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Surf's Up in Newport

Surf’s Up in Newport
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Photographers love subcultures. Show me an identifiable subculture – gypsies, migrant workers, drug addicts, strippers, veterans, artists, musicians, skateboarders, fishermen, homeless people – and I’m pretty sure I can find a photographer who has documented their way of life.

Surfers have been photographed so long and so often that surfing photographers themselves have become something of a subculture. Most congregate along the West Coast and in Hawaii, but lately New England has been the scene of a couple of good surfing photography shows.

Last summer the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, mounted Brooklyn photographer Joni Sternbach’s SurfLand, an exhibition of surfer portraits shot in California and New York using the antique tintype process. This summer’s New England surfer show is Rhode Island photographer Jason Evans’s Surf Island: A Ride with Newport’s Surf Community*, and exhibition of color photographs at the Newport Art Museum (through September 6). Where Sternbach created timeless, iconic, and static images, Evans is far more focused on the present moment, the scene, the action, and the environment.

Jason Evans, who grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, is an sports photographer of some note, one of five chosen by the International Olympic Committee to document the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Since moving to Newport from Providence a few years ago, Evans has taken up surfing both as a pastime and a subject. His Newport Art Museum exhibition consists of 20 large-format color photographs (four measuring 30 X 40 inches, 16 measuring 20 X 30 inches) that treat surfing as a littoral community.

The focus of Surf Island is the surf and surfers of Aquidneck Island (where Newport is located). While Evans does provide portraits of a few local surfing celebrities such as Sid Abbruzzi and Katie Egan, he does not take the conventional surf shooter’s approach to surfing photography – the endless wave of glamour shots of famous surfers riding the glassy faces of monster tubes. His approach is much more naturalistic.

A surfer himself, Evans was introduced to the sport by his girlfriend Lisa Wagenbach with whom he has created a self-published Surf Island book of surfing photographs and poems. He’s close enough to the local scene to capture the tattooed and wetsuited brigade of Rhode Island wave riders at First Beach, Second Beach, and Ruggles, but he is also artist enough and observant enough to pull back frequently to provide the big picture that is so often missing in surfing photographs.

Some of Evans’s best photographs are essentially gorgeous seascapes that just happen to have a lone figure or two riding a wave at the edge of the image. And because the best surfing in New England tends to be during fall hurricane season and after winter storms, the beaches are often deserted, even rimed with snow. While it is the rush of the daredevil hero risking life and limb to tame a tsunami that tends to capture the most media attention, Jason Evans shows us the true beauty of surfing, a handful of human beings immersed in nature, not dominating it.

(Newport Art Museum, 76 Bellevue Ave., Newport RI, 401-848-8200)

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