We sat down with our good friend and surf photography pioneer, Jim Russi, to talk story and discuss our shared interests around surfing, motorcycles and finding flow in our hometown of Ventura.
Jim Russi: Pioneering The Golden Days
INR: Jim, I feel like we’re kindred spirits. We both share a love of the ocean, riding motos, and even our lifestyle around ranching, horses and more. How did you fall in love with such diverse activities and what role have they played in shaping your life?
Jim Russi: Thanks for having me, always great to sit and talk story with you all.
It’s funny I didn't really think about how diverse these three disciplines of sport/lifestyle might be until you just brought it up. To me growing up surfing, riding horses and motorcycles in the California 60’s and even into the 70’s seemed like all one lifestyle. It seemed that all surfers were gearheads in the early 60's. The coolest surfers had a Honda 305cc scrambler, and if you were really top dog you might have a Triumph Bonneville.
I can remember as a grom watching everyone hanging out at the base of Manhattan Beach Pier watching the hotrods doing burnouts up the hill and and the old motorcycles doing wheelies by me as I bombed the hill on my clay wheeled skateboard.
The AM radios were blasting The Beach Boys, "Little Deuce Coupe", "This Car of Mine" and "My Little GTO" to name a few, motors and surfing were synonymous in beach culture. And top surfboard shapers like Dale Velsey and Greg Noll could often be seen sporting cowboy hats and western boots.
Later in the 70's, shortly after the "short board revolution" had kicked in, surfers started growing their hair long, driving VW buses and smoking a lot of weed. The connection with hot rods and motorcycles suffered and surfers like me became "closet gearheads'' for a few decades to come.
In 1969 my family moved from the little beach town to rural Palos Verdes with lots of open spaces, great uncrowded remote surf spots, hills to ride dirt bikes and lots of horses.
It was in these beautiful rolling hills and rocky coves of Palos Verdes I really tied these three passions together. Surfing all morning, riding my dirtbike in the hills midday and in the evening a trail ride with a girlfriend at sunset. All the cute girls at school had horses in PV and not many guys would ride with them... hey, I'm not as dumb as I look.
INR: If you could describe your passion for it all in one word, what would that be?
Jim Russi: In a word... blessed.
INR: You’re a legend in the photography world and one of the pioneers in the field of water surf photography in what I consider the golden age of surfing. Your career has spanned over an impressive 30 years. How did you originally break into this field in the ‘70s, when it was still in its infancy?
Jim Russi: I got involved in Photography in high school as a way to get out of english class, as a freshman I was not at the top of my class academically. I heard that I could get english credit for taking photography with the school newspaper and yearbook. I went to speak with the teacher, Scott Watson, a young guy right out of college with a passion for photography. After speaking with him and showing him a few of my images I had made of friends surfing He said he thought I was onto something and he would like to mentor me. This was encouraging, as all my other teachers said I would only end up dead or in prison.
So I worked for him on all the school stuff and continued to pursue my passions of surfing and photography for the 4 years of High School.
After graduation my parents begged me to go to college, but I just wanted to go surf and shoot photos in Hawaii. They persisted and I ended up going to Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara for the next 4 years to get my bachelors degree in fashion and advertising. That's another story, but when I graduated, I jumped on a plane the next day for a "week long" surf trip to Oahu's famed North Shore.
Once I tasted and saw the surf and lifestyle of the islands, that was it.
That one week surf trip turned into over 40 years of surfing giant waves, racing motocross, and riding horses in paradise. All the while working as senior photographer for Surfer Magazine and Quiksilver during the golden age of surfing and surf photography.
Did I mention I feel blessed?
INR: You’ve been a major part of the surf and motorcycle culture for a while now, what part of the past do you feel is most important in keeping the culture true to how it was in the earlier days? What did you like most about it and is there anything you’d like to see changed now?
Jim Russi: I am so encouraged to see young people today getting back to the roots of surfing and motorcycle culture.
In the 70's when that unfortunate segregation came along and separated the two cultures and categorized it in two, it was sad for me and others that lived and enjoyed it all. But to see it coming full circle is really great. I feel like today "closet biker/surfers" can come out and be proud to be both. Keep it comin.
Water photography is inherently dangerous and exciting, just like surfing big waves and racing motorcycles... that's why I love it, I suppose. I've been called an adrenaline junky and I guess they were right. That's why as if surfing giant Pipeline wasn't enough, I decided it would be a great idea to swim in the impact zone with my wagterhoused cameras every day for hours on end capturing the beauty and power of Pipeline from the surfers perspective for all those stuck on land to see.
INR: Being a North Shore based water photographer most of your career, you’ve no doubt been in some hairy situations. What’s one of the worst beatings you’ve taken out there?
Jim Russi: I have had too many near death experiences to mention in over 40 years of swimming in the impact zone at breaks all around the globe. But Pipeline is still one of the scariest places on earth. I’ve been knocked out, blacked out, beaten and bloodied there more times than I like to remember. Somehow through it all I feel that God really has had his hand on me and has kept me around for something more in the future, not yet revealed to me.
INR: All time greatest surfers that influenced your style? Name three.
