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Behind the Lens with Frank Quirarte

by Heidi Trilling

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Frank Quirarte capturing Mavericks, the world's most dangerous wave. Photo courtesy of Doug Acton.

Illustrious surf photographer and all–around Renaissance man Frank Quirarte sits on a deck chair in full sunshine. He’s flanked by dozens of iridescent abalone shells propped on his backyard fence. Quirarte has dived for them since he was a kid. Certified by PADI — the Professional Assocation of Diving Instructors — he also dives whenever he’s in the tropics. His super-loving yellow lab, Cali, snoozes at his feet.

Inside his childhood home in Pacifica — which he and friends are remodeling — literally hundreds of magazines, posters, and books containing his award-winning surf photographs are piled neatly wherever there’s space.

Quirarte has the distinction of having cover shots on Surfer’s Journal, Surfer and Surfing Magazine, a rare trifecta of surf photo publishing. Surfing Magazine’s March 2009 cover shot of Santa Cruz surfer Josh Loya by Quirarte has become an iconic image of Mavericks, the fearsome surf break in Half Moon Bay. Other Quirarte surf photos have garnered multiple awards and annual nominations from the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards since its inception in the late 1990s.

Popular inside and outside the surf industry, Quirarte’s images have also appeared in publications as diverse as Outside, Forbes and Rolling Stone magazines. He’s been invited to talk at exhibits featuring his work, including those at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Half Moon Bay’s Coastal Arts League & Museum, and Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport Museum.

Wait. There’s more.

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Quirarte’s iconic image of Josh Loya from Surfing Magazine, March 2009. Photo courtesy of Frank Quirarte.

Quirarte’s also a former EMT; a volunteer for Ride a Wave in Santa Cruz, which provides ocean experiences to children with special needs; and a former United States Air Force aircraft crew chief who served in Operations Desert Storm and Just Cause. As a civilian, he was part of an elite search and rescue team in New Orleans, helping save lives after Hurricane Katrina.

Billabong XXL Director Bill Sharp participated in the Hurricane Katrina mission, too, and was impressed by “watching Frank improvise and adapt to what most would deem a hopeless situation.” Sharp says Quirarte “was nothing less than heroic and inspirational. A real waterman, through and through.”

And a self-taught filmmaker, graphic designer and gifted writer, as well.

Quirarte’s film credits include Year of the Drag-In and Return of the Drag-In; he designs surf promotional media and regularly contributes to the online community forum Pacifica Patch. He’s also currently in production of a book showcasing his various photojournalistic experiences.

OMG, does this guy wrestle alligators in his spare time?

“Almost,” Quirarte says, laughing. “I have a 7-year-old son.”

Quirarte is also co-founder — with big wave pioneer Jeff Clark — of the Mavericks Water Patrol, the water safety arm of the surf contest in Half Moon Bay.

At Mavericks, Quirarte does dual duty. He’s a lensman capturing spectacular water angle shots, and he’s head of the safety team on jet skis, at the ready to rescue surfers getting into trouble in the impact zone. Loya, of the Surfing Magazine cover shot, describes it this way: “A Mavericks legend, Frank Q will take the photos, stuff his gear away and come pull you out of the rocks without skipping a beat.”

It’s this immediacy, plus Quirarte’s artistic eye, that make his photos so striking.

“To be a surf photographer,” says fellow master lensman Don Montgomery, “you need to know when to capture the image. It helps to be a surfer, yourself. Frank’s a surfer. He knows exactly where to position himself out at Mavericks, exactly when to get that shot. And that’s the ticket. His images are amazing.”

Quirarte credits Montgomery and surf photographers Vern Fisher and Doug Acton with being vital Mavericks mentors. “They trained the monkey,” Quirarte says. “Gave me all sorts of valuable tips and advice.”

While the Mavericks season is underway, Quirarte’s working on a Hollywood feature, tentatively titled Of Men and Mavericks, about the local big-wave surf spot.

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Quirarte rescuing Hurricane Katrina victims in the the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, La. Photo courtesy of Bill Sharp.

At press time, director Michael Apted of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was slated to step in for original director Curtis Hanson of 8 Mile and L.A. Confidential fame. Actors Gerard Butler and newcomer Jonny Weston star. The movie highlights the nascent career of late Santa Cruz surfer Jay Moriarty, whose pure joy in the water inspired all who knew him.

“Jay was our ambassador of stoke,” Quirarte says. “A role model for surfers and non-surfers alike.”

Quirarte’s role will be film and water support. “That basically means making sure the cameramen, crew, and actors don’t die out there,” Quirarte says. “It gets pretty dangerous at Mavs, especially on big days. … I’ll be helping out with safety. … And I’ll have my camera. I always have it with me.”

That’s been true since childhood.

Quirarte’s dad was a photo buff, and always kept a camera in the house. “So, I had an idea of how to use it,” Quirarte says. “A very limited skill set. But I always loved capturing the moment.”

Photography is something Quirarte shares with his own son, now: “He’s already shooting my camera without a problem! Sometimes, the only way I can tell his shots from mine are that there are 50 of his, and two of mine.”

Soon, Quirarte says, “he’ll be old enough to come with me, traveling around, taking pictures.” Until then, Quirarte and son hit local beaches, surfing, and catching sight of migrating whales and pods of dolphins.

Meanwhile, requests for Quirarte’s photos keep coming from around the world. Cover shots and spreads abound in Australian Surfing Life and South American magazines like Fluir. “I’m huge in Brazil,” Quirarte laughs. “Brazil and Australia.”

“It’s amazing how many countries with coastlines have major surf magazines now,” Quirarte continues. “I started off with one shot in one magazine, and I would have been content with that. But it turned into hundreds. Amazing to me, really. … I’m just glad to leave something for my son. It will be cool for him to have all this.”

International travel, photography exhibits, awards — what stands out as the most exciting experience in this multifaceted career?

“Parenting,” Quirarte says. “Out of all the journeys I’ve taken, that’s been the most incredible, by far.”

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