Behind The Shot: Brian Cregan // Bells Contest, 1975

blindboy
Swellnet Dispatch

This was probably technically the best water photo I ever took. If I had any ambition in that field, it was always to just catch the moment, and for people to see through the image to that moment. I think this shot came close to achieving that. The aesthetics and practice of surf photography have come a long way since then. The consistent quality and variety of images from many different photographers reveal deep thought and careful planning. The vast superiority of the equipment helps, but no matter how good it is, it will only do what you tell it to do. 

In 1975 I was living and working on the south coast. Most weekends I would head further south looking for waves and new spots. There were few crowds beyond a couple of well known locations. I had been writing for Surfing World for a couple of years and, given the waves I was seeing, it seemed a good idea to get a camera. A good SLR, a long lens and a decent tripod were way out of my budget, so I bought a Nikonos, the legendary, Jaques Cousteau-designed, water camera that started dozens of surf photographers on their careers.

It was a good idea, but it was badly carried out. I was far too keen to surf myself and most of the time there were too few surfers in the water to make it worthwhile shooting. I did take some photos and even had a couple published, but it was a poor return on my investment. It would have been even worse if, when diving under a solid set wave, I hadn’t managed to catch the camera strap in my left hand as it drifted over my head.

That incident started me thinking about how I might secure the camera. I tried a few things before coming up with a harness that went over my shoulders and clipped together just below my rib cage. The camera was attached so I could pull it up to eye level. I had threaded a light chain through plastic tubing and held it all together with an assortment of clips. The chain quickly developed some surface rust so it did look weird, I knew that. People stared when I put it on, but it worked and with my budget being devoted to saving for a trip to Hawaii and some more gear, I really did not want to lose that camera.  

I had been talking to Bruce Channon about covering the Bells contest for Surfing World and when he agreed it gave me an opportunity to test both the harness and my, still pretty basic, water photography skills. If I had put in a little more thought or been a bit more familiar with the Bells, I would have been less enthusiastic. The long sloping faces make the waves look smaller and even flatter than they actually are. Then there was the issue that the Nikonos had a wide angle lens, meaning you had to get close to the surfer to get anything worthwhile. The line up at Bells makes that difficult.

While travelling around the south coast I had noticed a surfer who really stood out. He was precise without being careful and rode with a rare ease and confidence. At some point Mike Davis introduced us. It was Brian Cregan. At that time, several years before he founded Ocean & Earth, he was still an apprentice carpenter, but was fortunate enough to have a boss who was relaxed about him slipping away for a surf.

Many of the area’s classic waves were still under the radar and, while a few surfers might turn up at weekends, mid-week sessions were likely to be empty, or nearly so. It was an ideal environment to develop his surfing skill and Brian had obviously been taking advantage of it for sometime before I met him. He had also been designing and making boards for several years, including the one in the photo which he considered one of his most successful designs. But while he was happy with the results, he had already decided that shaping boards did not suit him as a career. Health and safety standards in the industry were marginal to non-existent at the time and he didn’t like working with the chemicals involved. He also had an inkling of the future. He was making prototype leg ropes.

I used to see him at the various contests. The professional events still had trials in which anyone who was willing to pay the fee could have a shot at getting into the main event. Brian always got through. Bells was his favourite event and he often went down early to prepare. This familiarity made him more successful there than anywhere else. Despite these successes, he never really thought about himself as a competitor. He admits that he lacked the necessary competitive drive to succeed at the highest level.

I had already shot a couple of rolls before I swam out in Brian’s heat and the harness was working well. The real difficulty was getting close enough without getting too close. There was only a narrow band in which you could actually get the shot without interfering with the surfer’s progress. 

I remember watching Brian coming towards me thinking that I had judged the distance pretty well, but at the last second realised that he was going to come too close and began kicking backwards with the camera against my chest. As he came into range I tried to lift the camera but it would not come. It was stuck against my chest. So I pointed it as best I could in the right general direction. The wide angle lens and good luck did the rest.

That was the end of the harness. A section of the chain had become tangled in the plastic tube. It’s absence probably helped my reputation as a water photographer, though not as much as the photo of Brian, when it was published. I remember going through the slides with Bruce Channon and Hugh McLeod and my elation at seeing that shot for the first time. It more than compensated for my disappointment in most of the others.

1975 was a very different time, as much for surfing as for anything else. Professional surfing didn’t exist. Few surfers managed to survive on winnings and sponsorship money. Most competitors, like Brian, had other jobs. Some worked in the board industry, others did part time labouring or whatever else they could find to pay for the trip to the next event. The bank of mum and dad helped quite a few. The photo tells a little of that story.  A home-made board with no label, no sponsors stickers, no leg rope. The rest can wait for another time.