Jim Russi: The Greatest Influence on me as a (goofy foot) surfer has to be Gerry Lopez. When in high school in 1972 we went to see the a surf movie (long before videos, and youtube) called "Five Summer Stories" it featured Gerry Lopez riding big hollow Pipeline with such style and grace, I was blown away and vowed to get to Pipe one day and watch Mr.Lopez surf the that wave. Well, after finishing HS and college I did get there in 1978 to not only watch him surf, but I moved in next door to him at Pipe and ended up traveling to surf spots around the world photographing him. Much Respect.
Greg Noll, not so much for his surf style, but for his lifestyle of doing exactly whatever the hell he wanted to do on land and his fearless approach of throwing himself over the ledge on the biggest waves ever ridden at that time. Da Bull lives.
Donald Takayama, best longboard style ever, best longboard shaper and kindest soul ever. Miss you so much my friend. Surf In Paradise DT.
INR: You also grew up racing motocross and desert racing. What was the first bike you had and how did that evolve into racing for you? What are you riding these days?
Jim Russi: Growing up with motorcycles and being a competitive type person, led me from stealing my older brother's Honda Scrambler one day at 8 years old , from that ride on I knew that it was a feeling I would never get enough of. My first bike at that time was a lawnmower powered mini bike, then on to a honda 90 scrambler but when I was 14 I had saved up and bought the very first "from the factory motocross bike" from Japan, It was the 1969 Yamaha 125MX .. It came with a "factory Expansion Chamber", 18 HP and crappy brakes. It had terrible suspension and I still ache all over my body from that one, but it was fast!
I started racing moto on it and then a friend invited me to a Desert race and I was hooked, we raced 90 mile Hare n Hounds in the southern Desert and I rode in the Barstow to Las Vegas 175 mile off road race several times, Once with Steve McQueen as Bruce Brown filmed "On any Sunday" I was riding an English "Rickman Metisse" at that time.
Moving to Hawaii I put moto on hold for a bit to pursue big waves, but after a few years was drawn back to racing Moto X as there was no desert there. Our motocross track at Velzyland was nothing like the beautiful tracks on the mainland, but it was what we had. I raced the Senior Masters 450cc class until I retired at 62 years old. I could never beat John Desoto "the Flyin Hawaiian," so getting second to him without getting lapped was as good as it gets and I was done.
We moved to Ventura a couple years ago and I got a KTM 500 exc that I have enjoyed getting back to the Desert here and having some room to move.
INR: You’re more or less retired from commercial photography at this point in your life. What advice would you give to up and coming kids who would like to get into the field of action sports photography today?
Jim Russi: Having had the "golden years" of surf photography with the surf magazines and advertisers clamoring after the images produced by a relatively few of us "professional photographers" it's easy to look at the situation today with all the technology and social media with images being "shared" for free to say it's over... but as my father told me, son I don't know how this photo thing can be a living, but I will tell you this, you will work all the days of your adult life, you must have a passion for what you do… go for it.
INR: You recently relocated your family from the North Shore of Oahu to Ventura. Why Ventura and what do you love about this place?
Jim Russi: Yeah, I did not plan on moving to Ventura or anywhere else on the mainland, but when I retired my beautiful wife Mia, put her foot down and said we need to get a place in California and wanting to stay married, I came along. Thinking we would just get a little place in Cali for a vacation house I had no idea what was going to happen. We looked in San Luis Obispo where a lot of her family lives and one day she told me that "God told her we were to go to Ventura"... well I had never been to Ventura. I figured it to be Like Santa Barbara or Malibu, and being a country guy, I was a little thrown off by that, but I don't argue with God or my wife on these matters so we came and had a good look and bought a place here. I was still thinking this was going to be a part time deal and I would still live most of the time at our North Shore home, but Ventura began to grow on me and as we met so many of the down home multi generational Ventura folks with their own brand of Aloha, making us feel at home here, in the surf culture, moto culture and especially the horse/ranch culture, we were sold. We still have our house on the Northshore, but Ventura has become our home.
INR: Horses play a big role in your life today. Is there a comparison that can be made between riding horses, motos and surfing?
Jim Russi: I rode "on" horses all my life, like I said mostly to cruise with hot girls growing up, but when I met my wife, a life long cowgirl. She got me interested in learning real "horsemanship" and being a better rider. As I got my own horses and started taking lessons and more and more cow horse clinics, I realized how technical riding these amazing animals is and how I will never be done or finished with this art form.
Much like the lifelong art of wave riding and the technical aspects of racing motocross, I feel and see a cross over connection that is beautiful between all three. As I only realized this about horses maybe 8 years ago, now I'm obsessed with them and hope to ride cow horses better every day for the duration.
INR: Describe a typical day in the life of Jim Russi.
Jim Russi: Day in the Life…
Blessed to wake up, check the surf with my son, shoot a bit of video for his sponsors, come home, eat some of my wife's fine cookin’, maybe slide into a few waves at the cove on my log, head up to the ranch and tend to our horses and get in and evening sunset ride with best friend and wife Mia.
God is good, life is good, enjoy it.
INR: When you hear the words “don’t let the bastards get you down” how would you describe that in your own words?
Jim Russi: "Don't let the Bastards get you down" to me means, there will always be people in your life that say you "should or should not do this or that." They will say "you must conform to this lifestyle or that lifestyle."
Don't hang around with those people.
Be Blessed, Live Aloha and Follow your Passion.
INR: Jim, thanks so much for taking the time to sit down with us and share a bit about yourself and your life. Now let’s go ride!