Photos celebrating California’s legendary surf culture

Photos celebrating California’s legendary surf culture
Photographer Matthew Brookes recalls following a group of young people in Venice Beach, many living and travelling out of their vans in search of the perfect wave.

In early 2021, photographer Matthew Brookes traveled from South Africa to Los Angeles’s famed Venice Beach and was quickly entranced by the scene’s wildly diverse cultural scene. “I was fascinated by the locals – skaters, surfers, musicians, hippies,” he says. “You see every type of character on the planet but everyone seems to just do their thing without judgment.”

While making photographs, Brookes connected with a surfer who earned enough money at his part-time job shaping surfboards to travel freely up and down the California coast in search of the perfect wave. “I noticed he had a crazy van filled with surfboards, skateboards, and a mattress with bedding,” he says. “I asked if he traveled in his van and he said, ‘I live out of it!’” 

Intrigued, Brookes took some photos then asked if he had any friends who had escaped the pressures of a 9-to-5, rent-driven existence. The surfer told Brookes yes, Venice was full of them, and proceeded to make introductions to his fellow nomads. 

From this initial encounter, Brookes embarked on a six-month journey, traveling between Malibu and San Diego to document California’s legendary surf scene for the new book, Into the Wild (Damiani). A mesmerising portrait of freedom, nature, and sport that combines photographs and interviews by journalist Zack Raffin, the book offers a look inside a mythic slice of American life. 

“These kids seem to live for the waves and their lives are super transient,” Brookes says. “It was fascinating to hear about how they love to wake up next to a different beach each day, saying it was like living in free real estate with the perfect view.”

Surfing first became popularised in American movies and magazines of the 1960s and has only grown since, with a booming industry now surrounding it. However, the sport still continues to draw free-spirited people who prefer to live on their own terms, without being tied down by the weight of real estate, consumerism, or capitalist norms. 

“There is a real sense of community between the surfer van nomads but at the same time they are very independent of each other and often shy loners,” Brookes reveals. “They are like a little traveling family, bumping into each other along the road.”

Surfers arrive at their destination, camp out overnight, and wake up to the best waves come at dawn, when the beaches are empty and the wind is low. They follow the ever-changing tides of the ocean, and live in harmony with the earth. 

“First and foremost in their hearts is a deep love and respect for the ocean. It’s always about chasing the best waves and not the fame and glory behind that. One of the surfers in the book, Kandai, from Japan, told me: ‘Surfing is the way I talk to the ocean,’” Brookes says. 

“What struck me most about the young people were how happy they were. They seemed to shine with an inner peace. I asked them about it and one common answer kept coming up: ‘we go with the flow’ is their secret motto.”

Into the Wild  is out now on Damiani Books.

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