Surfing, like no other sport, brings the terrain to you. You have to learn to read and respond to waves in order to ride them, and unlike, say, a spicy backcountry line or a complex bouldering problem, there’s no sitting back and discussing routes and cruxes. The wave is alive, moving, and changing every second. I distinctly remember the feeling of catching my first real wave: some sense of the world coming together, almost like I had finally broken through a language barrier. After arguing with choppy, frigid, unforgiving surf in Westport, Washington, the ocean and I had come to an agreement. For a moment in time, at least.
18-year-old River Covey’s photo manipulations perfectly depict that inexplicable feeling. The Dana Point high schooler takes ordinary surf photos and layers them with colors, pattern, and other outdoor photos to make an image that more accurately evokes that ephemeral, euphoric moment in time.
Covey shies away from terms like “art” and “artist.” According to him, he’s just a kid with a penchant for surfing, a wild imagination, and access to Photoshop. The only time he’s comfortable calling his past-time some kind of “art” is in the waves, dancing his way to the tip of his longboard and back. We caught up with the young surfer to learn more about the inspiration behind his unique work, showcased at @RiverCovey.
How would you describe your work? Are they photos? Collages?
You know I’ve been actually trying to figure that out for two years now, and I have no name for it. It’s something I started doing just for fun because I like looking at surfing photos, but surfing is really boring. You can get different lighting, different angles, but when it comes down to it, it’s blue, and there’s a guy on a board. So, I don’t know, I need to figure out a name for it. I guess you could call it a surf photography collaboration.
How did you come up with the idea in the first place?
The first one I ever did was because I was only posting photos of surfing [on Instagram]. If you think about it, no one really cares about your face or what you’re eating that day or anything, but people really like surfing. So I was like, “Oh, cool, I’m gonna post just surfing. Why not? Give it a go.”
I did that for three days, four days maybe, and I was like, “This is boring! It all looks the same.” I had this image and was like “It’d be cool if I added something else.” I realized no matter where you are in the world–it could be mountains, forest, the sky, it could be even the ocean itself–since it’s all part of nature it comes together really well. It doesn’t make sense, but for some reason it just looks like it should.
The first photo was me hanging five, and I added a mountain, and the mountain ended up blending into the sky without me really doing anything to it. I started doing more and people really liked it. I didn’t know this, but I guess no one had really done this as much as I’d been doing it at that point, adding what I was adding. So, it kinda ended up becoming more of a me-thing, like “Oh, this is River’s art, or River’s photos.” Whatever you want to call it.
I wouldn’t consider myself an artist, just because even though I do put stuff together, I’m not taking the photos, I’m not doing anything interesting, I’m not the photographer that has it in his eye, you know? I would give all the other people credit way before I get it.
Where do you source your images?
Since I’m still in high school, it’s tough to have enough money to afford everything that I would like to be doing. I had to figure out a way to get photos, to make my photos without actually taking them, because I don’t have a camera or anything. Growing up in this area, there are a lot of people that do have cameras and shoot surfing, and a lot of them happen to be my close friends. So mostly it’s friends doing what they do, and I really like when we get to work together. But if I see a photographer and I really like his work, I’ll make an effort to reach out to him and be like “Hey, I make these images, is it cool if I use this? I don’t sell any of my photos, I don’t use it as a business at all.” That is something I’d like to do one day but for now it’s just something I do for fun, to make people happy, and that makes me happy.
Where do you draw inspiration for these works? Are you inspired by photography, art, music?
The overall mood you get from a photo, when you look at it, is my general impression right when I see the surfing photo. I’m definitely inspired by photographers just because they’re actually the ones out there capturing the moment. They’re taking a piece of time and making it forever, and you can’t really do that with anything else. If you were to take a picture of me, right now, forever I would have this moment.
I take that and think, “Okay, what if I add something that’s obviously not real?” But use a little imagination, and why can’t it be real? Play with the idea, even if it’s not real, act like it is. Once you do that, I think things come out a lot differently. That’s the creative process that everyone has, writing a song or painting a picture or even going surfing.
What’s your process? How do you make the images, start to finish?
I’ll find the image, either I’ll have it sent to me or I’ll gain access to it. I do use Photoshop, on my mom’s computer. I don’t have any of my own stuff, which is funny because I have to be tactful about how I do make my stuff. If I had the opportunity to go out and make it all, you know, it would probably come out a little different. Since I don’t have any of the mediums, I have to use like, other people’s stuff. When I do that, it kind of comes together in a way that I wouldn’t even expect.
I have no set plan, like, oh, I’m going to add this color sphere here and this mountain range right here. I add it, I look at it, I mess with it a little bit, I’ll be like “eh, I don’t really like it.” And then I’ll do four more and then I’ll be like, you know what? That one actually did look cool. Then I’ll go back to that one and I’ll be like, hm, I need more layers. It’s trial-and-error, I guess you could say, because I don’t have a set thing I’m going for. But when I do get there I can just tell.
What kind of surfing are you most interested in for your work, and what kind of surfing do you do?
What I do more often than not is traditional longboarding, without a leash. That’s what I personally enjoy, because it allows you more connection with the wave itself and with nature. If you don’t have a leash, you have to know how your board’s going to react.
The thing with surfing is, you’re not going to take a 10-foot single fin longboard out to Pipeline, and you’re not going to take a shortboard out to Doheny. You’ve got to have versatility, and you have to try be willing to try everything or else you’re not going to get anywhere. So even though I do focus on traditional surfing, I have a lot of respect for the guys that are doing more of the performance stuff. Because that stuff’s insane. So even though I have one single focus, there’s not one style of surfing I like more than another.
At least for my art, traditional longboarding and traditional surfing is the prettiest to watch. They’re so in tune with everything that’s going on , but at the same time they’re not. That makes it seem more free, rather than really trying to get that air, or really trying to get that photo.
What do you hope people get out of your Instagram?
I just hope they get a smile out of it, that’s about it.
Top photo by Tyler Rooke
Adventure Journal is free but relies on reader support to make stories like this possible. Please join the thousands of your fellow adventurers and subscribe to our amazing printed quarterly or pick up an issue here.