Photos by William Sharp
The following story is about veteran Californian surf and skate photographer Bill Sharp.
His real name is William but, because I feel like we’re friends now, I’m gonna call him Bill. Dane Reynolds suggested we interview Bill in a letter which you can read below. Having worked on surf mags for twenty years, I was already well familiar with Bill’s work, particularly his incredible captures of Dane over the past two decades, a partnership that has yielded some of modern surfing’s greatest images. What I like most about Bill, though, is that he’s a photographer and his last name is Sharp. They say some people are fated toward their vocation, like Les McBurney the firefighter, or Harry Beaver the gynaecologist, or Donald Popadick the town flasher. I’d like to think Bill is one of these people. I’m glad Dane suggested we talk with Bill (in an email of which you’ll read just below). I very much enjoy a chat with people who truly love what they do.
Hey Vaughan, I heard you were going to interview William Sharp for Monster Children? That was per my suggestion but, to be honest, I’m unsure if he’ll make a good interview. But here’s some background info from my perspective, anyway.
I met him when I was 14, when Surfing Magazine asked him to take a portrait of me, and my mom brought me down to meet him at the beach. My mom thought he was weird, and over the years it was confirmed he is in fact very weird. But that’s a given for a surf photographer.
He took photos of me surfing pretty much every day for, like, 15 years. He still takes photos of me surfing every day… He talked about this book he was putting together for years, and I was like, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah… you took some skate photos back in the day, whatever.’ Then I saw the book and I was, like, ‘Holy shit! You’re legit!’ I had no idea he was so embedded in skateboarding during that era. The book is amazing, if you haven’t seen it. He claims to have been a ripping kneeboarder back in the day, but it’s unconfirmed. Seen him swim once, and he got hit by a log and had a giant contusion on his leg that he had to get drained.
Anyways, I’d just ask about what it was like hanging with those skate dudes back then, then moving to Oxnard and getting hassled shooting surf photos, then my era, whatever… might be cool, maybe not.
Hope that helps a little! – Dane
How you going man?
Is ‘ya’ good or bad or just adequate?
Ya. It’s ya.
Righto. Well, mate, after going through a bunch of your photies online, I was blown away that you’d been doing what you do for so long. I’ve seen your work with Dane for a long time but you’ve been around forever.
Yeah. Long time.
Well, let’s start at the beginning. Where are you from?
I’m from Studio City, right by Universal Studios in Los Angeles. We lived right behind Universal Studios, so when I was a kid, I used to ride my bike up there and sneak onto the Universal set with my friends to drink beers and that kind of thing.
Did you ever sneak into the background as an extra on Knight Rider or Webster or anything like that?
No, but we did used to party up at the Psycho house, which actually wasn’t a house, it was just a façade. That’s where I spent my youth though. And then my parents got me a camera when I was 13.
Hang on, why did your parents get you a camera? Was all that time on the film sets getting your mind ticking over about photography?
Not really. My older sister was dating a photographer from the Los Angeles Times, and he showed me the ropes on how to shoot and develop. I’d see his pictures in the newspaper, so he was a bit of a hero. He asked if I had a camera, and I said no, and so my mom got me one. He told me to go out and take a bunch of pictures, so I took photos of the dog and the house and the trees… kid’s stuff, and then he said ‘Ok, let’s get this developed.’ So, we went into the dark room, and he showed me how to load the canisters, add the chemicals, time it all out and eventually print it. We made a couple of prints and I was like, ‘Wow this is insane!’ I was enamoured by the whole process of taking pictures and then developing them in a dark room, but I never thought then that it would dictate the entire course of my life. It was just something I was curious about.
Did this guy ever find out later the influence he’d had on your life?
No. Not long after, he broke up with my sister and I never saw him again. But I’d seen enough to stay interested.
When did you transition from shooting the family dog to shooting the Lords of Dogtown?
My cousins and my older brothers were into surfing, so I started off taking pictures of them. But my best friends were into skating, and so I started shooting pictures of them skateboarding around LA. Then one of them met Tony Alva, and so I took some photos of him, and suddenly I was like ‘Whoa! There are actually mind-blowing skateboarders out there!’ So, I started shooting skateboarding a little more seriously and was sending Skateboarder magazine shots. Skateboarder was edited by Warren Bolster at that time, already a legend of surf and skate, but he told me I wasn’t really up to their standard. He said, ‘Keep on working at it, and send us pictures from time to time, if you want,’ but he pretty much blew me off. Not long after that, a new magazine was starting off called Skateboard World, so I went in there and applied to be one of their staff photographers, and they accepted me. That’s when I made photography my life because my job became shooting the top guys for the mag. Dogtowners, Val Surf skaters, I was shooting them all, and that’s when I began to think for the first time ‘this is going to be my career.’
This is when Dogtown was really starting to crank, right?
The phrase ‘being in the right place at the right time’ was totally legitimate for me at that point because all those guys were still teenagers. Alva and Jay Adams and all them were still only 16 years old, just coming into their prime, and once they got their licenses and were able to drive, they went everywhere chasing contests and skating everywhere they possibly could. I was along for the ride, capturing all that early skate culture and performance, and partying pretty hard with those guys too.
Let the blow-fest begin!
Oh man. 1976 through to 1980, those years there was a lot of drugs. A lot of pot, a lot of coke, and the whole scene was booming off its head. There was a lot of partying going on.
