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Hana Hou Hawaiian Airlines Magazine - April Edition

Hana Hou features Brian Bielmann

“I still love using my

“I still love using my long lens, which is kind of passé for most photographers these days. But with a longer lens you get a super tight look, where you can feel the emotion of the surfer. I’ve been shooting Mark Healey since he was a kid; he’s become one of the greatest big wave surfers in the world.” Here, Healey’s emotion is plain to see on this critical drop at Pipeline. On the facing page, a winter sunset on O‘ahu’s North Shore. On a blustery North Shore day, I follow a very cheerful Brian Bielmann into his home office. Two rambunctious Akitas run circles around us, vying for our attention. Brian’s whistling a tune as if setting our interview to a soundtrack. I can’t help fill in the words to the melody: “All I wanna do is have some fun/I got a feelin’ I’m not the only one …” I soon discover that cheerful is Brian’s only look, peppy his only pace. The tall, lean and permanently bronzed 60-going-on-23-year-old has crow’s-feet and lines mapping his face perhaps less from age or sun than from a smile that rarely rests. The office is what you’d expect from one of surfing’s most successful and prolific photographers. His equipment is organized in neat stations, poised for use: cameras and lenses, tripods, water housings, Pelican cases, lighting equipment and a Costcosize gun safe. Even more impressive than his gear, though, is his massive vinyl collection, a library of music that spans two walls, floor to ceiling, in this large room. The reputation of this collection precedes itself here on the North Shore, but to see it in person is awe-inspiring. “Everything about music, I’m totally addicted to,” Brian proclaims, explaining the collection’s chronological order, cataloged by genre and deeper yet, originals and remasters. “Brian Bielmann’s top ten bands of all time,” I say. “Go.” Without hesitating he looks at the ceiling and rattles off the list, counting each artist on a tanned finger. “Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, David Bowie, the Doors, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac … or Talking Heads.” In recent years this collection has attracted celebrities from both worlds— surfing and music—to his annual “Record Nights,” intimate and exclusive gatherings attended by Jack Johnson, Kelly Slater, Kirk Hammett and Donavon Frankenreiter. Last year Brian published a portrait series in STAB Magazine where surfing’s greatest came to his house, took the first album they were drawn to and were photographed holding it. I ask Brian why so many surfers are musically inclined, from Jack Johnson to Eddie Vedder to Ben Harper. “Their thing started out as an artistic expression,” he says. “Sure, it’s a sport now with rules and regulations in contests, but it’s still a form of expression. Just like 102 103

