Over the past five decades, Northern California surfer and photographer Chris Klopf has sought to capture the wild spirit of surfing in his own way
There aren’t many surf photographers with a portfolio that includes imagery of both Mark Richards and CJ Nelson. Then again, there also aren’t many surf photographers who have had careers that span the better part of five decades—and there certainly aren’t any who have done it like Chris Klopf.
Born in 1950 in Marin County, a bucolic, redwood-dominated stretch of land just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, the reclusive Klopf started shooting surf photos in high school. He’d commandeer the school’s small stash of cameras and lenses and head to nearby forest-lined beaches to capture whatever he could. Klopf spent lunches and after-school hours hunched over inside a red-tinged darkroom, poring over negatives, developing a love of film and a thorough knowledge of how composition and exposure work in surf imagery. He figured it all out as he went, with pretty much zero mentorship or guidance.
“I didn’t have a lot of photo influences where I grew up,” Klopf says. “There was nobody shooting up here.”
In the 1970s, living, surfing and shooting in Santa Cruz and the Bay Area (also with stints in Santa Barbara), Klopf began making regular pilgrimages to the North Shore, photographing whoever he could find—it just so happened to be one of the most revolutionary periods in surf history, and Klopf was there to document it. It helped that he had plenty of time off from work during the freewheeling ‘70s, as he was employed by one of San Francisco’s legendary, now-defunct beer makers—hamm’s Brewery.
“Back when I worked at Hamm’s Brewery, which paid pretty well at the time, they’d lay you off like every two weeks for some reason,” Klopf says. “So I’d just take off and go to the North Shore and collect unemployment. It was a great life.”
He’d shoot Pipe, Sunset—wherever was breaking—then head back to Santa Cruz to photograph the area’s obscure reefs and point breaks. Klopf was also well-positioned to capture the burgeoning performance scene in Santa Cruz, producing some of the first shots of aerial pioneer Kevin Reed boosting at localized spots north of town.
Klopf never lost his love for living way up north on the fringe of California surfing, and now calls a big, 100-plus acre spread somewhere near Mendocino his home. When he opens his front door, he stares out at miles of evergreen trees.
“For me, surfing has always been a wilderness experience,” Klopf explains. This appreciation for the wild, natural aspect of surfing is apparent in his work. Much of Klopf ’s imagery emphasizes the wave almost as much as the surfer— sometimes more so, in fact. Pulled back shots that show a wave bending and folding above a reef, or pouring over a sandbar almost always with the entire wave in focus have become Klopf ’s calling card. Oh, there’s a surfer in there, too, but they’re just another element in an image that aims to capture something more holistic and raw about the surf experience.
In the past few years, Klopf has turned the focus of his work to the modern single-fin longboard aficionados: surfers like Tyler Warren, Tommy Witt and CJ Nelson. This shift from high performance to longboarding might surprise those who have followed Klopf ’s work—it’s even somewhat of a surprise to Klopf himself.
“I had been riding a longboard and guys like CJ Nelson started giving me shit when they’d see me, saying, ‘Dude, you’re out here surfing with me every day, why don’t you shoot photos of us? Instead, you’re shooting all these photos of guys riding boards you hate.’” In Klopf ’s mind, his friends had a point.
The breadth of eras, surfers and board designs that Klopf has captured are available in two photo books he’s released in recent years: “Shooting the Decades: The 1970s and 1980s”, and the newest, “Alternate Visions”. They’re remarkable in their scope, especially when considering that Klopf has been in the surf photography game for decades, always at the fringe, searching for something a bit more wild than his peers. The self-taught surf photographer has always done things his own way, and it seems to have worked out just fine.