In the midst of the pandemic, photographer Matthew Brookes had been hoping to travel back to Europe from his native South Africa when the borders closed. Instead, he found himself bound for California, one of the few places open to him. On previous trips he stayed in West Hollywood but this time a friend suggested he look for something closer to the beach, to get outside during lockdown.
Brookes ended up in Venice: “It was an incredible experience,” he recalls. “It was something I didn’t expect to find.”
Venice Beach would go on to provide inspiration for his latest photography book, titled “Into the Wild,” which is out now from Rizzoli. To celebrate the publication Brookes spoke at the publisher’s Madison Square Park office last week alongside surf journalist Zack Raffin, who conducted and wrote the interviews accompanying the book’s photos.
The project documents the subculture of surfers who live in their vans and travel up and down the California coastline in search of the best waves at all times. Three of the subjects in the book had traveled to New York for the talk, and one, Same Mallows, joined Brookes and Raffin onstage.
“Being a ‘beach bum,’ or whatever you might want to call it, kind of means living a minimalist lifestyle as much as possible and just having the bare-bones necessities needed to get to the water and get to where the waves are breaking, be it all the way up in Santa Cruz or down in Mexico,” Mallows said. “Living in your van or in your car gives you the quickest, easiest access to that spot. We’re not homeless by any means. We do it fully voluntarily. It’s a sacrifice that we make to live our best lives.”
“Into the Wild,” named as a nod to the movie, is a far departure from Brookes’ first photography book, which documented the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet.
“I kind of just fell in love with Venice. It was just such a gritty, incredible place and I wanted to reflect that, what I was going through at the time. I wanted to have a diary of that,” Brookes explained. “When I went there, I started with a personal project. The Venice locals, which were surfers, skaters and everything. It just went from there. I mean, in the end, I just want to reflect the grittiness of Venice and the beauty in that grittiness.”
The message he most wanted to capture through the photos was one of respect for the surf lifestyle this group leads.
“I would just say in the end, [it’s about] a celebration of life. I think that’s the thing that came out to me about photographing these kids, that they were all extremely happy and they were all free-spirited,” Brookes said. “They were not desperate. They chose a different lifestyle. I thought it was a very interesting subject to tap at this time. It’s definitely a book of the times, I think.”