Gabriella Angotti-Jones, I Just Wanna Surf

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Mass Books (here). Softbound with open binding, in coverslip which folds out to double sided poster. 7.48  x 9.25 inches, 144 pages, with six color inserts. Includes 80+ photographs and numerous text passages by the author. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Few disciplines inspire the cliquey fervor of surfing, not even photography I’m afraid. Riding a wave is just the beginning. From that simple act sprouts a rich subculture of slang, fashion, music, pictures, celebrities, and lifestyle. If its codes seem rather impenetrable to outsiders, that’s partially by design. Surfers are notoriously territorial. Visit the wrong beach or drop into the wrong wave and you might find your tires slashed later. Locals only, no kooks.

The epicenter of American surfing hovers somewhere near Capistrano Beach, in southern California. This is where photographer Gabriella Angotti-Jones grew up in the 1990s, her hometown barrel-full with surfers and shapers. “The ocean was a 13 minute walk away,” she reports. It was probably inevitable that she’d poke a toe in the waters of surfing. She wound up plunging in with both booties. She caught her first wave at 6, enrolled in surf camp at 8, and bought her first board at 9. She was on her way to a lifetime of waves and wax until, well…she wasn’t.

The preteen waters grew choppy for Angotti-Jones. “I felt like I didn’t belong,” she remembers. “I would speak, trying to connect with the other kids, but it would come out all awkward and wrong, and the kids would look down into the sand.” Every left and right in life began to look like closeouts. By age 11 she’d withdrawn from surfing entirely, and she wouldn’t pick up a board again for 15 years. The hobby remained a background presence in her life, but it spurred decidedly mixed feelings.

Angotti-Jones’s on-again-off-again love affair with surfing forms the narrative core of her charming debut monograph. It’s a blend of pictures and first-hand prose, titled with a mission statement: I Just Wanna Surf. For any non-surfers out there tempted to scoff at such a prosaic life goal, Angotti-Jones lends it existential spin: “[Surfing]’s not really a sport so much as an emotional and spiritual journey,” she writes. “It’s a reorientation of the self…It’s fucking intense.”

With its insular bonds and steep learning curve, this fucking intense activity turns out to be an ideal metaphor for adolescent challenges. Angotti-Jones was a shy pre-pubescent girl seeking the right friend group and social set. As a biracial kid (Italian and Black heritage), she also struggled with identity politics, both on land and in the water. Racism and sexism were endemic to surf culture—she did not encounter another Black surfer until 2019—and she duck-dived steady sets of micro-aggressions. Angotti-Jones might be speaking for a generation when she writes, “I always wondered if being in the ocean felt like what it’s like to be White (capitalized). No worries, nothing to really think about —just vibes.” She sought out mentors but found none. If her path wasn’t fraught enough, she battled clinical depression which was not diagnosed until adulthood. It nearly took her to the brink, as described in a gut-wrenching passage late in the book. As we gradually learn Angotti-Jones’s personal history through this memory and others, it’s no wonder she bailed on surfing at age 11. Her early years were fucking intense.

Nevertheless she prevailed. Angotti-Jones found stability, rediscovered surfing at 26, and befriended a group of likeminded allies. Eventually she became a professional photographer with stints at various newspapers, where she “realized that if I wanted to take better pictures I needed to learn to surf better.” She’d come full circle as an adult. All roads still led to surfing, or perhaps through it.

I Just Wanna Surf chronicles her resilience in piecemeal fashion. Its photographs are relatively recent, all shot since 2018. The words, meanwhile, take the reader back to early episodes of childhood and adolescence, as related from a present day POV. Now thirty-something, Angotti-Jones describes her youth with sober passion, her language still spiced with teen lingo. “I’ve been surfing and been in hairy situations,” she quips casually, “and I’ve had old dudes watch me and be like, ‘You got out of that hairy situation pretty easily.’ Yeah, whatever.”

Yeah, whatever certainly doesn’t apply to Angotti-Jones’s photos, which are strong and engaging. They provide an intimate view of her social life and, just as importantly, capture a corner of the beach scene which has not been well-documented before: its burgeoning community of Black women and non-binary surfers. Her friends spring forth on these pages in various incarnations, sometimes in the water, sometimes carousing indoors, occasionally in portraits. Short captions identify them by name and impression. Olga’s lack of fucks to give is infectious…Farmy has decided to chase waves for the rest of her life. She rips. There are photos too of Lizelle, Sierra, Sofia, Kimi, Monica, Marikah, and others. It seems Angotti-Jones has finally found her mentors.

Companions, boards, and sand combine into a frothy scene, and Angotti-Jones has a front row seat, er, beach chair. We see kites, blue sky, and afternoon chill sessions. If the mood strikes, you just grab a board and hit the water—stoked!  As the pages turn, Angotti-Jones gradually reveals her life journey. The book reaches a life-affirming crescendo with a late photo of the author looking straight into the camera backed by her board and an ocean of background light leaks. “I took a self-portrait with my board,” she writes. “I realized I had so many pictures of my friends, and I had none of myself. And I surf too.” She appears calm and determined, at peace with herself. She’s entering just the right head space to make a monograph.

The book carries other film artifacts as well, with full-frame negative borders in several shots. Others are marked with ocean spray, seemingly shot with waterproof cameras. These are only a few of the choice treatments. Angotti-Jones also variously employs long exposure, high speed grain, development artifacts, monochrome, and flash. It’s a full toolkit of effects, but regardless of approach the message is clear: surfing looks pretty danged fun (full disclosure: I tried it once. I got an ice cream headache and did not catch any waves). From the establishing shot of an open-mouthed surfer cresting a break to an excited kid in the mush pile to girls cartwheeling down the beach, Angotti-Jones’s photos evangelize the sport. “They say that when you surf,” she explains, “you’re the purest form of yourself.” If she just wanna surf, who can blame her?

Great design amps the book’s message. Its two source materials—contemporary photos and written memories— are quite distinct. They might be a mess if poorly organized, but the book’s structure (by Kummer & Herrman) keeps everything orderly and pulling in the same direction. Photographs comprise the main body, bordered occasionally with brief captions. Many pictures bleed across the page turn, like an impatient surfer who can’t wait to catch the next glassy face, helping to propel the book forward. Chapter breaks are marked by colored inserts of pages on thin stock off-sized paper. It’s here that Angotti-Jones expounds with longer written passages. The open spine allows spreads to lie flat, and the whole package is tucked inside a clever dust jacket which unfolds into a multi-panel poster of surf photos, just like the surf mags of old.

Angotti-Jones has faced turbulent waters, and life’s waves have threatened to bury her on occasion. But she’s resurfaced every time, smiling on the back side. Rarely have I encountered a photobook with pictures so bright and relaxed, so perfectly synched to subtext, so rad. The skateboarding photos of Ed Templeton and Glen E. Friedman might be in the ballpark, or perhaps Sandy Carson’s pictures of BMX racers. Danny Lyon’s The Bikeriders probed a secretive clique in similar depth, albeit more menace. All of these predecessors document subcultures from a first-hand perspective, and all are great. But none match the jaunty beach vibe and diaristic revelation of I Just Wanna Surf. Angotti-Jones’s debut is a triumph.

Collector’s POV: Gabriella Angotti-Jones does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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