The 10 Best Photos In The History Of TransWorld SURF

In the past decade, TransWorld SURF has revolutionized surf photography, and that is a fact that cannot be argued. As a magazine, we have pioneered many surf photography frontiers, but rarely have we looked back and celebrated the images that put us on the forefront in our chosen field. Now that we’re going on our twelfth volume, we figured it was high time to do a little chest-thumping.

Just like all forms of art, what makes a memorable and legendary surf photo is a matter of personal opinion. One man’s treasure is another man’s trash. Every surfer has their own idea of what makes an image special, and trying to pick images that stand out as “the best” is a difficult procedure and not one to be taken lightly. However, some images are so remarkable they simply rise above debate. We scoured the past twelve volumes of TransWorld SURF and pulled hundreds of amazing images, making dozens of slideshows. We had special viewing parties where we poured over each image, recalling the impact the photo had on our readers, the surfers, the photographers, and the magazine itself. After narrowing our pick down to a few dozen choices, the battles began, and we started to see patterns in the types of photos different staffers and magazine fans liked. In the end, picking ten of the best surf photos in the history of TransWorld SURF was a challenge, and there were still a few hurt feelings and wounded egos when all was said and done.

Hopefully these photos will bring back as many special memories for you as they did for us. Some are recent favorites, others are legendary images from years ago that still resonate in the minds of our readers.—Chris Coté

C.J. Hobgood, Teahupo'o. September issue, 2005. Photo: Brian Bielmann/SPL

This shot is undeniably one of the most remarkable surf photos ever taken. Teahupoo had been in the spotlight for nearly a decade before this shot was taken, with Cory Lopez paddling into a beast in 1999, and Andy Irons standing in a death cavern in 2002—the two waves resulting in two photographs that shook the surf world to its foundation. In 2005, TransWorld SURF photographer Brian Bielmann made his yearly trip to shoot the infamous wave at the end of the road. Upon arriving, a massive swell appeared on the charts and Brian knew that something special was in the air. “The day before this shot was taken was crazy—dark skies, windy, and just plain scary,” remembers Bielmann. “The next day, we woke up to clear skies, sun, and the biggest swell of the year. Most of the waves this day were only towable, and everybody out there was towing in except C.J. and Damien, who were sitting inside paddling into some giant ones. When this wave came in and C.J. started paddling, I thought, ‘There’s no way he’s making this.’ I started shooting and smiling at the same time because I knew I was witnessing history. I never claim a shot is gonna be a cover, but the second I shot this, I knew, and thankfully it was. This is my all-time favorite photo of a surfer—I still get comments on it all the time.”

Mark Healey, Backdoor Pipeline, Hawaii. April issue, 2009. Photo: Pat Stacy

“Oh my God, that’s the best surf photo I’ve ever seen.” We’ve heard that said more about this shot than probably any other shot we’ve ever ran in the magazine. It helps that we have this very photo blown up six by eight feet and mounted on the wall here in the TransWorld SURF office—it’s the first thing you see when you enter our zone. “That was one of those pristine days at Pipeline and Backdoor,” remembers photographer Pat Stacy. “The waves were kind of coming in all over the place, so getting into position was difficult. I actually got to this area on accident. I was chasing Parko, who was on the wave before this one [Parko is out on the shoulder in this frame]. I looked up and Mark Healey was coming right at me. I was nervous being in that spot because it’s shallow, and there’s nowhere to escape if a big one comes. I knew it was going to be a special shot when I snapped it. Mark was actually the first guy who ever showed me around the North Shore, so I was especially stoked to get a good one of him.”
Of all the shots on this list, this one has garnered the most kudos, landing on the cover of Surfer’s Journal as well as Surfing World in Australia. “That shot has gotten more reaction than any photo I’ve ever taken,” says Stacy. “It’s funny because I would never have been in that spot on purpose—sometimes good things happen by accident, I guess.”

