Contact Proof: Tom Servais
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.