music, there’s a creative free flow to both. When I was a kid I literally went from comics to music. Surfing was the only thing that replaced or overtook that obsession. If I hadn’t gotten into surfing, I’d probably be a musician or I’d have gone somewhere in that direction.” At 17 Brian left Virginia Beach for O‘ahu. Forty years ago the North Shore was in some ways a very similar place to today; its thunderous waves, vast golden beaches, misty Ko‘olau mountains and syrupy pace of life haven’t changed much. But back then nobody was out there but core surfers and a few local families. “When I first got to the North Shore, it was the wild, wild West,” Brian says. “I was terrified when I first showed up, and, yeah, I got beat up a few times. But that kept things uncrowded for a while and off the radar from non-surfers—that wildness. It was like, you had a beater car, no insurance, you lived on food stamps and were usually unemployed since there was no work out there. So surfers did have this persona of bums, but in those early to mid-’70s surfing was still very pure. Plus, surfers were kind of like rock stars.” Like many other intrepid young men the world over who saw glimpses of the North Shore’s “Seven-mile Miracle” in magazines, Brian came for the surf, following his big brother who had arrived years earlier. But while his friends went back to their Mainland lives by winter’s end, Brian and his brother stayed put. After a few years beneath the poverty line working odd jobs (shoe salesman at Pearlridge, food inspector in Honolulu), Brian decided to try photography. He took a class at Old Dominion University back in Virginia one summer, and after a perilous wipeout at Rocky Point—requiring stitches to the head—he stayed out of the water for a couple of months, which in turn compelled him to shoot his peers from the beach. His first photo was published in SURFING, a quarter-page image in 1978. “Seeing my name on the page in that magazine, I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” he says grinning. “I made twenty-five dollars and thought to myself, if I could just get one or two photos published a month, I could survive because my rent was fifty bucks!” Inspired by the greats of surf photography at that time—Art Brewer, Vince Cavataio, Dan Merkel, Jeff Divine, Jeff Hornbaker, Don King, Tom Boyle and Chris Van Lennep—Brian developed his own style and approach at a time when the sport was changing fast. While others battled it out for action shots at Pipeline, Brian focused on the “surfing lifestyle,” playing with unique vantage points, portraits and pulled-back angles. Then SURFING ran three full-spread shots Brian took of the shorebreak at Waimea, establishing his reputation as a legitimate talent. One of the three images graced the album cover of ’80s Aussie rock band Midnight Oil’s Scream in Blue (Live). “That changed everything for me,” recalls Brian, “because I went from a nobody kid on the North Shore to someone with some images that no one had ever really seen.” Brian also benefited from right place, right time celestial alignment. The shortboard revolution was in full swing. Bigmoney events made pro surfing a thing, and it was all happening on the North Shore. Brian shot the stars—Gerry Lopez, Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, Mark Richards, Shaun Tomson—and published in every major surf magazine. But he also quickly realized what remains true for every successful surf photographer: No matter what art school you graduated from, whether you’re a Fulbright scholar or Pulitzer Prize winner, your relationships with the talent trump everything. “He’s got a deep passion for photography, but I’d say his strongest attribute is getting along with people so well,” says fellow surf photographer Tom Servais. “I always say that much of success is getting along with people, especially in this industry. If the surfers don’t like you, you’re not gonna get very far. And Brian is extremely likable. He’s just got so much charisma. He’s a great storyteller and even gets the young kids laughing because he has such great tales. He’s just an all-around good guy.” When the neon-splattered ’80s swung around, Brian hopped the Pacific to Los Angeles to learn the ropes of high-fashion photography. Beyond the fashion sets, he landed a gig shooting Australian celebrities around town for Aussie gossip magazines. Brian stayed in LA only during summer— he’s never missed a winter on the North Shore since moving there, he says. Keen to harness his fashion experience and even more his connection to major LA modeling agencies, SURFING (among others) began tapping Brian as their go-to guy for swimsuit issues and editorial. He also brought the trends he’d see on fashion shoots to his work for surf apparel brands like Quiksilver and Billabong, which later sent Brian to Australia, Tahiti, Fiji and Indonesia to shoot their campaigns or team riders in events. While his fashion chops were a major asset for brands, what also set Brian apart was his comfort in treacherous waters. He would swim out at Pipeline in whatever conditions the talent could handle—not that he always returned unscathed. In the late ’90s, for instance, while shooting a contest at Pipeline from the back of a jet ski, he and the driver were bucked off the craft by a wall of whitewater. Brian’s water housing slammed into his face so hard that the Plexiglas cracked, requiring a dozen stitches. The unmanned jet ski flipped on top of him and nearly drowned him. His heaviest moment in the water happened just two years ago in the early morning of the Quiksilver Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational at Waimea Bay. Waves with sixty-foot faces were closing out the entire bay. Shooting from the back of a jet ski again and unable to make it over one of the sets, Brian and his driver had to double back toward shore and literally ride Bielmann (seen on the facing page) snapped some of his most memorable shots when he was looking away from the action. “Ten guys would be shooting in the water above the surface, so I’d go underwater and get something really different. I like to think that some of my most important photos have been when I was waiting for the ones I was expecting. Even this photo of surfers sitting around in Tahiti are waiting for something, which is what made this moment special.” 104 105

September 2016