Stab Magazine | "Ocean Beach Doesn’t Need Humans To Regulate The Lineup, She Does So On Her Own"

“Ocean Beach Doesn’t Need Humans To Regulate The Lineup, She Does So On Her Own”

Don’t take our word for it. Nate Lawrence’s images do all the talking.

style // Mar 9, 2020
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 5 minutes

I left my heart in San Francisco. Seriously. My family settled in the City back in the 1880s and up until a couple years ago, it’s where every generation was born.

It’s also where I experienced my first professional surf event — a Bud Pro Tour stop at Ocean Beach. Richie Collins threw out his back in a heat, and somehow we were the first ones to get to him in the water. A photo of the incident landed in a surf mag, although we were cropped out. My friend Chad burned a prepubescent Rob Machado off to the side of the contest area and was promptly elevated to god status. 

Before my brother and I, nobody in our family surfed. But my grandma’s neighbor, a salt-of-the-earth guy named Jim was a hardcore NorCal surfer and diver. I still don’t know if I’ve ever met anybody as legit as him. He gave us an old, orange Eaton bonzer that must have been around eight feet and that was it. I learned to become a surfer in San Francisco.

A couple years ago, my grandma passed away and the family home was sold. And so, after nearly 140 years, nobody in my family calls the City home anymore. And I guess this is a circuitous way of expressing my admiration and respect for the images photographer Nathan Lawrence has brought to life in his new book “City Surf.”

Working with the City Surf Project, which endeavors to help disadvantaged and disenfranchised youth in San Francisco discover surfing, Lawrence delivers a survey of the seldom seen and rarely celebrated sliver of Bay Area surf culture that exists in the shadows. 

San Francisco is awash with tech money and property values are out of control, but between the cracks, in the old neighborhoods not yet gentrified, live some of the City’s most dedicated and passionate surfers. And we owe Lawrence a tip of the cap for showcasing them in their natural environs. 

Stab recently caught up with Lawrence to get his take on the project and the work he’s immersed himself in the last few years: 

How’d you get involved in City Surf?

I’ve known Johnny Irwin for over a decade and anytime I would come up to The City we’d always hang out. A few of my best friends were the first volunteers for City Surf Project and would always speak highly of the youth involved. But it still took me a few years to actually come and check out a surf day with the project. After witnessing the stoke firsthand and how many youth the program helped out, I instantly knew I wanted to help in any way I could.

What does the program do and why is it so important?

Surfing isn’t an easy hobby to get into. Wetsuits are expensive. Surfboards are big and heavy. And let’s face it, the locals really aren’t that inviting to newcomers. So, what City Surf Project does is make it easy for the youth of the Bay Area to fall in love with the ocean and the outdoors. And when most of the students set foot on the sand you can see an instant smile on their face. All the stresses from everyday life seem to disappear in the salt water.

The City isn’t necessarily the easiest place to be a surfer, what’s unique about shooting “surf photos” there?

Working on this project, I received a few hate mail messages from local OB surfers. “Don’t blow out our spots!” “Fuck off back to Santa Cruz!” “If you don’t live here, don’t surf here.” 

After 20 years working in the surf industry, I can handle a bit of negativity towards my photography. I get it, I show up a handful of days every year when the winds are offshore and the swells are stacking up. I make near impossible paddle-outs look like perfect peaks. But Ocean Beach doesn’t need humans to regulate the lineup, she does so on her own. And if you think the ocean is yours and others aren’t allowed to enjoy it, well, that’s just sad.

The book isn’t all surf photos, but a lot of great portraits and street photography, can you share a story or two about shooting that stuff?

I guess I’m mostly known for my surf photography, but my real passion lies in candid portraiture and street photography. My idea for this book was to show the journey these students experience from the streets to the sea. The downtown streets they walk. The buses they ride. The salt air they breathe. The city lights they see. Surfer or not, I think anyone can enjoy the book.

Who are some of the characters that stand out to you and what makes them special?

All of the students we met a long the way were amazing and their stories really had an impact on Leo (who wrote the stories) and myself. Zay, who is featured on the cover, grew up in the Fillmore District and started surfing with City Surf Project. He would take the bus after school to go surfing and would spend hours in the chilly waters of OB. He graduated high school and moved across the country to pursue a design career but still surfs when he comes back to San Francisco. You can tell a lifelong relationship with the ocean was formed by joining City Surf Project, and that’s a beautiful thing to witness.

What’s something you hope the book can accomplish when people sit and look at it?

I hope that people not familiar with San Francisco will see how unique and beautiful the entire city is. I hope the local surfers might read some of the stories and be more welcoming to outsiders or newcomers. I hope that men and women who work in the surf industry will open up the book and realize that these are the new breed of surfers coming into the ocean. Surfers aren’t just blonde haired teenage boys who throw shakas. Surfers of today are a wide range of humans who come from different ethnicities and backgrounds and everyone should feel welcome. And if none of that resonates, you can enjoy looking at the photographs. 

A more general question about the state of surf photography, as things have changed and evolved/devolved, how has your approach and perspectives about photography morphed? 

Oh man, don’t get me started on this. I’ll just say, I hope everyone who enters the “surf photography” game is passionate about creating something unique. The world has gone a bit mad for simple things. Waterfalls, sunsets, dolphins and butts. If you want to become popular, take photos of that stuff. But if you have a true passion for showing what surfing has done to so many people, then try and tell that story. Surfing literally takes over peoples lives like very few activities can do. School dropouts, divorces, failed businesses, moving halfway across the world — all in the name of surfing! 

Is it still a viable career path for somebody that’s stoked and wants to shoot? 

Never give-up on your dreams. I can’t say it’s an easy road, but there’s very few people who can say they truly do what they love for work. I’ve made decisions to stay more editorial than commercial, which aren’t as lucrative but way more enjoyable. As long as I have enough money to provide for my family to eat and travel the world, that’s more than enough for me. Life is extremely short! If anyone is interested in becoming a surf photographer or any other type of photographer and has questions they want answered, I’m more than happy to help out in any way I can. One thing I learned from Johnny Irwin during the process of making this book, life is much more fulfilling when you’re giving back.

What’s coming down the line for you? Working on any other projects? 

Books, books and more books! The response from everyone who has emailed after they read “City Surf” has been hands down one of the greatest moments of my career. People who I do not know are taking the time to email and tell me about a photograph or chapter in the book that really hit it home for them. I’d like to continue doing work like that.

Finally, what’s your favorite thing about San Francisco and why?  

For me, there isn’t one thing that is my favorite. It’s a mix of everything. The City has something for everyone, you just have to have an open mind and open heart to take it all in.


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