"My family is samurai on my father's side and farmer on my mother's side … maybe that's why I'm so crazy," grins Tatsuo Takei.
Growing up in a traditional Japanese family in Osaka, surfing, and certainly becoming a world-class, artistically-driven surf photographer, was never really supposed to be an option for Takei. Landlocked and guided by his reserved, conservative parents, he was supposed to get and education and graduate into the work force.
"I studied psychology. They wanted me to get a city job; whatever could earn me a salary, that's what they wanted me to do," he says.
The film "Big Wednesday" blew that all to hell. Young and impressionable, he first saw the 1978 surf classic when he was a teenager. It would have a profound impact on Takei.
Bitten by the bug, he started making the four-hour drive from Osaka out to the coast whenever he could. Inspired by the surfing in "Big Wednesday", he endeavored to become a great longboard stylist.
"The problem was I had a shortboard and didn't even know the difference at the time," he laughs now.
His parents began to get a bit dismayed that Takei was spending more time in the ocean and less time at work.
“‘Give me one year, I want to go see some things in California,’ he told them. ‘After that I come back and get a job, I promise you.’ Then I took off."
Landing in Santa Barbara in the summer of '93, he enrolled in a four-week crash course in English. The surf, as it's prone to do in Santa Barbara during the summer, was less than stellar, but the experience of being on the West Coast was enough to point Takei in a new direction.
Returning home after his English course, he began to scheme about how he could get back sooner rather than later. He worked, diligently saved money and in '96 enrolled in Palomar College in San Diego.
"To get my visa I had to be a full-time student otherwise the United States would kick me out. I needed to fill three more units and there was a beginning photography class. So that's how I got into photography," he says.
About the same time, Takei was struck the art and craft of surf photography when he picked up an issue of The Surfer's Journal. Inside was a feature on the late Ron Stoner.
Stoner is considered to be the preeminent artistic visionary when it comes to classic surf photography. John Severson's image man when he launched Surfer Magazine back in '62, Stoner is lauded for his color, composition and ability to infuse his work with personality and storytelling. Tragically, by the time he was 23 he fell into the grips of schizophrenia and his career as a photographer began to crumble. He moved to Maui and then, for all intents and purposes, fell off the face of the Earth. It's been over 40 years since anyone's seen hide or hair of him, which makes his story all the more legendary in surfing circles.
Stoner's images spoke to Takei like none other before. He became obsessed with shooting single-fin longboard surfing just like Stoner.
"Longboarding seemed so elegant to me. There are a lot of alternatives to riding waves, and in the '90s there were colorful wetsuits and flames painted on boards, longboarding just seemed much more simple to me," says Takei.
As he continued to surf and study photography, another luminary in the world of surf imagery entered Takei's life.
"I met LeRoy Grannis at Tamarack Beach," he smiles, the memory still tickling his gentle soul. "I knew who he was and slowly I approached him. I told him I'd like to see his photos from the '60s. He said, 'Okay, why don't you come over this afternoon?'"
Where Stoner brought surf photography to high art, Grannis was one of the pioneers that really began to capture the essence and action of West Coast beach culture. Prolific throughout the '60s, much like Stoner, by the second half of the '70s his career as a photographer was on the decline while his impact would be felt for generations to come.
That's exactly what makes Takei's photography so compelling. He made a point of obtaining all the same camera bodies and lenses as his heroes. He shot on the same type of film and mimicked their processing techniques in the darkroom. He dedicated himself to becoming the continuum of the two masters.
All he needed was a subject to focus on.
"I was surfing Cardiff reef one afternoon and I saw a guy come down with a new single-fin longboard, glass-on fin. I had my camera with me and thought I should take some pictures," says Takei. "It was Joel [Tudor]. He said hi and asked what kind of camera I had. It was a Nikon 2, 1967, the same lens and camera that Ron Stoner used in the '60s. He knows a lot of stuff and asked to see the photos when they were processed. That's kind of how it began. He was the only one encouraging me to shoot black and white. Nobody else was really getting it."
By this time, the promise Takei made to his parents to go back and live in the straight world in Japan had all but gone up in smoke. He invested in an Econline van, converted it into a mobile photography studio/living space and jumped on Highway One. His relationship with Tudor blossomed into relationships with all the top-tier longboard talent up and down the West Coast. He honed his craft. He built his portfolio. He sacrificed and worked his tail off.
Now, 20 years into the adventure, Takei has proudly produced his first book of images: "Authentic Wave." A sensitive and stunning collection of surf photographs, his work illustrates what the wave-riding world might look like had the Shortboard Revolution not come along and screwed everything up. In every sense of the word, the book and Takei's work is an authentic representation of the thriving subculture that continues to lurk around the points and reefs of California.
"When I first moved to California I would look up and I would see the sign that says, 'Authentic Mexican Food,' and that makes sense to me," he laughs. "For longboarding, California waves are very authentic … very yummy. That's kind of where the title came from."
The 224-page book, written in English and Japanese, was art-directed by former Surfer Magazine art director and master of fonts, Jeff Canham. It's already had praise and attention heaped on it across the pond in Japan, and now Takei is launching his own, self-propelled book tour in California as copies are now available in the U.S.
And when the salt spray settles from the book tour? These days Takei splits his time between shooting weddings and other projects in Japan and living in his van, shooting photos in California.
"The analog process, people making things together, people doing things together, I love it. I still can't believe all this is real," says Takei. "The year that LeRoy passed away, 2011, I knew I had to make a book. And now, 20 years of shooting photos, dude, that's crazy. This has been one crazy ride."
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