// BLINDBOY

This image and many others are available from hodaddy.com.au

Comments

mick-burnside's picture
mick-burnside's picture
mick-burnside Friday, 14 May 2021 at 9:02am

Cool pic Blindboy. Not so blind. Good focus. Hardly any one shoots Bells wide. Best view out there. Always so much goin on. 1975!!! I started swimming Bells with a camera around 1981 or 82. Once maybe twice only, did I see other photogs swimming there till 1989 and that was during the contest. This stuff is special, and rare. I cant wait to have a look at the others. Thanks for the share.

udo's picture
udo's picture
udo Friday, 14 May 2021 at 9:05am

Great pic of the Gecko..

blower's picture
blower's picture
blower Tuesday, 18 May 2021 at 11:20am

Gecko... some great pics from Summercloud sessions showing why. No hands backside tube riding high up in the pocket. One special in SW is in my minds eye.

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain Friday, 14 May 2021 at 9:10am

Serendipity? If the harness hadn't hindered you, you wouldn't have gotten that great shot. Definitely captured the essence of the surfer.

How about a few more pics from that era?

Vunerable's picture
Vunerable's picture
Vunerable Friday, 14 May 2021 at 9:20am

Single fin bottom turn pure surfing at its best.Pre Legrope
Great thanks for sharing your story.

Gowsa's picture
Gowsa's picture
Gowsa Friday, 14 May 2021 at 9:30am

Imagine having the problem of not having enough surfers in the water to get any decent shots!

dr-surf's picture
dr-surf's picture
dr-surf Friday, 14 May 2021 at 10:03am

Unsung Hero BC. Lucky someone Captured that. Very MP.

Juan Chico's picture
Juan Chico's picture
Juan Chico Thursday, 3 Jun 2021 at 4:37pm

Very under rated surfer dr-surf, BC made a few boards for me at is MOTE style shed in Alamein park back in the day. Wish I still had my Cool Curl Cruisers. Pretty sure he made the cover of tracks with a tube sequence at Sunset.

mattlock's picture
mattlock's picture
mattlock Friday, 14 May 2021 at 10:17am

Thanks for the shot and story Bb.
You mentioned Mike Davis. My first thruster wash shaped by him, it had "3Fin" emblazoned in a sunburst on the deck. 6ft rounded pin, single flyer, with small lethally pointed fins set way back. I still have the puncture scar on my thigh from one of those fins.
I did some of my most formative surfing on that board.
I don't know much about Mike Davis except that he was from California.
Thanks for the board Mike.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Friday, 14 May 2021 at 10:28am

Bit about MD here:

https://www.swellnet.com/news/design-outline/2016/08/22/tricky-history-channel-bottom

He's also written his memoirs and publishing select passages on Facebook.

mattlock's picture
mattlock's picture
mattlock Friday, 14 May 2021 at 1:44pm

Thanks Stu. Good article. Missed it at the time.

Pops's picture
Pops's picture
Pops Friday, 14 May 2021 at 10:45am

Nice writeup BB.

There's just something about the colours and the light & shade on old film shots, isn't there...

Ed Sloane's picture
Ed Sloane's picture
Ed Sloane Friday, 14 May 2021 at 10:52am

Great shot!

amb's picture
amb's picture
amb Friday, 14 May 2021 at 11:12am

Love the shot BB, did you shoot the 1975 Aussie Titles?

GuySmiley's picture
GuySmiley's picture
GuySmiley Friday, 14 May 2021 at 11:55am

Thanks BB great story & photo

"1975 was a very different time ...." It sure was.

indo-dreaming's picture
indo-dreaming's picture
indo-dreaming Friday, 14 May 2021 at 12:34pm

1975 Blind boy was taking water shots at Bells, meanwhile i was sucking on my mums breast.

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain Friday, 14 May 2021 at 12:49pm

The weird thing is you were 11 in 1975?

indo-dreaming's picture
indo-dreaming's picture
indo-dreaming Friday, 14 May 2021 at 1:04pm

ha ha...yes about 11 months easter 1975

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 Friday, 14 May 2021 at 2:00pm

Nice one BB.
Very entertaining read, as always.

Agitator's picture
Agitator's picture
Agitator Friday, 14 May 2021 at 2:42pm

Nice Guy Brian, met him and MR on a surf trip to Fiji....1989 I think....surfed big Namotu with him and a hand full of guys out.

simba's picture
simba's picture
simba Friday, 14 May 2021 at 4:09pm

speaking of Mike Davis well he had just gotten out of the water at Cangu and under his arm was a 3 finned board, got talking to him and he was raving how good it went.......i didnt know him,someone mentioned his name, but that was in 1980 i think and the first thruster i had seen .....crowd at cangu in those days was 3.

