Keith Novosel is a talented surfer/photographer originally from the East Coast, currently residing in the Northwest. His photographs capture those subtle, in-between moments that a surfer experiences both in and out of the water. We spoke with Keith to learn more.
What was your life like growing up?
I’m fortunate to have had a great childhood. I grew up on plenty of land in Pennsylvania where I was able to run around and explore nature. As a child, I loved hiking in the woods and creek, watching and catching tadpoles, minnows, frogs, snakes, etc,. I’m not sure how it was a good idea to take snakes and salamanders to school for show and tell, but I remember doing that in elementary school.
My friends and I hung out all the time. We rode four wheelers around, fished, swam, played paintball, golfed, played soccer, hockey, and golf. We skateboarded, snowboarded… and did all kinds of other fun things. I still enjoy those simple things today, and they really shaped my overall appreciation for nature.
When did you get your first surfboard?
I didn’t get my first surfboard until after I graduated from high school. Living 8 hours from the ocean, surfing was never a realistic possibility (I never really thought about surfing Lake Erie). Each summer we would go to the New Jersey or Delaware coast for a week, where bodysurfing and boogie boarding introduced me to riding waves. It was my absolute favorite thing to do on those trips. I could stay out there all day, no matter the size or quality of the waves. My family and friends would get bored out there after a while, but I couldn’t get enough.
After high school, I moved to Florida for my first 2 years of college, and I was fully into surfing right away. I got a board that wasn’t really right for me, though, so I ended up borrowing boards from a friend until I got a 6’4″ fish of my own, which was a better fit for me to learn on. Longboarding came a little later for me… I did a little bit of it in Florida, but got way into it when I transferred to college in CA.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood up on a surfboard?
I remember my first day surfing pretty well, and I just remember being so excited, and a little nervous. When I actually stood up, I had the same feeling that so many other people have had… just a feeling of pure fun, and a little bit like flying. It was a perfect day for learning–about waist high, glassy, and a little mushy.
If I’m not able to surf for a while, the next time I go I feel those same things all over again as I catch the first wave of the day. Right now, it’s been a couple months since I’ve surfed, which is the longest break since I started… so the next time should be interesting.
Who did you look up to and admire when you were growing up?
I looked up to my family. They taught me about the importance of family and friends, and about working hard, but having a balance between work and fun. We also went on vacations from time to time, which initiated my love for travelling.
I also had a book about Jacques Cousteau that I really enjoyed, ha. It was a childhood dream of mine to be a marine biologist. I don’t know why I was so drawn to the ocean, but that interest stuck.
Who/what inspires you?
I’m inspired by lots of people and things. Right now, John Muir inspires me most. I somehow didn’t learn about him until after college, and I’m so glad I found out about his work. Natural places really inspire me, and his writing and work to save those places are extremely important. It makes me so happy to be hiking in the woods, swimming in the ocean, or snowboarding in the back country. Cities and sprawling suburbs bum me out. One of my favorite quotes from Muir is “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.” If more people would get out the city bubble, more efforts might be made to save what’s left. Also, Bob Dylan’s poem “Last thoughts on Woodie Guthrie” is really inspiring to me.
What do you look for when creating a photograph?
It really depends on what I’m shooting. I kind of get in a weird zone when I have a camera, and am just drawn to certain scenes. I can’t really explain what attracts me to those scenes. It probably comes from a mix of my personality and inspirations (photographic or otherwise).
If something moves me in one way or another, I look through the viewfinder to find a composition that pleases me. If I can’t find the right composition or moment, a lot of times I don’t even take the photo. Lighting is obviously important too, but I think a photo with poor light but excellent, simple, and balanced composition is stronger than a photo with poor composition and great light.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
Wow, that’s a big question. Appreciating simple things is one thing that I’m glad that I’ve learned. That might be the most important thing overall, as it carries over to so many areas of life. That answer is probably a little cliché, but it’s really true. It’s important to me to slow down and take in small things that are easily overlooked.
What are you most proud of?
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out and why?
New Zealand stands out the most to me. The people, scenery, waves, and wildlife were all so intense. They really take care of their country, and having the freedom to drive around, park, and sleep pretty much anywhere without being hassled was unique. That trip was one of the best of my life. Surfing wasn’t the main purpose of the trip, but it was a nice plus.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
Surfing is my favorite activity, by far, but it’s more than that. It’s the most dynamic activity I’ve ever done, maybe the most challenging, and definately the most fun. Surfing has allowed me to travel so much, to make some of my favorite photos, and to meet a lot of awesome people.
