American surfer Gerry Lopez once commented, “One of the sad things about surfing is that the best memories are fleeting.”
Daniel R. Stockdale, a surfer and photographer from Ocean Grove, NJ, has been dedicated to capturing the magic of nature, in and out of the water, for the past forty years.
Having lived most of his life within walking distance to the ocean, his interest in photography naturally gravitates toward seascapes. Drawn to the beauty of the Caribbean, he has been returning to the Dominican Republic for the past five years, documenting the surf scene and generously sharing his stoke-filled art with the local community and global travelers.
How do you like shooting in the Dominican Republic as compared with New Jersey?
Easy, the tropical colors are special. Not that we don’t get good images in NJ, just different. Like most places in the world, our best surf season is the winter and its dark, dark wetsuits, dark gray water, harsh lighting etc. Can make for some cool images but love the colors here. I have been coming to the Caribbean for 20 some years, Puerto Rico, US and British Virgin Islands and love the colors.
How do you find the level of surfing and performance in the Dominican Republic?
I think I need to see more than the little section I surf on the North Coast to answer properly, but I am impressed with how the crew pushes, encourages and challenges each other. Obviously there is talent here. Zion and Rene held their own in the very competitive Belmar Pro this fall proving that. Being able to surf on at least something almost daily really helps especially with the young groms. But what impressed me most is when I first came here, 5 years ago now, was how well and quickly I was accepted. The friendliness and aloha spirit that I got here both in and out of the water matches that which I have gotten anywhere.
Why do you do what you do?
My wife asks me THAT a lot (laughing). But assuming you are referring to photography, it allows me to be creative both with my mind and my hands. Whenever asked if I could do it all over again, what would I want to be, the first response is a professional athlete ($$$) or brain surgeon (ego) but really what I would truly enjoy would being a master carpenter or master chef, for the same reason. You get to create something tangible. I have a friend that can come into your house, look in your cabinets and refrigerator and create an incredible dish, no recipe, just his mind and skills. Envious. Out of college, I taught elementary school and that was rewarding (at times) but you didn’t get to see the real results of working with young kids, as that happens further down the line. Then I wrote software for years. When I got to create new programs and my name went inside the code as the author, I got some of that creation satisfaction but only my peers saw that. When I capture an image, I can make a fine print, hang it on the wall and look at it and say I created that image; it’s a good feeling.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
Getting paid? Always a nice experience. Getting published is nice too. But seriously, compliments from anyone mean lot especially from another photographer that I respect. Getting photos of parents with their kids is always special, as the parents really appreciate it. I have one image I got in Fiji with a college kid that surfed competitively (longboarder too!) on the University of Florida team coming down the line on the nose of a solid 8 footer with his dad paddling over the wave in front of him, looking back, Dad admiring son.
One memory that really sticks with me was when a guy I know and have surfed with brought his young son to the Gromfest in our town. The kid was stoked out of his mind. Herbie told me he went to bed in his board shorts with surf mags in bed with him. He got up early and woke his Dad up, “Dad, let’s go, Surf Contest”. I managed a couple photos of Herbie pushing him into waves and one nice one of the two of them getting out of the water. I printed a few and took them to the restaurant bar where Herbie worked. He almost started crying. Then a few days later several of his friends told me how stoked he was with the photo memories talking about them. Stuff like that is way better than money.
What is your favorite or most inspirational place in Dominican Republic?
Since I am a bit older and slower now and exclusively riding longboards, I love Encuentro Right when it lines up all the way into the channel. I love the long big fat wall to carve turns. But a few years ago, Rene took me about an hour East. Simply beautiful. But I am always stressed about if should I photo or surf.
What inspires you?
Was there a defining moment for you in terms of your photography?
My first year in college, my Photography professor said to me one night, “Are you going to get serious about this, or just play around?” It was harsh but he made his point. The next year he told me that he knew I had an eye and needed a kick in the ass, and it worked. He said “You are becoming a photographer instead of someone who photographs”. That meant a lot to me, and I learned a lot from him.
What type of photography work do you most enjoying doing?
Landscape/seascapes/cityscapes scenes much more than surf. Don’t get me wrong; I love getting a good surf photo almost as much as getting a good wave myself. When I get that good surf photo, two people are stoked, the surfer and me. But more and more especially with the advances in digital imaging with faster image capture, motor drives, auto focus and exposure, just about anyone (with some money) can get a descent surf photo. But the artsy stuff, you have to have an eye for that and it’s not entirely equipment dependent. Some of my favorite photos that are still hanging on my wall at home I took with a simple manual 35mm camera 40 years ago. I recently got some that I like with a little pocket camera.
