I miss the winter. Especially at this time of year, as summer draws to an end. As I look out upon an ocean that has been flat for weeks, I can gaze for hours at an image like this. It seems hard to believe right now that the North Pacific can get so menacing.
I lived for many years at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. For much of the time I lived there, especially in the early 90’s, most people had no idea that SF has world-class surf. “You can surf in San Francisco?” was what I often heard, and the answer was always an emphatic yes.
One thing I love about The City is how when you reach the water’s edge, you are stepping out of an urban environment and entering a total wilderness. The surf at Ocean Beach is not to be trifled with – even on a small day it can beat your ass hard. On a big day, it can make you see god.
I had always wanted to capture a day like this on film. Sometimes, at the height of a giant swell, the waves at Ocean Beach are almost too big to fathom. This was one of those days. It was in January 2001, and the buoys were reading almost 30 feet at a over a 20 second period. This translated to waves that were easily over 50 feet when they broke over the outer sandbars at the beach. To top it off, the sky was clear and the winds light offshore. As soon as I saw the beach that day, I knew it was the perfect day to get my shot.
I had an appointment downtown that day that I completely blew off. Days like this might only happen once a decade if you’re lucky. I drove through the Sunset District, up and down the hills, trying to find a good vantage point to shoot down one of the avenues. The biggest problem was power lines – they were EVERYWHERE - obscuring the waves with hundreds of crisscrossed lines. I finally found the perfect street – Quintara – which is the only street in the neighborhood with a relatively unobstructed vantage on the ocean.
I used my medium format camera (which has a much larger negative hence higher resolution) with a 600mm lens. I had to put this huge piece of glass upon a tripod and set up in the middle of the street while waiting for the bigger set waves to break. Cars and buses would come around the corner and I would have to scamper out of the way, then quickly return and set the camera back up.
I shot frame after frame over a two-hour period, yielding a few hundred shots to choose from. This shot stood out above all the rest. I remembered snapping it, because the pedestrian in the middle ground provided the best perspective. I also loved the single wave breaking in the background. This homeboy was rolling across the street, too focused on inner city life to have a clue that a 50-foot-plus wave was breaking less than a mile away from him.
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