It’s a rough job, but Rick Doyle loves to do it
By Gary Taylor
The Beach News April 8, 1993 Surfwriter column
Rick Doyle vividly remembers the day his life took a sharp turn toward the pinnacle of an exciting and dangerous career he now shares with a select few other madmen. “I was planning to go to Hawaii with my buddy,” said Doyle, suddenly shifting attention from his monster breakfast platter at Mr. T’s Café in Solana Beach last week. “He was my best friend, and we were going to surf the North Shore for the first time together, we were all psyched up about it. Right before we were going to leave, he was killed in a car wreck. It changed my whole life; he was half of it at the time….we had planned this trip forever. I was sitting in the parking lot of the hospital that day, and for some reason I felt I had to do more with my life than just go on a surf trip. I ended up driving down to San Diego State that day and enrolling. A month later, I was in school full time.” Out of the ashes of a life-long friendship cut short and an aborted trip to surfing’s Mecca, Rick Doyle has paid some major dues to become one of the best and most respected of a largely unheralded and most specialized profession: that of the surfing photographer. We all know surf photos are the bread and butter of the surfing media. Just like a well-thumbed Playboy, most kids don’t buy the magazines to read the articles, for darn sakes. No the grems go into frenzies over the shots of Slater going ballistic at Puerto, Johnny Boy stalling on the West Side, Carroll conquering Pipe, or Curren doing anything anywhere. Us older dudes gaze longlingly over the empty lineups shot somewhere in the world, be it Western Oz, Indo, Mex or Tahiti. But do you ever once think about what’s going behind the lens at the moment that dream shot is taken? Sit back and really study the surf shots in a magazine for a moment (especially the pretty full-color ones). Now try to think of any other magazine that runs photos as crisp and perfect, taken in obviously critical circumstances, that can compare. You’ll come up with a few distinguished names: Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and a sprinkling of dive, ski and sailboarding magazines (most taken by the same accomplished surf photographers). These guys consistently deliver and set the pace for state-of-the-art photography on both sides of the water’s edge, many times risking their lives and the whim of some photo editor to capture the hallowed cover shot. Would you be willing to stick yourself and thousands of dollars of camera equipment on the wall of 12’ Pipeline for weeks on end with the outside chance of getting 500 bucks and maybe a “great shot” compliment from the few aficionados of your profession? Full time surf photographers are the unsung heroes who can make or break the “real” heroes of the sport. Rick Doyle is one of those unsung heroes, a group of maybe a dozen names who swim out into some of the most dangerous liquid real estate in the world and consistently come back with the most mind-boggling, erotic images of man’s relationship with nature. Doyle’s standing is evident after a quick glance of any current reputable surf publication. The new Surfer’s Journal has his portrait of Joel Tudor at Windansea on the cover, along with several inside shots. A photo of ex-Cardiff hottie Brian Stanton is in the latest Surfer. He’s on in staff box of both Surfer and Surfing. When you put yourself behind the lens of one particular Doyle shot of Dale Dobson at Big Rock published in a recent issue of The Surfer’s Journal, you’re seeing nothing but thick ugly boils; up the face, on the flat, behind the whitewater. You’re halfway up the face, looking at Dobson standing casually in the vortex of all this madness. If you picture yourself on a surfboard with that view, you’re thinking, “I’m gonna die.” For Rick, it’s the job description. “The closest I came to really getting hurt was at K-39 during a six-foot south swell,” Doyle answers to my pat “most radical experience” question. “I was shooting sailboard, and I kept telling this guy to get closer and closer, I was shooting with a 24mm lens. About the seventh time he came by, the tail of his board broke free and he bullseyed right at me. I put the camera up over my face, dove off the raft, and board went right through the Plexiglass housing, just totally obliterated it. It could have been my head. He thought he killed me. I swam in, held up the camera and saved the film.” It was the closest of many close calls for Doyle, who continues to put life and limb on the line for artistic satisfaction, a few bucks, and some undernourished recognition. “At Baja Malibu I was shooting a guy deep in the tube. He went by and the wave just shut down, it was a weird compression of air. We were both really deep. I was hanging in ‘till the last second, something happened, and I got speared in the back by his board. It went through a five-mil wetsuit, a rash guard, my underwear, and put a whole in me the size of a quarter. If it was my face, I would have been mangled.” These horror stores are standard watercooler conversations in the life of a surf photographer, whose purpose in life is not to scratch for the channel during a set, but rather swim into the mouth of the monster for that special image that may or may not work for the theme of next month’s magazine. One of the special moments in Rick’s North Shore experiences is a frightening but rare