Gruff and disciplined surfing cameraman from Southern California, best known for the high-impact still photography he shot for Surfing magazine in the '70s, and as the primary water photographer for 1977's era-defining surf film Free Ride. Merkel was born in Belgium (1948), the son of an army serviceman. He grew up in North Dakota and the San Francisco Bay Area, began surfing in 1963, moved to Southern California the following year, bought his first professional-quality camera in 1968, and had his first surf photos published in 1969.
Merkel was, as a Surfing editor noted, "untrained and uneducated in the art of photography." He was also determined, hardworking, and single-minded, and by 1974 his water shots—taken primarily on the North Shore—were setting the industry standard. (He meanwhile continued to surf regularly, and in 1972 finished fourth in the masters division of the United States Surfing Championships.) The heavily-bearded Merkel was one of surfing's first exercise fanatics, and spent his nonshooting days swimming, pumping iron, and jogging with weights taped to his arms and legs; he was sometimes referred to as "Man-Mountain Merkel."
In the winter of 1975–76, with virtually no film experience, Merkel shot the hypnotizing and technically perfect slow-motion North Shore water sequences for Bill Delaney's Free Ride using a 20-pound camera and housing. Two years later he did much of the water photography for the 1978 Warner Brothers' surf film Big Wednesday. Merkel by this time had a well-earned reputation as a hardass. "You get in front of me in the water," he later recalled, talking about the dozens of other photographers who flocked to the North Shore each year, "and I'd punch you."
Always a nomad, Merkel told an interviewer in 2008 that he's still on the road, shooting photos, 300 days a year, and that he had no fixed address.
Merkel's still photography has been featured in a number of illustrated surfing books, including Pure Stoke (1982) and The History of Surfing (2010). A 21-page retrospective of his work was published in a 2002 issue of The Surfer's Journal. Merkel won an Emmy for his camerawork on a 1980 episode of American Sportsman.