It was B.C. (Before Corona) when I walked up the stairs to one of my favorite local photographer’s workspace in Downtown Manhattan Beach. Richard Podgurski Jr. and a rather large, 14-year-old tortoise named Shelby greeted me upon arrival.
Richard Podgurski Jr.
His studio is a whimsical world. The outside entrance looks like a scene from Robinson Crusoe—adorned with wind chimes, a collection of seashells, shark teeth and a multitude of plants. Once you cross the threshold, you enter another dimension with a completely different aesthetic. Here, every inch of space is accounted for with items including an impressive collection of old tech from the ’80s and ’90s and walls adorned with Richard’s own photography and sentimental keepsakes.
Richard is a man who definitely beats to his own drum. I came to know him on Instagram, as he has a knack for capturing some pretty incredible images. For example, one of the larger prints on the wall reveals a lighting bolt over the Las Vegas Strip.
Richard explains, “I am infatuated with the rare. I really love unique moments, but to be ready to capture these moments is really hard. There are so many different variables to consider.” The Vegas lightning storm, which Richard watched for 90 minutes before finally capturing the exact moment the lightning bolt wrapped around the light of the Luxor, is one his favorites and is proudly displayed.
Richard’s photographic talents quickly gained popularity. He entered the Big Wave Awards and was nominated for three categories, winning two of them. Fourteen of Richard’s images were recently selected for a soon-to-be-released book entitled Instagrammers of Los Angeles. His photographs have also graced the covers of The Beach Reporter and Easy Reader, and he was the winner of the Instagram photo contest for Manhattan Beach’s “Manhappenings.”
Also an accomplished DJ, Richard says his musical talent was awakened in middle school, when his parents moved from South Redondo to Hermosa Beach … “close to the chaos of the Pier.” In high school, he became friends with a few DJs and “scratchers,” who showed him how to mix on vinyl. For fun, he DJ’d a birthday party, got tipped and realized he could actually make money doing this. A gig at Sangria as a senior in high school started his trajectory in earnest.
After attending the University of Hawaii, he headed back to the mainland and got his groove at a series of clubs from San Diego to San Francisco to Portland. By 2013, once spinning went from vinyl to digital, Richard stepped back for a bit and moved to San Diego to try to “become an adult.”
During his free time, Richard picked up his dad’s D-90 camera and started taking photos for fun. That sparked a new love for photography and the impulse to buy a camera of his own.
Home in the South Bay for Thanksgiving, he got a lucky break. As he describes, it was one of those immaculate, clear days after a storm and he went out for a walk.
“The waves were pumping, and usually I would go grab my board. But for some reason I felt the urge to document it,” he says. “I was walking along the pier, and this huge set came in. I was trying to focus on a seagull and shot a burst of photos and captured a surfer on a wave within the sequence. I posted the photo on my Instagram, and it turned out that the surfer was a friend of mine, Cheyne Magnusson.”
Already immersed in the Body Glove world, Cheyne submitted the photo to Surfing Magazine. Four months later, that photo was published in a two-page spread in the magazine’s California Issue. This proved a validating moment for a guy who grew up with bedroom walls covered in images from Surfing.
“I take it to the nth degree, creating special moments of connection through music or capturing people through the lens,” he says. “I feel really lucky because I was able to accelerate in the DJ world, then make a 180 into photography and be able to do both simultaneously”.
Surf photography has been a special focus for Richard. Growing up with surf, he knows the science behind it and how to read waves. “It’s been a great thrill to shoot from boats at massive breaks like Mavericks—capturing some of the world’s best surfers on the biggest waves anyone’s ever seen,” he adds.
Richard has built his own business infrastructure, selling his prints as fine art as well as creating his own merchandise, including a popular line of socks. He licenses his photography to other businesses, and his Instagram skills have opened doors to marketing, content production and management for other accounts.
“Structure is my kryptonite. Every day is different. The trick to my kind of photography is keeping my pulse on the weather. Knowing the weather patterns helps me know if there is going to be a killer sunset, huge waves or a storm coming in. Timing is crucial, and you have to be prepared. The moment you capture is only in that one moment and never again. People value those moments that will never happen again.”
“I pull inspiration from Brent Broza and Bo Bridges. I have such respect for them,” he shares. “Bo has an amazing gallery, and Broza has earned great accolades in the surf world. The first time I shot Jaws [surf spot in Maui], I set my tripod next to Broza and just point-blank asked him what his settings were. The one thing I have learned is that people are willing to teach if you just ask questions. You’ll be a fool forever if you don’t.”
About 20 photographers set up on the cliff that day, all taking photos of the same scene. It was during a general break in sets that Richard shot a helicopter that seemed like it was about to be consumed by the white wash. Of all the photos taken that day, the World Surf League selected Richard’s photo from his Instagram—and it got almost 3 million views worldwide.
