Some say it comes from Napoleon Bonaparte’s early 19th century decree that “A good sketch is better than a long speech.” Or Russian author Ivan Turgenev’s 1861 declaration that “The drawing shows me at one glance what might be spread over ten pages in a book.” More likely is the story about 1920s ad man Fred Barnard, who coined a modern version of the phrase when promoting the use of images in streetcar advertisements. Barnard in turn credited the words to an ancient Chinese proverb, which naturally sounds much more elegant than all our English language bastardizations: “Hearing something a hundred times isn’t better than seeing it once.”
But no matter its origins, the sentiment rings particularly true in the surfing world. In fact, when it comes to riding waves, we should probably up the ante to “A picture is worth a million words.” Because which would you rather see in print — a picture of surfer on a perfect wave, or a description of said surfer riding said perfect wave? Taking it a step further, would you rather watch a live feed of Cloudbreak or Pipeline or Teahupoo going mental — or read about it the following day? I’ve been in love with words for 30+ years, but I know how I’d answer.
Now, when it comes to the narrative behind a picture, or the complex upwelling of emotions that a photograph can inspire — well, that’s a different story. As the editor of this fine publication, I love our annual Photo Issue because it allows us to tell the stories embedded in the beautiful images you see online and in print. Like how two young women from New Jersey have achieved success by breaking all the “rules” of surf photography. Or how a salty, soft-spoken charger from Massachusetts becomes the best snowboard sharpshooter in the world — as a teenager. Or how a little technical expertise paired with a solid dollop of creative vision can lead to precisely the kind of shots that us surf mag editors want to see.
We also provide space this issue for certain images to stand on their own — no explanations, no overwrought captions, no behind-the-scenes commentary. Lighting is obviously paramount in all avenues of photography, but in the surfing world, our best artists specialize in painting with nature’s palette. Take the cover of this very issue, for instance, which pictures Sam Hammer walking out into an uninspiring ocean under cover of some seriously inspiring clouds and colors. We grappled with the implications of running such a shot on Page One — does it feel too much like some kind of memorial send-off? Wouldn’t it be better if a spitting barrel awaited out the back instead of another crumbly corner? Shouldn’t we pick something that screams high performance? Will photographer Brian Nevins, who sets a notoriously high bar for himself and his work, be as stoked as we are?
In the end, the purity and universality of the image won out. We’ve all walked into the ocean under such a kaleidoscopic sky, and no matter how cynical we are, we’ve all stopped for a second when presented with such a sight and said, “Wow. How lucky am I to be doing this right now instead of sitting in an office, or fighting in a war, or dying in a hospital, or struggling to make ends meet?” We love our airs, we love our barrels, we love our hacks, and we love our picture-perfect lineups — hell, in the last few years we’ve even embraced noserides and bottom turns and portraits on the cover. But what it boils down to is this: any photo that captures the transcendent feeling surfers connect with, both in and out of the water, is a winner in our eyes. Best of all, every shot in this issue proves that it is possible to achieve emotional synchronicity between real life and life captured digitally. And that can come from a million different angles.