Week 8 - Speaking Photographically

It is fascinating thinking about the intent of photographers, what they want to say, and whether their aims come across. Patrick Trefz, a surf photographer who’s work has been a big inspiration to me this module, describes himself in a 2015 interview with Davis Jones as “an anthropologist and a sociologist” (Jones, 2015), looking at his subjects as though they are a “character study” (Jones, 2015). Trefz uses his work to try to show that there is more to surf culture than images of world-class surfers on epic waves, prominently displaying sponsor company logos, would imply. Such images have become almost the normality for surf photography these days. Whereas Trefz states that for him,  “There were stories in the surfing world that were reality for me and there were subjects who I wanted to follow” (Jones, 2015). He also talks about how the normal style of surf photographs don’t often provide a lot of depth in terms of showing who the surfer is, the person behind the actual act of surfing. Trefz is looking to show more of who a surfer is, and what surf culture and surf lifestyles really look like, and not just photographs of surfers surfing.

Trefz uses a combination of different types of images to communicate this culture that is otherwise only represented by the famous surfers at famous wave spots. For example, Trefz’s 2012 photo book “Surfers’ Blood” (Trefz, 2012), also the subject of his 2015 interview with Davis. This book is a collection of his photographs taken over 20 years during his career as a surf photographer, and are a combination of portraiture, environmental portraits, landscapes, action shots of surfing, images in both colour and black and white – the black & white giving the images a timeless quality (Jones, 2015).

Whilst many of the photographs in the book are land-based, there are some taken in-water; in the more expected image style for surf photographs. Trefz acknowledges that these kind of images show non-surfers what surfing can be like, and that technology like GoPro (the epitome of action sport image capture technology) can be used to provide the up-close images of surfing that “For the mainstream, that's a thrill, to see something incredible” (Jones, 2015).

Overall, I feel that Trefz’s desire to show an aspect of surf culture and life that is rarely seen, and an aspect of surfers and who they are out of the water, is a relatively successful one. He uses his combination of portraits/landscapes/still-life photographs, to show a wider variety of what surf culture encompasses. By showing more than just the surfers surfing, he provides a glimpse into their lives outside of the water. The lives of those he chose to photograph are still connected to the ocean, even when not surfing, and this shows how surfing and the ocean (for many people) filters into other aspects of life. Through the colour photographs he shows the vibrancy connected with surfing and the adrenaline of the sport. Through the black & white photographs he provides the timeless feel he spoke of to the body of work. I agree with Trefz, that these images do appear more timeless. I also feel they invoke a nostalgic feel to the work, and remind one of the photographs of the early period of modern surfing, photographs of Duke Kahanamoku (the “first emissary of surfing”, (Mansfield, 2011)),  from the 1920’s for example. They also put one in mind of the early drawings of native Hawaiians surf-riding when the islands were first “discovered” by the West. By choosing to include both colour and black & white photographs I feel that Trefz tells more of the story of surfing, rather than just individual split seconds of waves, and they connect the past of surfing, it’s history, to present day.

His desire to show more than one aspect of surfing is something that resonates with me, and I like the way he balances portraiture, environmental portraiture, landscapes, and still life images, along with including both colour and black & white. I feel this combination of images provides more of a view of who surfers are than just photographs of them surfing. Trefz aims to show more of a story with his work, and I am also trying to communicate more of a narrative about who surfers are through my project.

The one thing I think is lacking from “Surfers’ Blood” is the representation of female surfers. Trefz claims he sees himself as an anthropologist, a sociologist, looking at and wanting to show the other stories in the surfing world that aren’t shown. Trefz also states that, in relation to the “Surfer’s Blood” exhibition, he wants the audiences, of which he expects to be made up of people that “know next to nothing about surfing”, “to feel a sense of awe”, and that he wants “them to leave intrigued and blown away at the same time” (Jones, 2015).       

The majority of the photographs in the book are of men, and male surfers. There are around 100 photographs in Surfers’ Blood. Of the 4 photographs of women only one woman, in a close-up portrait photograph, is credited with being a surfer – Lee Ann Curren. She is also credited in the book as being “Tom Curren’s daughter”. One is shown having a cast of her leg made for an art project, (and the artist – the named subject of the photograph, is a man, it is not stated whether or not his female subject is a surfer), one is a toddler, and the other photograph is a group of women – all unnamed and it is unclear whether any of them are surfers. The only apparent connection from the subjects of that photograph to the rest of the book, is that they are of Polynesian descent – and modern surfing comes from ancient Polynesian practices. There are some other photographs of women in the book, not taken by Trefz (at least as far as I know); they are borderline pornographic barely clothed page 3-style images of women tacked up in the surfboard shaping workshop of a (male) surfboard shaper/maker – the stereotypical pin-up pictures in the greasy mechanics garage.

