Jack Brull is an inspired New York surfer and photographer who sees the world through a low-fi camera. This unique approach yields images of drama and emotion that isn’t found with today’s digital cameras. Brull was kind enough to share some of his experiences both with his surfing and photography.
When did you get your first surfboard?
I got my first surfboard in about 1980. My mom and dad gave it to me for Christmas. I was about 15 years old. The board was a 6’10 single fin made by Charlie Bunger here on Long Island. The board had the coolest blue fade airbrush on the bottom and the deck was white with a huge navy blue Lightning Bolt lam. I wish I still had it—rounded pintail, wide point forward. Definitely a bit of a Lopez rip-off. I rode it for awhile and then traded it in when I realized thrusters were all the rage. What a mistake as I’d probably really enjoy that board these days.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
I remember the first wave I caught. I was riding a borrowed G&S single fin. The wave was about waist high and clean. It was a beautiful late spring morning. That split second sensation of sliding down that wave was unreal; I was probably only up for a couple of seconds, but I knew I was hooked big time.
Who/what inspires you?
I am inspired by anyone who is fully engaged in whatever activity they are pursuing—whether it be a job, art or surfing. I am inspired by people who are totally committed to their pursuits with a healthy dose of humility and self-deprecating humor thrown in for good measure.
What is lo-fi? What type of cameras and film do you use?
Well, lo-fi photography involves the use of extremely inexpensive and poorly constructed photographic equipment. Most of the cameras I use were considered toys when they were initially produced. The lenses are usually made of cheap plastic and the cameras have very limited controls related to aperture and shutter settings. To top it all off, the cameras are prone to extreme light leakage requiring the use of electrical or duct tape to make “light tight”.
I am currently using vintage Diana cameras and Diana clones as well as modified Kodak Brownie Hawkeye cameras. Each camera has its unique funky quirks. I am currently shooting mostly Kodak tmax 400 for black and white and expired/outdated Ektachrome 100 or 200 for color work.
Why use these lo-fi cameras? They certainly do not sound “user-friendly”.
You are right. These cameras are not at all “user-friendly” and they can be very frustrating at times. However, I feel the use of lo-fi photographic equipment is an incredibly freeing experience. The tools allow for spontaneity, impulsivity and happy accidents. The images produced can look ragged while maintaining a simplistic beauty. Moreover, the images produced often contain a certain visceral quality to the moment I experienced. The images from these cameras are softly-focused with limited edge sharpness. The low light images produced can look quite haunting when captured with an old Diana. I guess I feel that the lo-fi approach really suits the sometimes harsh and uncomfortable conditions associated with surfing in the Northeast.
Why have you chosen surfing as your primary subject matter?
Well I guess I am aiming to visually explore my day-to-day trips to the beach whether the daily experience is rather mundane and typical or conversely transcendently dynamic. When living in NYC, I used to do a lot of street photography. Since I moved to the ‘burbs, I have been searching for a subject matter that both excites me and is very accessible. Surfing meets both of these criteria.
While the act of surfing and the process of taking photographs vary greatly in the experience of physical sensations, I would argue both acts have a defining common point. Both pursuits require an attitude of bare attention and a high level of mindfulness to fully realize the given experience. For me, it is through this mental perspective that I truly open up to the continually changing qualities of my experiences, whether it be the ever-changing dynamic experience of a wave-riding or the “seeing” of the subtle qualities of our visual landscape. Both pursuits provide the unique challenges to me that provide flow rewards.
What do you look for when shooting images?
Well, I mostly I try to attend to the quality of the light. I do most of my photography pre-dawn or at dusk. Aside from the quality of the light, I try to capture a sense of stillness that is occurring in a very dynamic environment.
I also like to try to capture the many unique experiences that I associate with surfing from start to finish—whether it is selecting boards from the garage, the waxing of surfboards, morning surf check rituals and the walks to and from the ocean. When shooting surfers, I like to try to capture the sense of anticipation prior to surfing and the sense of contentment and peacefulness that most often occurs after a surf session.
Speaking of the surfing experience, what current boards are you riding?
I ride mostly fish and logs, although I do love my Fineline Microant II hull. Over the last four months or so, I have been attempting to detox from displacement hulls. I got addicted quick but hulls completely mess with your mind; they are so counter-intuitive to both fish and log surfing. I am now surfing them with caution.
My quiver includes a vintage 9’6” Hansen 50/50, a 9’8” Cooperdesigns Malibu Foil II, a 10’1 Cooperfish Nosedevil, 6’9” Josh Hall Longfish Simmons, a 6’4” Christenson quad fish and a 6’2” Swift movement (Larry Mabile) twin keel and 7’6” Fineline Microant II.
