Former personal photographer to Sean “Puffy” Combs, Justin Jay has spent the past 10 years traveling from NYC to the North Shore in December to document the denizens who congregate for the Pipe Masters. Snippets of his work has been published each season, but the majority has been reserved for an archive piece, a book, HI1K, which is set for release in the Fall of 2019. In today’s episode Justin outlines his foray from celebrity photography into surfing, the precarious state of photography as a career, and how selfie culture is altering our philosophy on privacy. Enjoy!
I’ve been to Hawaii in the winter twice. I’ve been ten times total, but only twice in the winter. It seems like an unimportant distinction, numerating my visits by season. It also seems pompous to dismiss eight Hawaiian vacations because they were during the three-quarters of the year where the Pacific Ocean’s swells bypassed the North Shore. Those eight trips were lovely. Time was spent with family. Hills were hiked. Banana bread was eaten. Luaus attended. All eight times I left tanned and fattened, but hollow. The Hawaii that had raptured my teenage attention and that had been indistinguishably tangled into my surf consciousness was still unexperienced.
Regardless of where one discovers surfing, if they have any access to surf media of any kind, Hawaii is their Siren. Hawaii is ubiquitous in surf media, and when any surfer references Hawaii, they are referring to the North Shore of Oahu between the months of November through February. Winter on the North Shore generates surf imagery that fills surf publications worldwide, year ‘round, and often for decades beyond. The allure for surfers and non surfers alike, emanates from a delicate balance between terror and beauty. The ocean and land offer moments of sublimity that can abruptly shift into horrendous consequence. Not tourists nor professional surfers are immune to the peril. And the stakes only intensify the seduction.
The desire to witness the sublime is obvious, but the drive and willingness to surf the North Shore requires a strange brew of athleticism, bravado, and savvy. These figures are worth examination. Their shared requisite qualifications predisposes them to colorful backstories, harrowing tales of waves survived, and a nomadic existence. Their bodies show evidence of their near misses. And their faces convey their distinct feelings about your presence.
As I’ve aged, and with 30 years of viewing surf imagery of the North Shore, the incidence of seeing a fresh perspective of a loved wave has all but vanished. Inversely, my desire to better know the humans who brave those waves has compounded. Those souls and I share a desire to glide on the surface of the ocean, but their willingness to risk life in pursuit of a deeper, larger, more intense glide is where our desires diverge. I’ve spent the past few years on this podcast asking some of these people about their motivations. Did someone in their youth make them feel inferior? What justifications do they offer to their kids for risking their lives? Or to their parents? Do they believe in a divine anointing that allows them impunity? Are they ever satisfied?
I remember an image of Dustin Barca with a butterfly, the center on the composition, perched on his finger. His left profile is on the right side of the frame. He’s nearly smiling, attentive in conversation. I had never before seen this Barca. That said, the image also showcased his chiseled shoulder and cauliflowered ear, harbingers that this is in fact, the MMA fighter and Monsanto combatant that the surf media usually portrays with his scowl and chipped tooth forward. The figure on the left side of the frame is (literally) mirrored in Barca’s cyborg-styled Oakley lenses. He’s the far less fit, far more fashionable, world renowned American painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel. Schnabel, in smart frames with yellow tinted lenses and a button down pajama top, looks to be regaling Barca. And the marvel that is a butterfly daintily resting atop Barca’s pointed finger seems unacknowledged by the two, as if all one has to do to convene with a butterfly in Hawaii is outstretch a finger.
The image gave me completely fresh insights and left me with questions. Different questions that I had ever asked about Hawaii. The image epitomized what I was unaware was missing from my Southern California exposure to the Hawaii winter. It showcased the dichotomy of strength and grace that I was accustomed to from decades of surf imagery, but it also revealed a level of humanity that had somehow evaded nearly all the imagery that filled my youth. I began following the Justin Jay’s work and was pleased to find that this human-interest themed image was not a detour in his photography, but in fact the focus. I reveled in the scarce images he published, some to his social media and website, and far too occasionally to Transworld Surf, Stab, and Beach Grit.
I eventually reached out to Justin and we met for coffee in his hometown of Carpinteria, California in March of 2015. That conversation was recorded and published as episode 78 of Surf Splendor. Justin explained that he travels from New York each winter to spend a couple of weeks in Hawaii. And while that explained the images that I had seen, I asked him why I hadn’t seen more images. Two weeks in Hawaii every year is enough time to garner hundreds, if not thousands of images, and yet I could only find a few dozen. Justin was vague in his response. In lieu of a definitive answer, I abandoned my curiosity and accepted the reality that he’s modest and reserved. I rationalized that he’s not much of a self-promoter. I hypothesized that he’s a meticulous curator of the torrent of images that he captures, and that’s why he has only shared a few. Regardless, I’ve been left with an unsatated lust for Justin’s work. In the subsequent years since our meeting in the spring of 2015, print publications have further constricted and I’ve been relegated to viewing nearly all of Justin’s work through the blue light emanating from my computer, or worse, as a 2” x 2” square in my Instagram feed.
But then, in September 2018 Justin emailed to finally address my inquiry. He revealed that 10 years worth of archived photos would not only be shared, they would actually be printed on real paper and bound into an actual book. I felt a surge of nostalgia; for unseen images that I had hastily reconciled as unworthy, for a revival of print in an ambitious fashion, and most acutely, for a longing to better know the demigods who spend their winters on the North Shore.
David Lee Scales
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For many years, I was a personal photographer to Sean Diddy Combs. I was at the hospital for the birth of his twin girls with Kim Porter – we shot these pictures just a few weeks later. It’s utterly devastating to hear the news of Kims sudden passing this week. Kim was a dedicated and loving mother and a gorgeous person inside and out. I’m heartbroken. Sending all of my love to her children, family and friends. Such a tragic and shocking loss. #KimPorter #GoneTooSoon #ShiningDown #HugYourFamily #TommorowIsntGuaranteed #Loss #Diddy @diasimms @iamchuckbone @quincy @jameelspencer @natmoar @diddy @fonzbentley @kristinakhorram @kingcombs
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Host, Writer, Producer: David Scales @David_Lee_Scales