Mitch Coleborn. Surfers Paradise, Australia. August issue, 2008. Photo: Damea Dorsey

The juxtaposition of surfing and the city has always enthralled surf photographers and surf photography fans alike. The second this shot of Mitch Coleborn popped up on our computer screens, it was unanimously voted to be on the cover. As soon as that issue hit the streets, calls started coming in and claims of “best cover ever” were thrown at us like dollar bills in a strip club. There is no denying this shot is a once-in-a-lifetime image. Thankfully for the world, it was splayed across covers and on spreads of numerous international magazines around the world.  “We tried to get this angle for about an hour,” recalls Dorsey. “Before this shot, Mitch got a good one and it was lined up perfectly, but it was out of focus. I was so bummed, but I didn’t say anything—I just made him try it a few more times. Thankfully, we nailed it on this one. It’s definitely one of my favorite shots I’ve ever taken.”

Richie Vaculik. Ours, Australia. January issue, 2009. Photo: Spencer Hornby

A few years ago on our yearly trip to Australia, we met an amped young photographer named Spencer Hornby. He was a grom and came up and introduced himself and asked Brian Bielmann if he could come show him some of his photos. Brian, being the bro that he is, said yes. The shock on Bielmann’s face when he came across this photo in an unknown grommet photographer’s files was priceless. “Who are you?” Brian yelled when he saw this shot. Spence, red-faced, recalls the moment clearly. “I was pretty nervous to have Brian Bielmann looking at my photos,” he laughs. “He’s such a legend and I really look up to him. I was a huge fan of TransWorld and to have my shot in the magazine meant so much to me.”
“That was the first time I’d ever shot Ours,” recalls Spencer. “I got an invite from Richie, and when I showed up, it was just such a heavy day. Everything was happening so fast. Richie whipped into this thing and we linked up. My whole body was weightless when I took this shot, that’s all I can remember, that and the fact that I was just shitting myself. I almost got sucked over, it was the heaviest session of my life.”
It meant a lot to our readers as well. When this shot hit the shelves, people freaked out. The fact that a young, unknown photographer had gotten into this position and had the balls to stay focused and get the shot was very impressive and made Spencer Hornby one of our new favorite photographers—ultimately making this shot one of the ten best surf photos in the history of the mag.

Alek Parker, The Beach, Caribbean. July issue, 2007. Photo: Seth Stafford

This was one of those shots that instantly caught our attention. This little baby blue wedge was and still is one of the best-kept secrets in the Caribbean. This shot caused a ruckus in the surf world. When that issue came out, the question of, “Where the f—k is that?!” was screamed from the rooftops. The crew on the actual trip, called “Paradise Found,” was a tight-lipped as any pirate with hidden booty. This may not be as technically perfect as some of the other picks, the wave might be smaller, and it only ran as a third of a page (on the cover), but no shot in the history of TransWorld SURF made us want to surf more than this one.

Oceanside, California. November issue, 2003. Photo: Steve Sherman

This photo was another fairly easy pick for us. Shot with a Hasselblad by one of the original TransWorld SURF photographers, Steve Sherman, this photo was an instant classic and drummed up more praise than nearly all the other shots in our 2004 Photo Annual. “I was shooting on the beach with a 600. It was pretty much the best I’ve ever seen it in Oceanside,” remembers Sherman. “I had been shooting for a while when I saw this surfboard graveyard. I loaded up my Hasselblad [large format camera] and hiked up into this yard. I waited for a few good ones and only shot about twelve frames from that spot.”
Back then, people still shot film, so the photographers had to actually wait to see what they got when their film was developed. “I had an idea in my head that the shot was going to be good,” says Sherman. “But it wasn’t until I developed it in darkroom that I saw the actual shot. I knew right away it was one of the best surf photos I had ever taken.”
The praise rolled in from every angle when that shot made its way around the surf world. The biggest question was: why wasn’t it a cover? “I asked the same thing,” laughs Sherman. “The coolest thing was seeing legendary surf photographer Jeff Divine and having him tell me that it was the best surf shot he’d seen in a long time—that was a special moment.”

A big part of a photo becoming iconic is staying power, and this photo has it. Even now, seven years later, you can find this shot on T-shirts, posters, and no doubt on the walls of many surfers around the world.

