Jimmy Wilson is an enigma. Just when you think you’ve got the 24-year-old St. Augustine, FL, native figured out, glaring inconsistencies rear their head. A beer-swilling NASCAR fan, Jimmy also idolizes gangsta rappers like Gucci Mane. Currently living in San Clemente, CA, where he serves as Associate Photo Editor for Surfing Magazine, he regularly takes the redeye home to fulfill his duty as a dedicated Jacksonville Jaguars season ticketholder. Quick to call out anyone on his Facebook, Twitter, or “That’s Bullshit!” blog on SurfingMagazine.com, Jimmy remains humble and self-deprecating about his own photography. Hell, even after barking the loudest on toxic Internet shit-talking message boards, Jimmy will gladly offer up his e-mail, phone number, and home address to any and all haters.
What drives a character of such seemingly cartoonish proportions? Is it all about having fun and crushing egos, or are there bigger forces at work keeping the Category Five Jimmicane spinning?
Wilson grew up surfing with Oldest City rippers Zander Morton, Matt Wetmore, and Jonny Barclay, and by the age of 14 began lugging his dad’s manual-focus Pentax and 400mm lens to the beach. Two years later, a waterhousing and slide film led to Jimmy’s first published work. “Tory [Strange, owner of The Surf Station] wanted to use one of my photos for an ad in Eastern Surf Magazine, so I sent in the slides and included a few extras,” he says. ”Mez thought they were pretty good, and told me about an upcoming St. Augustine article ESM had planned, so I went at it pretty hard and got a few spreads and insets. That’s when I was like, ‘Holy shit, I haven’t been doing this for very long and I’ve already gotten photos published!’”
Jimmy’s initial excitement stemmed from the fact that he was a diehard surf media connoisseur and, unknowingly, a photo editor in training. “I’ve always been a magazine person — I wanted to know everything I could about surfing,” he says. “I’d watch surf videos by myself, pausing every section and saying, ‘That’d be a sick shot in the mag.’” Upon seeing his own work in print, all of Jimmy’s other adolescent interests got put on hold. “Once I got a couple photos published, I was set on my course, and I didn’t care what other photographers told me — ‘You’ll never make a career out of this.’ I listened, but I never really believed them, because there was never any doubt in my mind that I could make a career out of it. I’ve always known that if you put enough effort into something, and you go the extra mile, you can fucking do it, no matter what. That’s how I’ve been with everything in my life — 100% commitment.”
His mind set in motion, Wilson organized a trip to Puerto Rico in 2004 with Morton, Ross Howatt, David Awbrey, and Wesley DeSouza. “We went down and stayed at Dylan Graves’ house, and I came back with some pretty killer stuff,” Jimmy remembers. “Mez was super stoked and ran an article, and in the process I connected myself with the up-and-coming Puerto Rican crew — Dylan and Josie Graves, Alejandro Moreda, Brian and Wesley Toth, and Aron Gieger.” In addition to forming lifelong friendships, Jimmy also cultivated contacts at Transworld Surf, Surfer, and Surfing. “Traveling to that hotbed of talent and becoming friends with surfers of that caliber, all of whom were on the map with the national media, got me pretty well connected.”
That success came while Jimmy was still attending high school, leading him to rethink his first collegiate choice of Florida State University and instead enter the photography program at Daytona Beach Community College. But with opportunities steadily knocking — including a monumental 2005 trip to Barbados with Kelly Slater and Benji Weatherly — Jimmy decided to follow his own path. “The Barbados trip was the turning point for me, and honestly, it was the turning point for my teachers, too. They saw all the work I was getting published and said, ‘You really don’t need to be here.’”
So Wilson packed up and headed west to intern at Transworld Surf under then-Photo Editor Pete Taras, who taught Jimmy the basics of magazine publishing. “Pete’s insane at what he does, and has probably influenced me more than anyone besides Mez,” Jimmy says. “He always stays ahead of the curve and pushes photographers to create the best images possible.” After that internship, Jimmy moved to Puerto Rico and learned the hand-to-mouth hustle of a freelance photographer, but eight months into his Caribbean staycation, Mez called with an offer Jimmy couldn’t resist. “Mez didn’t think I’d seriously be interested in the ESM Photo Editor position because I was only 20 years old — but it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
Although Jimmy admits he was a little green behind the ears upon arriving at ESM in 2006, Mez’s in-depth tutelage and intense training from then-Editor Matt Pruett quickly brought him up to speed. Wilson manned ESM’s photographic helm for two-and-a-half years, raising the mag’s already-high standards, soaking up knowledge from Central Florida legends like Larry Pope, and cultivating a wide range of fresh Right Coast talent. When pressed to rattle off the highlights of his own career, Jimmy offers up only four, all of which have roots in his time at ESM: inheriting the Photo Editor position from Mez at the ripe age of 20; winning the “New Creativity” category at the 2007 Red Bull Illume Image Quest; bagging the November 2006 cover of Surfing Magazine’s Photo Issue; and “spending countless hours mentoring other photographers who I consider to be my friends.”
