Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Curators

The enormity of the interweb boggles my mind:  It is massive and it is packed full of imagery, some of it great, quite a lot of it good, and much of it awful.  But that's the nature of the open source, unedited, digital world that we live in these days - anybody can put their photography on a website or social media platform and then anybody else can share, re-post, or sadly sometimes steal that imagery.  Once it's out there it's off the leash and can go anywhere and everywhere.  But let's not dwell on the less positive aspects of photography on the internet; there's so much good and truly inspirational stuff and I'd like to share with you some of the tumblr photo blogs that I often use as virtual mood boards, turning to them for inspiration or when I just need to get some good stuff in my eyes.  These aren't photo blogs featuring the work of a single artist (using a tumblr site as a quick-fix additional website or online portfolio is a popular choice for many photographers, myself included) or run by a brand further consolidating its image and expressing an aesthetic.  Rather, they are collections of images each curated by someone with an exceptional eye.  Some are for personal use as online moodboards whilst others are, as far as I can tell, run purely for the enjoyment of sourcing, collecting and sharing great imagery.  These people are curators; modern day digital disseminators of often inspirational imagery.  Many tumblr blogs are very good but sometimes feature a bit too much religious chatter, nationalistic flag waving, firearms or worst of all photos of the backs of peoples heads (often wearing a red beanie) somewhere in the Pacific North West for my liking.  I'll still follow them for the odd gem that they throw up, but I won't feature them here.  The five listed below consistently offer, in my opinion, a varied selection of tasteful images that remind me that the world is a beautiful place and fills me with the urge to make the most of my time on it.      

The Weekend Digest is an offshoot of the General Consumption blog run by a gentleman with an eye for style who goes by the name of Marky P - and it's a visual feast.  Mid-century inspired, it is a celebration of surfing in the sunshine, living outdoors, classic cars, the human body, wholesome food and timeless fashion.  

Oh, Pioneer!  This will make you want to get outside.  America-centric it is chock-full of open-canoes, axes, fly fishing, vintage motorcycles and hiking - with a solid dose of big landscapes with big skies to remind you that outdoors is better than indoors.

I'm guessing that The Yard is curated by a female because it's fairly heavy on portraits of handsome young families, animals and the odd quote about relationships.  The imagery on here is for the most part desaturated, wonderfully high contrast, and beautiful in a bright, misty morning kind of way.  It's a mood board for a creative and damned wholesome lifestyle with an old wooden kitchen table and a vegetable patch.

David Woodman is a Director of Photography who I met in London a year or so ago when he was working part time in the Patagonia store.  I asked him a lot of questions about climbing photography and tried my best to answer some of his questions about surf photography.  His Stolen Moments blog is a collection of imagery based around classic cinema, colour palettes, wilderness explorers, mountaineering, custom motorcycles, surfing and bicycles.  It's well worth a scroll.  

Soul Surfer is a rolling montage of surf and associated lifestyle photography that covers a lot of bases and tends to avoid getting stuck in niches.  It's a great overview of what is "now" in the wide world of surf with brief forays into snowboarding, skating, coffee and fashion - all sunshine, youthful smiles, carefree attitudes and sequences of big airs.

I'd like to thank all of the curators out there who collate all of the great photography floating around out there, pulling it together into beautiful and engaging blogs.  There're plenty of them and I've only featured a handful of my favourites, but take a dig around - check out the tumblrs of individual photographers or brands whose style you like.  You'll probably end up with a massive list of things that you want to get out and do as a result, and not enough time to ever do it all, but it's good to get inspired.

As a final plug, An Tor Orth An Mor's visual younger sibling is called "Where The Land Meets The Sea" and you can find it here.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Winter On The Wall

I bounce on the balls of my cold feet and wave my arms limply above my head, trying to stop the lactic acid from getting a grip on them.  It’s dark outside; cold; absolutely rodding it down with rain, which is blowing in sheets out of the West. 

You see, it’s mid-winter and at these high latitudes that fact severely hampers even the most valiant attempts at surfing regularly.  It’s 7pm and it’s been dark for about 3 hours already, and this morning I left to go to work in the dark too.  The sun sees the day whilst I’m daydreaming about waves at work, then I emerge into the evening again.  I get in when I can; on weekends mostly, but even that depends to a large extent on if there’s swell, how strong the winds are, and what the tides are doing.  Some spots see the best time of tide when it’s too dark to surf, so not even pulling a mental health day at work can score me waves when there’s swell.
That’s why I come down to the wall.
A good friend of mine can’t indulge his pastime very easily in winter either: he’s a climber and you can’t climb very easily in the dark or the rain.  We’re both hindered by the elements and the low track of the sun at this time of year.  He took the initiative however, and built a bouldering wall at the back of his garage.