occurrence he describes as being “pinned,” especially occurring during epic days at Sunset Beach. “Getting pinned is when you get caught inside in the impact zone, and there’s so much water that your Boogie Board is getting pulled inside, your leash doesn’t break, and you’re getting pulled under water. One day was huge, breaking through the channel between Kammieland and Sunset. Gary Elkerton almost drowned. It was gigantic. “At Pipe I’ve had waves break right in front of me. I’ve been washed all the way down to Euhkai. A big set came in and Rob [Keith] was the farthest one out with a bunch of us on the inside. He made it through the set, and when he turned around, we were all washing in, we were gone; Bolster, Grosswendt, myself….it was a yard sale out there. When they break right in front of you and you have nowhere to go, you think you’re just gonna get stomped.” Another standard story from Rick’s library comes from Tahiti: “At Haapiti, I thought I was a goner. It got so big, the channel was was closing out. And the rip was running so fast out the channel that I got in a bad spot. I was pinned again, one of two times it’s happened, where the [Boggie Board] was stuck underwater and I was getting sucked down with it. I was ready to take the camera and the leash off to swim in [laughs]. I ended up getting washed out to sea, and the rip was running so strong going out to sea that no matter how hard I swam—with fins—it was no use. Luckily, there was a Zodiac coming in and they game me a ride. I was out there being shark bait, half way to Bora Bora.” Doyle attributes some of his passion for surf photography to Art Brewer, who was the photo editor at Surfer Magazine, overseeing a young intern from SDSU who wanted to turn a childhood passion into a unique career. “Brewer taught me a lot when he was photo editor. He had a great attitude, really helpful, down to earth. He always told me what he thought about my stuff.” Not surprisingly, Doyle also cites the powerful contingent of Dan Merkel, Aaron Chang, Jeff Divine and Don King as other heavy influences. Doyle has expanded his horizons to general sports photography, his biggest accomplishment coming in the form of a shared Sports Illustrated cover shot. We all know ego plays a big part in catching and riding waves. You just don’t go out at Pipe and force Derek Ho into the pit. But what power trips go on among the lensmen? “Usually, everybody is jockeying for position,” said Doyle. “Some guys get kinda weird. If you swim in front of somebody and they don’t like it, if they think they have more seniority, they’ll say something. I’ve never had any trouble with that. All the guys who’ve been there since the 60s and 70s, Chang, Merkel, all those guys…we have a blast.” But Rick emphasizes it takes more than spending a few hundred bucks on a camera and auto-focus lens to consider entering into the realm of successful, high profile surf photography. “There’s guys on the beach with the auto-focus lens who don’t even know what kind of film they’re using. Some guys will vibe you out because they’re jealous or whatever, but I try to be nice to everybody. There’s no reason to be weird. Everybody’s doing what they love to do, everybody’s doing the same thing, and even through everybody’s shoulder to shoulder, they’re all gonna get a different shot. We’re all doing the same thing, so why should I begrudge them for doing it. And everybody’s good! The dozen at the top are all good, they’re all going to get their shots. But when there’s a hundred guys at one spot, it’s a challenge. You feel good when you get something different.” Doyle was instrumental in one innovation: the helmet camera, activated by a radio-controlled mechanism on the beach. Rick had to put up with some bugs, through. First off, paddling out with a San Diego Chargers’ football helmet on your head wasn’t something you’d want to try when the conditions were any less than perfect. Second, because of the mechanism’s radio frequency, the camera’s shutter would be activated by such things a s a plane flying over or someone opening their garage door. When asked who he feels is the best surfing photographer in the world today, Rick starts with Don King. “For water shots in Hawaii, he’s number one. He’s a fish, a great swimmer.” But then he quickly names off at least another half-dozen names with an air of respect usually reserved for close family: Chang, Keith, Merkel, Brewer, Hornbaker, Bielman. To keep up with the competition, Doyle swims a mile a day, goes for regular runs, lifts weights in the gym, and practices the martial arts. “If you’re gonna do it, you have to be in shape, and that increases your confidence. If you’re fit, you can pretty much handle anything. Nobody wants to be rescued in front of all the other guys. That’s the worst thing. It’s like, “I’m gonna drown before you rescue me.” Spoken like a true, unsung hero.￼
Water Photographer Blends Artistry with Physical Skill
By Terry Rodgers Staff Writer
The San Diego Union-Tribune, September 26, 1994
