Legendary surf photographer Steve Sherman’s work highlighted in HBO documentary on North County scene
It was a singular time in both North San Diego and extreme sports history, and Steve Sherman, camera in hand, had a front row seat. “I hate that term, ‘extreme sports,’” laughs Sherman today from his home in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. It’s a sentiment that perhaps stems from the fact that the term is a bit too small to encapsulate the ’80s and ’90s skating and surfing scene that took shape in San Diego at the time. Producing monster names ranging from Tony Hawk to Kelly Slater, its culture successfully ricocheted throughout the United States and world.
The remarkable time is outlined in the HBO documentary aptly dubbed Momentum Generation. Airing on the channel and streaming on its HBO GO service, the film was produced by the legendary actor Robert Redford and directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist and paints a vivid portrait of the excitement, friendship and rivalries that resulted. The storytelling is aided in part by Sherman, whose candid images provide an incredible peak into the scene.
It stands to reason that the directors would call on Sherman’s treasure trove of images. The longtime North County resident became an indelible part of the revolution and grew to be one of surfing’s greatest modern photographers. Oddly enough however, it all almost never happened.
“Well, I was born in Indiana,” he explains of his Midwestern roots, far away from the California shore. It wasn’t until his parents moved to North County when he was a child that Sherman called both Del Mar and Solana Beach his stomping grounds. “My favorite spot to surf was what’s now Fletcher Cove,” says Sherman of the spot that was known as the Pillbox, deep below what are World War II-era concrete gunnery installations.
After a stint as a young professional skater, he fell into photography with his first foray shooting a skating contest for an eighth grade project with a hand-me-down camera. Later graduating from Torrey Pines High School, Sherman found himself smack in the middle of a burgeoning scene. “I knew that a lot of these guys were special and they were going places,” says Sherman, looking back at the scene’s heyday.
Sherman’s unique style quickly took shape, framing the ragtag group of fledgling athletes such as Slater, Shane Dorian, Rob Machado and others, like rock stars instead of mere mortals, and specializing in candid images. They showcase the group through the thrill of victory, agony of defeat and the fun of the lifestyle. One of his most frequent subjects was the surf superstar Slater, who first shot to notoriety in 1992 when he became the youngest surfing world champion ever at Hawaii’s Pipeline Masters.
“The one thing that all these guys had in common is that they were they all very humble,” he notes. “It was for the very same reason they let me in their world, and trusted me documenting them.”
As Sherman grew up, so did the surfing culture. His photos have been a staple of a litany of the sport’s biggest brands (Rusty, included) and Sherman’s imagery has blanketed a variety of publications for decades.
Sherman has stayed busy whether through continuing to capture the sport’s biggest names (he recently did a photo series with Mick Fanning), doing family and personal photography (a facet of the gig he says he loves and is keen for new subjects) or rubbing elbows with famous contacts. He’s still close with Slater, and after befriending the rocker Eddie Vedder, the two became fast friends with Sherman recently photographing a series of behind-the-scenes shots with the Pearl Jam frontman. “When we first met, he actually remembered a band I was in as a teenager,” says Sherman with a laugh. “He was like, ‘I saw you in Solana Beach at the Belly Up!” In addition, Sherman also has a line of t-shirts. The name? T-Sherms.
Of course there’s also the Momentum Generation documentary, a way to introduce the culture to a whole new audience and look back on an extraordinary time. “I didn’t know how they were going to put it together,” says Sherman of watching the final cut. “But they really showed the friendship and the brotherhood of it all.”
Find Steve Sherman on Instagram at @TSherms and @TShermsPortraitCo