 The wall is the full width and height of the double garage.  It leans out at a twenty-degree angle, although my friend now wishes with hindsight that this were more like thirty or forty.  I’m quite relieved that it’s twenty.  Twenty’s plenty.
The wall has two routes set out on it, noted with scraps of masking tape or climber’s finger tape with numbers scrawled on in sharpie.  The handholds are characterized by the odd dark smear of dried blood contrasting the white chalk.  The footholds have semi-circular arcs of black rubber over their tops, deposited by countless scuffs from our climbing shoes.  One route, the one that I battle with, has nice big, juggy, holds and the harder moves have “cop-out” holds alongside them.  It weaves from the bottom left corner of the wall, across to the right hand side and back across to the start line.  Side to side and up and down, with forty moves in total. 
And the other route?  Well that’s fifty moves, and the holds are almost all smooth little nubbins that slope off away from the wall, so small that there’s only really space for a couple of digits, be they fingers or toes.  I can’t comprehend how my friend can hold himself on these, let alone move between them.
The wall is often hidden behind rows of drying wetsuits because the garage is used as the storeroom for the outdoor activity centre that some of our friends run.  Pushing through the cold, damp, shapes puts me in mind of some sort of awful abattoir experience.  Behind them though is the dim glow of a 40-watt light bulb in an upright office light stand (put there since the incessant flickering of the strip-light all became too much) and the grimy drive of dubstep throbbing out of an old stereo. 
The wall taught me to warm-up properly.  I’d taken it for granted before; a run down the beach and a few brief, token, stretches.  Swaddled in hoodies and jackets with a thermal long-johns under my trousers, I soon learnt that climbers roll their trouser legs up to avoid catching their toes in them whilst transferring their feet between holds, not for any sort of misplaced sartorial statement.  Soon enough though, after the first couple of laps of the wall the layers start to come off.

Bag of chalk, rub, clap: Like a weight lifter at the Olympics.  I sit down on the blue gym mat at the bottom left corner of the wall, my toes on the small footholds just centimetres from the floor and my hands on the smooth chalk-caked hold with the numbers “1&2” stuck next to it. 
Breathe, count down with the beat of the music, inhale, exhale, inhale again then simultaneously push legs and pull arms to get going.  Less of an explosion out of the blocks and more of a considered commencement.  I try really hard to move in time with the tempo of the music, to keep my movements slow and considered like those of my friends who have been climbing for as long as I’ve been surfing and who are valiantly trying to coach me through all of this.  They tell me not to snatch at holds and remind me to exhale when my face turns red.
Climb to failure:  I crab my way up and down and across the wall until I fall off, my forearms pumping, then rest for four minutes and try again.  Four minutes takes an awfully long time when you’re clock-watching, in fact it’s a bit like being in detention in school.  Four minutes of stretching and bouncing on the balls of my feet shaking my arms loosely above my head until I can have another crack.  I repeat sections until I succeed and then again until muscle memory takes over.  Holds one to ten, followed by holds eleven to twenty and then I try to link them all together, getting me from one side of the wall to the other.  Then I do the same thing from twenty to forty, and have to learn to climb from right to left because so far I’ve only climbed the wall in one direction.
These days I manage to get from one all the way across and back to forty.  A four minute rest and then another lap, and repeat until I fall.  If I follow the regime of my friend then I’ll soon start to reduce my rest times from four minutes to three. 
Spring rolls around, and the evening start to draw out.  Soon enough we’re hanging off the wall with the garage doors open, blasting dubstep across the dirt road outside whilst the evening sunlight catches the dust drifting in the breeze.  I no longer turn up to work in the mornings with red-raw fingertips; instead I now sport a row of tough yellow callouses across the pads of my fingers, often still caked in the residue of climbing chalk that’s bedded right in there.  The garage is devoid of wetsuits because our friends seasonal business has started again in earnest for the summer.  So why am I still on the wall? 
Well, sometimes it’s flat.  Sometimes I’ve surfed already and fancy a change.  Often I just want a quick blast on the wall whilst dinner cooks.  Heck, it still gets dark, even in summer, so sometimes I’ll head down late at night with a bottle of beer and turn the lights on.

But mostly it’s because it’s nice to learn new things and to rise to a challenge.  I still get this from surfing, still have a long way to go in that respect, but it’s nice to be learning and improving out of the sea for a change.  And moving.  It’s good to keep moving.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


For the past eleven days the eyes of the surfing world have, again, been focused on Australia's Gold Coast.  Every year the whole WCT circus awakens from it's annual break, raises it's sleepy head and then lurches into another ten month contest schedule, escorted in by black tie awards ceremonies and party after celebrity party, as though contestants don't need any sleep.  It's a very…"Goldie"… start to the year.
Whilst the World Tour rightly works it's way to a climactic conclusion in Hawaii, it also seems appropriate that it kicks off on the Gold Coast; a fitting recognition of the relentless output of world class contest surfers that this so competitive of surfing regions produces.  One of the first to fly that flag was Michael Peterson, who passed away last March.

