VIA – SF GATE
Updated 8:26 pm, Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Fred Windisch captured black-and-white images of his fellow surfers along the North Coast starting in the early 1960s. Photo: Fred Windisch, Family Of Fred Windisch
Before fancy wet suits, before surf shooters on Jet Skis and before GoPro, there was Fred Windisch in a swimsuit with a Canon covered in Plexiglas mounted to the front of his foam board.
He was 18 and just out of San Francisco’s Washington High School when he started hanging out at Kelly’s Cove down the hill from his Richmond District home. For years he took both videos and stills of the surf culture up and down the North Coast and never sold or showed his prints. If you’ve seen them, you’ve either been to the old Wise Surfboards shop or the apartment of Laura Windisch, who hung her late father’s work as wall decor.
John Childs, Fort Point, 1963 Photo: Fred Windisch, Family Of Fred Windisch
There has never been a curated exhibition until now that “Bay Area Surf Photography of the 1960s by Fred Windisch” has opened at Madrone Art Bar.
Wander into this corner joint in NoPa, and you will be tossed back to 1963. That was the year of “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris, when all boards were long, hanging 10 was as radical as it got, and Windisch was just starting out.
Turn your back to the bar and every picture on the long wall is so unmistakably midcentury that even in black-and-white you can tell that the license plate on a rusted-out surf mobile is black and yellow.
“People will walk out thinking, ‘Wow, that was a magical time for surfing in San Francisco,’ ” says Laura Windisch, 32, a San Francisco copywriter.
In some of the 24 images, the focus is so sharp that you can see the edge of the board carving the curl and sending up sparks of white water. In others, it is so blurry you can feel the chaos and the cold. Nothing looks art-directed or affected. Windisch was a surfer first. That’s how he got his eye and his access.
A surfer first
“I hardly ever saw him with a camera,” recalls Bob Wise, an Ocean Beach institution who was a few years younger than Windisch. “Most of the time when I saw him, he was surfing.”
Windisch never called himself a professional, though he did like the term cinematographer. His first film, “The Natural Art,” was a psychedelic documentary that spliced surfing footage with concert footage of Janis Joplin and Big Brother performing in Golden Gate Park.
Kelley s Cove, 1964 Photo: Fred Windisch, Family Of Fred Windisch
The film had its premiere in 1970, put on by Chet Helms‘ famed Family Dog, in an old pavilion on the Great Highway. Wise remembers seeing it later at the Surf Theatre, in the Outer Sunset. The film was silent with Windisch narrating and 19 people in the audience.
Windisch appreciated the loyalty, and he showed up at Wise’s shop at Vicente and 43rd, asking whether he wanted some prints to hang. Windisch then went to his car and returned with an entire archive. They were too large and there were too many for the walls, so Wise suspended them from the ceiling.
Windisch eventually moved to Mill Valley and made a living trimming trees. He was an old-school surfer who never bothered with health insurance, even when he had three kids and a dangerous occupation. When he finally got around to seeing a doctor for the abdominal pain he was suffering, it was too late. A gall bladder infection killed him at age 48, in 1994.
His widow, Helen, tried to get his work some exposure by partnering with a surf-movie producer in L.A. She shipped off what prints she had in a box, but nothing came of it, and prints were lost in transit.
“When I got back the pictures, I was so frustrated about losing a bunch of them that I said, ‘I don’t want to do anything with these pictures ever again,’ ” she says. “So I stuffed them somewhere and forgot about them for 20 years.”
What got them remembered was her daughter Laura’s apartment art. She wanted to see more and gathered up nearly 200 Windisch prints and had them scanned, since the negatives had all disappeared. The resulting book, “Fred Windisch Surf Photography of the 1960s: San Francisco, Pacifica, Santa Cruz & Oregon,” was published in 2012. The first printing of 15 copies was given away to the surfers featured. Now the book is available in limited edition at www.blurb.com. When an order comes in, a book gets made.
Poster for Fred Windisch’s film “The Natural Art,” in 1970 Photo: Courtesy Helen Windisch, Family Of Fred Windisch
In that sense, the audience is growing one by one. It may grow at a quicker pace when a documentary film called “The Great Highway,” featuring a segment on Windisch, comes out next year. But nothing will give him the screen time of the show at Madrone, which is up and running every day from 4 p.m. until 2 a.m., free, with no cover charge or drink minimum.
The photography is not lighted, so it is best seen before 9 p.m., when the house lights are dimmed and the disc jockey cranks up. Anytime is good for watching “The Natural Art” in a washed-out color print, screening above the bar and on the back wall, in rotation with two other films that Windisch made.
“It’s been fun to watch this project come to life,” says Laura. “I never had the chance to get to know my dad as an adult, so instead of hearing stories about the past, I’m able to see them.”
Bay Area Surf Photography of the 1960s by Fred Windisch: Through Nov. 15. Madrone Art Bar, 500 Divisadero St., S.F. (415) 241-0202. www.madroneartbar.com.
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