Jay Watson is a surfer / photographer working and living in Northern California. His oceanic images are deceptively simple, beautiful, and to the point. Jay talks to us about skating, surfing, and sushi.
What was it like growing up?
It wasn’t California. Baltimore is a blue collar baseball and football town. So I feel lucky I gravitated to skateboarding and riding freestyle bmx bikes. There were not many other riders, but my friends and I got to know most of the other guys in the area. We rode when it was –20 below in the winter and 100 in the summer. The ramps and parks were always getting torn down, so I was more into riding street. Baltimore has good mountain biking nearby, tasty seafood and some very creative criminals.
What attracted you to go surfing?
Growing up, I bought surfing mags because of the photography. Skateboarding got me interested in surfing. Outside of summer vacations, I was three hours from the ocean. When I moved to California and saw people surfing 70 yards away from where I was standing, it was time to start. Plus I was dating Pineapple Luv at the time; she gave me the extra push.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
Standing up didn’t feel like a big deal, but dropping in on a small wave felt better than riding down a vert ramp. I started in Northern California and suffered for two months getting into paddle shape. The glide slowly pays you back for your efforts, but the hard work is what I remember the most.
Who did you look up to and admire when you were a young boy?
Grizzly Adams, Evel Knievel, Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, Johnny Unitas, Tinker Juarez, Eddie Fiola, Alva, Natas, Caballero, Rodney Mullen, Ken Bradshaw, Andy Warhol.
What inspired you to be a photographer?
The seed was planted through my experiences with magazines. Bob Osborn started several BMX and freestyle magazines, and he also shot for them. There were also skate photographers—Mo Fo, Bryce Kanights and Grant Brittain. Their work was delivered to my house in mags every month. Warhol was into filmmaking and photography, so the camera also felt like a natural artistic choice.
What is your process for creating a great photo?
I research and plan out ideas for my portrait work, and my photo essays are usually inspired by a theme. Action sports requires knowing your gear well and being in the right place at the right time. You can have all the luck in the world, but it won’t matter if you are not prepared.
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out? And why?
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is a special place due to its history. I have hiked trails in that area several times and it feels like it is still occupied by the spirits of Native American Indians. The North Shore of Oahu is my favorite surf place. With all those historic spots stacked next to each other, it feels like Manhattan.
Who/what inspires you?
I was floored to see Duane Peters at age 48 rip at a skate contest last year. Clyde Aikau competed in “The Eddie” this year at age 60. They make me want to be a better photographer because we should never stop progressing. California inspires me because it has been a big part of my life before I even got here and my wife, Jamie, helps make everything look so natural and easy.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
One, you can’t pick and choose your friends. Two, a wrestling match only lasts six minutes (you can pick any sport).
Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
I had a nice-looking silver ‘85 VW Jetta that was always in the shop. I worked like a dog to keep it running, but I regret not launching that pig off a cliff instead. It owned me.
What are you most proud of?
That things I am most ashamed of are really not that big of a deal.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
I am not a spiritual surfer at all. I just like riding waves. Surfing is incredibly challenging and humbling. Conditions are always changing, so it becomes obvious that it parallels some of the lessons in life. I appreciate the few moments during a surf session when I turn my back to a wall of water coming at me. When do you ever get to do this in real life? If I am stressed out in the water because I am not catching waves, it usually means I am not doing something right in my life. We should never be stressed walking away from the ocean.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
Hot coffee. The feeling after skating, surfing or riding bikes. I love doing a good job on an assignment and seeing it in print or making my own prints. All of these things are addictive.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
Danny Hess, Tom and Jon Wegener, Cyrus Sutton. These guys are raising the awareness to make surfing more environmentally friendly. I would love to photograph Christian Wach and Alex Knost. They rip. Greg Long is on a roll and it must be for a reason.
What is in your current quiver? What is your favorite board? Your favorite surf spot?
9′ Bob Miller, 6’4″ twin-fin fish, 9’4″ single fin shaped by Ted Gallup. The 9′ Miller is a horse that can catch waves in almost any condition, but I am trying to get better on the fish. My favorite surf spot is Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz when it is not crowded. That is a rare occasion.
What’s your favorite meal?
I crush sushi like Godzilla and pasta like Vito Corleone.
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
Listening to Howlin’ Wolf, Bobby Blue Bland, Raekwon and KEXP Radio out of Seattle.
What’s next for Jay Watson?
Currently, I am working on promo posters that I might also offer for sale. My to-do list looks like cryptic chicken scratch. There are people I want to photograph in the North Shore, San Diego, LA and in my own backyard. In 2010, I’ll be doing some video work and heading more in that direction. I am looking at Dubai and Japan, and wondering why I have not been there yet. What is up with that?
Find out more about Jay Watson and his work here.