Valé Lee Pegus
Back in the ‘90s, before the interwebs and all things digital, the process of sourcing photos for a surf mag was a tactile affair. Pics weren’t hurled through cyberspace in pixel form, instead, images travelled as delicate, fragile transparencies (‘trannies’), couriered across land and sea from photographers far and near, to land on the OCD-level-tidy desk of Lee Pegus, Australia's Surfing Life’s lovely and affable photo editor.
In this age of infinite imagery, when everyone can take amazing pics with their phones, it’s hard to imagine this era, where you could only get 36 shots off swimming at Pipe before heading back to the beach to reload film etc, then not even see the results of your work until the film had been processed at a lab.
What this all meant is that the trannies that made their way to and from ASL’s Burleigh office were incredibly precious things. Literally irreplaceable.
‘Pego’, or ‘Sultan’ as he was known, understood this – being a photographer himself – he ‘got’ the photographers, he had incredible rapport with them, and the care he took with their transparencies was astonishing. “Pego’d send me back three of my shitty slides and they’d be wrapped up like Tutankhamun’s jewels or something,” recalls photographer Shane Peel, “It’d take me twenty minutes to get through all the layers, and then he’d be on the phone making sure I got ‘em back safely. Unbelievable.”
Pego sorting through the Surfing Life archives in 2012
It was these simple acts of caring, Pego’s willingness to get on the phone and connect with photographers and the genuine admiration – almost adoration – he had for these artists, that persuaded many of the world’s best surf photographers to send their work to ASL ahead of other titles. Here’s what a few of the best in the game posted on social media on hearing Pego had passed.
“No photo editor ever fought harder for his tribe than Lee. I wish we could all be as selfless and dedicated as the Sultan. He always had time, he always had praise, he always gave everything.” – John Bilderback
“Lee was responsible for getting me over to ASL from Tracks Magazine in the late ’90s. I said no about fifty times but he was so persistently nice he finally convinced me into doing it. He was such a gentle soul and a great photo editor as well.” – Billy Morris
“The Sultan taught me so, so much over the years.” – Nate Smith
“He was SO supportive of all of us surf photographers. I would have changed magazines to keep him as my editor.” – Sean Davey
“Pego was like a father figure, and treated us all like family.” – Jason Childs
Lee grew up surfing in Manly. He started his working life at the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, snuck into the photography department, then started shooting the beach and the surf. He joined ASL, pretty much by osmosis, as photo editor in the late ‘80s, and was in the role until 2004. In 2012 he came back for a grand cameo appearance, sorting through the archived (and archaic) trannie files to return them to legions of grateful photographers.
Pego was never happier than putting a few carousels together for Surfing Life’s semi-regular Friday slide nights through the ‘90s. He’d spend hours beforehand, getting the mix right – a few old favourites mixed in with the latest submissions, and a few ‘human interest’ pics from the Hank file, and after 5.00pm, when the beers were cracked and the shades pulled down on the windows of the Old Burleigh Theatre Arcade, Pego drove the carousels through the projector like some kind of avuncular DJ, with a few pre-planned one-liners of commentary to deliver to the crowd. This was the Big Dog completely and utterly in his element, where persona and person synched perfectly, and you’ve not seen a more fulfilled bloke.
Lee was a fair bit older than us twenty-something kids who put the mag together. By the time the mag was humming in the ‘90s, he’d been through a marriage and was surfing only very rarely, if at all, but despite the differences in experience, he was central to the team – an unlikely planet around which the editorial and creative teams spun. Pego was daggy and naïve in many ways, but also the most considerate fella you could know, the kind of guy who’d remember your birthday and get you a card and a pressie. No-one did that in the Lost Boys clubs that was ASL. Pego was uniquely kind-hearted.
Some of us got closer to Pego than others: Epic editor Jimmy O’Keefe formed an enduring friendship with Pego, as did Ted Grambeau and Karen Green, and these three found themselves carrying the sad secret of Lee’s cancer diagnosis over the past year.
You see, Pego always had a different, puzzling, way of thinking about things. He was so expansive and open, yet so guarded and vulnerable, that he would make baffling choices in his life. The fella who’d take so much care with other people’s work didn’t always direct that same prudence to his own stuff. It drove mates like Ted (who looked out for Lee like no-one else) around the twist, but Pego was his own man, and though you wanted to shake the stubborn bastard sometimes, you loved him to bits all the same.
One of Pego’s choices was to not let anyone know he was dying, and he pushed back hard when Jimmy, Ted, or Kaz suggested that a whole lot of people would love to say g’day, goodbye, thanks for everything, and let The Sultan know just what a kind, big-hearted man he was and what he meant to them. Pego’s argument against this was a fear his landlord would find out and it would compromise his tenancy. There was more to it of course, privacy, independence etc, but the landlord logic was typical of Pego, and there was no point arguing with the Big Dog once he had made his mind up.
And so Lee chose to see himself out, despite being loved and respected and admired by so many.
I mentioned that Pego had kinda given up surfing by the ‘90s and back then we idiot kids assumed his tales of surfing glory back in the day were embellished. Nonetheless we chipped in and got him a longboard for his 50th birthday in the hope of getting him back into the waves. Pego joined us only once on our customary lunchtime sesh across the road at 5th Ave Burleigh. He didn’t catch a wave – always in the wrong spot, and the mal didn’t quite have enough volume.
I wrote the longboard pressie off as a nice idea that wasn’t gonna take – and it didn’t take – but just as I was heading back up the path to the esplanade, I looked back and saw Pego jag a whitewater closeout. I’ll never forget locking eyes on the perfect style and poise of an extremely accomplished surfer, as a small part of the greatly loved, never solved puzzle that is Pego fell nicely into place.
// GRA MURDOCH