It’s hard to imagine what things would be like if I never left Pennsylvania, and never got into surfing. I’d probably be less happy and healthy, and might be in some line of work that I wouldn’t really want to be doing. I don’t think that was possible, though. I think it was always part of me, I just got a late start. I had to surf because of who I was, but surfing has also helped me grow and become who I am. It helped me to hold onto the important parts of my childhood that I mentioned above. I think that makes sense…
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
My family, friends, and girlfriend. Also surfing and/or bodysurfing small to medium sized glassy waves, hiking, camping, travelling. Having a camera to document these things makes me happy too.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
Well, that answer really depends on each individual surfer. When I was first learning about surfing, I was influenced by The Moonshine Conspiracy films (Shelter, Thicker Than Water, etc…). Then, Thomas Campbell’s Sprout was a major influence. More recently, it was Mikey Detemple’s Picaresque. My surfing has also been influenced by Ryan Lovelace and the board he shaped for me. It made riding non-longboards way more fun than it ever was…and it just fits the way I surf better than a standard thruster, or even a standard single fin.
To someone else, though, Tom Wegener might be shaping their path with his finless designs. Or Dane Reynolds with his airs and unique style. Or any of the big wave riders might shape how someone rides, trains, and thinks.
There are so many influences out there, and it’s just up to each surfer to choose which to follow, or to not follow. Anyone who is surfing well, documenting surfing in an interesting way, shaping good boards, or making art can be influencing the path of surfing without even knowing it.
What is your current favorite board? Your favorite surfspot?
Well, I only have two boards right now and it’s really really hard to pick just one of them. One is a 9’10″ custom shape from Almond surfboards. This board took a little while for me to get comfortable with, as the rails are more pinched than I was used to, but now I love it, especially in good waves. Once it’s locked in trim, it’s not going anywhere.
My other board is a 6“9″ Dreadnought hull from Ryan Lovelace at Point Concept surfboards. This was also a custom board, based on what I told Ryan I wanted (a somewhat more versatile hull). For it’s pure speed and glide factor, might barely beat the Almond as my favorite. The boards compliment each other extremely well.
I need one more board for choppier or mushier waves, and I have one being shaped by Peninsula Holding Company in Florida. Then, for the kinds of waves I like to surf, I should be pretty well set up.
And a certain point break in New Zealand is my favorite. I took my hull there last year and was able to test it on long fun walls with hardly anyone out. I had a couple of the best sessions of my life there, probably. At least on something besides a longboard. Also, Ollie’s point in Costa Rica is a favorite… for similar reasons. It’s a super fun, uncrowded (most of the time), steep right point break. Both of these spots are in some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen.
What’s your favorite meal?
Pierogies are one of my all time favorite foods. They’re a polish food with doughy noodles on the outside and mashed potatos and cheese on the inside. Or, if you make them yourself, you can put whatever you want inside. They’re good with sweet potatos and spinich.
Mexican food has really grown on me over the past couple years, too. I wonder what a Mexican style pierogie would be like… put rice, beans, and cheese inside and salsa on top… hmmm.
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Mason Jennings, John Prine, Alexi Murdoch, Lee Koch, The Tallest Man on Earth, Matt and Kim, Bön Iver, Ingrid Michelson, Tom Waits, Explosions in the Sky, The Shins, Regina Spektor Woody Guthrie, Sammy Walker. Mostly a little folky with some fun, funky stuff mixed in.
What are you most grateful for?
See the happiness question above. I’m grateful for those people and the ability to do those things.
What’s next for Keith Novosel?
What’s next is actually pretty unclear. Hopefully what’s next is a job that I enjoy. It’s been really hard for me to find any interesting work in Portland, where I’m currently living. I want to find something meaningful, where I can be a bit creative and can use my interests and skills. It could be a photo or video job, or a job for a non-profit or conservation organization, or for some other company that I respect, or… If anyone knows of anything, short or long term, please let me know.
Photographs courtesy of Keith Novosel. Photo of Keith Novosel surfing by Kyle Lightner. Walking portrait by Analisa Jahna.