Surfing Vancouver Island  

An interview with Craig Peterson by Eliza McKay  



surfer mag cover by Craig Peterson
Surfer / January 1973

 

Surf Photography in the 1970’s

An interview with Craig Peterson

by
Eliza McKay

Meeting Craig Peterson, especially on the poignant date of September 11, reaffirmed for me that you have to live in the moment. That you just have to look back at what you have done with your life so far, and say, "Yeah I have done some pretty interesting things." At the early age of sixteen (but age is all relative), when getting your driver’s license seems like a cool enough feat, Craig managed to talk Surfer magazine into helping fund his way around the world in the search for perfect waves.

And it certainly paid off.

In 1972, Craig, together with Kevin Naughton, began a journey that would last for six years, take them over three continents, and around the coasts of two oceans. On this journey, they left behind a trail - or more like a legacy - of photos, silent footage and charismatic, charming stories for Surfer Magazine’s readers. Now the stories are being retold with the launch of director Greg Schell’s new film, The Far Shore.


9-11-2002 Venice Beach, California.

surf photographer  Craig Peterson
 

Now, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to meet both director Greg Schell and photographer Craig Peterson on a stopover in L.A. for a few days before going on my own trip to a distinct surf region. Feeling like I have followed Craig's footsteps somewhat, both in a career and in surf destinations, I told Craig meeting him was like a dream. But in other ways too…

Earlier that day, Greg exposed me to the landscape of Venice Beach. There, I viewed the American dream manifesting itself like a magic smoke – or more like a surrealistic kaleidoscope of ranting free expression billboards, a thronged Jesus searching for tossed bread in garbage cans, and a MacDaddy pimp on rollerblades.

Then I met Craig. And in contrast to the acid drop tapestry that I had just encountered on the boardwalk, Craig is a very down to earth person. As well, he has a wealth of knowledge on how to hunt and photograph waves. Some of his knowledge and his photos, I present to you now in this interview.

Ireland After a cold surf photo by Craig Peterson
Ireland After a cold surf, tea in the cottage

Eliza: In 1972, at the age of sixteen, you began to travel the world as a staff photographer for Surfer Magazine. Can you tell me about the events surrounding your experience at this time? That’s a very young age to begin as a surf photographer.

Craig: I was taking pictures of my friends at the beach at age thirteen and fourteen, and I was taking these photos down to the magazines. With natural progression, the photos were getting better and better. The magazines started running one photo, two photos - one in black and white, one in color.

Then it came to a point where I was talking with Surfer Magazine, talking with the Photo Editor. And he said, "Well y’know I have this lens here you can use if you want to…Ron Stoner's 650mm Century telephoto lens. I couldn’t afford a big one at the time. And then he said, "Why don’t you give this one a try for a couple of months…?"

And then we got this great South Swell that came into Newport Beach – perfect waves coming through, great lighting conditions…everything. I got some really good photos from the beach, from the water…from everything. And I brought them to the magazine. And they said:

"These photos look really good y’know – Jeff Divine – he’s our California photographer…he’s heading over to Hawaii now (because this was September/October), so we don’t have anyone to cover California. Do you want to be our California photographer?"

And so I thought about it for days, weeks, and months…

[laughter]

Eliza: yeah, right.

Craig: And then I’ll get back to you next year… [more laughter]

Craig: …and I jumped at the chance because here I was still in high school, a junior in high school, and I was just getting my license. Here my mom was driving me down to the magazines, and she’d wait outside while I would go inside and talk to the Photo Editor.

Eliza: What about the credibility? Here you are sixteen years old, and they gave you that kind of credibility?

Craig: To me, I didn’t notice anything different, and to them I was just someone coming in with pictures – and I had just gotten lucky, got those good shots. And so here was the thing - I was going to be Staff Photographer for Surfer…Yes! And the girls, the girls, the girls… I was thinking, it’s my chance! [laughter]

Eliza: And did that happen? Did you meet lots of girls?

Craig: Kind of did yeah…but then we started traveling, and so we were gone a lot.

