In the early ‘70s, a young lady in Hawaii was interested in photographing surf. It took handshakes with the right people, the perfect lens, a sharp eye, the right moment, good timing, a lot of running around and a little luck to be that young lady. Shirley Rogers would be the first to tell you so. She was that young lady. She said, “It wasn’t easy, but it was fun. I was the only girl doing it at the time. When I moved to the North Shore in 1971, there were very few women living out there.
It was like the Wild West, and even being local didn’t help – my first Nikon setup was stolen from my house!" Being a local, female surf photographer in those days offered Rogers a little advantage when it came to behind-the-scenes access: “The boys were more open and available to ham it up for me,” she recalls. “I was able to get some really great candid shots of them.” But scoring action shots from the beach was intensely competitive. She had to prove she was serious about it. Standing eight to 10 hours a day in the hot sun and dragging 50 pounds of camera equipment, tripods, and lenses through the soft sand for miles earned. Even more so when her pictures were published in the magazines.
By the mid ’70s, the entire professional surf world descended upon the Seven Mile Miracle every winter like clockwork, and it was impossible to miss her behind a massive lens. Her colleagues used to joke with her that were more shots of her in the magazines than by her.
Certainly, she was an unusual presence on the beach in the 1970s, the best woman surf photographer within that pivotal era. But despite her work being published throughout the 70s and 80s, and her name being listed on the Surfing masthead for years under contributing photographers, little is known of her.
As a girl, she took classes and won a national award for her work. Shortly after high school, her parents decided to move back to Texas but Shirley wasn’t coming with. She was best friends with Jeff Hakman’s girlfriend, so after high school they all moved in together on the North Shore and she started to shoot surfing.
“I dunno, I lived on the North Shore, spent all my time on the beach, I already had a camera, so I figured, what the hell.”
It was during a massive day at Waimea Bay that Jack McCoy and Dick Hoole were shooting from the water for their forthcoming film, Tubular Swells. They wanted another angle for the new Aussie surf magazine Backdoor. They handed Shirley a 650 Century long-lens and Shirley was hooked.
They handed Shirley Rogers, a young woman from Ewa Beach barely out of high school, a Century 650mm lens and asked if she could help. A 650mm Century is no easy piece of equipment. Originally designed for Hollywood cinematography, it was paired with slow high-resolution slide film. This required tedious framing skills, not to mention the ability to pull focus while panning on a moving surfer, but Shirley learned and began submitting her work.
“The thing I remember most was how quick to learn she was, and how soon she was taking great photos that were published not long after she started, which was saying something,” said McCoy. It was a real art to learn to follow focus manually to get a sharp shot. If it wasn’t crystal, absolute, frozen-water sharp…the mags wouldn’t use it.
While she kept to the beach, she’d take notes from photographers like Dan Merkel and Brian Bielmann, describing Colonel Albert Benson to be particularly helpful. Besides shooting the rising stars of the time like Shaun Tomson, Gerry Lopez, and Rory Russell, she brought lesser-known, local heroes into the spotlight like Marvin Foster and Louis Ferreira. She also quickly realized what every successful surf photographer eventually discovers—that in this field of the craft, no matter what art school you graduated from, your relationships with the talent trumps everything. The surfers have to like you, never the other way around.
With stories to tell, she mentions several - like the time Jeff Hakman came home one day with Quiksilver’s first prototype.“‘They’re called boardshorts,’ he told he. They just looked like swim trunks to Shirley, but that’s how they were marketing them in Australia. She's still kicking herself for missing out on that deal. Also, Da Hui started in her kitchen, but that's another story.
Text: John Prickitt