Warren Bolster, 59; Surfing and Skateboarding Photographer

Times Staff Writer

Warren Bolster, a leading surfing photographer whose detour into skateboarding journalism helped popularize and define the wheeled sport during its explosive rebirth in the 1970s, has died. He was 59.

Bolster, who had battled chronic pain and addiction to a painkiller, died Sept. 6 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Mokuleia, Hawaii, said his attorney, Teresa Tico.

As a photographer, he was known for putting himself dangerously close to the action, often colliding with his subjects or their speeding platforms. He had endured at least a dozen surgeries and many broken bones participating in and documenting the activities.


“I almost destroyed myself to give a larger life to the sport,” he wrote in “The Legacy of Warren Bolster: Master of Skateboard Photography,” a 2004 book that features more than 100 of his photographs, often taken at jarringly odd angles.

Nine days before his death, Bolster was injured when his car was rear-ended in a serious collision that “was the breaking point,” Tico said. “He could not cope with another day of pain.”

Stacy Peralta, a filmmaker who featured Bolster’s work in “Riding Giants” (2004) and “Dogtown and Z-Boys” (2001), compared the photographer’s “psychic sensibility” to that of an artist, “but he was in a world that didn’t necessarily embrace a person like that.”

As the editor who resurrected SkateBoarder magazine in 1975, Bolster was like a “disc jockey feeding kids a new signal about the sport,” said Peralta, who was a champion skateboarder when he met Bolster in the 1970s. “He had a lot to do with shaping the vision of what skateboarding was at that time all over the world.”

Photographically, Bolster remained on the cutting edge for his entire career. He was among the first to use fish-eye lenses, motor-drive sequences and strobes while documenting California’s skateboarding culture.

After leaving SkateBoarder in 1978, he moved to Hawaii and developed a reputation as an innovative and competitive surfing photographer who was always searching for a dramatic angle.

In the 1980s, Bolster rode in a helicopter off Oahu’s North Shore to shoot Alec Cook riding one of the biggest waves that had been photographed up to that time, said Jeff Divine, a photo editor at Surfing Journal who had worked with Bolster.

More recently, Bolster had captured a striking inside-the-wave surfing perspective by mounting a waterproof camera on a surfboard -- and convincing surfers to ride with the contraption. He snapped pictures by remote while standing on the beach.

“He was famous for it,” Divine said. “He really was one of the greatest surfer photographers of all time. He also was, within the surf tribe, considered a classic character.”

By his own admission, Bolster had an “intense personal nature” -- others called him compulsive and tightly wound yet extremely kind to others -- that made for a life of peaks and valleys.

One pinnacle was his editorship of SkateBoarder, a spinoff of San Juan Capistrano-based Surfer magazine, that turned him into a spokesman for the skateboarding world.

“It’s very important to help kids through skateboarding,” Bolster told The Times in 1977. “The sport is the youth movement of the ‘70s.”

First published in 1967, SkateBoarder lasted only a year as the sport’s popularity faded. With the advent of urethane wheels in the early 1970s that provided greater traction and speed, the sport and the publication were reborn.

His photographic eye was “uniquely sensitive to the graceful, gliding-oriented approaches that characterized most of skateboarding in the mid-1970s,” Daniel Gesmer, who edited “The Legacy of Warren Bolster,” wrote in the book.

Pioneer professional skateboarder Tony Hawk said the magazine, which was published until about 1980, was the only one worth reading at the time.

“The pictures were always dreamy and left me full of disbelief.... If it weren’t for SkateBoarder, I would have never realized what was really possible on my four-wheeled plank,” Hawk said in the book.

One of the magazine’s most controversial issues took on a Southern California rivalry, debating which skaters were best. In skateboard lingo it boiled down to Dogtown vs. Down South -- or Santa Monica vs. San Diego skaters.

When Bolster, who had competed as a professional skateboarder, decided to end the verbal sparring in the magazine, he said: “Skateboarding should be fun, not something negative.”

Warren Edward Bolster was born June 11, 1947, in Washington, D.C., to Edward and Elizabeth.

Because his father was an American diplomat, Bolster spent much of his childhood overseas. He discovered surfing in Sydney, Australia, after moving there in 1963.

“He was really hooked, instantly. That was just his life from then on,” said his sister, Janet Tramonte, who was a longtime administrative assistant to William H. Rehnquist, chief justice of the Supreme Court.

In addition to his mother and sister, the twice-divorced Bolster is survived by his sons, Edward and Warren Jr. of Hawaii.

It was natural for Bolster to turn to skateboarding, which he first tried in 1965, because it grew out of the surfing craze of the 1950s when people realized the feeling of riding a wave could be simulated on land.

While living in Virginia, Bolster said he skated “to keep the surfing blues away.”

In 1967, he moved to Cocoa Beach, Fla., attended Brevard Community College and earned a reputation as one of the state’s top surfers.

By 1970, Bolster had migrated to San Diego and made skateboards out of old water skis to ensure there was “a surfboard-like alternative for the few days lacking surf,” he later recalled.

With the first roll of color film he shot in 1972, Bolster landed a photograph on the cover of Surfing magazine, and he was soon listed on the masthead. He switched to Surfer magazine in 1975, where he remained a staff photographer until 1992.

A lavish 2002 coffee table book, “Masters of Surf Photography: Warren Bolster” was followed two years later by the skateboarding book.

“Legacy” publisher Michael Brooke, who had grown up reading SkateBoarder, said he wanted to honor the artist who had captured “the rebirth of skateboarding” and “its true soul.”

Although Bolster was hampered by shoulder and hip injuries, he never retired.

“Warren was a highly intelligent person, very much into the poetry and romance of activities. He understood the dimensions inherent in those sports and transmitted them to his photography,” said Steve Pezman, publisher of the Surfer’s Journal and former publisher of Surfer.

One day in the mid-1970s, Bolster, then an associate editor at Surfing, returned all abuzz from a skateboarding shoot. Pezman asked him to revive SkateBoarder.

Bolster later said of that afternoon: “I guess it was my stoke on the atmosphere that sealed the deal.”