Contact Proof: Tom Servais

Gra Murdoch
Swellnet Dispatch

Images and words by Tom (as told to Gra Murdoch)

I was born in Miami, and as a youngster used to fish off this pier called Sunny Isles. In the early to mid-sixties we started seeing surfing below us while we fished and the bug bit me. Longboarding only, shortboards were yet to come.

After two years of college, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life, I went to California to surf and never came back. That was 1973, and Trestles was empty - it was pure nirvana. For years we had Lowers and all the other breaks practically to ourselves. 

I took my first photography classes and met fellow photo student, Guy Motil, who got me into the Surfer Mag door, doing black and white darkroom work in 1977. I also worked in the photo department at the local college, so I had access to really good equipment, and since I was into surfing so much, it was only natural to gravitate towards shooting surf. I shot surfing when I was too tired to surf any longer. Mostly my friends, or random punters at Trestles or San Clemente beach breaks.   

My first photo published was in Surfer in 1977, a black and white of an unknown at Upper Trestles on a magical day. There were two photos on that page, the other photo was by Art Brewer, that was special to me, as Art and Jeff Divine were my heroes, and they both mentored me. I can still remember the buzz of that – my first photo in Surfer shared a page with a photo by Art Brewer, amazing!

Surfer really was the bible back then, and it was kind of unbelievable that this little kook from Florida ended up working there.

One of my first trips to the North Shore, in the early-eighties, I travelled there with Jeff Divine. Arriving in Honolulu the desk person at the rental car place took to Divine’s credit card with a pair of scissors. No car for Jeff, so he was relegated to share my car, and in turn, had to share all his knowledge of the North Shore with me. We had a blast. Who better to show me around and introduce to all the best surfers? One night at the infamous Kui Lima bar, I remember Jeff introducing me to Bugs. Rabbit Bartholomew, all the way from Oz and a World Champion! It was hard not to be a little awestruck.

Art Brewer taught me all about surf photography, lenses to use, tips on manual focusing, and building our own water housings. Art believed that a photographer should be well-rounded and be able to do all kinds of photography. He taught me about studio work, lighting and such, and also outdoor commercial work with lights. I worked as his assistant on his many big jobs, and then we ended up sharing a couple of different photo studios.  

I was a holdout to the very end switching over to digital. I prepped for it by shooting occasionally with digital for a year before committing in 2005. I really didn’t like digital at first, but the main positive was shooting from the water and not having to swim in after 36 shots, it really opened the door for more and better watershots.  

With film, besides having only 36 shots, you held back on a lot of shots trying to be conservative. So you probably missed a lot of great photos and certainly didn’t shoot many empty waves. However, digital opened the doors to much more competition, with so many more photographers got into it. It’s so forgiving with exposures, which was critical, and not having to spend money on film opened the floodgates for less technical photographers.  

I’ve been so fortunate to have the career I’ve had, but even moreso for the friends made along the way. Like, when I first went to Tahiti in 1999, the WSL set us up with a family to stay with, and in the twenty trips since I’ve always stayed with Gilles and Fateata. Gilles doesn’t speak any English, and I don’t speak any French or Tahitian, but we are very good friends despite this. Fateata speaks English and translates for us, and she also loves practicing her English with me. 

I can’t express how special Fiji is to me. I’ve been there more than anywhere else, and although I have a number of friends who live on the main island, it’s the local pure Fijians from the villages who work on Tavarua who I love the most. I’ve known a few of them since ’87, and we stay in touch through Facebook between visits. They are so inspiring, happy even when things are not great. Fishing, surfing, or just hanging out under a palm tree is the best. Their laughs are so infectious and can only make you laugh as well.  

As far as photographic heroes go, Art Brewer, Jeff Divine, and Jeff Hornbaker would top my list. They inspired and taught me, and all three are close friends to this day. There are plenty of other photogs that I need to acknowledge: Brian Bielmann, Aaron Chang, Steve Wilkings, and Eric Aeder would be the Seppo team. From Oz, Shieldsy, Swilly, Joli, Grambeau, Jack McCoy, and Dick Hoole. 

