Dodging the Horns
Warren Bolster 1947-2006 R.I.P.
By Nathan Myers
The last days of Warren Bolster were marked by a flurry of energy and ideas. Calls to editors. Book projects. Photo concepts. A trip to Puerto Escondido. He was riding an artistic high. At the same time, they were filled with pain and anxiety. He’d been rear-ended in his car by another vehicle, aggravating injuries that had plagued him for years. He was broke. Depressed. In pain. “I’m so very poor and worse," he wrote in a late email to his former Surfer Magazine boss and current Surfers Journal publisher Steve Pezman shortly before his death. “Lowest in 40 years. Sad, very sad. I’ll send you an ear or something."
In short, things were fairly normal.
Born in Arlington, Virginia, 1947, Bolster — whose father was in the civil service — traveled the world from a very young age. He learned to surf and skateboard living in Sydney during the mid-’60s and built a reputation as one of the top competitive surfers in Cocoa Beach, Florida. He began taking photos a decade later, when he moved to San Diego to surf. His first color water roll produced a cover for Surfing Magazine, and by the year’s end he was a staffer for Surfer.
As a surf photographer, he was constantly pushing himself, hunting new angles everywhere from helicopters to radical water shots to deck-mounted surfboard cameras. With the urethane revolution, Bolster was provided another opportunity to expand his boundaries as the photo editor for the newly revived Skateboarder Magazine (while still maintaining his duties at Surfer). He was among the first to use fish-eye lenses, motor-drive sequences and light strobes to produce iconic imagery of the exploding sport. “If it weren’t for Skateboarder," the sport’s biggest legend, Tony Hawk said in the book The Legacy of Warren Bolster: Master of Skateboard Photography. “I would have never realized what was possible on my four-wheeled plank."
According to Dogtown And Z-Boys director and former skateboard champion, Stacy Peralta, Bolster’s images were like a “disc jockey feeding a new signal about the sport. He had a lot to do with shaping the vision of what skateboarding was at that time all over the world."
Leaving behind both Skateboarder and his first wife, Bolster moved to Hawaii in 1978 after, in Warren’s words, “the loss of everything I owned or cared about (through my own stupidity)." Still on staff with Surfer, Bolster re-focused on pushing the limits of photographic possibilities in surf. He was famous for putting himself perilously close to his subjects and endured at least a dozen surgeries as a result. “I have to admit there’s a certain macho aspect to it," said Warren in his Surfers Journal 252-page Masters of Surf Photography book. “Like dodging the bull’s horns. You’re really part of the energy; part of the moment." Consequently, he battled chronic pain from hip replacement, bum knees, severe arthritis and, later, addiction to painkillers.
“I almost destroyed myself to give a larger life to the sport," said Warren.
In his photography, it shows. “Hideously dangerous situations rendered beautiful," was how Honolulu Star Bulletin surf-writer Greg Ambrose described his work. “Fast objects are slowed, impending doom is frozen just before impact, tiny things loom large and people are rendered both huge and insignificant."
But in real life, the fast objects keep moving, impending doom meets with bone-breaking impact, tiny things can ruin your life and people, whether you want them to or not, remain present and significant. Bolster was twice divorced, a father of two. He was at once a loving, reliable friend to many and an intense, combustible presence. In the weeks leading up to his suicide death, he had sought treatment for addiction to the painkiller Oxycontin, and was subsequently rear-ended by a car, aggravating old injuries.
On September 6, 2006, 59-year-old Bolster died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his home in Mokuleia, Hawaii. He is survived by his sons, Edward and Warren Jr., and he leaves behind a legacy of the most in-your-face, gut-jarring, hard-charging, close-action surf and skate imagery that will ever be produced. He is both greatly missed and immortally present.