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Award-Winning Bay Area Photographer/Filmmaker Spends Some Quality Time With JettyGirl

JettyGirl: The media often portrays the typical female surfer as being young, tan, and bikini-clad, living a life of endless fun in a tropical paradise of perfect weather and flawless surf. Do you think that's a fair representation of the female surfing experience? How does the media-driven image compare to the average surfer girl's life in the Bay Area?
Elizabeth Pepin: The media driven image of a skinny young bikini-clad surf chick living on a deserted beach with perfect head high waves every day is a fantasy that the surf industry is trying to promote, but it isn’t the reality for most women surfers I know around the world and certainly not here in the Bay Area. Most of us juggle our surf addiction with full time jobs, live near a surf break that is crowded and generally has marginal surf, and is cold enough that you have to wear a wetsuit for most of the year. But not living on the North Shore or at Cloudbreak doesn’t mean that most women surfers don’t have a fun surf session most of the time they paddle out. Some of the best times I’ve had out in the water have been at the crappy beach break near my house in San Francisco. You’d never see a shot of the break in the major surf magazines, but more often than not, despite the cold, the crowds, and the choppy, closed out waves, I leave the water with a smile on my face, and I think that’s true for most surfers.

The women’s surf scene in the Bay Area is wonderful and incredibly diverse – a far cry from what is shown in the surf media, where nearly every shot I see is of a young white girl. Why a pre-adolescent skinny white girl from Orange County, California, where nearly the entire surf industry in the United States is located, became the iconic image of women’s surfing is a mystery to me. The women surfers I know are from 6 to 60, powerful, strong, athletic, and of all ethnicities and shapes and sizes. But it is very rare to see any of these women sponsored and even more rare to find them in photographs in surf magazines.

I find it obnoxious that surf companies use models in their ads and not surfers – often times not even their own team riders! They don’t do that with the guys, so why do they do it with the women? It’s depressing to hear stories from incredibly talented women surfers, some who are winning major surf contests, who can not get a single sponsor because they don’t look like a model. It’s a sport, not a beauty contest! One of the main reasons I began my Waterwomen photo project back in 1997 was because I felt that the surf media was not accurately portraying women surfers – something I think is still true today ten years later.

I think in many ways women surfers who have to wear wetsuits for most of the year are pretty lucky. I don’t think we have the body issues that our warmer water surf sisters have. We’re all wrapped up in neoprene when we’re surfing, and immediately put on sweaters, jeans, and a coat when we get out of the water. The Bay Area has a great beach culture, and I find it more down to earth and less about fashion and how you look than what I’ve experienced in other places. I don’t think most women surfers around here really care what the major surf companies are trying to sell to them – but then again I don’t think these companies are really trying to market to women surfers; they want all those 12 year olds in Kansas or Ohio to have their entire rooms and all their outfits in a surf style.

JG: According to the bio on your web site, you began your journey as a photographer in high school. What was your first camera? Fast forward to today, have modern photographic tools (digital cameras, computers, Photoshop, etc.) helped or hindered your approach to photography?
EP: My first camera was actually a Kodak 120 camera that I got for Christmas when I was 11. I loved taking photos and would bring it everywhere. I got a “professional” camera when I was 15. I helped to teach photography at a camp for the blind in Northern California and they gave me an old Nikon 35mm to use and I’ve been shooting with Nikons ever since – rare for a surf photographer as most everyone uses Canon. The camp for the blind was also where I learned to work in a darkroom and print my own photos. I know it sounds strange, but the reality many blind people actually have some vision, even if it’s only being able to tell if it’s night or day. My students took some great photos!

In 1997 I added a water housing and water camera to my gear, and a few years later a 600mm lens and medium format camera. I had to learn to shoot surf through trial and error because I didn’t know any other surf photographers and I was too shy to contact photographers at surf magazines to get tips. Unlike many surf photographers, I still only shoot film – both 35mm and medium format. This is for two reasons – I love the texture of film – the ability to physically hold it, store it; and the different look it gives my photos based on what film I’m using that day. Also, I just don’t have the money to convert to digital – I’d rather spend my money on making a new film rather than replacing equipment that works just fine. But the thought of not having to swim in with my housing after only 36 shots sure does sound appealing!

