Jeff Johnson on Growing Up in the East Bay
It doesn't really matter which outdoor sport you’re talking about—at one point or another, Jeff Johnson has been right there at the center of it. He was a lifeguard on Hawaii’s infamous north shore, worked as Patagonia’s first and only staff photographer while helping launch Patagonia Surf, and he’s gone on to produce incredible documentaries like “180° South.”
But what you might not know is that Jeff got his start in skateboarding in San Francisco’s East Bay in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Now, he’s shining a spotlight on those years with his new book. Way High Kick Turn is his personal tribute to the East Bay skate scene that raised him to be the anti-establishment, underground Renaissance man that you see today. We recently caught up with him to learn more about the book, why he quit football, and the teacher who changed everything for him.
You’ve been working on this book for 10 years. Is that right?
Obviously not full time, but yeah. Back in 2007, I started getting emails where all these guys were sending me their old skating photos, which made me start digging for more and inspired me to create this book. So it’s one of those things I’ve been working on in my spare time for more than a decade, but in the last couple of years it’s really taken shape, which has been great. At first, I had a couple brands onboard, and then I realized this thing would be so much cooler if it came just from a person like myself. So I’m stoked that I decided to take this route.
Definitely, it feels really personal. The book has a lot of great photos. Were you shooting back then?
No, I actually didn't start seriously getting into photography until my early 30s. It’s a bummer—there are hardly any photos of the whole punk scene in the ‘80s because none of us were taking out our cameras and shooting. It didn’t yet occur to us to want pictures of ourselves skating. So the early photos in the book were all taken by somebody's mom with a point-and-shoot camera. And those are actually my favorite in the whole book because they are so innocent and unique. You can't emulate that.
You’ve talked a little about quitting organized sports for skating. Do you remember what made you decide to go that route?
In the early ‘80s, I remember I special ordered a pair of Vans that had checkerboards on them. I was so excited to get them because no one had them—that’s why I thought they were so cool. I was playing football at the time, and I remember going to the locker room after one of our games, just so stoked to put on my new checkerboard Vans. And when I did, the “cool guys” on the team laughed at me for wearing them. A lot of those guys were my friends, but none of them would look me in the eye, and I had this distinct realization that these guys all act together as a group, but by themselves they are nothing.
“The early photos in the book were all taken by somebody’s mom with a point-and-shoot camera.”
For some reason, I’ve always admired the individual, and at this moment, at 12 years old, I just remember thinking that these guys couldn’t even stand on their own. They were just laughing at me because I was doing something different. I was over it, so I quit all organized sports, cut my hair, and got a new skateboard. That’s when I started seeing glimpses of this new kind of skater that was more punk rock.
How did music influence you at that time?
Coming out of the ‘70s with disco, which was all about glam and money and blow and decadence, some lame stuff. Back then, even a guy with an earring was a big deal—one earring—let alone a purple Mohawk. So the first time I heard punk rock in 1981, I remember thinking that it was different. As a kid questioning my surroundings, it spoke to me. Punk Rock was so raw and so otherworldly that I just couldn’t help but be attracted to it.
You’ve mentioned that Charles Bukowski was a big influence on your writing. Were you reading him at that time too?
So I was a horrible student from the get-go and eventually got kicked out of high school because I ran away from home a couple of times. I had to go into continuation school, which was for the fuck-ups. Once I sobered up and realized I didn’t want to graduate from there, I was too far behind to go back to public school. I ended up going to this private school that was run by hippies, right in the Bay Area. It was for kids, like me, that wanted to do something but just didn’t fit into the system very well. And it really worked.
“I had a teacher that I still think about all the time. She saw I was insecure about my reading and writing. So she told me to take my time.”
I had a teacher that I still think about all the time. She saw I was insecure about my reading and writing. So she told me to take my time because she could tell I was always trying to speed up out of embarrassment.
She said, “you’re going to retain more and enjoy reading more than the average person if you let yourself read slowly.”
She made me feel better and got me into reading. When I graduated high school, she started sending me boxes of books. One of the books was by Charles Bukowski, and it totally blew my mind. His writing is sparse but the content keeps you glued—it’s like X-rated Hemingway or something.
How’d you go from that to writing your own books?
So, I think what happened is—and I have a feeling Bukowski does this to a lot of people—he tricks you into thinking that you could do it too. Of course, you can’t because that’s the brilliance of Bukowski—he conveys in a sentence what some authors take a paragraph to do. But that’s what inspired me to write.
When I later wrote my first article for Surfer’s Journal in ‘99, getting published in my favorite magazine really lit a fire under my ass. It inspired me to do more, and eventually, I got a camera, which became another layer of storytelling for me.
Now that’s my life, and it all goes back to that teacher in high school. With the attitude I had at the time, I wouldn’t be where I am today without her fostering my interest in reading and writing all those years ago.