It seems surf photography nowadays is almost more of a hobby for most, with maybe only a few guys still able to do 100% surf/travel. Almost everyone now needs to rely on other back-up types of work or photography. No doubt my peers had it the best – the 'Golden Years of Surf Photography'. Covers, spreads, double page ads, outright buyouts, etcetera. The mags had plenty of guys on retainer and paid their expenses, and the surf companies were buying photos hand over fist. It really was incredible. 

This pandemic has hurt an already hurting surf industry. Very few remaining magazines is the biggest bummer, for me personally. There was nothing like seeing your photos run in a mag or book, especially when that was only way for surfers to get their surf photo buzz. Magazines helped make our photos iconic, whereas now hardly any photo seems to become iconic or memorable, since we only look at them for a few seconds before moving on.  

I’ll continue to shoot when I can, but very selectively, there’s no need for filler at this point. Since it’s hard to sell photos, and paying your own expenses is tough when there’s no return, the main incentive is passion and adding more gems to the archives. With the pandemic and not traveling, I’ve spent more time editing, selling prints, and older photos for projects like books and movies.  

It’s been a great time to prioritise getting into the water myself. So I’ve been windsurfing tons, and surfing when the conditions are good. In between is the self-maintenance, eating well, yoga, mountain biking, anything to stay fit so I can enjoy the ride for as long as possible.  

I love to sell prints/photos, but my priority is to make sure a customer is 150% happy with a purchase, versus me making some coin. I enjoy the process of talking to someone, sharing stories and helping them make the right choice. I’ve sold quite a few prints in Oz, one fella just bought a 3x5 foot print of Bruce Irons at Cloudbreak. I have them printed at a lab in Sydney.  My website is tomservais.com, there’s a link to contact me there.  Also, my Instagram @tomservaisjr is like a portfolio and a good place to view a lot of my photos, plus they have a lot of backstory included.

Pipeline, November 2005.

Everyone always asks ‘did he make the drop’? I have no idea. I didn’t even notice this photo until a year after I'd taken it.

Andy Irons, Teahupo’o, May 2002.

Andy has been interviewed quite a few times about this wave, what he called a life-changing wave. This day the contest was put on hold, due to a lot of surfers still waiting on their boards, which were promised by the airlines by mid-morning. Shane Dorian was swimming in the wave face with a disposable camera as none of the photogs trusted him with one of their housings. He wasn’t surfing because he was running out of boards. The waves had been firing for days and broken boards are the norm here.

Andy had been a little hesitant and was not super confident that morning, but Mark Healey had given him a pep talk. Bruce Irons wanted it and was right next to Andy, but Andy was in position and Bruce yelled at him. “you better go f##!" As Andy stood up, he thought he was too late and was going to bail, but as he said, "I was frozen with fear”. He ended up slide-slipping, caught his fin, went into this bottom turn and got spit out.

He said that the whitewater coming up the face from the exploding lip had actually helped him get higher up in the wave face and allowed him to make the wave.

Tom Curren, Backdoor, November 1991.

No matter how good a photographer you are, and even if you’re there, it takes a lot more luck than skill to get a shot like this that has resonated for so long - especially when shooting film and manual focus.

LUCK!

Cloudbreak, 1991.

They don’t call it Pipeline Point for nothing.

Cloudbeak, Volcom Pro 2012.

That's Mark Healey’s 8’6" in the lip. You’ve probably already heard all the stories about this massive and perfect day, when the pros didn’t want to surf, even though all the best big wave surfers in the world, who showed up in case they got a chance to surf it, offered them their boards.

Kelly was putting on his wetsuit and had boards made especially for this swell, but one look at this wave that came through late in the day, and he was back out of the wetsuit. Kelly has nothing to prove, as besides everything else, he’s done consistently well at the Eddie. So it was definitely heavy.

