silhouette of a surfer wading into the sea at dawn in golden light by owen tozer for looking sideways volume 1

A Sideways Look At The Golden State

Words by Mat Arney & images by Owen Tozer



In the world of action sports all roads lead, so it would seem, to California.

Hawaii may have more history and more powerful surf, Indonesia may have more perfect line-ups, and surfing may be more ingrained in the national culture in Australia; Japan may get better snow and Europe have more mountains; Barcelona may have more beautiful backdrops for street skaters; but nowhere covers all bases with as much clout as Southern California. It has the waves, the mountains, and the smooth concrete. It has the history. It is the epicentre of the action sports media and industry machines. It has been for over half a century, and it doesn’t look like that’ll be changing any time soon.

 

California was the obvious choice therefore, when Matt Barr of the Looking Sideways action sports podcast was looking at potential destinations for an omnibus trip back in 2019. In the four years that Matt has been recording his podcast he’s put out over 150 episodes featuring a cast of characters from across the worlds of surf, skate and snow. California offered a multi-generational talent pool from all three disciplines, and so Matt and his long-time friend and creative collaborator Owen Tozer booked their tickets and packed their bags for a three-week strike mission. Owen is a professional creative working across multiple disciplines, and as well as designing the Looking Sideways brand he’s often called upon to capture the portraits of Matt’s guests. Following their trip, Owen had such a huge volume of photographs that Matt suggested they produce a zine of their Californian project. That zine developed to become a beautiful coffee table book, featuring Owen’s stunning documentary style photographs of Southern California alongside portraits of many of the people who Matt interviewed, interspersed with short essays, contributions, character and location profiles from the likes of Jamie Brisick, Chas Smith, Lauren Hill, Jeff Johnson, Circe Wallace, Chris Coté, Keith Malloy and Rob Machado, amongst others

Copies of Looking Sideways Vol. 1 have just started landing on doormats, so we caught up with Owen to learn more about the trip, his process, and the backstory to the beautiful book that he created.

Owen, you and Matt crammed a lot into three weeks…. Did you feel that this “snapshot” approach was beneficial or would you have liked more time to really get under the skin of California?

I really think we could spend a year there and still have loads left to do. It’s such a huge, diverse place and it’s full of amazing people and places to visit. And there’s so much variation between north and south, the mountains, desert, coast and cities.

The trip was primarily to interview subjects for Matt’s Looking Sideways podcast, and you guys didn’t leave much time in the schedule for much photography beyond the interviewee portraits that you took. And yet, you’ve created a beautiful photo book. How did you go about capturing these images?

I was actually really surprised at how many photos I had when we got back. Originally I thought we might have enough images for a little ‘zine of the trip, and that’s where the book evolved from. I was definitely conscious that we hadn’t planned much time for photography other than the portraits to accompany the interviews, and so I really made a point of maximising the little windows that I did have by getting up early and going out to shoot while Matt was researching his next interview, or heading out whenever I had a spare hour. I also had a day in LA before meeting Matt and an afternoon shooting in Malibu, covering the destruction the Wolsey fire had caused 6 months before. I saw so many destroyed homes, it was really moving. I made a zine of those images too.

Were you mindful of how you presented California?

I definitely wasn’t trying to present California in any kind of preconceived way. I was there to shoot portraits to support Matt’s podcast and our schedule revolved around that, so I just photographed what caught my eye in between the interviews. In that sense, it really was a very documentary style project. Of course I’m drawn to certain things so there’s a subconscious bias, and I’m genuinely fond of California for all the reasons most surfers and skaters are, so I certainly didn’t want to show it in a negative way. I wanted to do it justice I suppose, so perhaps I was mindful in some way. There’s definitely an edge and undercurrent in the downtown areas and backstreets of California that often gets overlooked or ignored. I wouldn’t call it negative at all, in fact I think it’s what makes it interesting and those parts are often where the most dynamic and creative people come from. So I guess in fact the answer is yes in a way: I didn’t have anything in particular that I wanted to shoot or convey, other than to show as many sides of California as possible, not just the sunny brochure stuff.

Ventura to San Diego is only a small stretch of California’s coast. It’s the bottom third, if that. Where else would you have liked to visit, if you’d had more time?

I would have loved to have gone up into the mountains and deserts. Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Yosemite, Mammoth, and also further north on the coast; Santa Barbara, Big Sur, Monterey, Mavericks! Santa Cruz! And, of course, San Francisco and beyond into the giant redwood forests. There are so many epic places to go. We could definitely do a few more California volumes if we get the chance 🙂

You divided the book up into chapters geographically. What were your perceived differences between the different areas that you did visit – not just visually as a photographer, but in terms of the boardsports culture in those places? Did any feel culturally richer, “more real”, or masquerading under a facade than others?

There’s definitely a huge difference between the main points of our visit. Ventura has a more rugged rocky feeling, almost a frontier kind of feeling. There are lots more beards and Patagonia clothing! Malibu has a strange duality of money and grit, but is incredibly beautiful. Even the north to south of Malibu has a big difference in the way that they feel, to be honest. Then beyond LA it gets drier and sandier, there are fewer mountains close to the coast.

