Long before Surfline, before the Internet, before cell phones and even computers,
there were surfers in Goleta. It was a small and tight knit group. And they surfed the same spots
we do today, with just a handful of buddies. Joe Mickey was one of these guys. But his love for
surfing took him on quite a journey, through several careers and countless adventures….
It all started when his parents decided to move to Santa Barbara.
Joe’s dad was career military so they moved around. At one point they were stationed in
Monterey and they liked it, so they went back when he retired. In the mid 1960s, Joe was 11 or
12 when they moved to Santa Barbara and rented a house near Earl Warren Showgrounds.
This photo was a premonition of Joe’s lifelong connection to photography.
Joe had just one “no wetsuit” experience in Monterey, but he was pretty hooked on the idea of surfing.
His uncle gave him an old, no name board and he was on his way. His parents thought Ledbetter and the
harbor were good places to drop Joe off while they worked in the summer. So, they would drop him off
around 7 a.m and pick him up after work around 6 p.m.
Young Joe met a guy named Lurch who said he lived in a cave along the cliffs at Ledbetter.
(How classic is that?)
He gave Joe surfing tips in exchange some of his 25 cent nachos from the snack shack nearby.
Soon Joe got a paper route with the Santa Barbara News Press and Stu Fredricks helped him work his
way into his first new board, a 9′ Yater spoon. Fredricks was the manager of the Yater shop that was
all boards and surf wax and nothing else at that time. He was very patient with a skinny kid who
wandered in almost daily off the beach to look at the boards. He told Joe about other spots like Rincon
and Hammonds and about ways to apply paraffin wax.
This crew with classic surf haircuts are John Magazino (left), one of the great surf talents from
Goleta Rolland Yarnell (center) and Joe Mickey (right).
Joe surfed alone for his first couple of years. After learning at Ledbetter, he moved to Sandbar and
then College, (today called Campus Point). Mickey says he never noticed any localization in the early
days, it was all about fun…Probably because there were so few guys surfing back then. Some more
of Joe’s early surf buddies were Mark Mosby and Davey Smith.
Surf Racks on the car sort of gave away who the surfers were and they were drawn together by
their shared love of surfing, and to share the cost of gas. A quarter got you a gallon of gas and
another quarter could get you anything on the menu at Taco Bell, so if you had about 4 quarters
each you could get waves and dinner after school!
One of Joe’s first surf buddies he met at school was David Natal. Natal was on yearbook or the San Marcos
school paper, which gave him access to a darkroom and through that, Joe got his intro to photography.
Mickey started shooting with anything that took a picture. Water shots with a plastic bag over a brownie
or taping binoculars to the front of a brownie for a telephoto effect! But the main thing then was to surf
and to get shots of his buddies surfing. Like this classic shot of Norman Graziano the old Haskells pier…
Joe getting barrelled at the rickety old Haskells pier.
Sands was the go to spot for windswells and College Point and it’s cove were a much less crowded
option than Rincon or Hammonds. Joe and friends often surfed Naples alone and they got plenty of days
at the Ranch alone. Joe got into the ranch before it was for sale because a friend’s father was handling
the early real estate. He and his crew surfed the ranch before all the boats and the ranchette owners.
They caught rare moments at the Goleta Slough and also crispy little windswells at More Mesa.
They surfed Haskells a lot. Lots of good days, memories and empty waves…
Isla Vista at Depressions on a New Year’s Day. Joe called the beaver tail wetsuit top a “Jay Riddle tail”,
inspired by the classic Jay Riddle footage in Hal Jepson’s surf film, “Cosmic Children“. In these days
winter meant a wetsuit jacket over a long legged vest top suit.
Joe Mickey at Oxnard Shores on a 6′ Stubbie.
Joe got good enough to land a spot surfing for Nuuhiwa Surfboards and even managed to go surfing
with the legend himself once in Newport.
He also remembers the day he surfed Little Drakes with George Greenough, who was mat surfing. Joe
remembers Greenough was very serious. “This was after he had made “Innermost Limits of Pure Fun”
and all he talked about was the superiority of a mat over a surfboard… ‘you could travel with it easier,
you could sleep on it’… very serious guy. ”
In 1970, right out of High School, Joe and his friend Bruce Fowler opened Bahne/William Dennis surf shop
on Tecolote Street in Goleta. Joe came into a little money and teamed up with Fowler, who was an
exceptional surfer and local personality. The name of the shop referred to the boards they sold, Bill Bahne
boards and William Dennis boards, that were shaped by William “Blinky” Hubina and Dennis Ryder. They both
were very young and lacking any business experience, but they did it to surf. They resisted stocking
anything that was not absolute needed gear. The shop lasted a couple of years before the boys moved on.
Joe later managed the Channel Islands shop before they moved to State Street.
Mark Mosby at Hammonds.
