s daughter. She is incredible. I’ve never seen a kid so comfortable in the water. Her mom surfed until a week before she gave birth, so maybe that has something to do with it. Sally had her on a surfboard at the age of four months. I wanted to experiment with underwater shots as I don’t get to do that in California usually because you need very clear water to make it work. I was in Hawaii, working on the edit of ‘One Winter Story’ with Sally and we decided to take a break and go to the beach. I tried to get some shots of Sally and Kia’i surfing together but there was too much current and I couldn’t get close enough. So I asked Sally if we could try a shot of her and Kia’i duck diving. Sally told Kia’i “okay, we’re going to go under the water with our surfboard and when you get underwater, make sure you open your eyes.” So I went to the bottom and as soon as Kia’i was underwater she opened her eyes and gave me a big grin. Completely at ease in the water. I swear, that kid is going to be surfing Maverick’s by the time she’s ten.

Mary Osborne, Ventura, California
Mary Osborne is a beautiful longboarder. It’s no wonder she’s become quite a popular pro surfer. This was taken right in front of her parent’s house during a photo shoot for the third women’s surf book I worked on, “Sister Surfer”, which she co-wrote. I always liked this photo but for some reason it didn’t make it into the book. What you don’t see in this shot is the fact that Mary is surfing practically right on the beach in knee high water because that was the only place there was any kind of wave, and that I’m lying with my back on the sand with my water housing sticking up and she’s surfing right over my stomach! But she’s such a good surfer that I trusted her to not run me over, and it worked.

Learning to Surf, Refugio Beach, Santa Barbara County, California
My husband and I were on a camping trip in Santa Barbara and decided to pull over at a popular state beach to go for a swim. There really weren’t any waves but we were hot and wanted to get wet. There were a ton of kids in the water, and some had foam boards and were playing in the shore break, having a blast. So after swimming I grabbed my camera and started shooting. These girls were so stoked with these tiny waves and they look so happy and free! The photo reminds me of how much joy surfing can bring to your life, and that feeling I had the first time I stood up.

What do you get up to when you’re not on your board or holding a camera?
I hang out with my husband, take long bike rides or hikes, fish, garden, spend time with friends, read. And in the winter I like to snowboard and cross country ski. San Francisco is a great place to live. You can surf great waves in the morning and if there is no traffic, be snowboarding world class slopes by the afternoon.

If you could have the perfect day, what would it include?
Sun, glassy head-high surf, no crowds in the line up, and time to be at the beach all day. Then my husband cooking us dinner at the end of it all. He’s an amazing gourmet cook. I’m a lucky woman because I can’t even boil water!

You must travel a lot, what have been your favourite spots?
I get asked this question a lot and it’s always been the most difficult to answer because I’ve fallen in love with every place I’ve gone to shoot photos and surf – from the Liguerian Coast of northern Italy to remote beaches in Mexico to closed-out glassy waves off an island in North Carolina to insanely crowded line-ups in southern California. Every single trip I’ve been on has had its perfect moments.
I’m as fascinated with the people and culture of a place as much as the surf itself. I’m not interested in just photographing a pro surfer, I’d prefer to shoot somewhere where I can immerse myself in a culture but also find great waves and an abundance of female surfers of all levels.
My husband went on a surf trip to Morocco but I didn’t get to go so if I had to pick just one place to visit, surf and photograph, I think right now it would be Morocco. Also on the list of places I want to shoot surf are Wales, Nova Scotia, Peru, Vietnam and the Maldives. I’m less interested in visiting traditional surf destinations such as Indo or Puerto Escondido, which seem like too much of a scene for my tastes. But frankly, I could be happy photographing anywhere there is a wave. I’m still chasing that perfect shot!

In addition to surfing and snapping, you’ve also received four Emmy awards for your film work – what other ambitions do you have for the future?
My biggest goal is to get a cover shot on a mainstream surf magazine with one of my female surf photographs. In the US, I think a regular surf magazine has put a woman on their cover only once. It was about eight years ago and the rider was Lisa Andersen – and they got an insane amount of mail about it. It’s 2008 for Gods sake! About half the people in any given line up around the world are women and women are surfing just as well as men. So it’s about time that surf magazines left the sexist dark ages and began having cover shots featuring women. But given most of the staff of surf magazines are male, it’s going to be difficult to change the attitude.

Is it sometimes difficult to combine your job with your personal life?
Definitely! My husband calls himself an art widower, because if I’m working on a project, I get very obsessed and focused on it. He’s really good about letting me know when he needs some attention and I’ve learned that nothing is too important that it can’t wait for a bit so I can have fun with him. Luckily I taught him to surf when I first met him. I can’t imagine being with someone who didn’t like to surf as much as I do.

You’ve just published your fourth book, could you tell us more about it?
It’s called “Surfing: Women of the Waves.” It’s written by Linda Chase and published by Gibbs Smith. It’s hardcover and has lovely big pages of my photographs. I travelled to France, all over the US and Mexico to shoot for it. It was a lot of work, but really fun too. The pages feature pros like Lisa Andersen and Holly Beck, but also a lot of regular girls and women surfers.

What are your projects for this year?
I’ve tried very hard not to take too much on this year, but it doesn’t seem to be working very well! At the television station I work for, I’m helping to produce the second season of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s ‘Ocean Adventures’. I’m also currently working on two new films with my film partner Sally Lundburg, who I made ‘One Winter Story’ with. She now has a husband and a four year old daughter and lives in Hawaii, but we still managed to find a way to keep working together and we’re a great team.
The film we have in production is a documentary about water and California. Working on the film has really opened my eyes to the water problems we are going to face not only in California but around the world sooner rather than later. As someone who loves spending their whole life in and around water, it’s been a bit depressing to make this film.
The second film is about kids and surfing. We’re just doing the research on it right now and will probably begin shooting towards the end of the year. It’s so much fun watching kids surf and it will be a lot easier to film than it was to film ‘One Winter Story’ at Maverick’s, that’s for sure!
I’m also working on a new surf book, my first to focus just on surfing and not women’s surfing. This one will have me travelling around the world quite a bit so I’m really excited to begin shooting. I also have a big gallery show of my work in June, so I have to start putting the photos together for it. See what I mean – I never rest!

See more of Elizabeth’s work here.

Words: Elisa Routa


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