Of course I have a computer and scan all my slides and negatives on the rare occasion I actually send images to a magazine. So far all the book publishers I have worked with have wanted negatives and slides, which is great for me. Photoshop is a handy tool, but it can also be a crutch for not learning how to read light and shoot properly in the first place – but I have to admit that I definitely have used it when I love the shot but have screwed up the exposure! I often look at the photos in magazines and wonder just how much Photoshop has been applied to them. I’ve seen shots that look very strange – the person’s face looks almost like a mask because the shot has been overphotoshopped to compensate for poorly lit conditions. I wonder why the photo editor decides to do this because to me it looks terrible.

Without a computer and website, I don’t think I would be as known as a surf photographer. Because I focus on women surfers and generally don’t shoot pros, most surf magazines are not that interested in my imagery. Having a website gets my work out to an international audience and I’ve been invited to be in exhibits, shoot for books, and have sold prints because of it. I feel fortunate to be photographing during the digital age.

JG: You've produced a number of films in addition to your work in still photography. Which of the two art forms do you find the most enjoyable and why? Is one of them more challenging than the other?
EP: I like photography and filmmaking equally the same, because they are similar, yet different. Photography is lovely because it’s capturing a single moment in time. A photo can hung on a wall and be looked at over and over without becoming boring. And in many ways, photography is easier. You can simply get up, decide you want to take some shots, drive to the beach, start shooting, and generally come away with at least one image that you like no matter who is surfing and what the conditions are. Some of my best shots were on the worst surf days. I only need a split second to get a good photograph – I can make a knee high day look overhead with the right angle of my water housing; or grab a shot with my long lens that looks like the surfer is doing a floater when what they really were doing is dealing with a close out.

It’s more difficult to hide bad surf when you are filming. You need to capture at least part of the ride, so if it’s closing out or a surfer makes a mistake going down the line, the viewer will know it. Because of this, good conditions and good surfers are more crucial in surf filmmaking. Also, filmmaking is far more time consuming. To get enough shots of Sarah Gerhardt surfing Maverick’s for an hour-long film, my film partner Sally Lundburg and I had to spend hours upon days up on the cliff. We probably did at least two dozen all day shoots with Sarah at Maverick’s, and the result was barely enough rides for the film.

The aspect of filmmaking I love most is that so many other skills besides shooting come into play. I used to be a print journalist, and have even written a book, (called “Harlem of the West” Chronicle Books, 2006), so I get to use my writing skills in filmmaking which I can’t do in my photography. I also enjoy working with music and sound to make a section of a film come alive for a viewer. It’s both challenging and exciting to figure out how to utilize all these different elements to create a film that people will want to watch. I’ve been really lucky because although both my photography and filmmaking definitely do not fit within the confines dictated by the mainstream surf industry and are not traditional surf imagery, a lot of people like my work and I have been successful in both genres. It’s wonderful to be able to do what ever inspires me and have others appreciate it!

JG: Your latest film, One Winter Story, co-produced and directed with Sally Lundburg, covers big wave surfer Sarah Gerhardt. With so many female surfers to choose from, what was it about Sarah's story that you felt would make a great film?
EP: What interested me most about Sarah is how her extremely challenging and poverty ridden childhood ultimately led her to the waves at Maverick’s. Many kids in her same position would have turned to drugs or dropped out of school, but Sarah turned instead to surfing and chemistry. I think Sarah needed big waves to block out the hardships of her life. My film partner, Sally Lundburg, and I knew that Sarah’s big wave journey would be inspiring – and the message viewers would come away with is that although everyone has limitations of some sort, dreams and goals can still be pursued.

I think Sarah is unique among women surfers at her level because she decided to pursue big waves simply for the challenge and not because she wanted fame. In fact, for many years, she would not surf if she saw a photographer near the line up. Sally and I are also very interested in women surfers who also pursue other interests – in Sarah’s case it was a Ph.D. in physical chemistry – and how these women balance their lives between their many passions.

I actually can’t take credit for picking Sarah as a subject. Sally initially came up with the idea. She wanted to learn how to make documentary films and did so by making a short ten minute film about me and my Waterwomen photo series. I thought the film was just for practice, but it ended up being in several film festivals, and was picked as the opening film for the California premiere of the documentary on Rell Sunn.