This was most likely the biggest wave ever seen at Cloudbreak.

Cory Lopez, Teaupo’o, May 1999.

This was the first year they held a CT there - the Gotcha Pro. Most of the competitors feared the place. Cory was getting a lot of exposure doing airs in the years leading up to this day, which sort rubbed the established pros the wrong way.

This was the second morning of the contest, just after 7am. The day before there were plenty of these sets that no-one wanted a part of. When it came, it looked to me that Cory would probably paddle further out to safety like everyone else did the day before. Surprisingly, he started paddling in to get underneath the lip, the only way to make the drop, but leaving you no option but to go.

After this fearless drop and barrel ride things started to unravel and Cory was pulverized, but it certainly gave him the credibility he deserved, and shut up all the nay-sayers.  

End of the road, Tahiti, May 2006.

This is typical of the beauty of Tahiti. Mountains, clouds, rainbows, and the burning of trash. Even when there’s no surf, photogs have a field day with the beauty that surrounds this magical place.

Bruce Irons, Cloudbreak, July 2011.

Usually these XXL swells only happen on average about once every five years - the last one being in 2018 when Ramon Navarro got the wave of the day. This was in 2011, the government had issued a decree declaring all reefs open to the public just one year prior, so Cloudbreak was now open to everyone. Interestingly, there were three of these swells within a year and a half of that decree.

Bruce was sceptical of riding a board this big, but Nathan Fletcher had just caught an incredible wave and insisted Bruce give it go. They nicknamed this board the ‘Pink Pony’, and this was Bruce’s first and only wave on it. He basically did nothing more than drop in early, draw a line, grab the rail and hold on. As he went inside, the wave gave him no exit, he lost his shorts and almost drowned.

This is a very rare size for Cloudbreak to be good - on the second reef at about 10-15 feet. The magic ingredient is a super long interval to allow all the water on the reef to drain out, otherwise it’s just a big mess.

Ramon Navarro, Cloudbreak, May 2018.

This was the last XXL swell that Cloudbreak has seen. It was a very gloomy day, with a constant light rain drenching all the photogs. We all wondered if this trip was worth it as the rain was maddening. The leader of our boat was Talon Clemow, and he was shooting with a Red camera and just as frustrated, to the point of putting his camera away for a short time.

Ramon and his partner Kohl Christensen have been close tow partners and friends for many years, they sat patiently for a couple of hours hoping to see a wave like this. Luckily, Talon needed to move the boat outside to start up a generator to recharge his batteries or this angle would have never happened. Another story of luck versus skill.  

This is quite likely the biggest wave ever successfully ridden at Cloudbreak. Kohl has likely ridden the biggest wave ever paddled into at Cloudbreak. They both got great waves on the Volcom Pro day in 2012, so the two of them have some very fond memories here.

Most photogs would consider a photo like this worth the trip even without another single image, I certainly did.

Kai Otton, Teahupo’o, August 2014.

This was during the infamous Tahiti Pro in 2014 - quite possibly the best contest ever. The waves were firing and sizable all four days, except for one smaller morning before it went large again by midday. Finals day looked questionably too big with a lot of waves coming through like this, but no takers. Smart surfers!

Kai later asked if he should have gone, but if you saw the whole sequence of this wave you'll see he made the right decision.

Coconut Willie, Jaws, January 2016.

This is an angle at Jaws that everyone loves, but it's a terrifying place to be. Jetskis only and even that doesn’t guarantee you safety. You don’t always get the cliffs in the background from this angle, but that’s the goal.

This was early in the morning. Willie is a Maui local and is always on top of the best waves at the Maui spots. He got his nickname because he actually cleans coconut trees for a living. Classic guy, works hard and saves his money for surf trips. 

