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The best books on Wanderlust

recommended by Matthew Brookes & Zack Raffin

Matthew Brookes: Into the Wild by Matthew Brookes & Zack Raffin

Matthew Brookes: Into the Wild
by Matthew Brookes & Zack Raffin

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What does it mean to live wild and young and free? We asked the authors of a photography book on surf van culture along the California coast—"a story of youth choosing to follow their dreams, living out of vans, existing for surf and travel and freedom, and always chasing the best waves"—for references that help answer this question. Wanderlust can be a philosophy for life, as these books illustrate beautifully.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

Matthew Brookes: Into the Wild by Matthew Brookes & Zack Raffin

Matthew Brookes: Into the Wild
by Matthew Brookes & Zack Raffin

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Let’s talk about your selection of books. It’s very eclectic, but there is a unifying theme here. Wanderlust? Lust for life? Finding the sublime in the ordinary?

Matthew Brookes: Yes I would say the underlying theme is a sense of freedom. I’ve always seen beauty or fascination in imperfection. I guess I find contacts very inspiring. Also yes – finding beauty in ordinary things. I find authenticity beautiful – I fell in love with the grittiness of Venice Beach, the graffiti, the crazy contrast of people on the boardwalk…In terms of books, I guess I’m a romantic by nature so I always choose books that make me feel something…a sense of aliveness and the freedom to travel always was a fascination to me. Our book, Into the Wild, is about surf van culture in and around Venice Beach. I moved there at the beginning of 2021 and spent six months documenting a particular group of surf kids who live in their vans and travel up and down the California coast chasing the best waves.

Just Kids is a wonderful book that we’ve featured elsewhere on the site. Patti Smith is on the record as saying ‘Avoid vices and everything that could make you slaves.’ California surf van culture seems to exemplify this ethos – living for surf and travel and freedom. Is she a patron saint?

MB: I would say Patti is the ultimate artist and I love the way her book reflects that. Her world revolves around being creative and her book Just Kids really inspired me as to how a young artist can have nothing and almost live on the street but can feel rich and happy inside. She is a true Poet!

Your book shares a title with Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. He may be another patron saint when it comes to wanderlust books, I guess. Or perhaps it’s Alexander Supertramp, the alter-ego of the book’s protagonist, Christopher Johnson McCandless?

MB: I think the book—be it the author Jon Krakauer or its subject Christopher Johnson McCandless—was a driving theme in my mind while I was shooting these surfers. They have a kind of bohemian quality about them and some of them like to live off-grid, abandoning their connection to the outside world for periods of time.

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These kids are not running away from society as Christopher was but they are definitely abandoning the pressures of a 9 to 5 job existence for a way of life where living for the sea comes first – waking up in their vans on the road with a different view each day and traveling up and down the coast of California to chase the best waves.

“A young artist can have nothing and almost live on the street but can feel rich and happy inside.”

There was a group of skaters that ended up parking outside my place in Venice Beach and I became friends with them. Their story is that they were fascinated by the film adaptation of Into the Wild directed by Sean Penn, and it inspired them to leave Connecticut and travel cross country in their bus to live out their adventures. Their story and the title Into The Wild just stick in my head.

There are some startling juxtapositions in photographer Bruce Weber’s Branded Youth, pre-stardom celebrities sharing pages with boy scouts and ordinary people Weber met on his many travels. How does this fit the theme of wanderlust? 

MB: Bruce Weber’s photography books were an inspiration for me to become a photographer when I was young – the man is a photographic genius! I think he has a way of depicting the American spirit in such a beautiful and uplifting way without it looking commercial. His pictures are so full of positivity and soul. There’s a playful, almost childlike quality to his work – he makes everyone look naturally beautiful with no frills attached.

The book takes its title from a band of wild-child teenagers Weber met in Montana. They had this teenage ritual of branding each other on the shoulder with a red-hot army bayonet blade, a combination of recklessness and romance captured so well in these images of youth, freedom, and adventure. He meets all sorts of different people on his travels, but the common thread is always the connections, the ties that bind.

‘Iconic’ is a much-overused, dogeared expression. Yet it seems fitting when describing Dogtown and the images in Glen Friedman and Craig Stecyk’s documentary vision of skateboard culture and anti-establishment youth. Stecyk is also a polymath, a film-maker, photographer, street artist and writer. Have you drawn inspiration from Stecyk’s brand of gonzo journalism?

Zack Raffin: I’ve definitely been pushed by my personal involvement in these stories and have even found myself envious of just how free some of them are within a world that can be so confining. I’d be lying if I hadn’t been scrolling online for used Vans more than once throughout this process… As opposed to working for a title or media outlet where you’re trying to push a specific narrative, I started each interview of Into The Wild with the banner of ‘there is no agenda here, whatever you want to share you can.’ That was incredibly refreshing.

