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Waterproof: Surf Photographer Nikki Brooks

waterproof1The waterproof artist finds her spot in the camera lineup

"Hi, I want to do surf photography. I don’t have any gear ... What do I need to do?” Armed with a casual portfolio of shots she’d taken of friends with an old Minolta during down time as a marine biology major, Nikki Brooks said this to the prominent Larry “Flame” Moore, former photo editor of Surfing magazine, back when she unceremoniously knocked on his door without an appointment in 2003. Moore, ever intuitive, welcomed the audacious 24-year-old into his office for a chat and ultimately became Brooks’ treasured first mentor.

In that monumental introductory meeting, Moore’s advice to the wide-eyed  protégé was to get out in the water and catch fresh angles via different means in addition to swimming. The result? Six years later his words of wisdom continue to shape Brooks’ approach, and she’s solidified a footing in the industry as one of Santa Cruz’s principal surf photographers.

“Doing something different is kind of my nature,” Brooks says. “With photography I try to document things in a different way, relative to the light and the moment. Those are my main focuses.”

waterproof2While most photographers at this year’s O’Neill Cold Water Classic took position on dry land at The Lane, Brooks snapped away aboard a dinghy out in the water. Her photo of Nat Young’s big off-the-top turn in the semi-finals, with the crowd of spectators above him in the background, was the image chosen by Surfline.com to capture his momentous win. At 2006’s CWC she paddled outside at Indicators, on a paddleboard built with a hatch to store her equipment, to snag a sweet water shot of Jason “Ratboy” Collins doing a bottom turn at First Peak, again with the cliff’s signature white wall jutting out behind him.

Brooks, a Capitola native, just returned from the North Shore, Oahu, and while many moms were tending to post-turkey meals during Thanksgiving break, this mother of two young girls spent the weekend missioning up to Half Moon Bay in hopes of scoring some photos of the awakened beast known as Mavericks—where this winter she plans to hop on the back of a jet ski to really get into the thick of things.

“If I’m going to spend my time doing something, I’d rather do it differently and be in the water where it’s more interesting and more challenging but might be more rewarding,” she emphasizes. “You have to work for it in the water and you never know what you’re going to get because there’s so many variables.”

Brooks’ face can light up with enthusiasm as luminescent as her images, and though she looks like your quintessential surfer girl and is impressively savvy on a board, she prefers barrels of the camera kind. With those prodigious maneuvers behind the lens, her shots have landed covers and inside top publications including Surfer’s Journal, Longboard magazine, Japan’s Nalu magazine, and Popular Photography magazine. An internationally sought accomplishment, she was  a finalist for the 2007 Follow the Light Foundation grant—the prestigious award given to an up-and-coming surf photographer in memory of her idol, Moore, who passed away in 2005.

waterproof3Contradictory to the often high-adrenaline, speed-obsessed side of surfing, Brooks’ photos effuse a radiant tranquility, often capturing an essence of a surfer beyond the action at hand. They reveal an intimacy that comes from her genuine personal relationship to her subjects. Along with scenic and big wave shots of Mavericks, Ghost Tree and the North Shore, this week’s “Wavelengths” exhibit focuses on eight local surfers: Kim Mayer, Lexi Wilson, Ashley Lloyd, Jamilah Star, Jason “Ratboy” Collins, Darshan Gooch, Steve Thomas, and Tanner “Rockstar” Beckett. All of whom, Brooks says, she selected because of her admiration for their technique in the water, just as much as their lifestyle out of it.

“I don’t ever want to be an imposter while I’m working,”  she explains of her preference to document those whom she calls friends, paralleling those earliest college point-and-shoot years. She then pauses and smiles, stumbling upon a revelation about her latest collection: “And, now that I’m talking about it out loud, maybe that’s the theme of this show—I’ve been on the same wavelengths as these people and on their same ride.”


Nikki Brooks speaks at the ‘Wavelengths’ exhibit reception at 6 p.m. Friday, December 12 at Paradise Surf Shop, 3961 Portola Dr., Santa Cruz. Free. A portion of photo sales will benefit CORE. For more information call 462-3880.

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