And then it kinda collapsed…
Skateboard World folded in 1980. It was such a bummer. I tried for about a year to get Skateboarder to pick me up, but they chose not to put me on salary. At the same time, my brother had moved to Hawaii, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come over here and shoot surfing?’ So, in the winter of 81–82 I made my first trip to Hawaii, and my brother introduced me to Larry Bertlemann and Vince Klyn and Louie Ferreira and all those guys, who were rock stars right then. I took a bunch of pictures and sent them to Surfing Magazine. They didn’t run any, but Larry ‘Flame’ Moore said, ‘Keep sending in shots!’ and in late 82 I got my first picture published: Willie Morris at a spot called Supertubes near LA. Flame took me under his wing from that point, gave me the dos and don’ts, and that started a relationship that lasted right up until Surfing folded in 2017.
Those early years were a glory time for Surfing Magazine. Who were the guys you enjoyed shooting most?
A lot of my early career was actually line-up shots. I just loved empty waves and line-ups, but it wasn’t really until the early 90s when I met the Malloy brothers that things started to go next level. I’d moved up to Oxnard, and they were the guys who were on the way up. They were with Billabong. Chris was 16, Keith 14 and Dan maybe 11 or 12 and when I started shooting those guys I got a lot of stuff published. And then after that, there was Tim Curran, and he exploded into this giant superstar; and then eventually Dane came along. I was lucky enough to shoot some amazing careers from grommet-hood right through. Conner and Parker Coffin are also local boys I’ve shot since they were just groms.
Dane says the first time he met you his mom thought you were weird, and then as he got to know you he found this to be true. What was he like on first impression?
Well, the first time I met Dane, I had to get a headshot of him for the magazine, and he couldn’t drive because he was only fifteen. So, his mom had to bring him down to the beach so I could meet up with him. And we used to call him Beaver back then because his teeth were way too big for his face. He had huge teeth. We used to tease him about it; give him nicknames. I think I was a bit guilty of trying to coach the surfers I shot with, but mostly ‘cause I knew what the magazines were looking for. So, I’d say things like ‘Dane! You gotta get more on rail!’ Or ‘You gotta punt those airs higher, man!’ So, I can see why he might have thought I was strange. But from my perspective, I was just trying to encourage him to try and get better pictures.
When did you start to realise he was something different, a once in a lifetime surfer?
He went through periods where he was constantly trying major manoeuvers, but his make ratio was pretty low. Then, all of a sudden, he was just sticking everything. Didn’t matter how big it was, he was making everything. There’s a spot near Rincon called The Bounce, and it doesn’t break too much bigger than head-high, but it’s super wedgy, and I remember he had a session there one day where he punted six or seven huge aerials. I’m talking massive, crazy, huge aerials… and he stuck every single one of them. And I just thought, ‘Oh my Gosh. Dane is taking it to another level. Dane is insane!’ At that point, he was already going on trips and surfing with other pros, but that’s when I knew he was the real deal. I always thought he was a great surfer, but at that point, from eighteen onwards he was becoming something else.
You must have seen shit that people wouldn’t believe if you hadn’t shot it?
If you’re foolish enough to ever think Dane has done all he can do on a surfboard, that’s when he’ll paddle out on some onshore junky day and blow your mind. I wish he would do more contests. I know why he doesn’t, I understand that, but I loved him in the mix of competition. It was exciting. It’s funny though, we live in the same town, and when I think about it, the Malloys, Timmy Curran, Dane… I gotta pinch myself because how did I end up in the right place and time to capture these wonderful surfing careers?
That’s all part of the magic of being a great photographer, man!
The other day I took all my old computers and consolidated everything onto a couple of external drives, and I was going through it, just freaking out on some of the photos in there. And that’s to say nothing of my archives before that because I didn’t go digital until ‘05. I have all my photography on film and slides, locked and filed away in these big cabinets and bound in books, and it’s mind-boggling! I recently put out a book of my best skateboarding shots from that era we spoke about earlier, and I had over four thousand images I had to go through and scan and everything. So, now friends are egging me on to do the same thing with my surf photos, and I’m like, ‘Man that’s 25 years of work to go through!’ Doing a book on four years was gnarly, but doing a book on 25 years… that would kill me! There’s so much material I don’t know if I could handle it.
After taking photos for most of your life, what excites you about photography now?
I love all types of photography. Anything I can take pictures of I’ll shoot. I have a place in the mountains, and I do a lot of photography out there. But, at heart, I still love shooting surfing. I turn sixty-two at the end of June and, in a weird way, I think maybe I should calm down on surf, like, maybe I don’t have the energy or attitude for it anymore. But then I still get up at 6 am and go down the beach and tap in with everyone, and it’s what I love to do. My wife thinks I shouldn’t do that because I’m not getting as much stuff published these days. We only have Surfer Magazine now; it’s the last mag left, but I don’t know, I still love shooting surfing. There’re a thousand times more photographers than when I started. Back then you knew every guy shooting photos: surf, skate, whatever… it was a small club. Now you see so many people doing it; you kinda wonder how they’re getting paid. But that’s cool, my enjoyment of getting the shot has not been affected by how many people are taking photos today at all. My enjoyment is my own. It’s the one thing I’ve always loved, and I always want to get cool images.