Joe shot everything on slides and then when they were developed, someone would put up their house and
they would have pizza and slide parties… just the folks who were in those particular rolls of film. Mickey
moved more towards photography as the surf crowds grew. He hated crowds and the vibes. In the early
days it was a lot less crowded and it was still possible to get just about any spot alone for
at least an hour or two…..even Rincon.
Mickey had a knack for getting his photos published. He sold some pictures to Hang Ten for shirt shots in
the late 1960’s. This one of David Natal on a small Campus Cove wave became a best selling shirt.
Rick Sharp did the artwork around the photo.
Who knew that photo on a Hang Ten shirt was Goleta!
Joe decided to give film making a try, so he made a Super 8 surf movie called “Forces of Nature”.
The first show was at a little meeting hall in Montecito that held about 100 people. Tommy Curren’s
grandmother brought young Tommy in to sit with Joe to keep him safe.
Joe agreed, since he had a bit of footage of Tom in the film! Joe projected the film from the floor. “I think
we put about 180 people in the place and we had people pay half price to put their heads in the window.”
He had a great time showing it and at $2 a ticket, he took in what he thought was a lot of money!
He showed his film at a variety of local venues and got turnouts all around.
Professional photographer and film maker Greg Huglin noticed the turnouts that Mickey got with
“Forces of Nature”, and he brought Joe into the big leagues of surf movies. He hired Joe to show his
latest film, “Fantasea”, throughout California. He did two runs with Huglin and learned the ropes,
made a lot of contacts on the coast and started figuring out theaters. Soon after he got a call from
Scott Dittrich in Malibu who had a new film called “Tales of the Seven Seas”. Scott was making about
one film a year and Joe worked for him too. Mickey always traveled with a camera and took surf
photos and made movies with Super 8 film up and down the coast. Through the film circuit he made
connections at all the surf magazines and a “zillion” surf shops on the coast. They always got free
tickets for the staff and the wives and girlfriends, so he made quite a network in the surf community.
In the midst of all this activity, Joe teamed up with his school friend Dave Natal and made another surf
film called “Off The Wall”, which was a flop. But they took it to heart and made “Off The Wall 2” and Joe
took it on a mini California tour of smaller venues. He showed it in most of the surf towns where it was
filmed and went as far north as a sell out crowd in Half Moon Bay.
Natal was a technical guy and figured out how to get the film to VHS and Beta and they took it to home
video, a brand new market! Mickey used all his contacts at the surf shops to launch selling the video
tape on the coast. People Magazine did a review alongside “Endless Summer” and got them national
exposure. The People Mag review led to a big sale to Tower Records and from there, it just boomed.
Mickey and Natal’s local little surf movie got a much bigger audience than they ever expected!
Keep in mind, Mickey made these films with Super 8 film. This is amazing because with video you can
review what you were shooting and make adjustments, but with film, they would shoot 2 and a half minute
rolls of film cartridges by the hundreds and then wait on processing to see the raw footage.
And processing ran anywhere from overnight to a week long wait!
Imagine how long that process took overall….
It’s pretty amazing that a local Santa Barbara film was the first surfing movie ever to be released on
home video and it has now become a cult classic. Tommy Curren is featured surfing Rincon and
Sandspit and is nothing less than phenomenal. “Off the Wall 2” offered a look at the best surfers in the
world at that time, and offered innovations when it pitted Women’s World Champion Kim Mearig against
Shaun Tomson in a free session that matched the two, turn for turn and carve for carve. “Off The Wall
2” gave exposure to several Goleta underground talents such as Randy Cone, Cappy Pedersen, David
Puu and Jeff Jasiorkowski. The film also offered some fun old school clay animation and for trivia buffs,
the first 100 or so copies carried a pirated soundtrack that was changed when it became apparent
that the video would become a huge seller. If you ever find a copy of this video, buy it!
The clay animation sequences added a lot to the film. Joe’s partner David Natal did it all by hand
with a lot of help, a lot of patience and no small quantity of beer.
It took 720 movements and shots to create one minute of film! But the result was priceless.
And a little more trivia, Kim Mearig did the voice for one of the clay characters!
By now Joe was a veteran of the surf movie circuit and he toured with Bill Dalaney’s epic films
“Surfers the Movie” and “Surfers the Movie Take-2”. Traversing the West Coast and Florida circuit
for every major film, he was on the road for 12 years. With the Surfers films, he expanded the
circuit to cover the entire East Coast for 2 runs and that was just about the end of surf films in
theaters and Joe Mickey was done with surf film touring.
Joe had met this young kid with incredible talent named Tommy Curren
and started taking photos of him surfing.
Tom surfed Hammonds a lot as a kid. Joe’s buddy, Mark Mosby, pointed him out when he was only
about 7 years old! As earlier mentioned, Joe included Curren in his surf movies even as a young kid.
