Monday, December 23, 2002

Using a surfboard-mounted camera, photographer Warren Bolster captured Moana Drollet's journey through a tube in Tahiti.

Surf shots

Photographer Warren Bolster
tirelessly rides life's ebb and flow
to capture surfing beauty

Where to find it

Review by Greg Ambrose
Special to the Star-Bulletin

Warren Bolster wants his Mililani neighbors to know that he isn't some layabout hanging around the house all the time.

He also is keen to have his two young sons take pride in what he does for a living.

Easy, brah.

Both wishes are granted with the publication of the visually stunning "Masters of Surf Photography: Warren Bolster."

This oversize volume is a handsome collection of Bolster's visual poetry, where each picture tells much more than a thousand words ever could.

But what the book doesn't reveal is that Bolster is the hardest-working surf photojournalist in Hawaii. For decades, Bolster has faithfully dragged the tools of his trade down to the beach and into the waves to record small but important slices of local surfing life.

Risking a ruinous impact, Bolster captured world champion surfer Bonga Perkins with 10 toes and a foot over the nose.

Thanks to Bolster's tireless efforts to photograph nonlucrative local menehune and amateur surf contests, wave-riding keikis have been given their moments in the sun. Bolster hounds local newspapers to make sure they run his photos to give the kids a boost to fuel their surf stoke.

Bolster's life has resembled the precipitous highs and lows of a heart attack captured on an EKG printout, but his camera work has maintained an admirable consistency of excellence.

Bolster has been tormented by hip replacements, bad knees and near-death experiences while shooting at Pipeline and elsewhere, enduring numerous emergency surgeries with cycles of poverty and plenty. He has parked cars on the mainland and driven cabs in Honolulu, all to buy time to indulge his vocation: photography.

In 1980, at a low ebb, Bolster shed his old life on the mainland and was reborn in Hawaii as an ocean photo artist. Ever the loner, Bolster avoids the yapping pack of surf photographers, seeking unexploited areas and fresh images to further separate him from the crowd.

Unmindful of social conventions, Bolster is driven, working obsessively to capture new visual perspectives of surfing, perfecting and then abandoning each project for the next increment of his endless quest.

His goal has always been to put viewers on the wave, to help nonsurfers capture the feeling and to give everyone a new vantage point and interpretation of the art of wave riding.

His bold experiments with in-your-face photography to provide intimate portraits have resulted in bloody collisions with surfboards, rocks, coral and his own cameras.

Photographer Warren Bolster's son Warren Jr. shared his father's love of surfing at Baby Queens.

Nothing has dissuaded Bolster from raising the bar in surf photography. Temperamental surfboard-mounted camera techniques that are technically tedious and dangerous place viewers inside waves for an unmatched visceral thrill.

His experiments with special lenses for under/over shots meld the elements of air and water for a dramatic duality, dissolving the barriers that separate these seemingly exclusive worlds and providing startling, simultaneous images of the underwater realm and the kingdom of sunlight.

Using a gyrostabilizer and a deft hand, Bolster creates speed blurs that perfectly capture the motion of the ocean as surfers hitch a free ride; his work with high-speed strobe sequences conjure disorienting perspectives to challenge viewers' presumptions.

"I want to be the ordinary guy who represents the ordinary guy," Bolster said recently.

He continues to be a whirlwind of boundless energy and complete devotion to any project regardless of the social and personal toll. He has ascended to lofty heights in a helicopter for a Mount Olympian view of the sport at such difficult arenas as Kaena Point and distant, ehukai-shrouded outer reefs on the North Shore.

But Bolster's favorite vantage point is in the impact zone, amid the danger and tumult of the waves. The result is photos that provide the very best sort of safe explorations, making the mundane appear exotic and the unusual seem familiar.

Many of his images are attractive at first glance yet upon closer examination yield beguiling layers of revelations. Some of his photo seascapes are as worthy of extended contemplation as anything on canvas in traditional art museums. They are also an excellent chronicle of the history of surfing's development during the past three decades, with a special, loving focus on Hawaii.

Through the magic of Bolster's craft, hideously dangerous situations are rendered beautiful, fast objects are slowed, impending doom is frozen just before impact, tiny things loom large and people are rendered both huge and insignificant.

The only way this book could be improved would be to have Bolster provide more detailed captions to establish historical context and reveal the technical difficulties in capturing the images. But in this incarnation the book is a visual feast.


"Masters of Surf Photography: Warren Bolster," by Warren Bolster (Journal Concepts, 252 pages, regular edition $65; signed limited edition $125). Available at select surf shops, by calling 800-666-2122 or online at

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