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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, September 9, 2006

Warren Bolster, surf photographer dies

By Greg Wiles
Advertiser Staff Writer

Warren Bolster, whose shots appeared in The Advertiser in the '80s and '90s, set the standard for surf and skateboard photography.

WARREN BOLSTER | Advertiser library photo

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Photographer Warren Bolster, whose striking images of Hawai'i's waves and surfers were seen by millions, died Wednesday. He was 59.

Bolster was considered by many to be one of the world's top surf lensmen, often donning fins to paddle out with a camera to capture dramatic photos of surfers riding spectacular waves. His work was published in major surfing magazines in the United States, Australia, Europe, Brazil and Japan, as well as other publications including Sports Illustrated and The Honolulu Advertiser.

"He captured things that a normal person would never, ever see and brought it to the public," said Jeff Divine, who knew Bolster as a photo editor, competing surf photographer and friend. "He ranks as one of the greatest names in surf photography."

Bolster, who moved to Hawai'i from the Mainland in the late 1970s, was well-known in Hawai'i's surfing community, frequently showing up at the best surf breaks or contests to take pictures. Bolster chronicled some of the state's best surfers, with subjects ranging from Rabbit Kekai to Andy Irons. Others he shot were a veritable who's-who of local surfing in the 1980s and 1990s, including Buffalo Keaulana, Larry Bertlemann, Dane Kealoha, Michael and Derek Ho and visiting world champions.

In recent years, Bolster had slowed in his work, though still took on new projects such as trying to perfect a wide-angle camera mounted on a surfboard. More than one person who knew Bolster said he was a sweet guy, though some noted he was somewhat like a talented artist who had a tortured soul. Bolster also had a host of ailments as he grew older, including hip, knee and shoulder problems.

Teresa Tico, Bolster's attorney, said the photographer had lived in pain for many years and had taken the drug OxyContin to deal with it. She said even with the painkiller, it was difficult for Bolster to take shots in big surf as he once had.

"It's just so tragic because he was so brilliant," said Tico, a Kaua'i-based attorney. "It's not just a loss to the surfing world, but anyone who loves photography and art."

His death shocked and saddened those who knew him and prompted the headline "Surf World Loses a Legend" on Surfer magazine's Web site. Surfing magazine wrote that Bolster was "one of the most prolific and gifted surf/skate photographers."

"It's a sad, sad day," said state Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings, R-25th (Kailua, Waimanalo, Hawai'i Kai). Hemmings had known Bolster for more than three decades, having met the photographer when he showed up to cover surfing contests on the North Shore.

Hemmings said he had talked with Bolster two or three days ago and that the photographer had been discussing possible new book projects, including one on surfing and a black-and-white study of Hawai'i's prisons.

"I am truly sorry to hear of his passing," Hemmings said.

Bolster, the son of an American diplomat, was born in 1947, according to author Matt Warshaw's "Encyclopedia of Surfing." The book said Bolster took up surfing at Australia's famed Bondi Beach in 1963 and at one time was a ranked surfer in the Florida. It was Bolster's love of surfing that led him to San Diego and to take up surf photography in the early 1970s, a time after the Gidget glamour days had died and surfing wasn't as fashionable or as mainstream as it is today.

His pictures of surfing at San Diego's craggy reefs and beach breaks vaulted him onto the pages of Surfing and Surfer magazines, the biggest American surf periodicals. While at Surfer, Bolster began shooting what became seminal pictures in the rebirth of skateboarding, then a moribund sport. He recorded many firsts in the sport and served for three years as editor of Surfer's sister publication, SkateBoarder, according to the Encyclopedia of Surfing.

In Hawai'i, Bolster honed one of his trademarks, that of fine-tuning technological breakthroughs made by others to get spectacular photos. This included famous shots from helicopters, including documenting surfer Alec Cooke at Ka'ena Point on what were some of the biggest waves ever ridden at the time, Divine said.

He also used cameras mounted on surfboards to get photos from behind surfers, and experimented with gyrostabilizers to convey a sense of motion with speed blurs and strobe lights to capture micro-second dynamics of skateboarding. He also had built a special waterhousing for taking shots that showed scenes above and below water in the same picture.

"He was almost a genius at that and worked like a maniac," said Divine, who served for 17 years at Surfer magazine and now occupies a similar position with Surfer's Journal.

Bolster, who was considered an excellent surfer, also traveled the world, creating a photographic portfolio that adorned posters and books. In 2002,The Surfer's Journal selected Bolster for the third of its "Masters of Surf Photography" coffee-table series, producing a 252-page book of his work.

Bolster was similarly celebrated for his help in skateboard's resurgence as a sport in the mid-1970s. Another book, "The Legacy of Warren Bolster: Master of Skateboard Photography," was published in 2004.

Bolster was divorced and is survived by his sons Edward, 17, and Warren Jr., 12, as well as a sister and his mother, both of whom live in the Washington, D.C., area. His sister served as administrative assistant to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Reach Greg Wiles at gwiles@honoluluadvertiser.com.