Subtlety & Motion: Behind the Lens with Photographer Patrick Trefz


Patrick Trefz is a unique cinematographer-slash-photographer-slash-author whose focus is the blending of surf, surf lifestyle and art. His work has been exhibited across the nation over the last 15 years, from the Los Angeles Film Festival to the New York City Film Festival. As a filmmaker, Trefz has produced three critically acclaimed films—Bicycle Trip, Thread and, most recently, Idiosyncrasies. He has also published a number of books of his work. In his continuing quest to merge surf culture and art, Trefz cites numerous influences from each side of those worlds, from Rick Griffin, Jim Phillips and Keith Herring, to Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti, Ansel Adams and Art Brewer. Santa Cruz Waves probed the artist’s mind for more biographical details.

Moody swell lines rear their heads as they march into Santa Cruz.

Moody swell lines rear their heads as they march into Santa Cruz.

Can you give us a short bio? I am German born, was raised around the globe, and have been in Santa Cruz for 20 years.

How did you get into photography and filmmaking? My dad, a photographer as well, got me an old SLR when I was 13. I shot everything and haven’t stopped since: travel, people, skate, surf, all that. I was digging ditches and airbrushing surfboards at Pearson Arrow to make a living, and shot some photos on the side. With the discovery of Mavericks and the Santa Cruz scene blowing up, I ended up with a retainer staff photographer position at SURFER Magazine.

Tell us about your experience shooting surf in Santa Cruz and the Central Coast. Our coastal area is mystical: cliffs and redwoods, the proximity of the mountains jutting out of the sea, tons of wildlife—seeing boars, bobcats and deer on the way to the water. Surrounded by kelp bulbs, jumping seals and the occasional sighting of a shark, the fog and the storm systems that pelt the area. The amazing light and epic full-moon surfs. A great sense of adventure lurks in our backyard. On top of that, the rich culture in close reach adds to it. You could be surfing up north around Pescadero, then getting a beer and some cioppino at Duarte’s, a bar/ restaurant founded in 1894 by Portuguese whalers. Or down in the Monterey Bay, after a cold winter surf, having an authentic Mexican home-cooked meal at Castroville’s Michoacan Market. The richness in the area makes me want to shoot much more than just the surf. On stormy days I like to drive down into the Salinas Valley to photograph old farms, abandoned gas stations, or scraggily trees—[John] Steinbeck on my mind as I navigate the narrow roads.

Ken "Skindog" Collins in the zone at Mavericks

Ken “Skindog” Collins in the zone at Mavericks

Who or what influenced your photography? I was hanging out with [legendary surf photographer] Art Brewer on the North Shore of Oahu when I first started out. He made me realize that shooting surfing is not just going for the in-your-face action shot. A lot of subtleties within the surf culture deserve more [attention]. Just look at Brewer’s portraits of Bunker Spreckels. On a trip to Alaska in 2000, I met Andrew Kidman [director of Litmus]. He talked to me about taking my photography into motion. It’s been enriching to combine motion and stills—his encouragement challenged and changed my work and got me into filmmaking.

Inventor of Doc's Pro Plugs and all-around legend Doc Scott keeps it fresh.

Inventor of Doc’s Pro Plugs and all-around legend Doc Scott keeps it fresh.

How would you describe your personal style of photography? Just taking single images gets boring. I’m interested in telling the story and creating a study on a particular subject, whether it’s shooting a short film on big-wave surfer Greg Long or San Diegan surf historian Richard Kenvin, taking black and white, medium-format portraits post-surfing of Harbor Bill, or chasing the nostalgia of Santa Cruz County in the old barns and haunted redwoods. That approach pushed me into creating my own books and films. [Whereas] SURFER Magazine might have only used a single image, it all gave me the freedom to tell the story that I wanted to, [and] made me more independent from surf industry politics. That’s when the real creative work gets started. I collaborate with artists from all sorts of different fields to produce the final outcome: book designers, film editors, musicians, writers, muralists, shapers, etc., and that makes for an environment where free-thinking minds challenge and push each other.

Tell us about Surfers’ Blood. How did it come about? I self-published my first book in 2002, on Santa Cruz and its surroundings, entitled Visions of Surf City. After that, a publisher from back east, powerHouse Books, contacted me to do a book based on my surf documentary Thread. Recently we teamed up again to do my third book, a two-decade surfing retrospective shot around the world. Surfer’s Blood captures the people, places and waves of the international surf tribe: from world champions to underground heroes to Santa Cruz’s Westside crew; from Hawaiian legend Buffalo Keaulana to unknown shapers in the Basque country and the 100-foot Wednesday at Mavericks. It covers a lot of territory.

Central Coast seclusion.

Central Coast seclusion.

We are pretty deep into the digital age of photography now, yet you still shoot a lot on film. Do you shoot more film than digital? Sometimes film is better, sometimes digital. It’s a tool of choice depending on what I want to accomplish—sort of the same reason why handsaws never went out of style.

Are you active on the web and social media? Yes, you [have to] be active on social media and the Internet if you are working as a professional visual artist. Otherwise you do not exist, at least on the Internet grid. It reminds me of the time when answering machines and faxes got popular. Businesses needed them in order to survive. I’ve never had either. I was talking to my friend Boogie Bill the other day while he helped me fix my leaky toilet. He is an artist but has no interest in being on the [web]. So he was telling me that some people have a really hard time finding him and getting a hold of him, which suits him just fine. It gives him more time to surf.

Josh Mulcoy has provided the perfect muse for Patrick's uncanny creativity.

Josh Mulcoy has provided the perfect muse for Patrick’s uncanny creativity.

What’s next for you? Besides doing a few commercial short-film projects, I am currently in production on two feature-length movies. The first one is based on Surfers’ Blood in partnership with RedBull Media House. I don’t want to give away too much, but it is based on the DNA of six characters from the book: from shapers to directors, designers, artists, war vets, pro-surfers, etc. … The second one, Outstanding in the Field, is a documentary on local surfer/chef/artist Jim Denevan, with a farm-to-table business by the same name. I’m in the editing phase of the film right now, putting together a trailer to secure the second round of funding. Last year, I travelled all across the country with Jim and his dinner tour team in his big red Greyhound tourbus. Legend has it that it was formerly owned by Elvis. Denevan’s leadership in the reinvention of food culture and his unique massive-scale land/art installations are part of the decade-long documentation that tells the story.

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Paul Topp

About Paul Topp

Paul Topp is a Surf, Sports and Nature Photographer / Videographer who grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii and recently moved to Santa Cruz, California. To view more of Paul's work, please visit his website at

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