Jimmy’s close relationship with Taras paid off once Pete left Transworld Surf to fill iconic photojournalist Steve Sherman’s shoes as Photo Editor of Surfing Magazine, bringing Wilson on board as his Associate Photo Editor. Most photographers have a love/hate relationship with the requirements of an office position, which usually means less travel and more time in front of the computer, but Jimmy is the rare talent who can fulfill his creative side while also embracing magazine publishing’s inherent work ethic. “I don’t want to be a traveling photographer — it’s too much of a grind,” he says. “And freelance surf photography is a short-lived career. [Transworld Surf Senior Photographer] Brian Bielmann is someone who’s continually changed with the times, but a lot of guys don’t hustle like they used to. I enjoy being in the office; I’m not deprived of shooting, and I could probably go on more trips. But it’s football season now, so I don’t really want to leave [laughs].”
Even though a quick perusal of Jimmy’s personal photo album reveals a fun-loving NASCAR and NFL superfan, he hasn’t neglected his passion for surfing. “I love everything about surfing, from taking photos to watching guys like Dane Reynolds, Dusty Payne, and Mitch Coleborn surf. But I’d be lying if I said I have the exact same passion for my own photography — I see so many good photos from so many great angles that it becomes sensory overload. The market’s flooded, but if you look at the level of surf photography today, and then look back five years, you’ll say, ‘Wow, how the hell did that photo get run?’”
That opinionated nature served as Jimmy’s introduction to the ESM readership in 2006, with “So heinous!” becoming his default ego-crushing catchphrase. “That’s Bullshit!” generated millions of hits for Surfing Magazine, bluntly offering Jimmy’s take on wave pools, double grabs, and women’s surfing, while Australian rabble-rousers Derek Rielly and Chas Smith regularly feature Jimmicane’s no-holds-barred assessments on their vulgar LikeBitchin.com blog. “I’ve always been pretty damn outspoken — that’s just my personality,” Jimmy says. “People hate me for it, but I’m passionate about surfing and I want to see it progress. The whole double grabs thing stemmed from how close-minded surfers are. They think double grabs are easy and therefore cool, but I’m like, ‘Fuck that — if it’s so easy, how does that make it cool?’ I had to give ‘That’s Bullshit!’ a more positive spin though, because people on the Internet hate so hard and the negative energy really wore me down.”
So after achieving such rapid success and infamy, what keeps Jimmicane ticking? Is it possible for someone so jaded to still enjoy the carefree pursuit of surfing? And does Jimmy appreciate the good fortune that’s followed him since his teenage years in St. Augustine? “I look back on the places I’ve traveled and the friends I’ve met since high school, and I think I’ve had a hell of a first part of my life,” he reflects. “I still love shooting photos and trying to get a new look; I’ve just learned to maximize my time. I don’t shoot aimlessly, and I’ve gotten a lot pickier about quality. And honestly, I don’t find myself shooting photos of California guys out here. The talent I have comes down to Damien Hobgood and Cory Lopez, or the rare case of somebody like Aaron Cormican coming out. When those guys are surfing, nobody is better than them.”
For all the photographic perfectionism and volatile opinions, Jimmy admits that the best part of photo editing is the time afforded to enjoy surfing. “When I lived in Puerto Rico, I was under pressure to shoot all the time, and I don’t miss that hustle,” he says. “To me it all comes down to surfing — that’s the first thing I loved in my life, so I don’t see how you can be a surf photographer if you don’t surf.” But before launching into another vitriolic tirade, Jimmy unexpectedly shifts gears and gets… almost… sentimental, something you’d never expect when you see him chugging beers at NASCAR races or shaving “JAGS” into his chest hair or rocking “Free Gucci Mane” T-shirts. “My friends really hype me up and get me excited, because they truly think what I’m doing is awesome. Getting a solid photo is great, but one of the best feelings I’ve ever had was surfing flawless, double-overhead Macaronis, thinking back to when I was a kid watching videos — and there I was, surfing those waves with my friends. That’s the biggest payoff of my career. I feel like I’ve actually gotten worse at surfing over the last 10 years, but man, I’ve had a shitload of fun doing it.”