Recently the lads over the ditch at Australia’s Surfing Life Magazine posted online one of my all time images of the legendary surfer Tom Curren, this image first appeared as a spread in the mag and with his Tom’s recent birthday the ASL crew made it available for download as a screen saver, just bringing this image back into the limelight got me thinking, this image just so happens to be one of my all time best, the exposure and timing of the shot are faultless, the composition is almost bang on and only when picking it to pieces do I think I should have shot it more pulled back, to see the whitewater exploding in the background. But none of these reasons are why I have it on my ‘All Time’ list. The story behind the image is far more valuable to me than the image itself and to have bridged that connection by capturing this moment…priceless to me.
You see when I started surfing as a 12 year old grom, Tom Curren was ‘The Man’ in the surfing world, the grace he possessed was pure poetry in motion. After a few more years he retired and somehow over those same years I grew from an ogling grom when the highlight of my month was when each new surf mag was released on the news-stand, to a working professional photography specialising in surf photography. One of the pinnacles of this career was when each year I would travel to the birth place of surfing Hawaii, to put my skills to the test against the best photogs in the world, capturing the aquatic athletes who were also out there putting their skills to their very own test, against the most powerful form of ocean available in the world, the seven mile miracle that are the reefs of the North Shore of Hawaii. Surfing had moved on from the guys that I idolised as groms, and there were a new crop of gladiators, led by Mr Kelly Slater, every now and then guys like Tom Carroll, Shaun Thompson, Derek Ho,Buttons Kahuliokalani and more would paddle out proving they still had what it took. But one man was always missing.Ever since the retirement of Tom Curren all the media had portrayed Tom as, was this mystery man who had dropped off the face of the planet, one who never showed up on trips he was booked on and who was simply living in a cave strumming and picking his guitar. So imagine my surprise when one tiny, near flat, North shore day when I was heading out for a surf after weeks of 18 hours days shooting in the tropical sun. As I approached the waters edge this guy did the smoothest rap-around on rail turn I had ever witnessed straightened out and came in. Emerging from the water was the man himself, immediately I noticed the craft he was riding had no fins as such but simply a couple of moulded channels/wings. I enquired about the design and we had a brief chat, Tom was super open and friendly and now that I think about it perhaps by asking solely about the design aspect and not being in his face about where he had been lately or dribbling all over him because he was who he was, then I think that allowed him to open up. He cruised on up the beach to hang with his family and I went for a surf. Fast forward several days, Pipeline and Backdoor, two of the most terrifying waves on the planet were firing on all cylinders, in the water the vibe was thick with testosterone, with every local and international star out trying to prove they were more the man than any of the others out there, judged by the waves they rode and the hoots they received from the gallery, but also wanting to land the coveted prize of magazine spreads and covers to enhance their own profile and sponsorship deals. On the beach 80-100 of the best photographers in the world were all stacked shoulder to shoulder all with the exactly the same gear with tripod legs piercing the coarse sand as a stamp of turf ownership for the day. When you consider that realistically there were around 10 major magazines in the world, with most of those having staff photographers on site, the chance of getting published and being able to make money from a day like this was pretty minimal. Early on in these trips I figured out to be successful or even compete with these experienced photogs was to be no where near them, the North Shore season almost became like a gathering and a catch up for peers, after a long year of jet-setting around the world shooting isolated locations mates new and old had a lot of catching up and story telling to do, so they would gather in bunches all shooting the same angle on the same gear, if a photo editor has 60 images all the same coming across his desk and then one of the same subject had a dramatic difference then they were more likely to go with the difference, well that’s what I kept telling myself and it seemed to work. In the beginning I was new to the scene so it was very easy to take off and do my own thing, and while over the next ten years I made some great friends, I kept my story time and catching up until a game of tennis or BBQ in the evening. So on this particular day I distanced myself further down the beach, the left hand breaking wave Pipeline was far more consistent and from this angle I couldn’t see a thing but there were already 50 guys covering that angle and I couldn’t compete with them so I was prepared to take a gamble, perhaps id come up trumps, perhaps I’d skunk out. Next thing I knew Tom Curren tapped me on the shoulder obviously recognising me from our prior meeting, asking how my day was and how the waves were looking, then said he better get out there before the wind came up and off down the soft sand he ran. Three minutes later and no more the best wave of the day began to rise up on the reef, then a familiar figure spun and paddled before leaping to his feet took a gigantic drop and laid out one of the most stylish bottom turns the world had ever seen. Witnessing that moment through my lens, time stood still and while my shutter curtain was blazing up and down I knew then and there I had captured something special. That evening I drove into Honolulu to have my film processed and waited in the lab till it popped out the machine. I submitted the image to Australian Surfing Life, who ran it as a double page. Still till this day I try to figure out how Tom managed to get that wave considering he had to run down the beach, paddle out and then battle the other 60-80 hungry surfers for the right to ride that wave. I don’t know how he pulled it but I’m glad he did. Together with one of my heroes skill I managed to preserve a classic moment forever for all to enjoy!
If you would like to download this shot click here SURFING LIFE