Dan Merkel: The Old Man of The Sea

Allow us to introduce the greatest surf photographer the surf industry forgot, Dan Merkel. That last bit is important, because Dan’s portfolio of groundbreaking work is massive, enviable, and very worthy of remembering. No, not because he happened to be in the right place at the right time in terms of surfing’s timeline—which he was—but because he knew where to be and when to be there. He pioneered heavy water photography, rode and outran the Hollywood wave, and solidified his name as one of the greats before burning out in a series of unfortunate events.

Merkel’s photography career started in middle school. He was gifted a camera from a Naval Officer stationed near his San Clemente home. Nothing fancy, just your basic 35mm: a Pentax Spotmatic with a 55mm lens. About as close to point and shoot as you can get.

By the time he’d received the camera, he was already surfing regularly and quite well. In fact, he had a short, bright run in semi-pro competition and would eventually earn a top-5 ranking in his 3a Division. So it comes as no surprise that Merkel’s foray into photography started with a subject matter he knew. In a statement that will forever be true in the surfing community, he reflected, “You got a camera, now you gotta take pictures of your friends.”

He did just that.  

The surf trips he took with his friends down to Baja and up to Santa Cruz continued, but they shifted focus. As far as Dan was concerned, they were an opportunity to score great waves while also refining his photography. He worked out his own balance of work and play, “When the light was good and the surf was on I’d shoot, and if it got cloudy, I’d run in and grab my board.”

Growing up, Dan had (and still has, for that matter) a chip on his shoulder. It came across through his unique brand of fuck-you-I’ll-do-it-my-way attitude and was further accented by this drive to prove something. He “wanted to be as good as [he] could in whatever [he] could.” It wasn’t enough to simply join his high school’s track and field team, he had to be captain. He was told to be too scrawny to play football, so he tried out, made the squad, and hit above his weight anyway. He couldn’t just surf, he had to compete. So when he made the decision to pursue photography, he did so fully, and with every intention to eclipse the photographers whose shots he’d ripped from the magazines and pinned to his bedroom walls.

His first real opportunity came at a Christmas tree farm, where he worked packaging and loading trees to fund further surf expeditions and film. One evening, in walks the wife of Richard Graham, editor of Surfer Magazine. Through conversation and boyish charm—though more likely good fortune and Christmas spirit—Dan managed to both sell himself as a photographer and get an address that he could send some of his shots.

The crazy thing was, establishing the connection wasn’t even the hardest part. Submitting work in that pre-digital era was an expensive, laborious ordeal. Dan had to buy the film, rip 36 shots, hope that the settings he guesstimated on the beach before swimming out were correct, develop the negatives, cross his fingers that he captured something usable, select a couple of shots to mail to the address provided, and then wait, sometimes for weeks, just to see if the quality of his work made the cut.

That it was his determination that would see his shots published is how we’d expect the story to play out. And sure, there’s certainly some truth in that. But to say that it was only his drive and not his talent behind the lens would be remiss. Simply put, he was good, he was young, and he was cheap. Plus, he took the criticism well, “I wasn’t that good to start. I’d send in pictures and they’d tell me what was wrong or what I could do better. You’re gonna have failures, but you learn from them and improve.”

As the volume of his submissions grew, his subject matter narrowed focus and found clarity.  He began to obsess over the conditions that might greet his lens each day. It wasn’t long before his first shot graced the pages of Surfer. He sorta remembers it, “I think it was Margo Oberg, surfing Jalama Beach on a crisp, offshore day. Or maybe it was Brad McCaul. I’ve had a lot published since then.”

In the winter of 1970 Surfer Magazine gave Merkel $500 to document a month of surf on Oahu’s North Shore. He arrived at Honolulu International with a mixed bag of clothes and film, a water housing built by George Greenough, and a look on his face that probably said something like, “I’m new here.”

“My First housing was built by George Greenough; A good friend of mine at the time. It was this heavy Fiberglass box with a single lever to wind the film and one button to Fire it.”

“Seeing the waves in hawaii was like—oh fuck—these waves were big and powerful. I’d seen pictures in the magazines and had been in 10-15 foot surf back home, but this was different.”

Today, you can swim out in that kind of surf with a miniature camera that captures HD video and weighs all of 8 ounces or something like that. Back then, Dan had to manhandle a water housing that looked like it outweighed his wiry frame.

