Coast Tree Street // Bruce Usher
192 pages. Hardcover coffee table book. Self published.
So last week around Wednesday, your correspondent was in a funk about the world of print media, specifically White Horses, a mag I used to edit. I only gently help it out from afar these days, and not that I’m all that invested in it, but for all the work a mag requires – not to mention ye olde worlde model of manufacture and distribution – it’s easy to lose faith sometimes.
Anyway, there I was, with my sadpants on, when a white van pulls up the driveway and hi-vis fella delivers a cardboard package to the door. It’s about the size of of a large pizza box but it’s clearly a big ol’ book.
Open ‘er up and it’s this thing: Coast Tree Street. I spend the next half hour cruising through it: not really reading any of the passages, not yet, just doing that languid first pass through a book where you dig what you’re seeing, but you also kinda can’t wait to see what’s on the next page, so you’re really savouring it. Anticipation > Reward. The classic coffee table book vibe.
The title, Coast Tree Street, refers to the three sections of the book. The first 90-odd pages is coastal imagery; the next 50 or so, trees; and the closing 50, yep, you guessed it, street photography. It’s interspersed with Bruce’s written reflections which are sweet, interesting, and sharp. Bruce writes with economy and precision.
These three subjects might seem like an odd grouping initially, but they’re pretty elemental when you think about it – ocean, land, society – and they’re what the venerable Sydney photographer has enjoyed shooting over the years, and so, well, why not?
The name Bruce Usher probably resonates with most Swellnet readers as the fella (along with Phil and Russell Sheppard) who made A Winter’s Tale in ’74.
At risk of drifting off topic, I’m just gonna come out and say it: 1972’s Morning Of The Earth is rightly hailed as THE seminal love letter to the spirit of surfing, it fully deserves every acclaim that comes its way, and long may squirrels spoodge their pants whenever Simple Ben plays on a #vanlyfe Spotify playlist in a chockablock North Coast carpark… but it can be argued A Winter’s Tale is a better movie. This is due largely, of course, to evolving performance levels in the two years between the movies, the epic surf conditions Bruce and Phil scored, and all that, but there’s something else: this is surfing seen with an unaffected, affectionate documentary eye, so there’s little room for carefully curated image and artifice – surfing’s just beautiful and amazing and fun and special on its own terms. It’s not put under pressure to be anything else but itself.
I came to understand this is how Bruce rolls when he started shooting portraits for Horsies mag about seven or eight years ago. We’d commission him to shoot surfers with their most cherished belongings, or try for whacky Annie Leibowitz style group portraits. The shots’d touch down and every time it looked like the subjects were having the time of their life, completely at ease with being totally unguarded. There’d often be some delightful unexpected element included, and always, there’d be an amazing composition. I have no effin’ idea how the laws of composition work, but old mate Bruce is a 10th Dan Ninja. He was also a great interviewer – people felt supremely comfortable disclosing all sorts of things.
Back to the book. Working in reverse order now, here’s the origin story of the three subjects.
Funnily enough, A Winter’s Tale was responsible for kicking off the whole street photography thing. “We were showing A Winter’s Tale in Newcastle in ’74 and there was a Mayday Rally, this weird old-school march. I shot a roll of film. The first few spreads of the section in the book are from that day.” More recently – about five years ago - Newport-based Bruce was spending a lot of time in Cremorne, where his partner lives. This facilitated trips into the city, where the challenge of shooting people and streetscapes (“Street photography is hard to do”) was accepted with gusto.
This love affair was ignited by iconic Sydney designer Ross Renwick, who called Bruce up in the early 2000s and said, ‘Wanna do a book with me? You’ll have 200 hours of photography and I’ll have 20 hours of writing – the subject’s the Angophora tree.” In the book’s intro, Bruce writes about this subject matter as a Dad might reflect on his youngest child: “Tree – with its stillness – was a latecomer, not really expected, but totally loved.”
“Well, that’s simple,” says Bruce. “The coast’s always been there. I grew up on the Mona Vale Headland. We moved in to our place there in 1950, when I was three.”
I ask Bruce when he thought he might have a book in him. “Where my girlfriend lives in Cremorne, it’s a street full of artists. One night we had a thing where five artists did a half hour presentation in their own house and everyone moved from house to house. I presented my work and had a really good, genuine response – they weren’t just being kind – and I thought ‘hmmm, there could be a book here’.“
Bruce put two versions of the book together using the online book-making platform ‘blurb’, and ran the second iteration past his mentor, Victoria Jefferies, who gave feedback (“More trees!”) and steered him to designer Kerry Klinner, who spent six months getting the mix and pacing right with Bruce. “It’s all about turning the page,” he says simply.
Bruce thought about getting a publisher, but made the call to self-publish, and being a lovely fella who thrives on human contact and, as he says, “is used to hawking my folio around” is getting it into bookshops around Sydney for starters. He probably won’t be lighting cigars with million dollar notes anytime soon, but that motivation’d be pretty far down the list for a bloke like him.
I wouldn’t have thought such a book would resonate so strongly or work so well, but there you have it. It really is special.
If you’re, say, the kind of person who doesn’t mind the odd photography exhibition, who finds humans interesting to look at, occasionally allows themselves to just stare at nature going, ‘fuck, that’s pretty cool’, has an interest in east coast surf culture, and has a coffee table upon which such a book may live and be enjoyed, then I firmly commend this to you.
Email Bruce at [email protected] to order a book. It’s 90 clams, plus 17 bucks to get a hi-vis fella to deliver it to your door.
// GRA MURDOCH