 

What exactly is the anthropologist in Trefz saying with these images? What is he saying with the lack of female surfer representation in his work? What awe-inspiring narrative, what intrigue and amazement will viewers of his work, that “know next to nothing about surfing”, take away from viewing his photographs?

Lee Ann Curren , from "Surfers' Blood" by Patrick Trefz    Available at:  http://www.patricktrefz.com/

Lee Ann Curren, from "Surfers' Blood" by Patrick Trefz

Available at: http://www.patricktrefz.com/

If a non-surfer were to view his photographs they may well think surfing is mans sport, a man’s domain, where there may be some women, but only one or two. They may well think that women in surf culture are there only if they are a male surfer’s daughter. Or that they can only be in the surf world if they pose somewhat seductively in skimpy bikinis to be pinned onto the wall of a sexist surfboard shaper. I hardly call that awe-inspiring or intriguing.

As a surfer myself, I know that this is not the case, I know that there are lots of women in surfing and that some of them are professional world class surfers. I know that many of them aren’t professional surfers, but embrace the lifestyle surfing gives them, that battle the elements and intimidating male heavy line-ups (areas in the sea where surfers sit to wait for the waves to roll in). I also know how daunting it can be getting out into the sea to surf surrounded by men, and how alone you can feel as a female surfer when you don’t see people like you in the media to identify with. When the prevailing image is of the tropical female surfer and your reality is cold-water wetsuit surfing – who do you connect with?

This is where I feel my practice and my project fits in. Like Trefz, I too am looking to show another side to surfers, but I am focussing my project on female surfers. Showing that there are female surfers, some of them are in the UK, and despite the cold and non-tropical conditions they do still surf. I do however feel that his use of mixed subject matter and combination of colour and black & white images works well and that is something I would like to bring in to my project. I feel the way it connects the photographs to the historic roots of surfing, and the timeless quality it gives to the images emphasizes the longevity of surfing as a practice, and it could imply that the subjects of my photographs – the women, aren’t a fleeting moment on a wave but a part of something bigger; the growth of women in surfing and documentation of ‘real’ women in surfing.

Kirsty , March 2017, Sophie Bradley

Kirsty, March 2017, Sophie Bradley

I also feel that, as Trefz indicated, the normal in-water GoPro style photos show a thrill for the non-surfer, and give an insight into what surfing is actually like. However they don’t necessarily communicate the narrative of surfers behind surfing, of the rest of the culture and lifestyle that surfing is. I sometimes consider bringing in-water photography into the project. However given that I am trying to show the other aspects of surfers, and not just the act of surfing, I am not convinced those style of photographs will add anything to the project. Yet, if I don’t include the perhaps expected in-water photographs what will that say to the viewer? It may imply that in-water photographs of women surfers aren’t as valuable, or aren’t as desired. This view of female surfers is obviously something I don’t want to say or encourage. I feel it is still something I will consider, and maybe experiment with, in the coming months, but for now I want to concentrate the project on land-based photographs.

Trefz’s dual approach of disseminating his work is also something I think would be valuable for my project. His book serves as a physical record of the images, and something that can be obtained outside of the exhibition (indeed it was published several years before the exhibition). It is something that can reach people who could not attend the exhibition in person. But his exhibition (he believed) would reach non-surfers and spread the stories behind surfing that he was trying to document and share. I think this dual approach could be valuable to my project.

A book or some kind of hard copy publication would provide the long-term record of the women I have photographed for the project, it would (I hope) be something that could reach people over time and over distance, it is something that can be sent to people who are geographically spread out. However an exhibition, could also bring the work to non-surfers. People who might not be inclined to purchase a book of surf-photography might attend an exhibition. As Trefz hoped for his exhibition, I would also hope that viewers of my work my see something inspiring in it, something that helps them see a different or unexpected side to female surfers and female surfing in the UK.

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JONES, D. 2015. On Surfer’s Blood And Beauty. From www.surfer.com. Available at https://www.surfer.com/features/patrick-trefz-on-surfers-blood-and-beauty/  Last Accessed: 14Apr2018

MANSFIELD, R. 2011. The Surfing Tribe A History of Surfing in Britain. Newquay, UK: Orca Publications

TREFZ, Patrick. 2012. Surfers’ Blood. Brooklyn NY: Powerhouse Books