Comments

NDC's picture
NDC's picture
NDC Monday, 19 Jul 2021 at 3:54pm

Brilliant Tom - thanks so much for the tales and the insights (like the need for super long period on XXL swells at Cloudbreak: I'll never need that intel. but it's fascinating to hear it from someone who's been in the thick of it).. shine on mate

Tim Bonython's picture
Tim Bonython's picture
Tim Bonython Monday, 19 Jul 2021 at 3:55pm

Definitely in the top 10 box of all-time surf photographers.

san Guine's picture
san Guine's picture
san Guine Monday, 19 Jul 2021 at 4:19pm

The Curren shot is a personal favourite...but all are amazing

frog's picture
frog's picture
frog Monday, 19 Jul 2021 at 4:26pm

Nice read. Great shots.

Few (no?) other human activities can create such a combination of beauty, power, danger, glory, brevity and rarety as surfing's peak moments.

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain Monday, 19 Jul 2021 at 4:30pm

Well said Frog.

And beautiful shots from a master lensman.

goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot Monday, 19 Jul 2021 at 4:38pm

That Bruce shot... holy cow that’s incredible.
It blows me away every time I see that wave.
He’s just so calm and cool in fucked up situations.
The board colour, the water texture, and Bruce’s style all combine for a once in a lifetime photo imo.

Also that’s pretty nuts about Healey having to rev up Andy. Just goes to show that we think Andy was fearless, but Healey is next level. Awesome stuff

mattlock's picture
mattlock's picture
mattlock Monday, 19 Jul 2021 at 4:46pm

The first shot was on the cover of the first issue of White Horses wich I just happened to pull out of the bookshelf to peruse yesterday. Great shots Tom and thanks Gra for the excellant magazine.

channel-bottom's picture
channel-bottom's picture
channel-bottom Monday, 19 Jul 2021 at 4:46pm

The Curren shot is my all time favourite. Had it on the wall of my room as a grommet and always rated as the benchmark for a carve.

More tubes please's picture
More tubes please's picture
More tubes please Monday, 19 Jul 2021 at 4:59pm

That shot of Bruce at CB gets my vote for greatest shot of all time. Imagine the view from inside! Incredible .

bluediamond's picture
bluediamond's picture
bluediamond Monday, 19 Jul 2021 at 5:04pm

I'd happily go out on a limb and put these pics at the top of my alltime favourites. Iconic in so many ways but so beautifully captured..the colours and the light. That curren pic was on my wall as a grommet and I used to visualise drawing a perfect arc like that on a big clean face. Thanks to Tom. Legend. Cheers swellnet for the story. Made my day.

Spuddups's picture
Spuddups's picture
Spuddups Monday, 19 Jul 2021 at 5:53pm

Top drawer stuff.

Standingleft's picture
Standingleft's picture
Standingleft Monday, 19 Jul 2021 at 6:01pm

Epic folio there Tom wow, so much molten glass. Can you zoom in on Kai's facial expression? Can't quite make it out but got a laugh, can imagine there was mixed emotions in that moment.

Sheep go to heaven's picture
Sheep go to heaven's picture
Sheep go to heaven Monday, 19 Jul 2021 at 6:59pm

Hows the shot of Ramon Navarro !! Fark me , only a very small handful of humans could ride something that big and thick . Amazing photography Tom -right at the top of the tree in surf photos .

goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot Monday, 19 Jul 2021 at 7:05pm

I reckon an even smaller amount could ride Bruce’s wave. Not much skill involved in Ramons wave.

Edit - compared to Bruce’s paddle in. Of course I know Ramons wave is nuts and I wouldn’t want anything to do with it in a million years

Gary G's picture
Gary G's picture
Gary G Tuesday, 20 Jul 2021 at 2:48pm

Gary reckon's Ramon's paddle wave in the Volcom swell (same day as Bruce's) was the best wave he saw ridden that day. Ramon earnt the right to that tow bomb on the next swell.
Worth a look if you haven't checked it for a while.