What were the differences between your preconceptions, the reality that you experienced, and hindsight?

I’d been to LA, Malibu and further north before so I had some familiarity with those areas. Further south I had less of an idea of what to expect. Huntington was a little seedier than I expected, once you got a block back from the beach, but I liked that edginess and contrast. I was quite surprised at how LA and Long Beach loomed on the horizon along with what looked like oil platforms. As the light faded and those city lights came on it was quite a sight. Encinitas was pretty much the perfect cliché of a California surf town with cool cafes and surf shops, an old movie theatre and sun bleached everything; Hippies playing music on the green above Swamis. I loved seeing that.
Blacks Beach was epic and beautiful with huge cliffs. So often you see photos of the waves in these places but not so much the approach and surroundings so it was nice to see that and put places I’d known about forever into context.

It’s possible to present a subject in different ways depending on the images that you select, how you edit them, and even the order that you lay them out in. Was this something that you were conscious of when planning and designing the book?

I’m always conscious of my influence on the images, both in the moment of taking and in the edit. But it’s not something that I dwell on particularly. I didn’t have an agenda or message to get across in this book, other than to do the project, place and people justice. I love that the book is a mixture of intimate, formal portraits and more documentary style street photography. I think the contrasting disciplines bring very complimentary threads and make it feel quite unique as a collection. And the words that Matt has written and commissioned from the various subjects elevate the whole thing hugely in my opinion. It’s so much more for those insights and contributions.

The book features profiles written by many of Matt’s previous guests and notable figures within their respective scenes. What was it like pulling all of those together, and how did you and Matt go about pairing them up?

I’ve got to give Matt full credit for that. Funnily enough, it was his idea to make a photo book to show my work, and I pushed him to add words. Once he got going and had the idea to commission pieces outside of the excerpts from the interviews, it became something really special.

As somebody who grew up surfing in the UK, what was it like meeting some of the biggest characters in sideways action sports?

It was amazing to meet everybody and all of the guests were so generous. It’s always good to be reminded that these people we normally see through the lens of fame or legend are just humans. Being welcomed into people’s homes and seeing them in their worlds is always a great privilege no matter who they are and everybody was very kind and gracious. I had a great time with Herbie Fletcher, wandering around his manic warehouse-come-studio, and some real surprises, like hearing Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson tell their stories of travelling from back in the day. Those were totally epic tales, straight from the horse’s mouth.

In your opinion, does California deliver on the hype and deserve its spot atop the pedestal that so many of us have put it on?

Definitely. It’s an amazing place and seems to me to have all the right ingredients for progression and rich culture. It’s by no means all good, or perfect, but it’s got this unrivalled and seductive allure that I’ve not felt anywhere else. I think it might be the seemingly infinite potential, or it might be a genuine feeling that anyone can be anything. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know but I feel like it just has this surplus of new energy and potential contained within a very ancient and powerful landscape.

What’s your favourite quote from the book?

Either the one about Herbie Fletcher sleeping in his car on the North Shore or the one about him surfing Backdoor on acid. For me that time in the 60’s when surfing was youthful and exciting is wonderful. I know sleeping in a car doesn’t sound too fun and surfing backdoor on acid sounds genuinely terrifying to me, but to hear stories about that time in surfing first hand was really magical to the little British grom version of me who fell hard for surfing when I was a teenager. Hearing Herbie talk story was like being a little grom again really.

“In ‘65 there was nobody on the North Shore to speak of. I lived in the bushes on the beach at Sunset. I thought it was beautiful. Going surfing all day, eating coconuts. Four of us bought Dewey Weber’s Cadillac for $100. We’d park it next to another vacant car and then the four of us would sleep in the two cars.” – Herbie Fletcher

“I like to see people push the limits. That’s where the LSD helped out, because you could visualise and see things you couldn’t see before. That’s how surfing Backdoor and surfing Off The Wall came about. It was dreaming about new ways to do stuff.” – Herbie Fletcher

Volume I implies that there are plans for a Volume II: Will it be a return to California to fill in the gaps, or do you and Matt have your sights set elsewhere?

I’d be delighted to go back every year and do a couple of weeks! We’ve discussed going back and heading north from Ventura next time, or driving south from San Francisco [editor’s note: since speaking with Owen and publishing this interview, he and Matt have confirmed that they will be returning in 2022 to cover SF to LA]. We could easily do a trip just to the mountains, and we didn’t even scratch the surface of Southern California really so there’s so much more to cover and more people to speak to. I’d love to go back when there’s real swell and get in the water to shoot. I’d love to see Mavericks break (from the safety of a boat maybe) and I’d love to interview and shoot portraits of so many people there. The list is huge so I don’t think we’d ever run out of options.

*****

 

You can purchase Looking Sideways Volume One here, with free global shipping.

 

Listen to the Looking Sideways action sports podcast here, or search for it wherever you get your podcasts, and get lost in Matt’s impressive back catalogue.


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