Talented waterman photographer Brian Bielmann made his own waterproof housing for his film cameras long before GoPros opened up water photography to groms and grandmas alike. Now, he shares some of his iconic style on film from the ’80s and ’90s at Treehouse.
“Now the whole world is photographers,” says Brian Bielmann, in his home office on O‘ahu’s North Shore. “I’ve seen guys who just go out for an afternoon with shots as good as mine. I mean, there are grandmas with GoPros who take amazing images. No use in being bitter about it, because it’s better for the world. And to say what I’ve heard, that ‘new photographers are undercutting the seasoned guys,’ that’s not completely true either. There are just some kids that are really good.”
Chillness and magnanimity aside, Brian Bielmann’s images have become synonymous with high-performance surf. A pioneering water photographer since moving to the North Shore in 1975—one of the first to challenge himself as a waterman with a high-quality camera in deadly waves—he has taken iconic images of modern surfing: Kelly Slater in perfect position at Backdoor shot from the lip of the wave; Nathan Fletcher in the cosmic vortex of Teahupo‘o, and the late Andy Irons sizing up a grinding Pipeline on his way out to the lineup. The number and array of magazines, high-profile clients, and shoots he has worked on are vast and international. In 2012, his images graced the posters of the most prominent surf events in the world: the Eddie Aikau Invitational, the Billabong Pro, and the Volcom Pipeline Pro. If there was a triple crown for watermen photographers, he’s earned it.
Professional surf photographers moved from film to digital years ago, but surfing fans have begun to appreciate the grainy, gritty, aesthetic quality of film in capturing the fleeting moments of air, water, surfer, and board. Bielmann, on the other hand, has embraced the advent of the digital age. “A photo editor recently told me they only find photographers from Instagram. Who knew?” he wonders out loud. “Does it actually do anything for a career? I’m not sure, but I do know that’s where the party’s at, so I should be there.” But Bielmann also has a not-so-secret trick up his sleeve: decades of knockout images on film, before film even had the option to become a trend.
For Back to the Country, a show on display at Treehouse through September 27, Bielmann presents select images shot on film throughout the ’80s and ’90s.
“Back then I had to build my own housing. The thing took forever, but it was watertight. Once, the thing broke off at the handle on the inside at Pipe,” he says with a laugh, using his hands to motion the experience of losing a beloved camera. “I took a beating trying to get it back, but got some great shots out of it.”
The show’s name brings to mind that of the millennial childhood classic Back to the Future science fiction films, in which Michael J. Fox played the character Marty McFly, sent back in time to repair the damaged present. Though the science in those films was always sketchy, the premise never was: to fix the present, we must look to the past. For the scores of surf photographers online and those of us relearning the irritations of using film, this is a chance to see examples from an era when film was the only option, and a younger Brian Bielmann was learning his craft.
Treehouse is located in Honolulu on the second floor of 250 Ward Ave., #233 and is open Mon.–Fri., noon–6 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m. –6 p.m. Back to the Country will be up through Sept. 27.