Rob Kulisek is a surfer / photographer / writer originally from the New Jersey area. Preferring all things traditional, he shoots exclusively on film, writes his stories on a typewriter, and does his noseriding on a log. He can be seen in Mikey DeTemple’s new surfing film, Picaresque.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up on a barrier island, off the coast of New Jersey, called Wildwood. Being a resort town, it goes from having a half-million tourists in the summer to three or four thousand people in the winter—a ghost town so to speak. I always envied my friends who lived in the city, but looking back I think it was the quiet months that shaped much of who I am today. Most of my work involves a recurring theme of loneliness, and that is probably the result of growing up there.
My mom was an artist and my dad worked really hard to provide a comfortable life for us. My mom would always set up paints for me next to her easel when I was young, and then I was propelled into photography when she started publishing a magazine called The Sun. She gave me two pages each issue to do what I wanted with them. So, growing up I was sort of “forced” to be creative. Eventually, it gained momentum on its own and now most of my life is centered around creativity.
When did you get your first surfboard?
I got my first board when I was 9 or 10. It was a 7’6″ single fin.
What was the feeling you had when you you first stood on a surfboard?
I remember my first wave quite vividly, actually. It was early in the morning. The waves were breaking really softly out on the sandbar, like a Waikiki sort of wave. Everything was golden. I was shivering because it was still kind of chilly. I remember walking to the beach because I was really nervous. My mom was on the beach watching. I paddled in and stood up and just went straight, but it was a long ride. I knew right then I was hooked.
Who did you look up to and admire when you were a young man?
As far as surfing goes, Thomas Campbell’s movies were my saving grace as a kid—as cliché as that may sound. South Jersey is not exactly a breeding ground for inspiration, so I had to seek that out myself. The Seedling and Sprout helped with that a lot. Then there was the group of guys from the Offshore Longboard Club who kind of took me in and really helped my surfing progress. They were all inspiring to me because they stayed true to the classic mentality, which is the only train of thought that has continually held my interest in surfing. The progressive aspects never caught my attention, but the 60’s vibe of it all drew me in.
What do you look for when shooting images?
I used to want to become a “surf photographer”. Then all my gear was stolen and I had to rebuild my list of equipment from scratch. I was given a bunch of top-notch stuff from a retired commercial photographer. This is when I began shooting with a large format view camera, which really slowed down the process of making a photograph. As a photographer, I began following an emerging movement that involves an altered conception of documentary photography—not documentary in the “here and now” sense but more in the poetic sense. Basically, it is not about the portrayal of reality, but rather of an artistically well-grounded idea of the world at hand. So when I’m shooting, I’m attracted to an object or person that a knowledgeable viewer can find analytical or exegetic value in, however that may translate itself to be—just like a poem I guess.
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out and why?
I’ve been all over world but for some reason I am drawn to the Northeast, particularly Maine. It’s like God’s country. My friend Ty has a farm up there and it’s certainly my dream to live somewhere in New England one day. Sure, it gets cold, but the waves are consistent and there are sharks. So that makes it stand out for me. If not there, I’d probably say France. There are so many amazing things squeezed into that country. You’d never want to move out.
Who/what inspires you?
I am inspired by literature.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
How to not be shy and ask people for help. It does wonders.
What are you most proud of?
A very famous piece of artwork that was given to me. As well as a life that has allowed me to do all of the things I love relatively worry-free.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
Surfing has always been the one thing that I’m satisfied with every time I partake in it. I haven’t ever intended to make money off of it, and so I have a grounded approach to it. It’s like I can avoid being frustrated with it since I don’t take it too seriously.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
Having film delivered from the lab.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
Mikey DeTemple and everyone in his movies. And the cast of School of Surf on MTV2.
What is currently your favorite board? Your favorite surf spot?
My favorite board is my Bing Classic Noserider. It’s my every day board. It brings out a certain style that I don’t have on other boards. As for spots, much of the East Coast is the same, but Rockaway Beach and this one spot in Montauk stand out particularly. Plus, back home in Wildwood the beach was just dredged, which usually ruins the waves for a few seasons, but I’ve heard our little spot “Mini Malibu” has been epic. That place is high up on the list.
What’s your favorite meal?
Coffee and a bagel.
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
Always on rotation: Yo La Tengo, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Flavor Crystals, Moondog, and Spaceman 3. Recently on rotation: Woods, Real Estate, Kurt Vile, Jana Hunter, Pocahaunted, Sun Araw, and Woodsman.
What are you most grateful for?
Being an artist, being left-handed, the gift of salvation, and being able to noseride.
What causes/organizations do you support?
None at the moment, but I get phone calls daily and often think about joining some.
What’s next for Rob Kulisek?
I’m in the process of putting together another book with Ty Williams (which is both arduous and extremely fun at the same time) in addition to editorial assignments and a larger project, and book with help from a grant that I recently received. This month, Dustin Miller is flying up to work on a little documentary. I’m really inspired by his work, so I think we will be able to work well together simply because we “get” each other’s stuff, which is always important when collaborating. On top of that, this month I’ll be staying at Ty’s farm for a good part of it—just surfing and testing out the rubber in my es-cent-ial wetsuit. I think today it was 10º with the wind chill and the water is hovering around 37 to 39. Plus school! Almost forgot about that.
More information about Rob Kulisek and his art can be found here.