I am drawn to water, reflections, lights and the colors at dawn and dusk. I like strong graphic lines. I use a lot of black space, shadows and diagonal lines drawing your eye into the image. It’s the traditional composition I was trained in.
As far as surf photography is concerned, I like to get more of the wave than the standard magazine closely cropped in your face shot. I read recently that trend is changing in magazines. I know it’s tough to make it exclusively as a surf photographer and I really respect those guys dedication, especially when the surf is good. I sometimes stress when the waves and the lighting is so good. Do I surf or do I photo? I love both. I was in the water here this fall sitting next to Katie, saying that very thing. It was glassy and the lighting got real pretty. I said I really want to photo this but can’t make myself get out. She says, well why don’t you catch a few waves, then shoot a few photos, then catch a few more waves, etc… Love it when a young kid schools me.
It takes a special dedication to commit to photographing others enjoying incredible waves while you get the leftovers when the wind blows it out or the lighting gets bad. I know sponsors pay the bills and they want to be able to read their logos on the board or surfer’s lycra but I am more of a photographer than a surf photographer and have been fortunate that only a few times in my life have I depended upon photography to pay the bills so I could shoot for myself. And the surfer in me wants to see more of the setup, the entire scene, the whole break. You don’t see that enough in the mags except maybe The Surfers Journal, the National Geographic of surf magazines.
How has your style changed over time?
Color. I used to do exclusively black & white when I was shooting with film. I knew very little about color theory and am still learning. At the same time, every once and awhile, I get the itch to clean up my real darkroom and start making some black & white prints again.
Any embarrassing or funny moments shooting in the water?
More of my embarrassing moments in the water happen when I am riding not shooting. As I have been shooting from land much longer than in the water, I have a few embarrassing moments shooting from the land over the years. A few years ago on a real good post hurricane swell, I’m photo’ing from the water patrol stand for an hour or so and I notice a message on the LCD screen. But I can’t see things close in anymore. I ask the lifeguard sitting next to me, “What does that say?” He says “No compact flash card inserted” We both laughed but I missed a real good session. By the way I now enable the ‘No Shutter Release without Card’ option.
As for in water, I have only been shooting from the water since this fall. A couple people pushed me in that direction, Obdulio would be one, really admire his in water work. And a young kid from NJ, very talented photographer and hired by Rollinstone.com as a photo editor right out of college, would be the other. I always thought that guys that float in the impact zone getting pummeled were out of their minds. Last year I saw two images in my mind while surfing. One I was paddling back out through the channel at The Right with an older guy perfectly slotted, the wave arching right over his arched back symmetrically and the diagonal angle of the wave, very graphic image. The other was over closer to Bobo’s Point. Luciano went past me, as I was sitting outside. He hit the lip hard. I could see his fins come out. It was morning and the sun was low in the east. The spray he hit me with was sparkling in that light with his body silhouetted. Both images could only be created by getting in the water. Those two scenes pushed me over the edge and into the water. It’s very difficult, and a lot of the time it’s guesswork. “Did you get the shot?” “I won’t know until I get in.” And I have to admit, most times I don’t.
The first time I swam out back in NJ, one of the regulars at my home break comes out of the barrel, where Glenny is usually found, to see me only a few meters away. He didn’t know I was in the water. You should have seen his face. This fall, I’m in the water at Encuentro fumbling around without a helmet. Audrey takes off right in front of me. That night I had a message, “Daniel, if I give you an old helmet from my kite shop, will you wear it?” Jaja. Then she asked “But did you get the shot?” Unfortunately no. But I do have a helmet now.
Do you have a personal motto, and/or how would you describe your outlook on life?
Definitely, Laugh and laugh A LOT. It’s easily my favorite thing to do. I especially like making others laugh, even if they are laughing at me, which does happen a lot as I have the knack for doing stupid things. I know that the medical profession has done studies on endorphins that your body produces when doing extensive physical exercise and how powerful a “drug” that is. I wonder what your brain produces when you laugh? Nothing better. Could bottle that up and make a fortune. A couple things close but nothing better.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given about surfing?
A couple things come to mind. One would be that when you are staring at the surf, instead of just looking, you should always paddle out when in doubt. While doing just that at home, a guy says to me, “If you were on a surf trip, would you go?” “Absolutely.” “Then what is stopping you here?” Had no good answer so I went.
But the very best advice I have ever received was from a good friend, a little older and wiser than me who would always remind me “It’s supposed to be fun Danny”. Dave isn’t with us anymore but I still hear him whispering that in my ear whenever I stress in the water.
Have some fun and don’t forget to laugh.
To see more from Daniel Stockdale, visit http://www.drstockdale.com/