Digital Artist Robbie Crawford
By Chris Van Leuven
Thirteen is an impressionable age. It’s that time when adulthood is creeping up and decisions are being made that can affect the rest of your life. To Robbie Crawford, now 43, those were the days he found the local surf break near his home in Huntington Beach called the Wedge, a surf location that contains such beauty that he’s been photographing there for decades. The Wedge is “one of the heaviest shore breaks on the planet,” the former professional bodyboarder says. “People break their necks there all the time. People die there too. It gets really shallow at the end of the wave—two-inches deep.”
As a teen, Robbie bodyboarded there obsessively and made it on the cover of Bodyboarder International Magazine when he was 16. He’s since been on half a dozen covers. But there was more to the barrel than just perfect curves and a perfect ride. During sunrise and sunset it fills with light.
“It’s like a photo studio,” he says while driving from San Francisco down to Southern California. “In the morning and evening light goes into the barrel and it lights up with these crazy colors—purple and pink. Being able to capture that is what got me stoked on photography.”
Then comes the punch: “If it wasn’t for that wave I’d probably be living inland and cooking meth. Who knows? That wave—it’s been my life since I was 13.”
“Back in those days, my mom once guilt tripped me into threatening local drug dealers into giving her heroin. Or I’d call the cops. She thought she would die without it.” From there it only got worse.
Born in Long Beach, when Robbie was 14, two weeks before Christmas—right after his mom nearly burned the house down from a lit cigarette—he walked in on her shooting heroin in the bathroom while her new husband smoked crack next to her. Robbie had enough and he walked out. He started his life on his own right then. His mother already had a history of alcohol abuse and was a drug addict for six years before going clean.
To make a living, Robbie lied about his age to get work in construction and manual labor jobs, eventually taking a job at Penguin’s Frozen Yogurt, Subway, and Round Table. Meanwhile, he continued to improve his craft as a bodyboarder.
“I knew not to ever fuck with drugs that were addictive. But I did mess around with hallucinogens and went to raves and did ecstasy at parties until 6 a.m. Those drugs took away fear and made people talk … it helped me heal a bit and it made me want to be a better person.
“I decided I wanted to learn to be this person I discovered, to live without fear, and to do it soberly. I got what I needed from them and I haven’t done drugs in 20 years.”
As his teens came to a close, Robbie began to teach himself skills. He learned all the programs in the Adobe Creative Suite, starting with Illustrator. HTML and Flash came next. He says without developing these skills he’d likely still be banging nails or working at Round Table.
By his early twenties, Robbie found himself on the tail end of his bodyboarding career. Then he blew out his knee. His mother, now clean and sober and working in network engineering, helped him get a job at her company, where he worked for two years before he quit over differences with his boss.
Around this time he and girlfriend, Michelle, fell in love and have remained committed to one another for the past 15 years.
From there, in 2008, Robbie went into freelance multimedia development, which he continues to do today, but not full time.
In 2010 Robbie’s friend convinced him to buy a GoPro camera and mount it to the front of his stand-up surfboard at the Wedge. When Robbie saw his footage he was so unimpressed with his surf style that he decided to start shooting his friends instead. That’s when he started holding his breath underwater and poking the camera up through waves using a piece of PVC pipe. By putting the camera on a stick, he could poke the lens out the water like a submarine periscope—and the results looked great. From there he began uploading the images to social media and tagging GoPro. Soon the company called him out for photo of the day on their Facebook account and they approached him with free camera gear.
In 2012 Robbie earned $2,500 from GoPro for winning their photo contest. He took the money and went to Hawaii and kept shooting with what he had instead of upgrading to a full-size DLSR. “I don’t call myself a photographer, I call myself a digital artist,” Robbie says. “I just love that camera, I just love it.”
That same year he scored his first magazine cover with one of his shots. The following year GoPro hired him on as an ambassador. Today, “When I wake up I’m either shooting, editing my Instagram, educating people, or answering questions on Instagram. I’ve taken probably five days off over the past six years.”
By posting habitually to Instagram with his vibrant and colorful shots—almost surreal—his audience grew quickly. Once he hit 10,000 followers, Instagram put his images on the Popular Page bringing him in hundreds of new followers a day. Soon his following grew to 100,000. And it kept growing.
Then tragedy struck. In 2015, he got the news that his mom was sick and dying of pancreatic cancer. “I remember the doctor said she had two weeks to live,” he says.
Robbie watched his mother slowly wind down in the hospital. For nine months Robbie and his wife were there every night. “When she passed away I went through a lot of being pissed off— that’s a heavy process,” he says. “Getting through it was way more gnarly than I thought it would be, but I made it through.”
He continued: “During that time I couldn’t shoot surfing because I didn’t want to be in the water and away from my phone.” To keep his followers entertained he captured skateboarding instead, but that didn’t help his online presence. Soon his audience engagement dropped, but his core followers have stayed the same. The daily or weekly messages he gets from those trusted peers keep his stoke high: “ground-breaking footage,” a friend wrote him recently, “Insane.”
When we talked recently Robbie had just returned from a week in Waco, Texas, where he was capturing wave pool surfers for a GoPro athlete video. Next, it was San Francisco at the surf shop Proof Lab where he gave away cameras to kids through a raffle and other games. It was also during this event where Robbie shared his first virtual reality edit using GoPro’s latest camera called the Fusion ($699), the company’s most expensive model.
“It captures the world around you in a way I have never seen before. For sure this is the future of photos and video.”
For the last six months, Robbie’s been compiling footage with the Fusion at spots like Wedge with the goal of making a true 360-degree film inside the barrel of a wave. Recently he got special glasses that allow him to view ocean footage in virtual reality. Adding to the experience, integrated headphones amplify the waves.
While watching his video recently, Robbie thought back to his mother in the hospital and he wished that he had the chance to show her his world one more time before she passed. Though they’d reconciled their differences, she had never experienced what Robbie felt in the water. He wanted to share with her the feeling of standing on a board in the Wedge with the barrel closing out behind her.
“I also wish I could have put the camera in the center of our living room on a family night when she was healthy and strong. This way we could have captured those moments and relived them forever.”