Gary G's picture
Gary G's picture
Gary G Tuesday, 20 Jul 2021 at 2:56pm

Here are a couple of angles; so deep!


crg's picture
crg's picture
crg Monday, 19 Jul 2021 at 7:12pm

You’d be happy taking just one of those images in your lifetime and experiencing the journey leading up to it.
To have a portfolio of them points to a life well lived.
Just wonderful.

andy-mac's picture
andy-mac's picture
andy-mac Monday, 19 Jul 2021 at 7:45pm

Beautiful shots.
Thank you ....

Leebo20's picture
Leebo20's picture
Leebo20 Monday, 19 Jul 2021 at 8:48pm

Timeless shots.

Just magic

views from the cockpit's picture
views from the cockpit's picture
views from the ... Monday, 19 Jul 2021 at 9:26pm

Brought back some great memories.
Thanks Tom and Gra.

ringmaster's picture
ringmaster's picture
ringmaster Monday, 19 Jul 2021 at 9:38pm

Did Ramon get towed into that wave?

I always thought he paddled that wave? After all, he's on like an 8'6 or something not a tow board.

(Hang on! He is on a tow board! Wrong wave, wrong swell)

Other than that, brilliant pics from one of the best ever.

views from the cockpit's picture
views from the cockpit's picture
views from the ... Monday, 19 Jul 2021 at 9:38pm

Paddled?
Ha ha you're kidding...

Bustard's picture
Bustard's picture
Bustard Tuesday, 20 Jul 2021 at 4:57am

Had a great chat with Tom on Tavarua back in 2008 ( I think ...ish ) really nice bloke, but hey, when your on Tav everyone's nice.... had the Kai Otton shot a my desktop for years..that's an oh fuck moment

Brad Ferrier's picture
Brad Ferrier's picture
Brad Ferrier Tuesday, 20 Jul 2021 at 9:21am

Great shots alright. That Curren photo reminds of a particular Queenslander who had big feet, big hands and big lungs, very similar carving. RIP. MP.

billie's picture
billie's picture
billie Tuesday, 20 Jul 2021 at 7:59pm

hahaha. Great description

Oonwah's picture
Oonwah's picture
Oonwah Tuesday, 20 Jul 2021 at 10:13am

When can we see this collection on display! It’s a curated masterpiece. This is the best collection I’ve ever seen. the detailed knowledge of each moment.
Pity it’s flat in Sydney today I feel like going surfing.

juegasiempre's picture
juegasiempre's picture
juegasiempre Tuesday, 20 Jul 2021 at 1:52pm

I don't really like surf photography but those shots are fucking awesome. The stories behind them are equally great as well. 10/10.

thermalben's picture
thermalben's picture
thermalben Tuesday, 20 Jul 2021 at 5:06pm

I don't understand how someone - a surfer, no less - can not like surf photography!

Spuddups's picture
Spuddups's picture
Spuddups Tuesday, 20 Jul 2021 at 6:02pm

He may not be a surfer of course. Could be some random cricket player who likes hanging round surfing forums pretending to be a surfer because he heard that surfers are fuckin' awesome. Turns out he wants to infiltrate us and find out what our secrets are in regards to attracting the opposite sex and such like. (or the same sex depending on preference, turns out we've moved on somewhat since the 1970's )

That's me Ben, always thinking, always probing.

PCS PeterPan's picture
PCS PeterPan's picture
PCS PeterPan Tuesday, 20 Jul 2021 at 4:47pm

Thank you Tom , for years my mate who used to shoot for some of the Aussie surf mags has collected as many images from the 70's onwards as he can . We sit and have a beer and froth over classic images from yourself and other notable legends .

greg-n.williams's picture
greg-n.williams's picture
greg-n.williams Tuesday, 20 Jul 2021 at 5:01pm

Images that capture a moment in time that are in themselves timeless!

thermalben's picture
thermalben's picture
thermalben Tuesday, 20 Jul 2021 at 5:07pm

Incredible images, thanks Tom.

blackers's picture
blackers's picture
blackers Tuesday, 20 Jul 2021 at 10:05pm

Loves those photos of Chopes, the one of Andy Irons with Dorian suspended in the face, so out of place and clearly fearless with the amount of water about to go over with the lip. The one of Kai Otten looking back into the void, the clarity of the water, the warping and bending as the wave pulls at the reef. Compelling shots, irrespective of the surfing. The surfing (in all) is pretty compelling too.

tiger's picture
tiger's picture
tiger Wednesday, 21 Jul 2021 at 6:47am

Great stuff Tom and swellnet. The impact that imagery has on us has been so diluted these days. So nice to look back at the kind of surf photography that we used to want to hang on our wall, and ogle with amazement.