Gra Murdoch's picture
Gra Murdoch's picture
Gra Murdoch Friday, 14 May 2021 at 5:29pm

epic!

tiger's picture
tiger's picture
tiger Friday, 14 May 2021 at 5:58pm

Great pic and story BB, of a south coast legend in O&E founder. Grew up in Kiama and rode MD's boards. And was lucky enough to work for him and learn every aspect about making boards. Massive character, with a lot of stories to tell. Lives in Noosa these days, still shaping up there, doing limited runs of some of his old designs.

Westofthelake's picture
Westofthelake's picture
Westofthelake Friday, 14 May 2021 at 6:22pm

Onya bb, a picture says a thousand words. Classic stuff.
Thanks for sharing the reflections.
Got anymore?
Surely.

morg's picture
morg's picture
morg Friday, 14 May 2021 at 7:00pm

It’s pretty cool when a 46 year old photo is so good and relevant that it could have been taken yesterday.

D-Rex's picture
D-Rex's picture
D-Rex Friday, 14 May 2021 at 7:16pm

Very similar shot of PT (at Sunset?) on the cover of a 70's SW mag from memory.

D-Rex's picture
D-Rex's picture
D-Rex Friday, 14 May 2021 at 7:35pm

Yep. Vol 24 No 6 $1.25. Photo by PC.

toneranger's picture
toneranger's picture
toneranger Sunday, 16 May 2021 at 9:42am

What,only worth $1.25.that's it . I'm dumping the 100 or so mags from the seventies.sorry mice

D-Rex's picture
D-Rex's picture
D-Rex Monday, 17 May 2021 at 9:00am

$1.25 then $100 now. I've got about $3000 worth of SW at current prices and maybe $10000 of Tracks but how could you part with them?

toneranger's picture
toneranger's picture
toneranger Sunday, 16 May 2021 at 10:13am

Whooa,thanks,d rex.better revisit them

Coaster's picture
Coaster's picture
Coaster Friday, 14 May 2021 at 8:33pm

I enjoyed that story, BB. It would be great to hear some more of your stories from the south coast in that era.

The past is a foreign country….

aussieguy's picture
aussieguy's picture
aussieguy Monday, 17 May 2021 at 9:41am

Can't imagine surfing Bells without a legrope. Pretty long swim if you lost your board.

toneranger's picture
toneranger's picture
toneranger Monday, 17 May 2021 at 5:12pm

I was a boards caddy for Alan Atkins in the 1973 contest and was imagining that scenario as I waited in the channel.Fortunately he never fell during the whole heat and I was able to ride in.it was pretty solid as I remember

velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno Tuesday, 18 May 2021 at 11:45am

What a great pic it is. I've come back probably half a dozen times to this page...

The speed of water on the nearside rail, his arms, the expression... The stance and the weight distribution - I know this feeling, it's joy.

The blue-black of the water, then the vegetation on the cliffs: looking for familiarity.

Well done on the pic and to the surfer.

tango's picture
tango's picture
tango Friday, 21 May 2021 at 8:13am

Great yarn, BB. You blokes surfing at that time should count your blessings at having a whole raft of quality waves relatively uncrowded.

On that note, I'm interested in the approach of the photographers and their role in contributing to crowds. I know that we're in the 2020s and there's no undoing what has been done, and that thanks to phones and Insta there is a photog in every car that pulls up somewhere.

As you note in the piece, there were a lot of waves under the radar on the south coast in '75 beyond the name breaks. I'm wondering how you dealt with the balance between the desire to take photos and get a "return on investment" for the camera you bought and the desire of the locals to keep those waves under the radar? Being from a bit further south than where I assume you were based, the crew would not have taken kindly to having the secrets revealed. Personally, I recall a time in the mid-80s when Tracks did a spread on a lesser-known and locally-revered sacred spot with Simon Anderson - it was exciting to see it in Tracks as grommets but really disappointing to see a lineup shot that revealed too much. It didn't go down well with a lot of crew, but the bloke who facilitated it has passed away so I won't say more.

The reason I ask is because there is a very special place in surfing for the secret and/or special spots, the vast majority of which are outside metro areas, and it's on its last legs which I think is a very sad thing for surfing. I believe strongly that the locals generally have a far more protective attitude to them than visitors do, and that there's generally a different attitude among the locals - the city escapees seem to be more tolerant of exposure.