MP bridged the gap between the shortboard revolution of the late sixties and the competitive era of the late seventies, burning twice as bright for half as long.  He was an iconic and revolutionary surfer as famous for his intuitive barrel riding as he was for his full-rail carves and developed a reputation as a ferocious and calculating competitor before surfing had really figured out how to function as a sport.

"He just seemed to paddle faster than everyone else and do more manoeuvres than everyone else.  Michael was unstoppable in the era when they counted every wave you caught and it was points for manoeuvres"
4 x World Champion, Mark Richards

Behind the natural ability and calculated competition tactics, however, was a morbidly shy individual who struggled to handle the celebrity status that his surfing ability generated.  He was awkward and uncomfortable when surrounded by people on land, only really coming to life when alone in the ocean. Between 1973 and 1975 MP won every professional contest going in Australia and seemed unstoppable, until a dangerous combination of drug abuse and serious mental illness started to unravel his grip on normality.  After winning the 1977 Stubbies event at Burliegh in front of twenty thousand spectators, Peterson accepted the five grand cheque and all-but disappeared.  His subsequent fall from the top of professional surfing was fast and dramatic:  he became a recluse, reportedly alternating between periods of drug abuse and abstinence, before an incident in August of 1983 that became known in the Australian surfing community as "The Chase".  Following a hundred mile car chase involving twenty five police cars that ended on a Brisbane bridge with him claiming that he'd outrun "the aliens", MP was jailed and then institutionalised before later being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.  He stopped surfing and for the next twenty years he was cared for by his mother, far away from the magnifying glass of the surf media.  His instant disappearance from the public eye fed the legend of MP:

"MP's now been infused with this haze of nostalgia, y'know, the brilliant surfer who was a bad guy and all that sort of thing.  And it's convenient to see him from that point of view, but in the early seventies he actually freakin' existed…he was like the Black Wizard of surfing in Australia"
Nick Carroll

Painted on the exterior wall of a restaurant that overlooks Burleigh Point on the Gold Coast there was for a long time, and I hope still is, a stencil of Michael Peterson.  He's leaning back on the wall, looking exhausted and rattled.  It's a portrait of a fragile yet brilliant man who was, sadly, unable to function completely normally when taken out of his comfort zone deep inside the spinning blue tubes of the Gold Coast's sandy points.  MP's ability and style was a flash of inspiration - no matter how brief - for the legions of great surfers that have come out of the Gold Coast since, and his legacy is evident when you watch them surf against the rest of the best on their home turf every March.  

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Books = Knowledge

Books are bloody wonderful.  I’m sure that my bedroom presents somewhat of a fire risk because over the years I’ve done my best to cram it full of books and magazines - filling shelves, worktops and old wine crates with words printed on paper.  The same is true at my Dad’s house where I periodically deliver books to store on his shelves when there’s no space left on mine. 
It’s World Book Day this coming Thursday, March 6th.  To celebrate this and to remind myself (and hopefully you also) of just how important books are for the absorption of knowledge, the development of values and for straight-up stoking the imagination, I want to present a selection of my favourites:

Travel and Adventure

I lay a great deal of the blame for me spending a large number of my adult years skint and in wonderful foreign countries squarely on the shoulders of books about travel and adventure.
  • The Ra Expeditions – Thor Heyerdahl was a Norwegian anthropologist who challenged conventional views on how ancient cultures spread around the world.  Following his incredible voyage across the Pacific on the Kon-Tiki raft, he set out to show that ancient Egyptians could have crossed the Atlantic on reed boats by doing just that on The Ra, providing a possible solution to such mysteries as parallel pyramid cultures on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
  • The Cruise of the Snark – Adventure-fiction author Jack London’s account of his own real-life adventure on a two year voyage around the Pacific at the turn of the century, including early descriptions of wave-riding in Hawaii.
  • Vagabonding – Unlike destination-specific travel guides, Rolf Potts’ book is an insightful guide to making long-term and wide-ranging travel a reality.
  • Across the Empty Quarter – Wilfred Thesiger was one of the world’s last true explorers, travelling across and experiencing the blank spaces on the map.  He spent a great deal of time on the Arabian Peninsula and if you ever end up in that part of the world then this account of his journeys with Bedouin tribesmen across the desert is right up there on the essential reading list.
  • Paddling My Own Canoe – Audrey Sutherlan is a remarkable woman who, in-between holding down a full-time job and raising a family that included world-class surfer Jock Sutherland, spent her vacation each year exploring the rugged and inaccessible northeast coast of Moloka’i in the Hawaiian Islands.  She scrambled, swam and eventually paddled an inflatable canoe on a number of exploratory solo trips that are fairly certain to make you yearn for an adventure of your own.

