David Ledoux’s Idyllic Photos of French Skaters and Surfers

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Gnarly by David Ledoux
GnarlyPhotography by David Ledoux, Styling by Phoebe Arnold

Made in collaboration with stylist Phoebe Arnold for streetwear brand Aries, David Ledoux’s new photo book captures “a different way of life”

“The surf and the proximity to the ocean is a big pull – you’ll do anything to stay there. It’s not about being super dynamic and competitive [in your career], it’s a different way of thinking, way of life” – says photographer David Ledoux of how he was drawn to a circle of young surfers and skaters in his adopted hometown of Biarritz, south of France.

Originally from the French Alps, Ledoux’s successful photography career spans both reportage and fashion. He moved away from Paris seven years ago in order to surf more, and instantly “got very inspired by the landscape there”, he tells AnOther in his gravelly French accent over Zoom. Having shot everywhere from Africa to Eastern Europe, and having lived near surfers in Australia, he knew that “surfers always have these crews. I observed the energy of these groups and thought it was cool. I wanted to get into these groups, capture their reality and do some portraits,” adding that he likes the equality of surf culture, as it’s affordable to participate. “Anyone can do it,” he says.   

A surfer himself, he befriended his local crew by hanging out, surfing and shooting a few portraits, thinking it might become a zine, staging an exhibition of some of the work in 2017. In 2020, stylist Phoebe Arnold discovered him via Instagram, drawn in by “the way in which he captured the community around him … full of this raw energy: real people, real events, real life – but in this insanely beautiful and unique style,” as Arnold explains via email. She proposed a collaboration, thinking streetwear brand Aries would be a great fit. After the disruption of the pandemic, “David called me last August [and] it felt like fate,” she says. “We met on a surf beach and road-tripped together from Aljezur [in Portugal] to Biarritz in his caddy van, with suitcases of clothes, and spent some time with his crew.” Arnold recalls: “it rained. It didn’t rain. We watched, we laughed, he photographed, we filmed, we drank, we lived in the clothes. We became friends.” The resulting cloth-bound hardback, Gnarly, features 118 black-and-white and colour lithographic-printed photographs which capture the outdoor idyll of surfers and skaters on the Basque coast. 

Ledoux describes the process of shooting as chaotic – “trying to organise the surfers [was hard because] they have a very lazy lifestyle. They can be unreliable and they didn’t realise how time-consuming the shoot was going to be”. All aged between 18 and 30, Ledoux met “some in the water, I met others through friends of friends. It’s a really small community but they all get together at parties or a skate shop in Biarritz – they’re all linked”.

Set-ups included “Phoebe driving the car down a hill while I sat in the boot shooting” as the skaters rolled downhill towards the camera – “or shooting on motorbikes at night. I like adrenaline in my shots and when you shoot in this way you can see it in the photo,” says Ledoux, adding that “shooting on film is even more exciting as you have to wait till it’s developed to see what you have”. Ledoux also employed a signature technique of his – shooting fireworks using long exposures to create magical, multi-layered images of his subjects with the pyrotechnics appearing as if they could hold them in their hands.

Styling the subjects of such a lo-fi community in branded clothing could have been jarring, but Aries gave Ledoux and Arnold “creative carte blanche” to use the clothes as much or as little as they liked, with no fixed brief. “The beauty of David’s work is that it’s all personal,” says Arnold. “The spirit of Aries is freedom.” Ledoux adds that the subjects were enthusiastic about the clothing, and nothing felt out of place. Selected images also ended up as prints for a capsule collection, for which Aries partnered with drinks brand White Claw. Ledoux says “the kids were so happy to be in the book. Super happy. [They’re] really cool kids and really nice people. We’re going to have a launch party for them in Biarritz.”

Gnarly by David Ledoux is out now. An exhibition of the work is on show at the Aries store in London until 5 June 2023.