“You can buy the best camera in the world, but you can’t just be the best photographer,” Richard says. “You can’t just buy B.B. King’s guitar and play like him. You have to constantly practice so you’re ready to capture each opportunity. That’s my goal every day.”
For Pete Halvorsen, what began as a dad-joke hashtag turned into a way to engage entire communities. He started using #PierPressure to connect with his Instagram followers, but it ended up being a rallying cry for real-life community connection—drawing hundreds of participants at a time.
Pete invited his Instagram followers for a simple walk from the Manhattan Beach Pier, and the idea caught fire. People were craving that sense of community—even before social distancing—and it transformed those virtual followers into deeper, real-life connections. Perhaps you’ve been on a walk with Pete.
Pete’s sense of community actually began much earlier in life, when he was growing up in the East Bay in Northern California as the middle child of three boys. His dad was a firefighter, so the boys frequented the firehouse—celebrating birthdays and holidays there. Even as a young boy, it was not lost on him that he had the kind of dad who would come to his baseball games and do pickups and drop-offs for school and sporting practices. He was grateful for it and dreamed of having this dynamic with his own family one day.
Early on, Pete thought his path was going to be baseball. He set his goals on becoming a professional baseball player and was on the Santa Barbara City College team, practicing or playing five hours a day, six days a week. He was juggling all this while also trying to concentrate on his education.
During his time in Santa Barbara, Pete found a love for theatre. He started taking acting classes and ended up changing his degree, immersing himself in the art. It was a complete change from the athletic world, and it allowed Pete to express himself in new ways.
He threw himself into auditions and soon moved to Los Angeles to make his acting dream a reality. He transferred to Cal State Fullerton to complete a film degree and got a job at Sony Pictures Studio—commuting back and forth between school in Fullerton and work in Culver City. Once he got his degree, he and Allison, now his wife, made the move to Redondo Beach before settling into their current home in Manhattan Beach.
Pete continued to work for Sony at an on-site digital advertising firm while pursuing his acting career. Starting as an intern, he moved up the ranks rather quickly. The studio also afforded him the flexibility to continue auditioning. He loved being on set at the studio and seeing great movies being made.
At the same time, the dot.com world was taking off. “I was 23 years old, having sushi lunches and getting massages … thinking, ‘This is the life!’ Then it all came crashing down.”
As the advertising company went under, Pete saw an opportunity with Sony and took over the advertising account himself as studio manager. In a few short months, he created a little nest egg for himself and left the corporate world to pursue acting full-time. He met some great people, did a few commercials and had small roles on a couple TV shows.
In 2008 Pete and Allison had their first child, Juliet. Allison had a good job at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Pete proposed that he put acting on hold to stay at home and take care of their baby during the first four months or so.
“Being a stay-at-home dad was completely foreign to me, but I did it!” he says. “It was such an amazing and challenging time, but also so rewarding. I would often be the only dad on the playground.”
During that time, Pete took a camera on his daily walks to the pier with his daughter. A photographer friend saw Pete’s photos and encouraged him to pursue it more seriously, recognizing his unique perspective. Pete took advantage of opportunities available to him from long-standing connections in the industry and was soon assisting his photographer friend on set. Without much formal training, Pete began shooting commercial photography for some major companies including Toyota and Acura.
“This is what connects our community to the ocean.”
Around that time, Instagram emerged. Pete got in on the game early, seeing major potential within the social platform. “I could watch someone in Rome having a cappuccino in real time as I was getting ready for bed,” he says.
Pretty soon he was forming virtual relationships with people all around the world by sharing images. Once his following hit 5,000, he received requests to buy his photographs and caught the attention of art directors at advertising firms. Pete also worked with Instagram as a consultant to help launch products using his own photography with the Instagram business team, as well as helping ad agencies understand the photographer and user experience.
When Pete came up with the idea of doing community walks, he announced a walk from the Manhattan Beach Pier at a set time and invited his followers to come. He was pleasantly surprised when 100 people showed up.
This also happened outside his own community, when he put the word out across the U.S. or in Europe. He created “insta-meets”—a way for him to see foreign cities through the local lens and a better connection with people. Pete hit about 30 countries in six years, eventually working with Yahoo Travel and The Four Seasons. Fortunate to be able to grow the commercial angle of his own photography, Pete also gives back to nonprofits, including Christmas gift-giving with the Manhattan Beach Fire Department.
As he does with travel, Pete encourages a sense of adventure right at home. He roams different neighborhoods and streets, searching for the extraordinary in everyday scenes. This refreshing perspective resonates with his audience, and he hopes to put a book together sharing these moments.
“The Manhattan Beach Pier is such a special place for our community. It not only signifies a 100-year-old icon but also a spiritual connection between ocean and land,” says Pete. “This is what connects our community to the ocean.”
While sunset photos usually get the most likes, Pete prefers capturing life in and around the pier. “One of my favorite photos is of an elderly couple watching the sunrise from the bench of the pier,” he says. “These images create more engagement because they tell a story.”
Etched in stone.