Curren’s mom kept Tom pretty directed towards a professional career from a very early age, and he and
Joe crossed paths at the beach regularly. Even after he went pro he made Santa Barbara his stomping
grounds and Joe never passed up an opportunity to shoot him surfing.
Curren was winning every contest he entered and rapidly getting attention.
This is the first photo ever published of Tom Curren from 1980. Joe Mickey took it at Hammonds Reef and
it ran in Surfer Magazine. There really were not a lot of photographers up this way making it into Surfer
and Surfing Magazines, so generally folks were happy to see local talent get the international attention.
Joe followed Tom Curren to the 1983 OP Pro at Huntington Beach. It turned out to be a pretty historic
contest, as the crowd was over 100,000 rowdy surf fans, unprecedented for a Mainland event.
Curren beat Joey Buran with aerials, 360’s and radical direction changes.
Joe was witness to one of the most progressive eras in modern surfing.
Joe captured the moments at this historic event, which turned out to be a great day for
Santa Barbara surfers…
Because another young local surfer won the women’s division!
Kim Mearig of Carpinteria took the women’s title, and she was on her way to capturing
the World Title in the women’s division.
This contest also featured a “Legends” specialty event.
David Nuuhiwa took first place, beating out the likes of Corky Carroll, his longtime rival.
John Schuyler on a glassy Jalama wave.
Before long, Joe started selling a lot of surf photos to publishers.
The same photo was a cover on a surfing Calendar he sold in 1998.
A perfect photo. David Puu under a thick Goleta lip.
Surf photographers were not always welcome on some local beaches. Mickey says he rarely got any
hassles though, because he was never into photographing locations or line ups, just local talent.
Mickey was at working at Channel Islands when Al Merrick first began sponsoring guys like Davey
Smith and Tom Curren. There was a contest at the Pit and when they asked Channel Islands to offer a
prize Joe suggested Merrick give away a custom board and that way get the best riders on his team.
Joe had many of his photos published in surf publications. When a major article on Santa
Barbara broke in Surfer Magazine, Joe had the bulk of the photos. He also co-wrote an article
about getting air with Davey Smith, above, for Surfer Magazine.
Again, this was a revolutionary time in the evolution of surfing.
World Champion surfer Shaun Tomson shredding.
With all the connections Joe made on the surf film circuit, he started getting a lot of gigs as a
commercial photographer. He did postcards, calendars, advertisements, posters…
Generic beach scenes became regional postcards from both coasts.
Next, Joe got some swimwear assignments. Since he was already on the beach,
women’s swimwear was a natural.
Women’s Swimwear and Lingerie are similar as fashion and since Joe had plenty of writing credits
with the surf magazines and the beach swimwear photos, he did articles and was interviewed on
both swimwear and then lingerie photography for Petersen’s Photographic magazine.
Mickey had connections with Wayne Brown of Aleeda Wetsuits and he suggested women’s French cut
wetsuits (high cut on the hip) and those became a bit of a hit. With neon wetsuit colors, they made
great photo images.
He sold photos for surf posters and calendars and because he was on the beach they
also bought swimwear photos. It was always a partnership with the models.
They put in their time and split the sales.
A lot of these exotic photos were taken at good old Goleta Beach!
Surfing taught Joe about natural light photography, so a lot of his fashion work was done at scenic
outdoor locations like the Pismo dunes. Petersen’s Magazine called his work with natural light
Next thing you know, this Santa Barbara surf rat was a high fashion photographer!
Ultimately through the publications, Joe was contacted by Sazzy Varga out of Hollywood, above.
Sazzy was one of Playboy’s first women of the Internet and they formed a partnership to make
photos. She always showed up with great outfits and they made some of Joe’s best photos together.
Joe did a couple test shots on assignment for Playboy and for Penthouse.
Photography opened some very interesting doors for Joe Mickey…
Sazzy worked on some major league films as an actress, producer and assistant director
and with her multi talents on the Internet she put The Tibetan Photo Project online in 2000.
They have also been partners in that effort ever since.
Sazzy and Joe went to India together in 2010 to film “India 101” and also “Save Tibet”.
Skill with a camera allowed Joe Mickey to photograph people he would otherwise
have had zero access to.
Quite an amazing journey that all started just by taking pictures of his friends surfing in Goleta!
Joe continued in photography taking all he learned for surfing into fashion, erotica,
journalism and to India. He has produced 5 films (digital) on India and Tibetans in exile and
this work led to The Tibetan Photo Project co-founded with model, Hollywood film actress and
producer Sazzy Varga.
This year Joe Mickey is celebrating 50 years being a devout photographer and filmmaker!
Through each period of his work, he has believed in the power of photography to connect people,
on excitement, the environment, desire and to each other, without the burden of language.
Congratulations Joe, and thanks for sharing some of your incredible journey with us!
Here’s to 50 more….