“My first housing was built by George Greenough, a good friend of mine at the time. It was this heavy, fiberglass box with a single lever to wind the film and a single button to fire it. There was a flange with a hose-clamp connecting a strap made out of wetsuit rubber that went out to another hose clamp attached to plexiglass. That was all you had to hold on. No focus. No messing with your settings. Shit, there was barely any room in the damn thing to fit the camera.”

Though he didn’t get a ton of “keepers” on his first trip, maybe 3 or 4 out of a couple hundred throwaways, he had learned more in those 30 days than all his previous years combined. He was front row and center to the creative processes of photographic giants like Art Brewer, Jeff Divine, LeRoy Grannis, and Col. Al Benson. And I really do mean front row. He slept on the sofa at the Benson’s house, alongside young surfers who came to define the era: Becky and Blanche Benson, Buttons Kaluhiokalani, Larry Bertlemann, and the rest of Oahu’s “hotdoggers”.

Dan returned to Hawaii the next year, and though he had yet to develop the skill or recognition of the other photographers, he was persistent. He’d strap weights to his legs and go for a run each and every morning, and then logically follow that up with a swim, weights still attached. It must have paid off, “ I could outswim Divine or Brewer any day of the week. And you can print that. The first time I shot Pipeline from the water, Art [Brewer] told me I’d drown!”

It was those not-so-subtle jabs combined with the success of other photographers that drove him to double-down. He decided to do what nobody else was doing. He swam out and shot the biggest waves of the era at Waimea Bay.

“You don’t want to swim there because there’s a lot of bump on the surface of the water. I always used a canvas inflatable mat to help get above that stuff, and scoot around quick. Getting into the lineup is easy, you just gotta time it. The sets would be rolling in, so you’d jump in and keep kicking and hope you break the current. It’s getting out that’s hard. Once you shoot your 36, you gotta sit right on the whitewater line, catch some whitewater, and try to ride it in. You gotta hang on to the airmat, and that fucking housing, and you rush on the beach and you gotta stand there and hope the water doesn’t suck you back out.”

Do that a couple of times and live—the living part is key—and you’ll likely get a call from the magazines or an interview with that show, I Shouldn’t Be Alive. The magazines did call. A published shot here and there turned into 2-page spreads everywhere. Those 2-page spreads turned into cover shots. Cover shots allowed him to open his own studio and hire employees with salary and commission. Print sales funded trips that in turn created more spreads, cover shots, and so on and so forth in this cycle of money making and risk taking. His most memorable trip? A stay in South Africa with the hottest surfer at the time, Shaun Thompson.

“I stayed with Shaun Thompson. Well, he stayed with his girlfriends and I stayed with his parents. His dad, Ernie, would take me to meet Shaun at the spot, Cave Rock. I’m one of the first water photographers to go out there. He always told me it was safe, but I later found out that’s where his dad lost part of his arm to a white shark.”

Continuing more casually than ever,

“Shooting contests was sort of a big deal back then, not like it is today. There was a contest in East London, South Africa, so I rode up with Shaun. We were gonna get up really early and leave for J-Bay. Back then there wasn’t one house on the entire point. We show up and it’s dead glass, about 6 feet, and only two guys out: Jonathan Paarman and Pierce Batar.”

For context, imagine merging onto the 405 in Los Angeles, only to discover that it’s been freshly paved. That’s exciting, right? Now imagine that as your giddiness subsides and you look over your shoulder to merge, you notice that there isn’t another car in sight. Plus you’re also on acid, wearing a plush coat, and maybe some slippers with socks. Then, the Italian supermodel riding shotgun asks you to help her take her heels off so she can drive. And you’re in a Ferrari or something just slightly more exotic than the supermodel herself. As a surfer, it feels kinda like that.

 

Everything went right for Dan over a period of 20 years. You could call it timing, skill, or luck. Hell, maybe it was a combination of all three. He’d shoot windsurfing on Maui and sell it to ad executives who loved anything neon,bright, and bold. Then they’d hire him for commercial spots and send him around the world to new locations . Those spots paid more for a day’s work than his monthly magazine allowances. He was traveling everywhere and finding himself in new destinations every week. He’d shoot pumping G-Land one day and hang off the cliff at Uluwatu to photograph Gerry Lopez from above the next.

It’s hard to imagine that he ever reached a pinnacle, but if he had to pick his best work, it’d be his contribution to surf production Hollywood got right, Big Wednesday.

“I walked into Warner Brothers and it was surreal. I had to have my name on a list just to get through the gate! At that time I had already done Free Ride, so I had the water shots of me getting in the tube with the guys. So I showed them what I had and in 5 minutes I was hired.”, said Merkel.  

