“If they get lucky, some people start out discovering something that makes them feel better than they ever felt before. If the feeling is strong, they can’t get enough of it,” says iconic New York portrait and surf photographer, Michael Halsband in the foreword to the gorgeous new book by writer Ed Thompson and photographer Julien Roubinet, “Ice Cream Headaches.” The book is a time-capsule of sorts, 192 pages of essays and photographs chronicling the eclectic New York and New Jersey surf scenes as they exist today.
To be sure, it’s a dedicated collection of individualists. But each shares a willingness to don thick neoprene from head-to-toe, brave high winds and frigid temps and tolerate the fickle swell forecasts and rides on public transport, all for a few waves.
Meanwhile, Halsband’s description is especially salient considering one of the book’s creators, the French photographer, Roubinet, only started surfing after moving to New York less than a decade ago. Roubinet says he discovered that NYC had surf from the web cam on popular surfy fashion brand, Saturdays, website.
He was soon obsessed. And a few years later, he would be heavily inundated in the New York-New Jersey surf scene, as together with the U.K. born Thompson, Roubinet logged more than 4,000 miles driving from Eastern Long Island to Cape May to interview and photograph legends and cultural icons like fisherman Charlie Weimar, Pilgrim Surf Shop founder Chris Gentile, pro surfers Quincy Davis, Balaram Stack, and Mikey DeTemple, Pulitzer-prize winning author of Barbarian Days, William Finnegan, and many, many more.
Roubinet was in town recently working on a new project (we’ll have more on that in the coming months) and he was kind of enough to stop by the Void office, where we chatted about learning to surf in New York, giving up a career in finance to pursue photography, and, of course, his very cool book.
You started surfing in New York, which is not the most hospitable or alluring place to get in the water. Was surfing something that you’d been interested in before moving to New York?
I always wanted to learn. The only glimpses I’d see of surfing was in magazines or when I’d visit the coast. I lived in Paris and we’d go to the ocean for a week or two weeks for holiday. I’d ride a boogie board and stuff. But when I moved to New York, I learned through Saturdays [Surf Shop] that there was surf in New York. They had a webcam on their site. I was like, “Oh, shit. I’ve got to learn.” I bought a 5’6 Catch Surf. It was the worst board to start off on. I was surfing Rockaway. Taking the A-Train to the beach. I just fell in love with it from there
What about photography? How’d you start shooting surf photos?
I always like documenting things. I always had little point-and-shoots. When I lived in Marseille, I was shooting skateboarding and BMX at the famous bowl there. It was always something I liked. I actually studied business and finance. That’s how I moved to New York, actually. I had an internship. It became a horrible job. They wanted to hire me, but it was waking up at 4 a.m., not really doing fascinating things. I was shooting a lot of photos in my freetime. So at the end of that internship, I chose to stop finance and try my hand at photography. The same weekend I quit finance, I met a fashion photographer and began apprenticing. He taught me everything from the lighting, to photoshop, I could say it was my school. I didn’t know much about the technical aspects, so I assisted him. Within two years I was getting my own gigs.
For surfing, I kind of just fell into shooting surf. I would always bring a camera to the beach, but the learning curve was super steep. I didn’t know anything about swell, wind, I had no background in what was done in surf photography in the past. But I bought the Jeff Divine photography books. So good! From there, I started to get an idea of what I liked and didn’t like. But up until I started [Ice Cream Headaches], I never really focused on shooting surfing. Through the book I got into it more.
How’d the idea of doing a New York/New Jersey surf book come about, then?
I met Ed [Thompson ]. He was working for a friend of mine. We would all go surfing together. We quickly became friends. He’d seen my photography. One day he just texted me, ‘What do you think about doing a surf book?’ The ambition was to do a book about the surf from south Jersey all the way to Maine. We quickly realized that there was so much to cover in New York and New Jersey that it made more sense to just cover New York and New Jersey. And I think you have to cover the two together, because anyone who surfs in New York also surfs in New Jersey.
The first person we interviewed was Mike Halsband, who did “The Surf Book” with Joel Tudor. So once we did that we couldn’t back out. We’d taken up his time, so there was no going back [laughs].
Can you talk about how the book is broken up? How’d you qualify each individual?
It’s broken into four categories: shapers, documentarians, who are the people shooting photos and videos or writing, stewards, who are the people who carry the culture—for example Chris Gentile, of Pilgrim, or Phil Brown from Glide Surf Co., and then pro surfers. So it’s intertwined stories of all these characters. There’s some history and background, too. We didn’t want to do a book just for people who are experts. It’s easy to open as a non-surfer. It’s approachable.
How long did it take you to put the book together, from documenting to editing to publishing?
All in all, four years. We both had other jobs, so we weren’t working exclusively on the book. Every time we interviewed somebody, we’d get more names, or suggestions of people to include in the book. So then we’d have a new list of people to interview. Plus, the nature of swells in the area means surfers are flakey. So lots of things got pushed back. We had lots of time to digest, reflect, and make sense of where we’d go next.
In working on the book, did you pick up on any common threads connecting surfers throughout the region?
The thing that amazed me was how passionate people are about surfing. Now that I live in California I realize it even more. Not just the people in the book, but your average, everyday surfer in New York or New Jersey really does it for the love of it. They can drop anything and everything in an instant just to go surfing. I remember the first winter I surfed in New York, I went and was like, ‘Oh that’s awesome.’ The novelty of it was cool. But once you’ve done it a few times, or wetsuit starts to get holes, you really appreciate the people who’ve stuck with it, who go all the time. Balaram [Stack] is a great example. Even when he’s in Hawaii or somewhere, if there’s a swell in New York, he’ll fly back to surf it. It’s incredible.
What’s unique about this time, or moment, in the history of surfing in New York or New Jersey?
What’s crazy about it, is even in the timeframe of making the book, it’s changed. When I first started surfing the Rockaways, there were secret spots. Now there’s webcams, restaurants. The popularity has started annoying people now. At first I think it was needed for shapers, local economies, etc. Now it’s getting gentrified, I think. New Jersey isn’t changing as fast I don’t think, but it’s cool to see Glide Surf shop bringing in all these shapers from all over the world. The whole scene is evolving. Five years ago nobody would even look at your board if it wasn’t a thruster. Phil is changing that. But, yes, it’s in a state of transformation, for sure.