Jim Russi is a talented surfer/photographer who grew up in Southern California and moved to the North Shore after graduating from the Brooks Institute of Photography. Jim creates images using natural light to produce soulful, sophisticated imagery. We spoke with Jim to learn more.
What was life like growing up?
Oh, was I supposed to grow up? Sorry, I am still working on it. But when I was younger, I used to hang out at the beach all the time. Guess I still do.
Who did you look up to and admire when you were a young man?
Greg Noll and, later, Gerry Lopez as surfers.. Dan Merkel, Larry ‘Flame” Moore and Art Brewer as my guiding lights in the surf photo area.
When did you get your first surfboard?
I was six years old and my brother Chuck was 12. We lived in Redondo Beach in 1962. He got a 9’2″ Greg Noll and I got a 6′ South Bay Surf Shop miniature longboard. I worked with my brother on his paper route and saved all my Christmas and birthday money up for two years to buy it for $36.50—brand new out of the shop. It was blue and I wish I still had it.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
I actually stood on a surf mat first. Back before boogie boards, we all rode really tough air mats (4′ x 28″) made of canvas and rubber by Converse. We pumped them up rock hard and rode ‘em like surfboards.
After standing on the air mat, I knew I had to ride a real surfboard. So, I borrowed an old 10′ tanker from one of my brother’s friends at the beach one day. I guess they thought it would be funny to see “Little Jimmy” get a beating and I did not disappoint them. I made it out somehow and turned the beast around, took two or three strokes. As the board lifted, I jumped to my feet. Feeling that old log accelerate down the face, I had a moment of pure euphoria… right before I pearled up to my neck and caught the rail between the legs and everything went black. (Laughs) But I was hooked that day at six years old and have been surfing most days ever since. That was 49 years ago and I was out just this morning in front of my house riding some waves—just me and my neighbor James.
Where did your interest in photography come from?
Both my mom and dad were good amateur photogs, and I guess I picked it up from them. When I was in 5th grade, my dad bought me a little plastic camera and a little black and white darkroom set-up. I started taking and printing photos of everything, but soon gravitated toward photos of people and sports.
In 8th grade, I started taking over my dad’s real 35mm camera. At that time, I was racing dirt bikes, so started shooting motocross. By freshman year in high school, I figured out that you could take yearbook and school newspaper photography instead of English class.. The choice was simple. I became the yearbook/newspaper lead photographer and photo editor for the next four years. Then, off to Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara for four more years to get my B.A. in fashion and advertising photography, all the while surfing and shooting my friends surfing. The day after I graduated from Brooks, I went to the North Shore of Oahu for a “one week surf trip”. That was in 1978 and I am still here.
What do you look for in a great photograph?
I try to see the image through the eyes of the viewer—forget how hard I worked for the image or who it is or what they are doing. I ask these questions: Is it interesting? Does it make you stop and take a long look? Does it evoke an emotion? Would I cut this out of the magazine and tack it on my bedroom wall?
For me, it’s mostly about color, direction of light and movement. But if it does not pass the aforementioned litmus test, it really does not matter.
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out? And why?
I am glad you did not ask, “What is your favorite place of all time?” I am not finished with “all time”. Working over the last 30 years for the surf mags, I have been very blessed to travel the planet to see, surf and meet people. All of it was beautiful in very different ways. So, standouts? I loved the rugged travel and adventure of exploring Indonesia in the 80’s and getting uncrowded surf back then.
These days, I like a little more comfort and consistent surf as I have less time for trips and I’ve slept on enough floors for a lifetime. So I like surf camps, like Tavarua and Namotu islands, where you score world-class waves consistently and are treated (and fed) like royalty on the little islands by the loving local people there.
What is the “golden rule” do you live by?
Treat others as you would like to be treated. Kind of simple. But if we did it, we would not need so many rules and laws, and the world would be a much happier place.
Who/what inspires you?
Jesus. Practiced what he preached. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
Life is short. Love more. Worry less. Respect others. Yours will come.
What are you most proud of?
My kids—Kaden is 4, Kona is 3 and Brooke is 20.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
I cannot really remember life without surfing. I have been in the water since I was six months old—riding air mats since the age of four and surfing since six. I was just talking to my neighbor in the water this morning about what life would be like if we had never surfed. We could not come up with any answers.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
This morning my four year old son, Kaden, was standing on our deck with his dog, cheering for me as I rode waves out in front of the house. That felt pretty darn good for a guy who will be 55 by the time you read this. I also love to watch my boys take beatings in the shorebreak on their bodyboards and come up with giant smiles on their stinkin’ cute little faces. (Laughs)
What’s your favorite meal?
(Laughs) My wife Mia is a professional chef, so it’s hard to say. Everything that girl touches in the kitchen is golden. She makes some mean Mexican, which is very hard to come by in Hawaii. So her shrimp tacos and enchiladas are amazing after a surf. We’re both Italian, so her pasta is out of this world. But one of my favorite things is the salad combinations she comes up with. Gotta stop here …it’s making me hungry. (Laughs)
What music are you currently listening to?
My boys playing drums to Tom Petty in the next room. Oh! They just switched to their Uncle Jack (Johnson). The kids got to come backstage with me this year as I photographed the Kokua Fest for Jack, and my son Kaden asked Ziggy if he was Bob Marley.
“No, I am his son.”
“Cool! Do you want to come to my house for dinner?”
Ziggy’s reaction? A big smile.
What causes/projects/organizations do you support?
”Keep the Country Country” on the North Shore of Oahu. Plastic Free Hawaii. Sunset Beach Elementary School. The Mission North Shore—Bringing God’s Love to the People of the North Shore.
What are you most grateful for?
My family, Mia, Kaden, Kona and Brooke. And for second chances. Yes, God is the God of second chances. I would know.
What’s next for Jim Russi?
Lunch and then take the boys to swim class. Go feed the horses, let the boys ride their dirt bikes around the ranch, home for an evening session with my boys in the shorebreak. Later, hot outside shower with the boys, one of Mia’s famous dinners, watch Wipe Out with the groms, story time and pop little guys in bed, take a few moments to rest and talk to my wife, sleep. Oh, you mean tomorrow?
Surf, love God, love my Family, love my neighbors, create images that people enjoy—at least I hope you enjoy them.
Blessings and Aloha.
Find out more about Jim Russi and his photography here. Jim’s upcoming winter gallery show in Haleiwa will be Nov. 20th from 5–9 pm at ThomAdro Art Gallery.