But, the job as the California photographer included all the film and processing you want, gas mileage up and down the coast so you can chase swells – San Diego to Santa Barbara and further.

I was also shooting some advertising work when it came along, and I was taking photography classes in high school. Then we had this idea: we had heard of great waves down in Central America, and so we decided to plan to go down there – and that became the start of the Travel Series.

…Does that answer your question?

Eliza: Yes, and that also leads into the next question…How did you get the idea to travel over the next several years, together with Kevin Naughton, to find the perfect waves, and how did Surfer Magazine became a part of the journey, from beginning to end?

Craig: The idea to first go down to Central America came from…y’know…you would see these little photos appearing in the magazine of some guys surfing some distant waves somewhere, likely South Africa, somewhere else, and I would always look at these little photos, and think, "God what is it like to surf a wave in Namibia or somewhere else?"

And here in Southern California, word was filtering back… "Man, there are great waves and tropical waters in Central America!"

And I was thinking, "that’s drive-able – we can get into a car and drive down there…let’s do it." – and so talked to a couple of friends, and one or two dropped out: but we continued on.

Kevin in Huntington Beach had already been to Central America, and he was kind of vague. He was like, "Yeah there are some waves down there, are you really serious about going?"

So I talked to Surfer about it and said, "Look, I would like to go there for a couple of months. Springtime is pretty crummy in California so I would rather go there. And they said, "Sounds fine, go ahead."

At that time, they didn’t give me any advance money, so I paid for the trip myself. I was working at...ehem…Taco Bell at the time…

Eliza: Well, you were only sixteen…

Craig: and I had just gotten my driver’s license too…

[laughter]

Greg: Taco Bell to La Libertad… that’s the name of your article. [laughter]

Craig: Yeah…Taco Bell La Libertad… [laughter]

Greg: Would you like a burrito or a perfect right?

Craig: Well, it was funny because there was this guy who was radical who I worked with, and his idea was to rob Taco Bell that night before we go and head for the border.

[laughter]

I was like, "Gee Whiz, I don’t know if I want to serve a life of crime," and we would get robbed down there anyways. So they would just take the money away from us.

Eliza: True enough. (There are a lot of hard-core thieves, and stories about them, in places like El Salvador.)

Craig: But then after that one or two articles started to get popular, and Surfer magazine realized, hey this is pretty cool, this little series of articles on surf travel, and so we started talking about going to West Africa.

Morocco surf photo by Craig Peterson
Morocco Tito's rover, fully rigged for surf travel

So we would go in and pull out our maps and lay them on the Editor’s desk, and say, "OK Steve, here is where we are thinking of going: there are good waves here and here and a crossing over to the Caribbean and come back by Central America."

And the Editor looked at it and went, "Hmmm…how long are you going to be gone?"

And we said, "We don’t really know. We are going to go for as long as we can."

And then he said, "Well I could see maybe three or four articles out of this. I could advance you money on the first article [which was $1500 at the time] and give you the film that you need to get going. And then when you have that, and you are getting ready for the next leg of the journey, contact us somehow, and we will try to get your money out there to the American Express Office, or somewhere – and hopefully it will arrive sometime."

So that was the evolution of the trips.

Eliza: So I also wanted you to tell me how you met Kevin Naughton. How did you become partners with him? Because it seems this was a quintessential part of your journey – having this partner with you, helping you along.

Craig: Well, just like any beach anywhere around you have your clique of friends, and you know who’s hot, and who’s a great surfer. You see them in the water with you – and maybe you’ve never met them, but you know them by name. Maybe it’s Jimmy this, or Bob that…

At this time, at Huntington, Kevin was one of the best surfers there, so I knew him by name. But I had never met him. But as I started planning this trip to Central America, and so I had some friends, who said to me, "Oh you’ve never met Kevin? Kevin’s been there. I should introduce you."

At first, he was kind of guarded, "Oh yeah there are some waves there. It’s pretty good." He didn’t rave or anything. "I am thinking of going back too."

Greg: Smart.


Craig: And I was saying, "Gee that would be great – you are a good surfer – I am thinking of having someone to travel with who is good to photograph."