These days there are photos everywhere and when combined with Google Earth it's not that hard to find anywhere if there's a few hints in the background. I'm sure the horse has bolted but think there should be a swing the other way and a cultural change in surfing. It's either ego or money driving the current culture which is a great shame.

I guess it's a case of cumulative impact where the individual can't see the contribution that their little piece of activity makes to the bigger picture.

tango's picture
tango's picture
tango Tuesday, 1 Jun 2021 at 3:50pm

BB, I'm interested in your perspective on my central issue - the role of photogs in contributing to crowds. Thanks in advance.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Tuesday, 1 Jun 2021 at 4:35pm

Dunno if this helps or not, but just now I was, yes, out in the shed. I had to find an ad from an early 60s mag so I was flicking through SW and Surfabout issues - the entirety of Oz surf media back then.

In each publication they can't do enough to broadcast to their readers exactly where waves are and how to find them. Surfabout has these classic hand sketched surf maps of Tassie, NZ, NSW South Coast, SW WA, you name it, and there are columns such as 'Great Surfs' that again put waves up in headlights: Angourie, Cat Bay, Margs, Bells, Cremorne Point.

I imagine the editors/contributors are simply documenting the sport, inspiring current surfers and innocently reaching out for more - the pen pal pages are a hoot! There'd be no inkling of the crowd pressures to come, so it's not on the agenda - quite the opposite, they actively seek to meet other surfers.

This is the nascent surf media, setting the template for what was to come, and while many things change, there are large strands of our DNA that can still be traced to those early years.

That said, I reckon the last line in your earlier post contains a lot of truth.

tango's picture
tango's picture
tango Tuesday, 1 Jun 2021 at 9:38pm

I'm in awe of what I assume is your catalogue system for those shed archives, Stu. My shed's a WIP (a dogs brekkie) much to my wife's chagrin. And your productivity: a box of old surf mags in my shed = a full day of escapism.

Yes, I think that was the case in the early days before localism and overcrowding kicked in, not necessarily in that order. In my old part of the world it used to be common practice to try and link up with others during the week otherwise you risked surfing alone and a fair way from help. I doubt that's that much of an issue these days with covid, but with the biteys a little more common I'm sure it still holds true in part.

What a great feeling it must have been, though, to welcome other surfers knowing that there were few surfers and heaps of waves and never any issue of missing out on snagging those sanity-restoring wave/s. I can say that I've had a few surfs over the years where it's been pumping and there are so many waves you don't worry about a busload turning up, and actively welcome people into the lineup. They're magic days.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Wednesday, 2 Jun 2021 at 10:12am

I've gotta do something about my library. It takes up a lot of space and as my boys get older, their stuff - surfboards, skateboards, bikes - expands and requires more space so there's a Tug-of-War developing. Somehow - though I'm not exactly sure how - I'll get all my mags scanned and placed into a Google Drive.

RE your question. Here's a reply from BB:

"As Stu said, in the early days there was no attempt to keep locations secret. By the time I started that had moved on and there was a line that most of us did not cross. The Sydney, Gold Coast and high profile places like Bells, Noosa and Angourie would be identified but other spots were not.  Where photographers did have an impact on crowds was on the spots that tended to generate the best photos. People pretty soon learnt to recognise where the shots were coming from and the more ambitious flocked to them. Not sure if I have anything much to apologise for....most of my work was at contests, on the North Shore or in Bali.

"In terms of promotion of the sport and increasing crowd numbers, the big factor, beyond simple population growth, was the push into mass media by pro surfing starting from the mid/late 70s. In particular Coca Cola spread the surfing image more widely than all the surf magazines put together ever could have. Coke erected huge billboards and used surfing images in their advertising in mass-circulation magazines. 

"My advice to those concerned about crowds? Go for it now, they will only get worse. In Australia we are incredibly lucky to have so much surfable but thinly-populated coastline. Make the effort and there are still lots of uncrowded waves around."

tango's picture
tango's picture
tango Wednesday, 2 Jun 2021 at 2:46pm

As long as there's space for a ping pong table, the shed's alright. Good luck with the google drive, but I hope that doesn't;t mean you'll turf them? There's something extra special about those old mags when you can touch them.

Re BB's response, thanks for that. I wasn't after any form of apology, more trying to understand the beast. It might be realistic, it might not, but I'm not sure that such a fatalistic response is needed. I wonder if there'll ever come a push-back moment when its universally seen as not cool to expose/promote places and discretion is the new black.

Taprobane's picture
Taprobane's picture
Taprobane Friday, 21 May 2021 at 8:23am

I think it's more ego than money. So many free ways to view surfing these days.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Friday, 21 May 2021 at 8:37am

Reckon there's a lot of truth in that last line, Tango.