Social Encore: Back to the Country with Bielmann
BY JERMEL-LYNN QUILLOPO / Special to the Star-Advertiser
As a photographer living in Hawaii, being able to capture some of the best our islands have to offer is rewarding and makes me more appreciative to call this place home.
When it comes to taking photos both above and beneath the ocean surface, well-known North Shore photographer Brian Bielmann’s impeccable images capture life through a whole different lens.
Back To The Country is his current installation on display at Treehouse on Ward Avenue. The installation features some of Bielmann’s best work, and during the gallery’s opening night last weekend I was able to strike up a friendly conversation over a cup of locally brewed beer from Honolulu Beerworks.
“You see that photo of that girl in the white dress underwater, that is my favorite photo in this gallery,” Bielmann said as he pointed towards the right side of the room. He was referring to a photo he took of his wife almost 20 years ago wearing a beautiful long white maxi dress, gracefully floating to the ocean’s surface. He credited that photo as the turning point where he realized there was more to photography then surfing.
Some people know what they want to be when they grow up. Bielmann, on the other hand, didn’t really know. The only thing that really brought him joy was surfing in the open blue ocean. He wanted to figure out a way to enjoy the sport while making a living.
“The whole (photography) thing happened because I loved surfing so much,” said Bielmann. “At 21 years old I asked myself, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’
“And then about a month after I was like, ‘I’m going to be a photographer.’”
His first camera was a Canon FTB with a 650mm Century Iwna lens, but he didn’t start taking photos until an unfortunate surfing accident that almost claimed his life. As he rubbed his battle scar that is a still visible near his scalp, he said after being ordered to stay out of the water for a month due to the accident, he wondered whether he was going to be a neighborhood surfer or do what he was set out to do as a photographer.
Bielmann knew he wanted to be a photographer with a vision and decided to take on water photography in the late 1970s when it was still unheard of. He laughed at the memory of making a “not so good water housing” out of epoxy.
When he first started, he went to Pipeline daily to capture epic photos of breaking waves and watermen. Those images helped him gain recognition by some of the world’s most prestigious surfing magazines.
Bielmann kept pushing the envelope of what he could capture while out in the ocean.
“The more I got, the more I wanted. The more I kept pushing and kept trying and trying,” he said.
He admitted that at his age — with years of experience under his belt — he’s become more selective when going out to work with Hawaii’s big waves.
“I would go out all the time at Pipeline and now I’m out there on the beach telling myself, ‘Ok, it’s looking a little gnarly … I’m probably going to go through hell and only get a couple of good shots, I think I’ll just wait a little till it (the beach) cleans up,’” he said.
However, don’t razz Bielmann about his age — he is still out there alongside younger photographers doing what he does best: basking in mother nature and snapping images of people enjoying the water.
“I was out there at Pipeline last year during the best sets of the year and I got some of the best photos of my life out there,” he said.
Bielmann’s work has been featured in publications such as Sports Illustrated, National Geographic and Rolling Stone; he was even the senior staff photographer for TransWorld Magazine. He was laid off from TransWorld after the publication shut down due to financial reasons. That drawback didn’t stop him from doing what he loved; instead of giving up, he started to adapt to the innovative world of technology.
“I’m still having to learn all of that (technology) stuff and where it fits in,” he said.
He said he misses how a photographer’s credibility was built around people that knew the industry or niche market and having them hand select photos for reputable publications versus having photos compete for likes on Facebook or Instagram.
“I loved it when your pictures where in a magazine and it was chosen by the people that knew what was happening and that was the totem pole,” he said.
Bielmann added that he thought it was awesome photography has grown to the point where anyone can buy a GoPro and have access to equipment that helps capture photos in ways that were never before possible.
I personally love having the ability to take photos digitally and share them almost instantly, but a part of me respects the old school art of taking photos on film.
Bielmann said taking photos with film brings back some sort of nostalgia and in some ways tests the way a photographer operates and their knowledge.
“Back then you had to decide before going out, do I want black and white or color or graining film. You made all these decisions ahead of time. Now, you shoot the photos and then you can decide on the computer, so it’s a whole different thing now.”
Anyone can whip out their electronic device and take a photo, but what some people tend to forget is the importance of what you do with the image afterward. For people like Bielmann, it’s truly about the years it has taken for photographers like him to master the art. He is one of the few still out there creating beautiful yet edgy images.
“I started in 1978 and it’s been almost 40 years, and I still got that drive that you absolutely have to have when you are out there,” he said.
Throughout the installation, you will find items like a photo of Bob Marley performing in Hawaii during the late 1970s. It is those very photos of Bob Marley and even the late Andy Irons that give Bielmann reassurance that taking the time to capture precious moments on film is what he was meant to do.
“At the time, I didn’t know how important those photos would be,” he said. “All of my photos of Andy Irons and even my buddy here, Mike Prickett, it reminds me of how important what you have is … You never know how valuable capturing a moment becomes when it soon is just a memory.”
To learn more about Bielmann and his work, visit his website. The Treehouse installation will be on display through Sept. 27.
Jermel-Lynn Quillopo is a multi-faceted, energetic individual with experience in both print and broadcast journalism. “Social Encore” aims to tell diverse stories about Hawaii’s food, events and people; share your tips with Jermel via email or follow her on Twitter.