And I am sure Kevin was thinking, "Hmmm…not bad…"

[laughter]

So we talked a little bit beforehand. But we didn’t get to be really good friends before the first trip.

And then Kevin and I started hanging out together, surfing, and writing stories. Kevin was a pretty good writer at the time, so we would sit down together, and collaborate about the stories. The friendship pretty much materialized on the road, which is a great way because you have all day. You are not caught up with other things, being in your own little clique. You are sort of forced to be with other people, get along with them when you are traveling.

Eliza: Did you find that you complemented each other in ways?

Craig: Yeah.

Eliza: What ways?

Craig: Well we didn’t realize it at the time – but on looking back on it…He has a very good wit, especially being Irish, and he is a very strong surfer, and a very photogenic surfer, as well. And my background is as Norwegian heritage, so it’s that Viking spirit. "Let’s go do this. Let’s go push it forward."

So I would usually plan most of the trips. Yeah we can do all this – and so I would say, "Can you be the mule carrier – can you carry all the bags?"

And Kevin would say, "No, I can’t carry all the bags…"

[laughter]

So the complementary part is he is very grounded, very down to earth in a lot of ways. But he has that adventurous forward-looking aspect. He’s also a big guy. For this, he’s a great guy to have on the road. He can be pretty intimidating to a lot of people.

My personality is - I will plan things, the details, and some organization. Our two characters balance out very well. He had some good ideas on photography. I had some good ideas on writing – so we collaborated on both. That’s how the friendship came. We both knew we had a sense of adventure in our own spirits. We would be fine individually, and we could go on our own. But it was so much more fun to travel together.

Eliza: Yeah, that’s nice. Partners in crime.

Craig: Partners in crime. But we would not rob Taco Bell together…no…[laughter]

Eliza: Your images are very beautiful. I saw part of your collection on the Far Shore website, and they are stunning. How do you think these images would be altered if you returned now and took those photos?

Craig: They wouldn’t really be altered at all. Because it is really the point of view of what you are seeing of what is there that makes a photo. You are stepping back from the scene, and trying to encompass the environment as much as possible. Framing a shot with the trees at the beach, and trying to show the landscape – not just the wave at the point. The people walking to the surf, the way they are in the frame versus everything else is going on, and not too close on that person. So I really think, still even now, I would be looking at the landscape with that same perspective.

Just on a side note, even now, in El Salvador there is a great cover shot somebody’s going to get. It’s right out there at that road walking down to the point, right in front of the Don Lido. There are some palm trees that just hang like this at an angle. And you have this point that has perfect waves, and when you step back…

Eliza: hey…that’s my shot!

Greg: Yeah it’s her shot.

Eliza: I will show it to you.

Craig: Yeah? Yeah? OK. Yeah, it’s like when you see these things, that’s the joy of photography and hidden travels. Someone traveling seeing these things thinks, "Wow, what a beautiful area." But when you are looking at it with an additional photographer’s eye, you are looking at the composition of these things, and thinking, "This is unreal."

You are able to look with different lenses with your own mind’s eye.

Greg: I have a question, to quickly interject. Do you think that because of the film stock that you were shooting in the 1970’s, with the rich saturated colors – and if you were to take the same photos today, with the film stock that they are mandating photographers today, that it wouldn’t give the same storybook look, or do you think you could still capture that? It’s kind of like the 35 mm film versus the video image.

Craig: It would look different. Now, if you set it up to try and capture it that way, you could adjust your lens and filters. The film quality would be the same as far as grain and color retention. But now it looks storybook because so much time has elapsed and everything has changed somewhat. But at that time, that was what you had to work with. Now I think I would probably get a lot more shots than what I had then. I have a lot more film to use, and it also has a lot more latitude. That film did not have any latitude. I mean you are shooting 25 ASA film. Clearly, when its early morning or late afternoon, you are going down f-stops because you just don’t have the film speed.

Now we have a lot more latitude. We are shooting baking afternoons, huts at night. I have drawers full of long shots too. Crummy, the film couldn’t handle it, because there was not enough light. So, I think I would come back with more shots if anything.

