Peter Crawford enters the hall of fame
Beyond the contest arena there aren't many honours to be had in surfing. Locally, Surfing Australia's Hall of Fame is about as big as it gets. The decision to make Peter Crawford this year's inductee then, is to make a claim about about his importance in our history. For many, 17 years after his death, he will be either unknown or little more than a name on a photograph, yet he was profoundly important in shaping Australian surfing in the 1970s.
In these days of specialisation, it would be hard to find a current figure who is as influential across so many areas. Peter was best known for his photography, but he was also a great surfer, and a great designer. Perhaps the best way to understand his achievement is to see him as a creative force who used his powers of imagination to make real what most could not even dream.
Peter Crawford documented Shane Herring's meteoric rise in the early-nineties. Herring is shown here at Dee Why Point, hallowed ground for both artist and subject.
All those who knew him were aware of that drive and how it interacted with his all consuming passion for surfing. In those days, before reliable surf reports, he would be up hours before dawn if he thought a good swell was coming, and no-one would beat him into the water if it arrived. His performances at Dee Why Point are the stuff of legend. The idea that a kneeboard rider might be performing at a higher level than other surfers might seem strange now, but there was a period, around the mid-seventies, when the evidence was before our eyes, and not just at Dee Why.
Reviewing the available footage now confirms our memories. He was taking off later, travelling faster and getting as deep as anyone. Perhaps most significantly he was hitting short arc top turns out of the lip a decade before they became a standard part of the repertoire. All made possible by his boards. The design was called The Slab, a name far too crude for its sophistication.
No-one in that era took more care with their boards than Peter. Paul Connors at Crozier shaped them to Peter's precise specifications, but a new board was only the beginning of the design process. He would spend hours foiling and shaving his fins and would adjust the rail edges repeatedly. The fin was in a long box so it could be adjusted, an essential feature since he surfed the same board in all conditions.
As important as all this, in terms of his influence, was his constant contact with the elite of that era. By competing in state and national titles his surfing was seen and appreciated by the generation who went on to be the first professionals. Wayne Bartholomew, Michael Peterson, Terry Fitzgerald, Simon Anderson and many others, spent long hours surfing with Peter before their professional peaks.
It is also worth remembering that the culture of the seventies was extremely competitive. The fiercest contests of the era were fought without judges or singlets. The idea of sharing the waves with any degree of equity came along later as the surfing population aged. Certainly, in the creative hot beds of the era, the Gold Coast and Sydney's Northern Beaches, the competition amongst good surfers was unrelenting, and in the midst of that foment, few were as competitive as Peter.
And then there was his photography. Although he used single lens reflex cameras in housings later in his career, many of his most famous shots were taken with a Nikonos. This was a very simple camera without through the lens viewing or even an exposure meter. The standard lens was 35mm, which meant getting as close to the action as possible and that was Peter's forte. His surfing talent translated into an uncanny ability to put himself at precisely the right place at precisely the right moment. For most users the Nikonos was a punt - you pointed and hoped. For Peter, it was a precision instrument.
PC hooking up with MP, Burleigh Heads, 1977
This expertise in the water was backed up with a true photographic eye that informed the rest of his work. He could see the final image before he even lifted the camera. He could pick the peak of the action through a telephoto to a millisecond. Perhaps more importantly his work defines the era of Australian surfing that came just after John Witzig's work. Witzig celebrated free surfing, country soul and that glorious, but naive, innocence of the sixties. Peter documented a very different culture; the brash, outspoken and aggressive culture that allowed Australians to dominate competitive surfing for so long.
It was a culture in which drugs played a much uglier role than they had in Witzig's world. Peter's vision was never naive, he never had that luxury. He was a working photographer, that was how he made his living and supported his family. He looked that culture straight in the eye. He lived in that culture. He embraced that culture, his work captured it and it needs to be more widely seen.
Peter was no saint and this is not hagiography. He had his faults. Some probably have cause to remember him with bitterness, but he has been gone a long time now and it is time to look clearly at his considerable achievements. We should choose to remember those, and to remember the bottomless enthusiasm he had for simply going surfing, and how effectively he communicated that to those around him, and to the rest of the surfing world through his images.