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