"It's a little bit like heroin—once you get a dose, it's hard to stop," says surfing photographer Ron Romanosky, who has also just told you that he's a Vietnam vet—the juxtaposition making your brain scream "Air America/Air America/Air America!" But Romanosky, who seldom shows his work, is discussing the Wedge—Orange County's legendary body surfing break—of which he is also a veteran. "That 100 yards of beach on this planet is the most unique spot in the world when it comes to the breaking wave," he says. "Any kind of wave can break there." Which he knows firsthand, having surfed and photographed it for 30-some years.
"From the early '60s until now, he's the definitive guy on the Wedge," says Greg Escalante, who is president of the advisory board for exhibitions at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana. "The only guy who did it before him was Bud Brown. He did it in films and then this guy does it in stills."
A show culled from Romanosky's thousands of frames—a career begun when he was an infantryman in Vietnam—goes on view Saturday in Seal Beach's J. Moore Gallery, along with an artist-hosted slideshow that night. It's a testament to his talent, for the artist—a rail-thin, balding 6-footer with a vise-grip handshake—is a classic late bloomer.
"My one regret," says Romanosky, "is that prior to going into the Army, I had never really picked up a camera. Here I am in Vietnam seeing this incredible stuff—things going on around me—and I had never picked up a camera. So I bought a camera, and here I am carrying it the rest of my time." He came home to Newport Beach and started photographing the late-'60s Orange County beach scene—and then he just set the camera down to go surfing. For about 20 years.
"One day I woke up," he says (it was the '80s), "and the Wedge was just on fire. The waves were doing things that I had probably never seen before, and I was in the water trying to catch what I could and watching these works of performance art going off all around me. Everything came together just to push my buttons just to return to photography." And so he did. Romanosky got it back.
"His photography is excellent, and he makes incredible arrowheads—handmade points celebrating Indian culture," says The Surfer's Journal publisher Steve Pezman, whose San Clemente-based magazine makes periodic use of Romanosky's negatives. But, as Pezman and the artist himself emphasize, Romanosky has spent the past generation not promoting himself, but quietly documenting a niche within what was once a subculture.
"This isn't about me, I want you to know," Romanosky says. "I hate to speak so much in the first person. But I think what this gallery show is going to be is an inspection and a celebration of two art forms, the wave and the bodysurfer." It's true: his photographs are not about him. They're really not about anyone, and that's what makes them so good: anonymity, plus a sense of timing, 'cause waves don't repeat.
There are no Kelly Slaters in Romanosky photos, no Sunny Garcias. There are unknown, unnamed beachgoers who could be us, if we were tanned and pretty—which is partly why the photos work. In them, we see ourselves, and we are, if not gorgeous, at least nice to look at. And our photos—Romanosky's photos—are invariably well-composed, but not studiedly so. He makes it look easy: catching a bodysurfer emerging from a wave, the light hitting them both just so, or photographing a tanned young woman, frozen as a wave drenches her in foam—when, of course, both were just the briefest instants in time. They're casual, but not overly so, and what emerge are portraits of a place that are more expressive and much less self-aggrandizing than much of what you've seen elsewhere in the surfing world. Like his subjects, he makes it look easy—deliberately so.
"The body surfer," he says, "is surfing's minimalist, and I recognized that long ago. It's the hardest way to ride a big Wedge wave from its beginning to its end, and the few people who are good enough to do it deserve documentation."
And now they have it.
THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF RON ROMANOSKY AT J. MOORE GALLERY, 317 MAIN ST., SEAL BEACH, (562) 430-8861. RECEPTION WITH SLIDE SHOW SAT., 6:30-9:30 P.M. SHOW RUNS THROUGH JULY 31.
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