Famed surf photograph Jim Russi shows new works on display at Haleiwa Town Center’s Thomadro Art Gallery, Saturday November 20 from 5PM to 9PM.
The ocean is the epitome of artistry and adrenaline for those who choose to participate in it. For the past 30 years, Jim Russi has been capturing these moments, freezing them in time and place, for a snapshot into the spirit of what happens when mortals and mother nature collide.
Russi has been a senior staff photographer for every major U.S. surf publication, yet his imagery might be most well known for the vivacious Roxy ads that have inspired females to get in the water for over a decade now. And beyond surf mags and industry ads, Russi’s imagery now steps on to canvas at the Thomadro Art Gallery in Hale‘iwa. A book is also in the works. Russi does not simply record images, he creates them.
Every role Russi takes on — artist, mentor, father, fellow — is met with fierce discipline and dedication. To see a tattooed and tanned Russi riding one of his choppers around the island, surfing one of his favorite neighborhood breaks on the North Shore, or setting up to shoot on the beach with his face shielded by a trucker hat — always with the enthusiasm of a fresh-faced grom — it seems he has got it wired. But this life was won by many mistakes that he is not ashamed to admit, which is what makes him so refreshing and inspiring.
“I made a lot of life decisions that set me back a lot,” he recalls. “I can’t go back and change it. I would have put a lot more energy into my craft than drugs and alcohol if I could go back. But it’s not as wasteful if I can share that with other young people. I’m not preaching to anyone, but if someone asks. … If you can learn from other people’s mistakes, you’re ahead of the game. At my age I’ve made so many mistakes, I’m not embarrassed to talk about them to help somebody else.”
This year he will make 25 years sober. He hit bottom when a hanai little brother was killed in an alcohol and drug related event. Russi sought a way out. Much like the characters in the movie Easy Rider, he’d been searching for freedom in all the wrong places. “Anybody who has a compulsive personality, which a lot of artists have, can see it go positive or negative,” he explains. “I spent years chasing my tail in photography; that’s a healthy compulsion. The partying compulsion was a negative, and a difficult lifestyle to step out of.” Russi found recovery from addiction in 12-step programs. Later, he found a relationship with his higher power. “Committing my life to Christ, understanding that I’m not perfect and it’s OK when I fall short,” he says. “That healed me.”
Mentors are important to Russi, in personal and professional spheres of life. “That’s how all great civilizations have grown,” he adds. “Any successful society has mentorship.” His artistry is the result of a solid mix of passion and mentors. Growing up in California and loving motorcycles and surf as a grom, Russi got an early start in shooting his favorite activities when his father, an amateur photographer, gave him his first toy camera and constructive tips in fifth grade. After graduating with a B.A. in photography from the Brooks Institute, Russi took a vacation to Hawaii to surf, and like so many, never left. He befriended some guys his age — Jeff Hornbaker, Aaron Chang and Dan Merckel — who would soon become some of the surf world’s most respected and progressive contemporary photographers.
“That was definitely a peer mentorship,” Russi remembers. “We pushed each other. We always helped each other. We raised the bar on surf imagery, always calling each other and checking in, learning. A lot of guys didn’t want to do that. They wanted to be secretive — artists are famous for being lone rangers — but I think that’s detrimental. I think sharing information is important.”
However, times are changing and Russi knows this. His career was built on a time when there were less than a dozen surf photographers on the North Shore, and with the advent of digital photography and a disintegrating economy, he’s unsure of what the future holds. So what is his advice to artists who are coming up currently in less-than-flourishing conditions? “Seek out mentors to help you, professionally and personally. My father always told me to pursue what I love because that will become my job, and I will have to get up every day to do it. You still have to pursue your dreams these days, whatever they are, and the money will come,” Russi urges. “If you just pursue money, you will be miserable.”
New Works by Jim Russi
Thomadro Art Gallery
Haleiwa Town Center
66-145 Kamehameha Highway Unit 7
Haleiwa Town 96712