MB: I absolutely love the original film Dogtown and Z-Boys! It helped me to have a deep insight into the history of Venice Beach and how the surf and skate culture is completely intertwined in this particular melting pot – I would say Venice is the center of the world for the marriage of surf and skate culture with all the grittiness and grunge that comes along with it.

“The light in California is totally unique.”

All of the characters in my book are surfers but have a skate background. Most of them started as skate kids and branched into surfing when they moved to the California coast or got injured skating. They had to find an activity that was less harsh on their bodies so they chose the waves over the concrete skateparks. One of the van guys told me that surfing is like skating only the slopes are constantly changing – I thought that was a beautiful analogy.

American photographer Stephen Shore, like Robert Frank or Walker Evans before him, seems particularly adept at articulating certain American archetypes. Moreover, Shore’s Uncommon Places, from 1982, maybe shows that we don’t always need to go to new places in order to discover and feel the unexpected. We can wander by letting our minds go free, even if we stay in place. 

MB: I first saw Steven Shore’s work in Paris and I found his work deeply transporting. I was fascinated by the beautiful California light. Also, I found it very interesting how he could photograph an ordinary thing like a car parked next to a gas station and with his eye it would be a beautiful piece of art that made you dream. There is a quietness to his photography and when I look at his images I am so transported that I don’t hear any sound around. It’s funny how his pictures are linked to sound in my head. The light in his photography is also so linked to the light in California which is totally unique.

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I discovered the ‘magic hour’ light at the end of the day while shooting my book. The colours become soft pastels but deep and rich at the same time – it’s not called magic hour for nothing and there is a reason the cinema industry exploded there – the light is insane!

After capturing bodies in motion at the Paris Opera in your first monograph Matthew, were you looking for another, ocean-bound perspective on the dynamism of the human form? Zack, you are a California based surfer and writer. Was this project a kind of embedded journalism for you?

MB: Actually Into the Wild is much more about characters and not about bodies in shape or form. It’s shot in a much more playful documentary style than my last book on dancers – this book is much more storytelling. I would say and its message is supposed to be a positive one that can make the reader/viewer dream. I think young people are surrounded by problems and the weight of the world these days – this book is supposed to be a gentle relief from that and a reminder that happiness can be found in its simplicity.

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ZR: Absolutely. After moving to Los Angeles by way of New York City I knew immediately I wanted to spend as much time at Malibu First Point as possible, the parking lot of which acts as kind of an epicentre for the book. It became immediately apparent that many of the characters that frequented the wave had lived life differently than what many would view as ‘normal’. When Matt invited me to be a part of Into The Wild, the project developed into the perfect platform to highlight their stories and share this beautiful, alternative lifestyle with the world. Not all who wander are lost!

Interview by Romas Viesulas

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Matthew Brookes

Matthew Brookes

Matthew Brookes is a photographer. Born in England and raised in South Africa, his photographs have been featured in major magazines such as GQ, Style, Vogue and L'Uomo Vogue. In addition to his work with models and celebrities, Brookes is fascinated by the dynamism of the human form in
motion and enjoys photographing athletes and dancers. His first book was Les Danseurs, a portrait of the ballet dancers of the Paris Opera.

Zack Raffin

Zack Raffin

Zack Raffin is a lifelong surfer and surf journalist who has worked for titles such as Stab Magazine and LogRap. Having grown up in New York City, Zack found his passion for surfing on the shores of Montauk, New York where he grew under the tutelage of East Coast Surfing Hall Of Famer Tony Caramonico. After being transplanted to Venice Beach for university, Zack has since turned Malibu First Point into his local break where you can find him throughout the majority of the west coast’s summer South Swells.

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Matthew Brookes

Matthew Brookes

Matthew Brookes is a photographer. Born in England and raised in South Africa, his photographs have been featured in major magazines such as GQ, Style, Vogue and L'Uomo Vogue. In addition to his work with models and celebrities, Brookes is fascinated by the dynamism of the human form in
motion and enjoys photographing athletes and dancers. His first book was Les Danseurs, a portrait of the ballet dancers of the Paris Opera.

Zack Raffin

Zack Raffin

Zack Raffin is a lifelong surfer and surf journalist who has worked for titles such as Stab Magazine and LogRap. Having grown up in New York City, Zack found his passion for surfing on the shores of Montauk, New York where he grew under the tutelage of East Coast Surfing Hall Of Famer Tony Caramonico. After being transplanted to Venice Beach for university, Zack has since turned Malibu First Point into his local break where you can find him throughout the majority of the west coast’s summer South Swells.