Hurricane surf, 1986

First of all, it’s kind of a miracle that I have this image to share. It started as a color film negative that I shot in 1986 but then handed over to the Associated Press, who bought the picture.

But editors had me make prints in their office and I kept a few imperfect copies, including this image with the “over-burned” background, showing the sky much darker than it really appeared and darkening the top edges of the wave as well.

In those days, one would often need to shoot a copy slide from prints for competition submissions. And then I digitized one of those slides when films scanner came along in the 1990s. Since I had lost track of the original prints, I made new copies with an early digital printer.

But then I lost that digital file too — thanks to the unstable storage platforms of the day — and I later made this file with a flatbed scanner… from the digital print… from the scan… taken from the slide… from the print… made from the original negative.

But I really wanted to talk about the picture:

I had just wrapped up a summer and fall working for the Associated Press in Boston when Hurricane Frances made her way along the east coast and sent bands of wind and rain and swelling tides toward New England.

I was checking out the surf along Revere Beach, just north of Boston and not far from my home at the time, when I spotted a couple of young guys playing along the seawall as waves were splashing slightly over the top.

On an ordinary summer day, sunbathers might bask on the beach about 10 feet below, on the other side of the wall; so, the ocean level this day was already extraordinary.

I was about 40 yards away and stepped out of my car into ankle-deep water as these two played in waves that were breaking about knee-high across them. It was November and the water was cold.

Then, as they turned their backs to the sea to look at the flooding between us, I saw a huge, dark wave swelling behind them and I yelled for them to look out but they couldn’t hear me over the sounds of the surf and wind.

At the last second, I lifted my camera and caught the moment as the wave broke over them. In the following frames, they could be seen falling safely toward me, into shallow sidewalk flooding.

I didn’t stay around long enough to see if they left or kept playing, since I was stopped in a traffic lane, there was deep water between us and more than a few other people around.

I also needed to drive my film back to the office since we had no technologies to deliver pictures wirelessly at the time.

Over the next few days, I got calls from angry readers and editors, accusing me of staging the photo and putting these young men in harm’s way, although I wasn’t much older or wiser myself, perhaps obviously.

Staging a photo would never have crossed my mind as a photojournalist, and I’m pretty sure these guys never even saw me, but I have since been mindful that one could argue that pictures like this could encourage others to take stupid chances in severe weather.

However, I have never made such a photo again and the problem doesn’t seem to have gone away.

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