In The Water Behind The Lens - An Ode to Surf Photographers Past and Present

Tom Vaughan

by on

Updated 11d ago

“Surf photography is starvation on the road to madness”. At least according to industry legend Jeff Divine, that is.

Since photographers were able to place their cameras in waterproof housings, they have remained the unsung heroes of the surfing world, being responsible for the most famous images that have ever graced our eyeballs.

For passionate waterman Johnny Gonzales, it was about time that this changed, and a bit more respect and recognition was placed upon their name. Hence, the film project In The Water Behind The Lens, was born.

Johnny sat down with MSW at a busy, dim-lit bar in the harbour town of Falmouth, Cornwall, a couple of hours prior to the UK Premiere screening of the film to discuss his passion project and transition from surf photographer to self-made film director.

While the speakers churned out early 2000s club music (which seemed a little out of place at 5pm - even on a Friday), Johnny and I sat in the corner away from the franticly shifting disco lights and sticky floors, emptied bottles of Corona (Johnny’s choice) and chatted away.

“It took 24 hours to export on a 2013 MacBook Air. But if it works, it works”, Johnny chuckles.

Entirely self-funded, this one-hour documentary film is a deep-dive into those souls who tread water for hours on end, just to get the shot. From the lenspeople who started it all — that’s those who were only able to capture 36 shots per roll, to modern heroes like Brent Bielmann and Maria Fernanda, it’s all here.

“I was working in a bar in San Diego and I hated life man. I wanted to do something special and photography was my release”, describes Johnny who originally hails from Orange County, California.

“I was a surf photographer myself just trying to make it because I loved it. I started with a GoPro but became friends with a surfer with a full water rig so I would borrow his."

Christa Funk in the underworld.

Christa Funk in the underworld.

“A little ways down the line I was selling life insurance and I eventually saved enough to buy my first water housing and a Canon 7d, and spent the summer at Lowers (Trestles).

“Lowers is great because you can shoot the left in the morning and the right in the evening because it was perfect for the light so I could sit there all day and some of the best surfers in the world would go there.

“There were never many photographers in the water but loads on the beach. I then realised it’s because you sometimes get sharks there." [laughs]

Christa Funk lining up the shot at Backdoor.

Christa Funk lining up the shot at Backdoor.

“I’d then buy a couple beers and go through my shots on the bus back which would take like two hours. This would be the perfect day.”

Fast-forward to the past three years and this film has dominated Johnny’s life, taking him all over the world and meeting a whole host of characters in the world of surf photography. Each of them with a fascinating story to tell, particularly in the case of Jim Russi, who recalls a wild encounter in Bali with Bill Murray in the film.

It wasn’t all funny interviews and plain sailing however, as Johnny described couple of hairy encounters in the salt both home and abroad.

“I was shooting for the film in Cornwall with Mike Lacey and got pretty pounded at Porthleven and Perranporth - Cornwall has some pretty crazy weather.

Olly Medland dropping in with Johnny fixed in limbo.

Olly Medland dropping in with Johnny fixed in limbo.

© 2022 - Mike Lacey

“My favourite shot in the whole film is of Mike looking back at the clocktower in Porthleven - you don’t get anything like that back in the US.”

But all this doesn’t come without sacrifice.

“I have no wife, no girlfriend, no kids and no mortgage”, he says. “It’s just all about chasing what I love doing which I guess could be considered pretty selfish.”

What's that famous saying?

What's that famous saying? "When the wave breaks here..."

And, now the film is out and touring a number of countries, what’s next? For Johnny, he already has eyes on the future and plans for more stories to tell on the big screen.

“Meeting the legends like Dan Merkel, it was hard not to geek out. I want my next project to be on Dan because he’s had such a crazy life.”

Dan Merkel, who was a camera operator for Big Wednesday, features heavily in In The Water Behind The Lens and has respect from all his peers for being a pioneer of the industry.

Cornish cover.

Cornish cover.

© 2022 - Mike Lacey

“All these guys worked so hard to get these shots and paved the way for all of the water photographers out there today.

“I would love to be able to tell these stories and inspire future generations.”

Check out the trailer to Johnny’s film In The Water Behind The Lens above.

Johnny Gonzales, a man destined to be behind the lens.

Johnny Gonzales, a man destined to be behind the lens.

© 2022 - Damian Davila