LARRY LIGHT

posted by / Magazine / August 9, 2004

Larry “Flame” Moore tells his story like he does everything: with tremendous attention to detail. From the number of stop signs lining his marathon, teenage bike rides to the beach to the flight itinerary of his first trip around the world, every angle is exact, every phrase perfectly framed. So are his photos, and so is his mission, even if he didn’t know it at first.

Growing up 26 miles inland in Whittier, California, it wasn’t until Moore was a junior at Long Beach State that his photographic fate literally dropped on him late one night. “I was living in a garage behind my parents house and I heard this knock on my door,” Flame {{{recalls}}}. “My buddy Paul comes in and goes, ‘Here I want you to have this. My draft number came up I’m going to Canada, See ya.’ He gave me a Pentax K1000 and a Vivitar 400 mm lens. And, of course, as soon as my surfing buddies found out it was all over.” Within eight months, Moore was on the inside of SURFING Magazine where he’s remained ever since, serving as photo editor through 35 years, three buildings, 10 editors and literally hundreds of contributors. If there’s six degrees separating all humans there’s maybe two between Flame and every surf photographer, from pioneers Tom Blake and Le Roy Grannis to18-year-old greenhorn {{{Jimmy}}} Wilson. Throw in the number of surfers whose first published shots had a red “Flame” stamped across the slide, and you’ll see why one contributor recently quipped, ” I doubt there’s anyone in the whole industry who’s launched more careers than Larry.” And at 55, Flame continues to light a path for all photogs to follow, in terms of composition, color, and sheer dedication, proving that if you can discover your true passion, the rest of your life will quickly come into focus. Matt Walker

Describe the first photo you ever got published.
Well, I forget who it was, but the photo was black and white, shot from Huntington Beach Pier with a Vivitar 400, and it was in Surf Guide, which was a one-shot deal SURFING did with a bit of instruction and a lot of photos. And only a couple months later I got a call from Doug Fiske, who was co-editor with Richard Dowdy, and he said, “You keep sending in these kick-ass prints, would you consider coming to work here as our photo technician?” So I took the job. Which, of course set the stage for where I am now. Obviously, you only started shooting at 18 or 19. Were you artistic in any other ways growing up?
No, I really wasn’t endowed with any talents of painting or music — well, I played the saxophone for a while but found it utterly boring. But in my gathering of wisdom over the years, when I run across someone who is genuinely interested in becoming a really good photographer, I do whatever I can to encourage them to take art classes versus photography classes. Because photography classes teach you the mechanics of taking a picture, while design and art classes teach you composition. And composition in creating an image, even in surf images, is critical. If you’re not conscious of composition, you’re going to create bad images. And I see it all the time: someone is bulls-eyeing the subject or not leading their subject. So even if it’s a painting class or an art-deco class, it will help them as a photographer.

The same way we as editors encourage writers to take more than just journalism classes.
Exactly. I mean, you’re going to learn to push the button sooner or later because by trial and error you’re going to see your results. And you can change your routine. But when you’re looking through the viewfinder and you’re looking at all four corners, and you go to click that button, you have to have that mindset of “how do I compose this?” And in today’s photography it’s much more difficult because you’re dealing with an auto-focus system, which for the most part is center-weighted. Whereas, when I was coming up through the ranks, we were manually focusing our cameras. And you could offset the surfer no problem. Because you’d focus on a certain point, put the guy off to the side and take a picture. So it’s much more of a challenge with today’s technology.

That’s funny too: because a lot of people would say it’s easier now. Do you think coming up without motordrive and without loads of film at your disposal, ingrained that concept of making every shot count?
Exactly. There were times when I would go out and swim three or four hours for one roll of film, just because every frame counted. But even if you were sitting on the beach with a trusty Canon F1, with the MS motordrive — which shot a whopping three frames a second — you made every frame count. Because you were either paying for every frame, or you were having to develop it.

Which is about the same. Is surf photography really an inherent skill? Do you think there are just some photographers who have it some don’t?
Well, getting the shot — and that’s how you’d have to qualify if someone got the job done or eventually got the job done — is they came back with well-composed, high-action, really great lighting, and had all their ducks in a row. Yeah, there’s shooters that come along now and then that never really get the shot, and perhaps they never will. But I think they are becoming fewer and fewer and fewer. For one thing, surf photography has become more and more serious as a business. And if you don’t cut it, sooner or later, you’ve got to either figure out how to get another job in order to pay the bills — and the bills will be making payments on all that equipment you bought. Just to get all the gear so you can actually get the shot costs $20,000 so it’s a substantial investment. So it really has become a business.

At the same time — and you’ve dealt with as many photographers as anybody– do you find they’re still driven more by art than finances? It’s rare when you come across a surf photog who’s in it strictly for the bucks, even if they do become more aware of what photos sell or where to send them.
Right. And the consummate shooter today tries to satisfy the needs of everybody, including editorial. Because editorial breeds not only competence, but credence. When you’re getting material used editorially, you’re reciprocally respected in the commercial word. When your name appears in the mag editorially, you hold credence. But, financially, the advertisers are much greater as a revenue source than the magazines are, even for the staff guys.

It’s a symbiotic relationship.
Exactly. That’s the perfect word for it.

And at the end of all that , it always comes down to “best shot wins.”
At the end of all that, exactly right. I know a lot of people will call that the pie in the sky world and it doesn’t really exist. But when all the photos are out on the light table , best shot wins. And the photos on the light table are certainly produced by a variety of sources, editorial needs, advertiser needs. And the major surf companies also have the best guys on their team. And we’re actively seeking the best surfers, because that’s who the readers want to see: the Parkos, the Taj’s, Andy’s, the guys who are actually throwing down the moves and making them.

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