Marlon Gerber, Indonesia. December issue, 2008. Photo: Peter Boskovic

“This was just one of those perfect days in Indo,” laughs Bosko. “I knew we were going to score the minute I woke that morning. Sheet glass, great crew of surfers, and perfect waves—it doesn’t get much better than that.” More often than not, nature dictates whether or not you’re going to get a good surf photo. Going out on a boat trip in Indo helps stack the odds in your favor, so does working with a talented surfer like Marlon Gerber. The sharpness of the photo, the colors on Marlon’s board, the fin trail, the textures in the lip, and the action frozen perfectly helped make this photo one of the most talked-about covers of TransWorld SURF’s history.

Damien Wills, The Zone, Australia. October issue, 2007. Photo: Tim Jones

This photo speaks to you when you see it. It says, “Holy Shit, what is that guy thinking?!” Tim Jones has been shooting mutant waves like this for years and has become one of Australia’s leading slab-shooters, putting himself into intense situations to get the shot. For this one, Tim sat back and let the surfer do the risk taking. “Damien Wills is a mad c—t,” laughs Tim Jones. “He’s a dream to shoot with ’cause he’ll just go on anything.” And as you can see here, he did go, much to the chagrin of his mates watching in awe as he got to his feet, and gave it his all. This shot making the cover was controversial for the fact that he didn’t make it. We didn’t care, though—sometimes the attempt is what makes it, and this was an attempt from hell. Seconds after this frame was taken, Damien Wills got folded up at the bottom of this beast and took the beating of his life—his friends up in the lip were laughing until the wave behind this one smashed them too.

Matt Rockhold, Santa Cruz. November Issue, 2006. Photo: Dave Nelson and Cory Hansen

In the early 2000s, TransWorld SURF was perfecting the art of flash surf photography. Dave Nelson in particular was pushing the limits of what could be done with flashes in the water. “I always wanted to get as many flashes out there as possible,” says Nelson. “For this shot, I put a flash and a slave unit in a plastic bag and duct taped it up. This was actually the first time we ever tried this. We worked on this shot for a few hours. It’s super hit or miss because the surfer has to be holding the flash at just the right angle. The timing is crazy. I was about two feet from Rocky, Cory was standing on the sand about six feet inside where Rocky is. We’re all within a ten-foot radius of each other in the dark just hoping for the best, and it worked! After a while the bag let some water in and flooded the flash. That cost me about a thousand bucks, but it was worth it.”

Mikala Jones. Ujung Kulon, Indonesia. April issue, 2002. Photo: Dustin Humphrey

Dustin Humphrey was one of the original TransWorld SURF staffers, and when it came to Indonesian exploration and documentation, nobody came close to D Hump. In April of 2002, Dustin booked a trip to a far-off and nearly unsurfed area in Indo with a crew consisting of Mikala Jones, Daniel Jones, Cheyne Magnusson, Adam Replogle, and Bol. His quest to shoot this fickle and insanely desolate right-hander had been a longtime dream, and on this trip, it was to become reality. “We had been hunting that wave for years,” remembers Dustin. “I just had the feeling that we were gonna get it on this trip, and at the very end of it, we did. This day was one of the greatest days of my life as far as shooting photos goes.” Dustin, shooting from a dingy on the shoulder of this beast, had run out of color film a half hour prior to taking this shot. Luckily for Mikala and the rest of the world, he had a few rolls of black and white film left in his bag. He loaded his camera and waited, Mikala stayed out long after the rest of the crew went in, and his patience paid off. This wave, which was the biggest wave they saw the whole trip, came to him like a gift from above. “The thing came up from behind him, and I just took a deep breath and held the camera steady,” Dustin recalls. “I knew it was going to be a special shot the second I started pulling the trigger.”
This silvery gem wound up as a spread in the magazine, and when viewed by the public, became an instant classic and is still regarded as one of the best surf shots ever taken. “The reaction was great. The only question people asked me was, ‘Why wasn’t it a cover,’” laughs Dustin.
As with many photos on this list, sometimes the best photo in the magazine needs to be a spread to show the full magnitude and scale of what’s happening, and this shot is one of them. “It’s the best surf photo I’ve ever taken,” says Dustin. “One of my best friends on one of the best waves I’ve ever seen in all my years in Indonesia. I still get goose bumps when I see it.” So do we, Dustin, so do we.

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