Waterproof: Australian Surf Photography Since 1858

Stu Nettle picture
Stu Nettle (stunet)
The Depth Test

As a grom who came of age in the golden years of surf magazines, it was my observation that magazine readers fell into two distinct camps: those who read the bylines and paid attention to photographer credits, and those who merely consumed the content.

Waterproof, the latest book by John Ogden, caters to both types. The latter can flick through it and thrill at the very best images ever shot by Australian surf photographers - its 250 pages is eye candy par excellence - yet it’s the former, the discerning surfer, who’ll derive most pleasure out of Waterproof.

Originally from South Australia, John Ogden’s interest in photography saw him work as a photojournalist in South-East Asia during the end of the Vietnam War, then hook up with Tracks magazine as their West Australian correspondent, before shifting into documentary filmmaking. In 1998, Ogden lost an eye in a surfing accident which forced a shift in medium, from photography to writing. Waterproof combines each of Ogden’s past lives.

During the recent launch for Waterproof, Ogden described it as a compendium of Australian surf photographers but that’s a far too modest description. Sure, all the great names are listed, their stories told, famous photos replicated, but the book is more accurately a historical account of surf photography; it details the technological advances and cultural change that played an equally big part as the people who took the images.

Unusual angle shooting Dee Why Point, 1960s. Dave Jackman once said that the reason Ron Perrott got such a good image of him riding the Queenscliff Bombora was because he’d adapted a ‘range finder’ from a Messerschmitt bomber as a telephoto lens. He was also known to use a telescope as a telephoto lens (Photograph: Ron Perrott)

Over the last decade, the photography world has undergone a number of transitions - the rise of digital, the decline of print - and it helps underscore the many earlier shifts that Ogden outlines as he traces the long arc of shooting waves.

Presented chronologically, beginning in the 1850s with a sepia-tinged photo of untouched Bells and Winki, the tech advances manifest through increasing image quality, while style and substance indicate cultural change. From ‘landscape’ shots of the coast, taken when Australians still thought the national psyche resided in the bush, to postcard images of beachgoers frolicking, to the immersing work of Francis J. Mortimer, tying himself by rope to a cliff while photographing waves breaking against a rock platform - displaying a daredevil strain of DNA that, due to modern technology, has flourished in the hands of photographers such as Russell Ord, Leroy Bellet, and Ray Collins, and which are also included later in Waterproof.

In capturing this image of Michel Bourez at Teahupo’o, a shot that took many attempts to get right, photographer Leroy Bellet had to resign himself to getting thrashed over the shallow reef without even using his hands for protection (Photograph: Leroy Bellet)

In fact, there’s a circular journey that Ogden himself notes: That surf photographers began by shooting empty waves, then moved on to documenting surf culture in all its glory and indulgences, but lately the cutting edge has returned again to shooting empty waves. For many surf photographers, the studio is wherever waves break on the coast.

Just before taking delivery of Waterproof I was revisiting a book on skate culture by Craig Stecyk, a photographer I was in thrall to through my teenage years. Through his lens, Stecyk documented and shaped a culture, and his early work is still present in skate photographers to this day. The limited scope of skate photography - athletic, urban, anti-fashion - stands in stark contrast to the possibilities available, and taken, by surf photographers. Though they may specialise, the broad palette of nature is accessible through surf photography. This point is hammered home when, after blinking through pages of primary colours, headlands, reefs, water, sky, we come to Hayden Richards and his gothic renditions of the South Australian coast. “I get bored by blue,” says Richo.

‘I took this photo following a surf. I was completely by myself that afternoon. Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing out on anything by living all the way down in South Australia. Then I get days like this all to myself, and it just about answers the question for me (Photograph: ‘Rich’ Richards)

At the aforementioned launch, Ogden made mention of The Pictorial History of Surfing, a book that, when it was published fifty years ago, defined how surfing looks, and which also inspired him to take up photography as a young man. Now, fifty years later and with many monumental images taken since, Waterproof carries the baton as the definitive statement on surf photography.

'Waterproof', 254 pages, is published by Cyclops Press and is available now at: Cyclops Productions


radiationrules's picture
radiationrules's picture
radiationrules Thursday, 7 Oct 2021 at 2:53pm

now purchased - sounds amazing

DAW's picture
DAW's picture
DAW Thursday, 7 Oct 2021 at 4:02pm

Less people on a set at dy than these days!

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy Thursday, 7 Oct 2021 at 4:49pm

DAW Not many at First Rock before leg ropes.

indo-dreaming's picture
indo-dreaming's picture
indo-dreaming Thursday, 7 Oct 2021 at 6:02pm

You always see photos of party waves in old surf pics, do you think this was just for the cameras or accepted practise?? (as they pretty much went straight anyway)

lilas's picture
lilas's picture
lilas Thursday, 7 Oct 2021 at 6:20pm

I find riding a big Malibu just puts you in a party mode, and the more people at a party the better. Had so much fun on mals as a grom and some of m best memories are getting out the mals when it was small and doing party waves with all your mates.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy Thursday, 7 Oct 2021 at 7:07pm

Indo I came in at the end of that era and I think it was all part of the fun.

tango's picture
tango's picture
tango Thursday, 7 Oct 2021 at 11:27pm

Sounds like a must-have to me.

I wonder how we'll fit all the Insta contributors into the equivalent in a few years time......