Lensman’s Career, Surfing Swell With Ultimate Photo

Times Staff Writer

It was the shot that left the surfing world abuzz, a stunning image of a surfer looking like a gnat on the meanest, tallest wave that veteran board riders say had ever been ridden by a surfer who paddled into a wave on his own power.

For Taylor Knox, the Carlsbad surfer who managed to conquer the face of the 52-foot wave off the Baja coast in 1998, it meant a cool $50,000 and continuing fame, everything from publicity spots to throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at a San Diego Padre game.

For Les Walker, the man who took the photo, it meant a $5,000 prize and a boost to a photographic career that many say will be forever stamped with an asterisk, for “before and after” the big shot.

The photograph of Knox’s spectacular ride is credited with pushing big-wave surfing from the back pages of surf magazines into the mainstream as a big-money event with a growing audience. The image, which appeared in newspapers, magazines and prime-time television broadcasts, helped win corporate sponsors for a sport that -- until then -- was considered to be little more than a cult, said Mike Kingsbury, media director for the K2 Big Wave contest.


“It opened up the door to national outlets that prior to that didn’t care about surfing,” Kingsbury said. “Suddenly, television was broadcasting surfers at Mavericks and later at Cortes Bank.”

The next big-wave king will be crowned in April as part of the Billabong XXL Big Wave contest, which offers $60,000 to the surfer who catches a ride on the biggest wave of the year. Surfers, who now are allowed to be towed into waves by personal watercraft for the contest, are on their own to find the beast of choice. They can scour the globe, track weather trends or lay low in Maui and wait for the enormous waves at Jaws to arrive. The only caveat is that the moment has to be captured on film.

Surfing has many indelible images, from the classic movie poster for Bruce Brown’s “The Endless Summer” to the jarring shot of big-wave rider Mark Foo tumbling to his death in the froth of a huge swell at Mavericks in Northern California.

Walker’s photo of Knox roaring down the face of a wave near a reef off the coast of Todos Santos, a town on the Pacific in southern Baja, is considered just such a lasting image.

There are those who say Walker lucked out. Just another story of being in the right place at the right time. But those brazen few who scout the world for the biggest waves know better.

Wearing a wetsuit to fight off the frigid water at Todos, Walker dived off a boat and swam more than 100 yards to land, lugging 50 pounds of gear in a waterproof bag.

Once ashore, he scrambled across the rocky shoreline, climbed a cliff and scouted the flat terrain. “I knew everyone else was shooting from boats and at an angle to the wave. I saw the cliffs and said if I can get to that spot, I’ll have me a shot no one else will,” Walker said.

He waited in the rain and wind for seven hours. At one point, Knox was buried by an enormous wave that looked nearly green in the thin light. He vanished into the churning foam and then popped back up, slowly paddling.


At first Walker thought Knox was going to take a break from the pounding waves and then suddenly realized that the surfer had spotted his wave. If he caught the monster, Walker knew it would be an epic ride.

“I swiveled and paddled into it, and Les got the shot,” said Knox.

Walker, 36, has cemented a reputation as the get-it-done-guy in a sport filled with stars and celebrities on surfboards and photographers brimming with attitude.

“There are some photographers who think they’re above getting their hands dirty, should be flown only first class and are very difficult to deal with,” said Bill Sharp, a surf veteran who dreamed up the K2 Big Wave Contest.


“Les is the kind of guy who dives overboard into 20-foot seas, trudges up through the rain and stands in the mud for, like, eight hours hoping to get the shot.”

Walker’s photo of Knox won numerous awards, including sports photo of the year by a national photographers association. It also helped him leverage his freelance talent and secure corporate clients, including clothing manufacturers, and airline companies.

Born near Beatty, Nev., Walker’s interest in photography developed at an early age because his father, who managed a water district, was an amateur photographer and had a dark room at home.

Antsy to do big things but lacking the skills, he went off to the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, where he spent afternoons and weekends wandering the shoreline and shooting surfers.


His obsession with surf photography drove instructors crazy. In one class, he was handed a box of cereal and told to take a studio shot suitable for a corporate client. Instead, Walker removed the photo on the front of the box and replaced it with a surfing shot. “Surfers Around the World Love Chex,” he titled it.

He learned to make camera housings, experimenting with plexiglass before moving to more sophisticated models with aircraft aluminum.

During one of his coastal wanderings he bumped into Ian Cairns, then a director of professional surf contests. Walker had a camera, a 1973 VW Squareback and enough chutzpah to fill the back seat.

Cairns hired him as the pro tour’s full-time photographer, which gave Walker an insider’s view of the surf industry, its top clothing and equipment firms, and their owners. The two formed a good team.


“What’s remarkable is how flaky Les comes across, and how reliable he is to work with,” Cairns joked. “There are plenty of characters in this sport, and Les is, well, just bonkers sometimes.”

When the tour folded, Walker changed directions from photographer to manager as photo editor of Surfing magazine. Walker now works in event promotions and helps run the Billabong big-wave contest.

He carries the reminders that the work hasn’t all been glamorous. There’s a scar running along his arm where the fin of a surfboard sliced him and a patch on his lip where a skin lesion was removed after excessive sun exposure. There have been close calls with personal watercraft, surfers and boats. And setbacks, such as the time he installed a camera housing onto a surfboard, only to have a friend wipe out and smash the gear against a rock. Walker said that Kodak moment cost him $6,000.

“That was tough to explain to the insurance company,” he said. “They just never understood.”