Gra Murdoch's picture
Gra Murdoch's picture
Gra Murdoch Wednesday, 21 Jul 2021 at 7:25am

Hey all. Photographer Tom's extremely grateful and stoked with the response. One minor factual follow-up from him “One small error, the Gotcha Pro was run for 2-3 years as a QS event in the years before the Billabong Pro CT. The first CT was ’99, and it was called and sponsored by Billabong, not a big deal at all, just passing along the facts."

brutus's picture
brutus's picture
brutus Wednesday, 21 Jul 2021 at 9:20am

Hi Gra...say hello to Tom from me...worked a lot with him , love his work and he's one of the all time photographers , with Art B, the Horn stroker , A Chang , Ted the G ......beautiful humans and all genius's in their own right!

Gra Murdoch's picture
Gra Murdoch's picture
Gra Murdoch Wednesday, 21 Jul 2021 at 9:24am

Shall do mate.

bipola's picture
bipola's picture
bipola Wednesday, 21 Jul 2021 at 9:11am

100% perfect thanks for sharing mate

Jono's picture
Jono's picture
Jono Wednesday, 21 Jul 2021 at 9:28am

Amazing portfolio. I remember seeing that Cory Lopez photo at the time and thinking the exact same thing - didn't know he was a heavy wave charger, changed my perception straight away. And the Kai Otten photo, reminded me of a post by Dion Atkinson during the same comp (smaller wave, same WTF! expression)...

Standingleft's picture
Standingleft's picture
Standingleft Wednesday, 21 Jul 2021 at 9:37am

Great piece Gra thank you. Any photos of you charging one of these testicle shriveling beasts?

Gra Murdoch's picture
Gra Murdoch's picture
Gra Murdoch Wednesday, 21 Jul 2021 at 12:53pm

Not even close mate. When the ratios of 'fight/flight' were handed out, I was granted the latter almost exclusively.

Standingleft's picture
Standingleft's picture
Standingleft Wednesday, 21 Jul 2021 at 2:10pm

I hear you. Hats off to these chargers. You're brave as in the pen mightier than the sword comp. Cloudbreak is on my bucket list but 3-4' would do me nicely 20 years past my prime. Pete Mel has us wondering though.

Average's picture
Average's picture
Average Wednesday, 21 Jul 2021 at 9:38am

Amazing photos. The stories that come with them take them to another level.

I'd love to hear about some of the misses. As an amateur surf photog, you have that split second to suspend time and immortalize the moment, and sometimes you blow it. I have a few regrets. I'd love to hear about when the luck wasn't there and what was missed.

Phil Jarratt's picture
Phil Jarratt's picture
Phil Jarratt Wednesday, 21 Jul 2021 at 10:09am

What a great gallery from one of the true gentlemen of the surf media. Onya, Tom!

Ben Elvy's picture
Ben Elvy's picture
Ben Elvy Wednesday, 21 Jul 2021 at 11:03am

Brilliant story and gallery.
Is it OK to refer to these images as gorgeous?
Also, I'd be very interested to know how much post-production goes into each of these shots. Many of the locations are naturally photogenic and the light may also be 'just so'. Some just look even more amazing than seems possible.
I mean all this in a good way!

Thanks for publishing this piece.

tango's picture
tango's picture
tango Saturday, 24 Jul 2021 at 11:12pm

Thanks to both Tom and Gra for that.

I've never seen or heard of Kai not going, so that must have been one hell of a ledge to contemplate at Chopes.