Riding Waves

Transcribing the feeling of riding waves onto paper is a mighty difficult thing to do and one that many authors stumble and fall on.  How to write about something so personal and difficult to describe in a way that appeals to non-surfing readers without alienating fellow wave-riders?  In my mind, only three writers have really done this well.
  • In Search of Captain Zero – If you can get hold of a copy of Allan C. Weisbecker’s romantic, and ultimately somber, account of his journey from Long Island to Costa Rica in search of an old friend then do so.
  • The Voyage of The Cormorant – Currently on loan to a good friend who asked to borrow “the best book about surfing that I have”.  Christian Beamish is one of contemporary surfing’s most eloquent scribes and his book about building his own boat and sailing it down the wild coast of Baja Mexico in search of surf is raw, wild, honest, scary, real adventure.
  • Breath – Tim Winton is one of Australia’s greatest novelists and a dyed-in-the-wool surfer, but he had never, until Breath, written about surfing.  It was worth the wait.

John Steinbeck

I was originally going to write about literature, then erred towards American literature, before finally succumbing to the cold, hard, reality that all I was really doing was searching for an excuse to gush forth about how much I love the writing of John Steinbeck.  If you never had to read “Of Mice And Men” at school then I urge you to right that wrong as soon as you possibly can, and use that book as a gateway to the work of one of the last century’s most insightful writers.  Steinbeck writes about the essential human tragedy with an insight, wit, tenderness and melancholy that stops me in my tracks time after time and book after book. 

Big Pictures

Photographs were never intended to be viewed on a screen; they should be printed and hung on walls or immortalised in big, rich, coffee table volumes.
From bottom to top:
  • Leroy Grannis – Page after beautiful page of some of the most iconic surf photography from the 1960s and 70s.
  • 180 South – Try this on for adventure.  A photographic account (to accompany the movie) of Jeff Johnson and Chris Malloy’s journey retracing the steps of Yvon Chouinnard and Doug Tompkins from California to Chilean Patagonia.
  • The California Surf Project – It’s exactly what it says on the spine – a book by master-of-his-craft surf photographer Chris Burkard full of amazing, golden hour, images defining surfing in California.
  • Bend To Baja – A biofuel powered surfing and climbing road trip for Bend, Oregon to the tip of Baja Mexico.  It’s another one that’ll have you making plans for adventure.
  • Unexpected – Over the past thirty years Patagonia have amassed a library of “outdoor sports” images that is simply mind-blowing.  This book showcases some of the photography that has been featured in their catalogues with the stories behind many of them.
  • Way of the Bird – Andrew Kidman takes incredible photos of breaking waves, and Andy Davis has an iconic style of illustration that often focuses on surfers.  A simple idea to craft a children’s book by laying Ando’s illustrations over the top of Kidman’s photography  has created something amazing.
  • Sipping Jetstreams – Oh, wow.  Dustin Humphrey showcases the beauty of the world (specifically Morocoo, Cuba, Italy, Hong Kong, Barbados, Japan and Egypt) through the eyes of a surfer, illustrating just how incredible and broad an experience this pastime can give you.  I bought this big old book in Australia and easily justified the expense of posting it back to the UK.  It is directly responsible for me booking a number of flights and placing camera gear on an equal standing with surfboards on my packing lists.


A series of short and brilliantly funny novels about incompetent pirates who love ham and roaring.  I reckon that each one can be read in a day (on the beach or of solid travel) or over a more leisurely three days or so and they’re small, which makes them perfect for weekend trips.  My copy of the first book (The Pirates!  In An Adventure With Scientists) has done a lap of the planet in my bag and collected the signatures of twenty three friends and travelling strangers on the inside cover, none of whom told me I'd wasted their time in lending it to them.

My War and Peace

The Great War For Civilisation:  The Conquest of The Middle East.
I have been toiling away at this brick of a book on and off for three years now.  The reason that I haven’t given up on it is that it is the book that has been recommended to me more than any other, and by people whose opinions I absolutely value.  It is probably Robert Fisk’s defining work.  Fisk has been a foreign correspondent in the Middle East for over thirty years (first for The Times newspaper and then for The Independent) and holds more British and international journalism awards than any other foreign correspondent. Simply put, he knows his subject. 
This is a powerful book about the history and impact of religious and political conflict in the Middle East.  It is often eye opening and harrowing and doesn’t make for pleasant bedtime reading.  But it is a statement of facts that it is important and valuable to be aware of and to in some way attempt to understand as a human being.    I hope that it doesn’t take me another three years to finish the second half.

I haven't posted links to websites where you can purchase these books because, although shopping online is convenient, I kind of prefer real life bookshops and they need the support.  If you are able to then please order and buy from your local independent bookshop.