Rick Doyle loves taking photos in big surf, even when it entails the displeasure of being “Maytagged.” That’s the phrase surfers and others use to describe how a massive breaking wave can make a person simulate a tennis shoe being tossed in the swirling foam of a washing machine. “You get worked. You get pounded.” He said. The 40-year old Solana Beach resident is one of a rare breed who has achieved success in the highly competitive field of action sports photography. Even when he’s getting crushed by tons of falling water or dodging the arrow-sharp nose of an oncoming surfboard, Doyle said he wouldn’t trade it for the relative comfort of a corporate office. “When you get into one of those kinda jobs, you get into a salary cap,” said Doyle. “With this career, I can go as far as I want to go. I’m unlimited in the things I can do.” Over the past 15 years, he’s snapped about 500,000 photographs. He maintains an active personal archive of about 100,000 slides. His yearly income as a free-lance photographer isn’t enormous—about $70,000—but it’s the variety and physical challenge that he finds most alluring. To survive in big surf, Doyle, who is 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, trains continuously. A typical daily work out includes running 5 miles, plus swimming a mile in the ocean and another mile of laps in a pool. “Every day is different,” he says. “The phone rings and I could be on my way to Costa Rica next week; who knows?” Despite the occasional glamour and adventure of travel, the work can be dangerous and exhausting. One of Doyle’s more terrifying moments on the job occurred while he was taking pictures in big surf at La Jolla’s Windansea beach and the leash from an unseen Boogie Board rider because entwined around Doyle’s neck. “I was under water, getting ripped around by the wave, and basically being choked to death,” he recalls. Another time, he was sucked over a huge breaking wave and tossed into the path of the surfer he was photographing. “I got speared in the back by his board, the tip of which went right through a 5-millimeter wet suit and a put a big hole in me,” he says. Aside from serving as a handy anchor that helps him dive under huge waves, Doyle’s 35mm camera and waterproof housing once saved his life when he used it as a shield in a collision with a windsurfer in Mexico. “The impact destroyed the camera and obliterated the quarter-inch plexiglass housing,” he says. “It exploded right in my hands. But I was untouched.” Capturing his subjects while in the water entails a certain amount of risk, he insists. “You have to get out into it and become part of it do a complete job,” he says. Doyle parlayed one of the most devastating West Coast storms of this century into the turning point of his career. As 1982 came to a close, Doyle found himself nearing a dismal end to his personal “five-year plan” to make it as a full-time freelance photographer. He promised himself that he would cloister his cameras forever if, during the coming year, he failed to sell at least one magazine cover shot. That winter, a massive series of storms hit the California coastline, churning up huge waves that demolished piers, smashed sea walls and scooped away millions of tons of beach sand. To his credit, Doyle was prepared. In prior months he had scouted the San Diego coastline for key vantage points overlooking beaches that might produce unprecedented waves in the event of a storm. When the first big swells came, Doyle first went to La Jolla Cove, where other photographers and throngs of sightseers gazed in awe and fear at 20-foot-high waves. Then, late in the afternoon, he climbed down a treacherous footpath overlooking Black’s Beach, a famous surfing and nude sunbathing spot between La Jolla and Del Mar. “It was incredible,” Doyle recalled. “I saw these A-framed mountains of water. I couldn’t believe the size and beauty of the waves.” To his great fortune, two daring surfers—including a local legend nicknamed “Big Wave Dave”—paddled out into the 4-story-high surf. As both surfers took off on the same wave, Doyle clicked away from his perfect perch on the face of the sandstone cliff. The enormous wall of water devoured Big Wave Dave, but his partner somehow kept his balance and surfed perfectly down and across the mammoth wave. Doyle’s stunning photos of that moment got him his fist cover shot for Surfer magazine. The images captured that day also provided vivid documentation of the ferocity of a storm that cause $100 million in damage to the California coastline. “A good photographer will always be at the right place at the right time.” said Dana Fisher, a fellow freelance photographer based in San Diego. “And Rick Doyle seems to always be on the cutting edge of action sports photography.” Today, Doyle’s photos are regularly published in various water sports magazines, including Surfing, Surfer and Waterski. His photos of NFL football, water polo and other aquatic action shots have been featured in Sports Illustrated. He is credited with inventing the helmet-mounted camera, which helped pioneer inside-the-wave photography. The camera, which featured a radio-controlled shutter, would be worn by an experienced surfer who would duck into waves that wrapped over his body. With his invention, Doyle was able to capture images from the surfer’s eye level while standing on the beach with a radio transmitter. In recent years, he has become an expert in digital imagery, a form of high-tech artistry that blends photography with computer graphics. He is already published two compact discs of water-related photographs targeted for use by desktop publishers. He is nearing completion of a third such project, an interactive computer compact disc that explains basic oceanography and art of surfing. The disc, which is being produced under a partnership between Doyle and the Surfrider Foundation, is due out in December 1994.