Mike Purpus

Steve Wilkings: the artful eye

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In 1964, Steve Wilkings became a member of Bay Cities Surf Club. He was a husky, smooth surfing regular footer whose family had just moved 7th and The Strand in Hermosa Beach.

For a high school graduation present, his parents bought him a Honeywell Pentax 35 mm with a 400mm lens and his father converted his bathroom into a dark room.

Bay Cities Surf Club had some of the hottest junior surfers on the coast, all surfing for the Jacobs Surf Team. With all these good surfers living nearby, Wilkings had plenty of opportunity to shoot and soon had all of us begging for his 8 by 10 black and white prints.

Leroy Grannis, the dean of surf photography, was mostly shooting the Dewey Weber Competition Team and the Dapper Dan Surf Club, but he always gave Steve helpful pointers whenever the two were shooting the same surfing event. Steve’s photos weren’t as sharp as Leroy’s but he always captured our most radical surfing moments.

Don Craig, Sparky Hudson and I moved from surfing 16th Street in Hermosa to surfing with future Surfing Walk of Fame members Mike Stevenson, John Baker and Alfred Laws at 5th Street so we’d be closer to the Wilkings house. The Jacobs Surf Shop at 422 Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa Beach had the entire wall behind the register covered with 8 by 10s of the Jacobs Surf Team taken by Steve Wilkings and Leroy Grannis. Sparky, Don, Kent Layton and I would stop at the Jacobs shop everyday after school to ogle over the latest photos of Mickey Dora, Ricky, Jim and Phil Irons, Henry Ford, Jim Craig, Tim Kelly, Robert August, Lance Carson, Paul Strauch, Donald Takayama, David Nuuhiwa, Dru Harrison, Mike Doyle, Rusty Miller and many more.

Steve was attending Art Center College of Design in Pasadena when the shortboard arrived. Steve’s photos began to take on an artistic, almost painterly painting look that distinguished him from the other surf photographers. I was honored when he used four photos of me to create an abstract image by reversing the positive and negative for his graduation project.

I still have the print on a wall in my apartment.

In ‘71 Wilkings moved to Honolulu, Hawaii where he opened an advertising studio and became the Surfer magazine photographer. He became well known by the top surfers for the blue surf matt he used to capture tube shots from the water whenever it was big. In 1976, he also pioneered the use of a camera mounted on a surfboard and triggered from the beach by a radio remote control. Wilkings has had countless covers and center spreads in Surfer plus photos in Playboy, Playgirl, Time, Life, People, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone and Surfers Journal.

He helped make me a surf star by capturing my best surfing moments so artistically that the magazines were eager to print them. He also always treated me fairly. So it was unfortunate that we had a falling out in 1974 over a Playgirl magazine shoot.

Wilkings had received an assignment from Playgirl to shoot Angie Reno surfing naked. Then Dan Merkel and I got an assignment to do the same thing. So I paddled out naked on a 4-foot day at Velzyland with Merkel following me on his surf mat, where we found Merkel and Reno already shooting.

Reno screamed at me, “I can’t believe your trying to steal my job.” I told Angie I was still mad at him for stealing my penicillin the year before and trading it for hashish. I had had a bad staph infection. Wilkings and Merkel were also screaming at one another from their surf mats because Wilkings was convinced Merkel and I were trying to poach on his Playgirl deal.

Playgirl ran Steve and Angie’s layout in their premier issue. Two months later, in September ’74, Dan’s fold out of yours truly appeared.

Wilkings refused to ever take another surfing photo of me. I have a Bernie Baker photo on the wall in my apartment of me deep in the tube at backdoor Pipeline. In the foreground Terry Stevens is standing next to Steve Wilkings, pointing at me in the tube. Steve has his lens pointed in the opposite direction and is checking his watch.

Happily, last year at Sparky Hudson’s Hermosa homecoming barbecue Steve and I finally made up and gave each other a long overdue hug.

Steve now works for The Surfing Heritage Foundation in San Clemente.

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