Photographer Fred Pompermayer on capturing California big-wave surfing and losing friends to wingsuit flying
By Chris Van Leuven • Photos by Fred Pompermayer / theshot.com.br
Combine “extreme” with “sports” and many millennials think of busting aerials on dirt bikes and inflated egos. Gen X-ers may think of Mark Twight’s book Extreme Alpinism, which is hardly a cliché because it came out 17 years ago, and it was titled before “extreme” had been used for everything from bikini contests to Doritos.
Los Angeles based photographer Fred Pompermayer thinks of big-wave surfing and proximity wingsuit BASE-jumping.
Originally from Piracicaba, São Paulo, Brazil, Pompermayer used that phrasing often as we talked over the phone in mid-August.
When Pompermayer, 41, says that he captures action and extreme sports, it doesn’t sound like a cliché. Because that’s exactly what he does – whether he’s on a jet ski at Mavericks lining up shots between sets, or pointing his lens at a group of Yosemite’s climbing elite as they BASE-jump from Half Dome during first light. In either scenario – in the cold Pacific with a wall of water forming over the surfers, or watching trained athletes hurl themselves off a cliff – he says there isn’t room for egos. “They’re already doing what they love,” he says. “You don’t have to show it; you’re already doing it.” He also photographs highline slacklining and has dabbled in video work.
Pompermayer first visited California for an extended period in 2001, when he took a year off from studying architecture at his home country, to surf, snowboard and explore.
ASJ What inspired you to fly north and photograph big wave surfing on the California coast?
FP I remember this photo of Jay Moriarity’s wipeout at Mavericks in 1994. I thought that place wasn’t real – it wasn’t typical to see people surfing these big, dark waves in magazines. It was very shocking. The big waves really attracted me.
The plan was to spend a year up north. But I spent more. Then I went to Indonesia and Hawaii to see with my own eyes the perfect waves I’d seen in the magazines in Brazil.
ASJ Tell me about your first day photographing at Mavericks.
FP I’d been monitoring the forecast on Surfline.com over the winter, 15 years ago, and one day I saw what I was looking for – big, purple shades on the screen heading toward northern California – the size of the swell predicted was enormous. I decided to go drive up from Los Angeles to Half Moon Bay, 25 miles south of San Francisco. Along the way, I asked people at various surf shops where Mavericks was and eventually I found it. Back then it was not as popular as it is today, and was not easy to find.
November 21, 2001, ended up being called “100 Ft. Wednesday.” I still remember Carlos Burle won the XXL Awards for riding the biggest wave of the year. Witnessing the big wave surfers in action that day set me on a new course in life. I also met Mavericks’ legend Jeff Clark and to this day we remain friends. Soon I decided to change my career from being an architect to being a professional big-wave surf photographer.
ASJ What happened next?
FP Because my departure date to return to Brazil was coming up, I began preparing to go back. But two months before departing, I met my future wife Anna Meiners Morini and we stayed in touch. She visited me a few times in Brazil and once stayed with me for six months. After completing school and working as an architect – which I wasn’t fulfilled with – I decided to come back to California and follow my dream.
Anna and I now have an eight-year old daughter. Ava Dora, our daughter, loves surfing but right now she’s into climbing. I took her to The Needles the other day. I also took her backpacking up to 12,000 feet in the Sierra. My wife likes the outdoors, but I climb and surf with just my daughter.
ASJ Back to surf photography. What’s it like for you when you’re at Mavericks during a giant swell?
FP It’s different than going to a surf contest. At the comps there are egos, but on big waves everyone is together as a family. After a day at a big swell at Mavericks, we all go to the bar together. The same with BASE jumpers and big wall climbers. They don’t have the huge egos that other people carry around. When you’re doing something extreme it’s different.
ASJ I haven’t seen any recent BASE-jumping images from you. Can you explain why?
FP My good friend, and professional wingsuit pilot, Fernando Goncalves died while opening an exit at Gavea, in Rio de Janeiro. He impacted the cliff shortly after he jumped. That was on July 24, 2015. Fernando was pushing the limits so hard but he was very cautious. I saw him turn around from exits several times if it didn’t feel right. He didn’t put his life on the line every time. He got recognition from all these guys, like Graham Hunt. [Hunt and his partner Dean Potter died when they attempted to clear a notch on Lost Brother, in Yosemite, in May 2015.] I still remember Fernando asking me “Freddy, let’s go to Europe.” Each year we made plans to go there but it never happened because each time people in his group died while wingsuit-proximity flying. After I lost Fernando, I lost the desire to keep shooting this stuff.
With wingsuit flying, the reality is that people only have a short time. My experience is that you have five to seven years of life in that sport before you die. I have friends who’ve surfed waves up to 70 feet and just because they do that, it’s not like they’re going to die.
ASJ Tell me about the big wave surfing tribe.
FP I like how the big wave surfers are not in it for the media attention; some don’t even care about it. They just want to surf the biggest waves. All my friends are these people – they don’t have to show off. They have different values. It’s not about how fancy your car is. On a big day at Mavericks, what are you going to do, put your tail between your legs? The situation will take the ego out of you.
ASJ You’re in the water and right alongside the surfers. What’s that like?
FP On the big days there is a lot of water moving around and you have to be on a jet ski to position yourself to get in a good spot. Sometimes, even on those days, the waves can break too far out and I miss the shot.
ASJ Any close calls?
FP I had some times where I’ve been tossed and a few scary moments. Those were on big waves but not giant ones. And once the ski broke down in a big swell. Another time we got caught in fog so thick that we had to navigate by GPS. After many years in the water, you adapt and imagine the ocean area around you. I’ve learned to avoid the most dangerous situations.
ASJ What’s next?
FP For the past few years I’ve just been focusing on big wave surfing. If you don’t put yourself out there 100 percent, it won’t happen. But I also have to do things just for fun. This is why I’ve been going to the mountains. Recently I climbed Cathedral Peak, in Tuolumne, with my good friend Nicola Martinez. I got butterflies that day. It feels so good to go climbing. I love it. Love it!
ASJ Any thing else to add?
FP It was not easy journey, but I feel so grateful for all that I have accomplished and the amazing friends I’ve met on the road. And definitely for the support of my family and especially my wife. For better or for worse, capturing big wave surfing means I have no set schedule. It also means that no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I know I may have to get on the road – at any moment – to chase the next storm.