After she was done, Sally was looking for another woman surfer to feature in a short film and we kicked around a bunch of ideas. She had met Sarah when they both were on the Big Island of Hawaii, where Sally grew up and where Sarah’s dad lives. So Sally got in touch with Sarah, who was now based in Santa Cruz, and went down to meet her and talk to her about the film idea. After the first meeting, Sally called me up and told me about Sarah’s incredible story, and we both felt it deserved more than a ten minute film, so Sally asked if I would like to make the documentary with her. I jumped at the chance, as I was excited to create a film outside the confines of my job at a PBS station. It has been the most difficult but most rewarding film I’ve ever made: extremely difficult shooting conditions, no financial support, and just the two of us to pull the entire thing off. Sally and I like to say we’ve conquered our own “Maverick’s.”

JG: You've won numerous Emmy Awards and your work has been showcased in dozens of museums, magazines and books. What is your most proud accomplishment?
EP: I have two – The first was in 1997, the first year of my Waterwomen Series, when I was asked to be part of a group show called “On the Surface: California Surf Culture,” at the Angels Gate Cultural Center, in San Pedro, CA. The other photographer featured in the exhibit was my photographic idol, Ron Church. I could not believe that my images were going to be in the same building as his. To top it all off, Ron Church’s widow was at the opening, and she told me that she liked my photographs and felt that Ron would have also really admired my work. I nearly fainted. It still remains the best compliment I have ever received about my photographs.

The second time was when my photos were in a show called “Surf Trip” at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, one of the largest museums in Northern California. Opening night was absolutely packed, you could barely move. It was thrilling to know that my work being seen by so many people. The museum later told us that it was the 2nd most attended show the museum had ever mounted -- only the Art of Star Wars exhibit drew more people – which is pretty amazing. I was standing by my photo wall and a group of women came up to me and said how excited and inspired they were to see photographs of everyday women surfers like themselves. They thanked me for portraying the scene that they knew and loved. It was a very fulfilling moment.

JG: Let's end with an easy question. If you could go on the perfect surf and photo trip, where would it be and why?
EP: This is actually the hardest question you’ve asked me! I’ve fallen in love with every place I’ve gone to shoot photos and surf – from the Liguerian Coast of northern Italy to remote beaches in Mexico to closed out glassy waves off an island in North Carolina. Every single trip has had its perfect moments.

Since I’m as fascinated with the people and culture of a place as much as the surf itself, and I’m not that interested in just photographing pros, I think the perfect surf and photo trip would be somewhere where I could immerse myself in a culture but also find great waves and an abundance of women surfers of all levels. My husband has surfed in Morocco and if I had to pick just one place to visit, surf, and photograph, I think right now it would be there. Also on the list are Wales, Nova Scotia, Peru, Vietnam, and the Maldives. I’m less interested in visiting traditional surf destinations such as Indo or Puerto Escondido, which seems like too much of a scene for my tastes. But frankly, I could be happy photographing anywhere there is a wave. I’m still chasing that perfect shot!


One Winter Story
The inspiring journey of big-wave pioneer and scientist Sarah Gerhardt. A film by Sally Lundburg & Elizabeth Pepin.

Watch film trailer >

Get your copy at >

For more information about Elizabeth Pepin's photography, please visit the Costa Vista Gallery's website:

Elizabeth Pepin Photo Gallery
lauren sweeney frontside air
Rachel, Ocean Beach, San Francisco
Photos: Elizabeth Pepin

One Winter Story - Film Trailer

lauren sweeney frontside air
The inspiring journey of Sarah Gerhardt.
A film by Sally Lundburg & Elizabeth Pepin.
One Winter Story - watch film trailer >

"Unlike many surf photographers, I still only shoot film – both 35mm and medium format. This is for two reasons – I love the texture of film – the ability to physically hold it, store it; and the different look it gives my photos based on what film I’m using that day."
-Elizabeth Pepin


sally lundburg, waipio valley, big island, hawaii, photo by elizabeth pepin
Sally Lundburg, Big Island, HI

ashley lloyd, photo by elizabeth pepin
Ashley Lloyd, Santa Cruz, CA

All Photos © Elizabeth Pepin


Photo: Gabe Rogel


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