Continuing, “Working on that movie was a lot of fun. I was making a grand a week, but it was the prestige I was after. I was one of the waterman. Just George Greenough and I. We got to stay on the beach in a cabana at the Turtle Bay Hilton; just living like kings. Always had food and we got danger pay! If we went in the water from 8-12 in the morning we got an extra bonus. 12-5 in the afternoon and we’d get another. Then we got per diem—100 bucks a week or something like that. It was the big time, you couldn’t get any bigger than that. Then I was making extra cash supplying Surfer Magazine with behind-the-scene photos.”

In the years following Big Wednesday, Dan continued to work for a number of Hollywood productions, including the 80’s classic, Conan The Barbarian. He’d eventually go on to win an Emmy for his work on American Sportsman. During this big-budget stint Dan reckons he made millions. Hollywood can do that for you. He had a house on the point at Rincon, luxury cars in the garage, and all the time in the world to produce a body of work that would become the gold standard of water photography.

Mess around in the heavy stuff, and you’ll eventually wear it on the chin. Or, as Dan puts it, “If you shoot from the water, you’re going to get hit.” And that’s speaking from experience. He’s been slammed by the shorebreak at Waimea, lost camera, gear, and film under 10-foot sets at G-Land, and has found himself on the wrong side of a closed fist more than he’d care to admit.

One of his hardest hits came the day Larry Moore retired as Surfing Magazine’s photo editor; the beginning of the end for the publication. Because Dan was their staff photographer, a large portion of his work was held by the magazine. As he explains it, “I was that magazine. Back then, it was me against Surfer Magazine.” As their doors closed, Surfing still held on to the only copies of what Dan considers some his best shots: sequences of Gerry Lopez at Pipeline, Barry Kanaiaupuni at Sunset, and rare photos of Michael Peterson in Hawaii. In the magazine’s disbanding, nearly 70 photos were lost and unfortunately never recovered.

“They just didn’t give a shit.”

Then there was his divorce. The gist of it is this. Dan’s wife had an affair with neighbor and multi-millionaire, Doug Otto. Separation wasn’t enough though, the ex-wife and Otto wanted Dan’s house, conveniently located right next door on the point at Rincon. Lawyers got involved, but it didn’t help, “The lawyers were all rat-shit, so the judge threw my house away. It was devastating. I made all this money and it was all taken away.”

But they didn’t take everything. Merkel still had money to spend. A lot of it, actually. So he started investing and putting his trust in others to do so on his behalf while he was off chasing women and parties in Vegas or surf in far away countries. Working on commission, investors with access to Dan’s accounts would commit to “foolproof” opportunities with “guaranteed” returns. Of course there was a catch. Whether or not the investments were beneficial to Dan were irrelevant, the brokers received commission from the amount invested, not the return gained. It wasn’t out of the norm to see daily withdrawals in the 10’s, 20’s, even 100’s of thousands from his accounts.  

It all happened so fast. Dan returned home from a 3-month trip to South Africa with only 5k left in the bank, a few homes waiting to be paid off, and a collection of luxury cars to his name. He sold the cars first and followed up with his houses. Then came the destructive behavior so often associated with loss. The funds he had from selling off what he owned were spent in traditional Vegas fashion: drugs, booze, and strippers.

Dan’s story is still being written. In one of our conversations he called himself “the old man of the sea”, surely in reference to Hemingway’s work. And it stuck with me, because there’s this uncanny parallel between the book’s main character, Santiago, and Merkel. They share the same struggle; one of blind commitment to only pursuit they know, long after their time on top has passed. And much like Santiago, we know Merkel will continue to venture out to sea. We know Merkel will still shoot.

Today, he lives simply. He doesn’t stay put in any one place longer than he should and still finds the motivation to shoot every day. His subject matter has changed. He’s traveled the entire U.S. seeking out new landscapes and training other photographers in the process. He doesn’t have anything left to prove. He reached heights most modern photographers dream about, and he did it without social media and without the comfort of modern equipment. Merkel did it his way. The only way. He was the best, and nothing can take that away.

“I’m just gonna work and travel, because I don’t have to report to anybody. I’m my own person doing whatever the hell I want. That’s all I’ve been doing for a long time.”

“I’ve had so many things. After all that’s happened I go, okay I’m just gonna work and travel. Just keep working. Because then I don’t have to report in to anybody, I’m my own person doing whatever the hell I want. That’s all I’ve been doing for a long time.”

Dan "Mountain Man" Merkel