Eliza: Alright, so how do you think our perception and the mood of the age alters our perception of the images now? When we look back at it, we know these images are from the 1970’s. Do you think that alters the way we perceive them?

Craig: Yes, I think so. That and the film stock helps too – as you were saying – that storybook quality. I think it does because you realize you are looking back in time, and the clothing is different and the boards are different. It’s inescapable that it’s not going to have a historical perspective.

Greg: So why do you think that people point to the Petacalco cover as being the hallmark cover? I mean even the latest Surfer Magazine picked it as the top three travel photos in their history. As the person who took that photograph, what is it in your mind that makes it such a classic image?

Craig: Several things. It is just ever slightly out of focus…

Greg: Oops…don’t tell anyone.

[laughter]

Craig: Yeah…oops…yeah the haze that was there on the beach that morning, and just a little bit of softness coupled with the guys walking towards the wave. And there it was…I was focusing on the wave, and that is sharp. That is where I put my point of focus of the camera. I was hoping to capture as much foreground in focus as I could. But because of that, it gives it a dreamlike quality. That is point number one.

The second point would be that – that wave was perfect. It is green, untouched, virgin, pure. Nobody’s ridden it. Nobody has ever ridden it. This may have been the first time.

Three, the guys are very relaxed: the two guys walking in the photo, the guy walking out to the water. He’s not in a big hurry. We know that if we were out at the break, man, we would be running out of the car to get to that wave. The other guy is getting ready; he is casually getting the stuff ready. Yet there is this perfect wave. So in their minds, the waiting image that comes across - this is timeless . This is going to go on all day. And just these two guys have it.

Greg: Wow.

Craig: Just two friends and this wave…

Eliza: Wow…

Craig: One or two other things, just to point out real quick on that photo. Notice the board angle of the guy walking down to the water, and also the position of his feet.

When someone is walking, there is a certain time when they are lifting up, that you want to get because it implies forward movement. So those two elements combined real well, as well as the wave breaking just at the right time.

But looking through a camera, you can’t see everything at the same time; you just get a sense that now is the right time.

I knew that the wave looked great and I kind of sensed that the guys were in the right position, but the wave may change at any minute. So I shot it then, without being able to make sure everything was right. But I knew that his foot was lifting up and it was the right point for him going into it.

Eliza: That is so interesting…

Greg: That is amazing…


The interview does not end here. Greg, Craig and I continued to talk into the night about…

  • How to read nautical charts for perfect point breaks;

  • How he came to explore Africa with fake Peace Corps ID, and then was hunted at the airport for the scam;

  • What it is like working as Chief Mate on an oil rig supply vessel on the coast of West Africa;

  • How his African crew hooted and hollered his waves when he stopped and surfed along the way;

  • Why he said in The Surfers Journal that a Canadian Surfer girl traveling alone in El Salvador is the epitome of surf travel today (I agree);

  • And that in this age, to explore remote surf regions – it would be best to get a boat - perhaps for the Canadian or Chilean coastlines.

However, I will end the interview here [but if you want the rest of the story, tell me, and I can add it in.] Listening to Craig´s anecdotes, I can´t help but be reminded how the ocean is bountiful, and in so many different ways. As surfers exploring the ocean, it seems that we too, on this path, are guaranteed our own bounty. Sometimes the ocean rewards us with a net of fish, or a decent surf session, or a new friend with similar interests, or our own beautiful memories and interesting stories. Share your stories, and perhaps your mind´s images will last for the next generation– just as Craig´s have lasted. Or perhaps, at the very least, you will discover the listener is a friend - who shares with you your similar interests.

Eliza McKay
Eliza McKay has a B.A. in English Lit., with a Cooperative Education Certificate, from Simon Fraser University.

Eliza writes technically for the marine industry, and literally as a contributing photojournalist to Surfline.com, Concrete Powder, and Coastal BC.com - Canada's surfing website.

She surfs, snowboards, and sails.

northernsurf@hotmail.com

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