Words By Ethan Stewart, Photography By Donnie Hedden
The landscape of contemporary surf photography is like a grotesquely stuffed pig. More to the point, it is a hollowed out pig carcass stuffed with even more pork—too much pork.
Sure, this can be a particularly wonderful thing when considered from a certain vantage point like that of an “other white meat” aficionado. But really, it is a digitized orgy of excess filled with high gloss, quasi-pornographic captures of tanned and toned bodies flying through the air above some perfectly turquoise wave breaking off a tropical island. And, well, it looks nothing like the surfing life the vast majority of us lead.
Enter Donnie Hedden, an impossibly nice and red-bearded lensman from Santa Barbara, CA. Coming up fast on his 26th birthday, Hedden is making a bit of a name for himself by taking pictures and making short films that focus on the quirkier and more humanistic side of surfboard sliding and the far roaming lifestyle that so often surrounds it. His technical chops are the real deal but it is his approach that sets him apart; humble, endlessly motivated, and digging on things that most of the surf industry prefers to forget. It is funny how shooting from the fringe can actually get to the heart of a subject in a much more honest and complete way.
Case in point, his series of night surfing shots so appropriately titled “At the Disco.” After a handful of years chasing music dreams around Nashville, Donnie came home to Santa Barbara a little over a year ago and slowly re-entered the neoprene clad viper pit that is the Rincon lineup. A world class and often comically crowded righthand point break at the southernmost bend of Santa Barbara County, Rincon and its regulars have been helping set the style standard for California surfers for decades. Interestingly enough, for some of the standard bearing young lions of groove, folks like Travers Adler and Troy Mothershead, the action doesnʼt stop when the sun goes down and that is exactly what “At the Disco” is all about.
To hear Donnie tell it, “It was my first winter back home and it would be just classic good Rincon days. We would surf until dark and somebody would bring a few beers down and we would drink them on the beach with our wetsuits still on. Inevitably, we would paddle back out. After doing this a few times I decided I really wanted to try and document it.” Hoping to preserve the “pure and goofy in-your-face-fun” that he was experiencing during these night sessions, Hedden purposely stayed away from large lighting rigs or fancy cameras. Instead he opted for a simple Nikon AW-1 with nothing more than a pop-up flash. Slower shutter speeds coupled with his own fine-tuned surfing instincts paired perfectly with the action in the water to create a collection of pictures unlike virtually anything else lurking in the aforementioned “surf photography landscape”. It is pure fun in the pitch black.