We sit down with multimedia artist Robbie Crawford to find out how he got started and what he's been up to lately.
Interview by Spencer Pirdy
SP:Let's start with your wave riding beginnings and when you first began taking photos in your life.
RC: I started riding waves at Seal Beach when I was a kid. When I was about 13 some of the older kids took me to the Wedge in Newport Beach. I immediately said to myself, "alright, this is the wave I'm going to live at for the rest of my life."
SP: What drew you to the Wedge?
RC: I was actually horrified of it. The only footage I'd ever seen of it was a bodyboard video called 'How to bodyboard with the Pro's by JP Patterson' and it looked like he died. It was horrifying. When they talked me into going I was scared. I still remember walking up and seeing white wash splash above the jetty. I remember taking off on 10 side waves and pulling out on all of them. Then, got bullied by all of the older kids for being a pussy and that was it. I had never seen waves that look like that- the water color, the energy is gorgeous.
SP: And you had a wave riding career that began there?
RC: Yeah, I don't know what made me do it. On about an 8-10 foot face wave I launched off the lip and did a huge el rollo and flew higher than I'd ever flown. I went up onto the beach and saw photographer Ron Romonasky and he told me he had a great shot of me and was going to introduce me to Fred Simpson and Viper fins and get me sponsored. It sounds soulless to say but if it weren't for that day I wouldn't have had all of these opportunities. That wave changed my life.
SP: Did Romo influence you to get into photography?
RC: Russell Hoover was my biggest influence. But Romo would influence me and impact me on the way I saw the ocean, waves and photography. He would say to me things like, "the wave is the star of the ocean and the rider is the co-star." That especially resonated with me. But Hoover was the one who, when I started stand up surfing the Wedge told me that I needed to get this thing called a GoPro and put it on the front of my board.
SP: And that's when you started shooting?
RC: I started putting my GoPro on a stick and shooting all of my friends. Our whole life growing up at the Wedge photographers would shoot photos of us and go, "I got the best shot of you!". And we'd ask to see the shot and they'd be like, "no". So, now it was like HA! I'm taking the power away from the weirdos who won't show us our shots and getting the photos and just giving them to the boys. That's what really got me into it.
SP: Second to getting barreled and riding a wave yourself, it was that much fun?
RC: What I liked about it was that it felt good to give instead of take. It took away that egginess that comes with taking a bunch of waves. Instead, I was stoked to get a shot of my friends and give it to them. It was a totally different feeling from what I had ever felt. I was always in the ocean to take and for once I was in the ocean kind of giving. Before social media became this huge thing with 30 people shooting it was just this no stress fun that felt good.
SP: You and Clark Little helped explode the GoPro through capturing images of waves, and made it accessible to today's youth.
RC: Yeah, Clark began shooting Keiki and we used to bodyboard it back in the day. He grew up surfing shorebreak and loved shorebreak. It's the most beautiful shorebreak in the world. He inspired people by, back to Romo, making the wave the star of the show. I was just playing at Wedge and shooting with my friends and I told him he had to come and shoot some photos looking into the sun and check it out. He came and I filmed him shooting. I think one of the shots he got is still one of his most popular photos to this day. He was the professional and I was just the one doing it and having fun. What I kind of showed the world was that you don't have to be this super gnarly crazy person. That you can go out and have fun with these affordable cameras and go and capture a beautiful moment, bring it home and trip out on it. Between the two of us, he was the extreme and I was more the moderate. It was really exciting and we were showing that it was accessible.
SP: What do you think about where the GoPro is now?
RC: There are a lot of young photographers who have come into their own over the years that I really like- Kalani Cummings, Zac Milan, James Ferris. They're doing it legit and not faking photos and traveling. I saw a lot of them start with GoPros at the Wedge as little kids and they've let their passion and love for photography take them.
SP: What exactly is it that you're doing today?
RC: Well, how it started is that I don't like cell phones. They're very powerful with helping people connect, but the quality of the connection has gone way downhill. It's easier to connect but the images and conversations are way lower quality. I felt like we had gone backwards as far as connection. So, I started shooting with a 360 camera and I got a VR headset for a phone and wanted to see what this looked like. As soon as I did that I went from looking at 2 inches on my phone to being in this immersive, virtual experience of what I'd just shot. I went, "wow, this is fucking crazy." I just went from zero to 100. As soon as I realized that I had just been inside something that I'd captured, I knew I needed to figure this stuff out. I got a headset from MSI computers connected and hardwired to a gaming computer and started trying to figure out how to integrate media into virtual social environments.
SP: What was the first breakthrough?
RC: The first thing I did was 360 spheres that had the equirectangular image wrapped around the side of it. When I really understood the size of it there was an image of Mikala Jones in a barrel in Mexico. The perception was that you were in this sphere getting barreled with Mikala and I was in the image with Peter King who was in Hawaii as an avatar and Mikala as an avatar in Indonesia. I'm in California and we're all sharing this space which is inside a barrel of Mikala in Mexico.
SP: And then where did it take you?
RC: Once I started doing that I realized it was a flat image and I was wondering how I would bring the experience of what a wave would look like volumetrically. It ended up being a dead end road, but it became art that I liked to do. In about a year, I took this 3D program and learned how to build these physics based wave generators. They're crazy like a wave pool. You have to figure out the viscosity of the water and the bottom contours, where the wave breaks and everything else.
SP: So, this was all self taught?
RC: Yeah, I looked for tutorials and there were none. It was a year of changing a setting, try to bake it, wait five hours and then it's wrong. And I did that for a year. Then, finally one day it took me 13 hours for this one. I set it to bake overnight and I woke up and it looked like a real wave.
SP: For someone who hasn't seen your work and doesn't know what it looks like how would you explain it to them?
RC: It's funny because some people say reality is better. I think about that a lot and analyze that. And that's such a stupid thing to say. Because reality is a conscious connection to physical matter in real time. That's reality. Art is passion translated into a medium that makes it possible to share your love for a subject with the world. I was thinking that there's no artistic medium that will ever be better than reality, period. You could take Yosemite and the best photo or painting ever done of Yosemite and as good as those things will be in your house, on TV or virtually, it'll never be as good as being in that place and hearing the birds, smelling the wind and feeling the environment. It's just another way of me expressing my love for waves.
SP: Where do you see the future of this 3D virtual reality art going?
RC: I don't even think about that. I just do stuff that I think is cool. I have no intentions. I get paranoid when I hear people ask me and say they want to do stuff with it. I literally just sit in front of my computer when the waves are shitty and try to create what I wish the waves were like.
SP: Will you keep your methods a secret?
RC: Yeah, because some shit is easy. If someone was actually putting in the work I would help them, but I don't want to tell somebody how to do it just so that they can get likes on Instagram. If I really think someone likes it then I'll give them tips but it took everything I've ever done- riding waves, working with computers- to do this. I don't want to just give that away.
See Robbies work and buy prints at the BL!SSS House shop