Utter weightlessness, flying through the air, transcendental, mystical, magical, thrilling, enlightening—these are some of the ways those who seek their balance atop ocean waves express the euphoria of surfing in words. Surfing is more than a sport. It has come to define a subculture that’s synonymous with the spirit of soaring freedom. Born in Polynesia, within a century of its introduction in California, surfing has been embraced as a way of life by people around the world. The surf culture is much more than wave riding. It has had tremendous influence in shaping global fashion, language, lifestyle and music trends. Surfing has its beginnings in spiritual practices of the ancient Polynesians—a form of prayer through which they asked for protection from the ocean. The Hawaiians refer to surfing as he’e nalu, which translates to “wave sliding.”
For non-surfers, this culture is both mysterious and awe-inspiring. The fearless and graceful glide of a surfer into the ocean, no matter how cold or populated with sharks, and their thrilling ride on the perfect wave at speeds as high as 60 kilometers per hour, followed by the paddle back out, is a sight that epitomizes human freedom and union with one of the most untameable forces on our planet. Surfing is a sport that’s played, or rather performed, by artists. It’s not simply a technical process, it requires a state of mind that sees different possibilities in every wave; it requires a faith in uncertainty and limitlessness, the skill and deftness of dancing, and the confidence of beautifully painted brushstrokes.
Photographer Akira Seo, who moved to the U.S. from Japan 15 years ago, recently opened his exhibition “Fish Out of Water” in New York with stunning portraits of surfers. As a surfer himself, Seo’s familiarity and intimacy with the surfing community enabled him to create portraits that allow people on the “outside” a glimpse into the otherworld of surfing. “At this exhibition, I wanted to express what is going on when the surfers are on the land. The ocean usually serves as the background for surfers. I chose the unrelated subject for the background intentionally, so the surfers’ expressions could tell what they feel,” says Seo. Choosing to print his dramatic black-and-white images on Duggal’s latest digital HD printer for its unprecedented image and tonal resolution, the images of surfers were mounted on gallery plexi boxes for installation at the Onishi Gallery.
Seo grew up in a small town by the seaside in Japan, so going to the beach and hanging out there with friends was a part of his lifestyle, and this is what made him into a surfer for life. In this exhibition, Seo presents images of surfers as they head toward the ocean’s infinite horizon and as they proudly stand on the shore embracing their ocean-riding vehicles. The monochromatic images are both severe and gentle. The crisp lines and tangible textures of the natural settings contrast starkly with the tender human forms and curved shapes of the surfboards. Some models pose with their boards in loyal partnership, and others stand united as if one being. Seo notes that these surfers love the water, love to surf and love the lifestyle it enables. They feel strong in their mastery of both land and sea, relating like fish to the water. He presents beautiful portraits of these surfers to communicate what the surfers say they’d like others to see—strong, self-possessed, determined individuals who ride, with grace, the line between solid and fluid, restrained and free, powerful and vulnerable. On the relationship between art and surfing, Seo states, “I think surfing on the wave is like painting on the canvas. Each surfer draws their own line by using their surfboard. They draw all different lines. Being a part of the wave and flowing with it…surfing is not only just a sport, but an artistic work. The models I shot were all very good artists, so I carefully chose the location for each one of them.”
To exhibit portraits of surfers heading out into the ocean for countless hours of joy and bliss is a gift to the people of New York City, a place that truly never sleeps. “I learned how to express myself from surfing,” Seo told me. Surfing is truly an ideology and a phenomenal art of personal expression for those who have embraced it. Although the East Coast has a very long tradition of surfing, the weather makes it a more seasonal sport here than on the West Coast. Perhaps there’s a relationship after all between the experimental, radical nature of West Coast-born ideas to the culture of freedom and adventure that year-round surfing represents. For me, the most heartening part of Seo’s exhibition is the love for raw nature that’s communicated through each portrait. Each one of the surfers isn’t simply a sportsman; he’s at heart the guardian of the ocean. Kelly Slater, one of the most famous surfers of all time, states, “I think when a surfer becomes a surfer, it’s almost like an obligation to be an environmentalist at the same time.”
If the ancient Hawaiians surfed through the waves as a prayer for protection from the ocean, it’s encouraging to know that with the growing popularity of surfing and the growth of its culture around the world, we may now be surfing for the protection of the oceans instead.