I really do not deserve such a nice quiver as my surfing is actually really quite mediocre—as most of my friends will concur! I am trying to focus on improving my logging and fish-riding at the moment.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
I was recently sidelined from surfing for about six weeks due to pulmonary heart valve replacement procedure. During this time, I had the opportunity to reflect and be thankful for what surfing has provided me. For me, riding a wave is an active state of meditation which provides me with a profound sense of relaxation and calmness, all the while remaining connected to such a dynamic and fluid environment as the ocean. Surfing has deepened my relationships with friends and my brother, has provided stress relief and brief periods of retreat from my day-to-day responsibilities. I feel better in general (spiritual, mental, socially and physically) when surfing regularly.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
I am probably not one to comment on this as my overall skill set is pretty limited. But I guess I really dig the stuff Richard Kenvin is doing. He has really opened things up with the Casper/Mini-Simmons stuff and his whole Hydrodynamica trip. Is that movie ever coming out? I must have watched the trailers about a thousand times. As far as other surfers, I am blown away by Rasta, Dan Malloy, Dane Reynolds and Joel Tudor and the super 8 footage of Dirt at the ‘bu.
I also feel that shapers such as Rich Pavel, Gene Cooper and Greg Liddle have done so much to push the current surfing zeitgeist along in both an exciting and accessible way for the every day surfer. I am also really am interested in the younger guys that are shaping such as Chris Christenson, Manny Caro and Josh Hall. These guys seem to have taken the best things out of older boards and pushed the given platform to new levels.
Lastly, I think filmmakers have really done a lot in terms of shaping the path for surfing. Andrew Kidman’s films blow me away as does some of the footage in One California Day.
Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
I have many regrets but as it pertains to surfing, I really regret that I stopped surfing for many years. In my mid to late 20’s until my mid to late 30’s, I let life get in the way of one of the most healthy pursuits I have ever experienced. So many missed waves, so many missed opportunities … I wish I could have some of that time back. Fortunately, my brother Martin got me back in the water about six years ago and it’s been incredible reconnecting with something so special. I wish I got to surf more with my other brother Tom, who passed away tragically ten years ago. He would have been so stoked on the resurrection of the twin keel and fish platform.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
Being home with my family, watching my daughter, Avery, learn something new and being there for friends.
What’s your favorite meal?
Remember, I am a New Yorker so I gotta say … PIZZA!!!!!!! Real quality pizza! You godda problem widt dat!!!
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
I love it all, but my favorites are Neil Young, Wilco, good old live Grateful Dead, John Coltrane and mid-fifties to early sixties Miles Davis. Bands such as MMJ and the Hold Steady are also in heavy rotation. I am psyched to see the Felice Brothers in a couple of weeks though!!!
What are you most grateful for?
My wife, Pjay, my daughter, Avery, my family and my health.
What causes/organizations do you support?
Well I am currently involved in a non-profit foundation that has been established in memory of my brother, Tom. My brother (Martin) and sister (Lauren) and our respective spouses (Pjay, Shara and Rob, as well as a very good friend, Keith Lucchesi) established the foundation in July of 2008. The Tommy Brull Foundation Inc. aims to raise money to support individuals in our community that are dealing with unique physical, mental or emotional challenges. We do a yearly benefit/auction that has raised a significant amount of money that we have given away to charitable causes. The local surf community has been so generous with supporting our cause. Local surf shops (unsound, Mollusk, Maritime, Bunger, RVC surf) as well as local photographers (Tommy Colla, Matt Clark, Mike Nelson, and Susannah Ray) have been super generous in donating art. Bigger companies have also joined to help (Smith Optics and Vans) to name a few. This year we also had the honor of having Andrew Kidman perform at the benefit. It was really quite special.
What’s next for Jack Brull?
Well as far as surfing and photography, I am just gonna keep doing what I am doing—just shoot film whenever I can and not take it all too seriously. I am hoping to accumulate a ton of negs and really edit them down to a small volume of images I feel best represent my reason for doing this. It’s all a work in progress for me and I can see how it has been evolving over the last year. Once the water warms up again, I want to stick my crappy cameras in some ghettoed-up water housing (sealed freezer bags), put on some Churchills on and get in the water. Right now, it’s tough to manipulate these crappy little cameras with 7 mil mittens on.
I’d also like to get my work out there more for people to see. I really value the input and constructive criticism I have received from people who have viewed my work up close and personal. Over the last year, I have had the several opportunities to hang my work and its been a great experience. Anyone interested in showing my work … I am all ears!!!
Find out more about Jack Brull and his photography here.