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Joe Curren interview

Surf photographer

Joe Curren needs little introduction… A world-class surfer, far-flung traveller and an extraordinary talent behind the lens. One could say Joe was destined for great things in surfing, brought up in a family with Pat Curren, a legendary big wave pioneer and surfboard shaper as a father and Tom Curren, 3x world champion as an older brother. It was Joe's love of surfing and travelling that first tempted him into experimenting with photography. Since picking up a camera, Joe's travels have taken him to over forty countries on six continents.

Joe, you were born and bred in Santa Barbara, California. A place you are very fond of?

JC: Yes, I'm fond of it. But to be honest Santa Barbara has been a bit of a curse. It's a challenging place to live. Being in Santa Barbara has become a goal for many people. I guess you can't blame someone for wanting to be here; it really is an ideal place to live. It's a smallish city with culture and beautiful weather and it's near the ocean and the coastal range mountains. The problem is that in order to maintain a certain quality of life the city has very strict limits on growth. Combined with an influx of extremely wealthy people who move there, real estate prices are very high. Rent is the same. When I was born, my parents owned a five-bedroom home in Montecito on 3 acres of land with horse stables. At the time, my dad was working as a commercial diver and my mom was a housewife. Unfortunately, they sold it and now the days of being a craftsman, artist or contractor, etc. and owning a home here with a bit of land are over.

As far as surfing goes, it's a bit of a love/hate situation as well. The surf is only good about 3-4 months a year in winter. When it's good, it's as good as anywhere in the world. We have a lot of perfect right hand point breaks. But the other 8-9 months of the year, you have to travel to get surf. Also, we are only 90 miles away from the largest surf city in the world, Los Angeles, so except for the rare occasion, when there is a predicted big west swell surfers swarm here. And not just from LA. I meet people from Oakland, San Diego, Bakersfield, etc. who come here just for a day of surf. In a way, we've become a destination like Mammoth Mountain ski resort. So really, Santa Barbara is ideal if you are independently wealthy or have a seasonal job where you don't have to work in the winter months and you're able to compete in very crowded surf.

Having said all that, besides all the negatives aspects, I do feel very fortunate to have grown up in such a beautiful environment. It's really taught me to appreciate the natural world. And even though I like to complain about the crowds, I've definitely had my fair share of good waves and will always cherish the epic days I've had here.

Given your background, your father, a legendary big wave surfer and your brother, a 3x world champion… I guess it was inevitable that surfing would play a big part in your life! What was it like for you growing up having two iconic surfing figures in your family?

JC: Yes, growing up, always going to the beach with a father and a brother who surf it was natural for me to become a surfer. Having Tom as an older brother was good. He was a positive influence and role model. But it was challenging at times because when I was just starting amateur contests he was already world champion. He breezed through the amateur ranks, I, on the other hand, could barely make my first heat in the NSSA. I think Tom had a natural competitive drive and really good coaching from Peter Townsend and Ian Cairns. I had absolutely no competitive drive or direction. Being Tom's little brother opened up some doors, but at the same time it was pretty frustrating having so must expectation and, for the most part, not delivering.

As for my dad, major interest in what he achieved didn't come about until the mid nineties. Before that, even Tom and I didn't know the full scale of what he did. He just didn't talk about it when we were young. I was aware that he surfed big waves at one point in time-we had some old black and white photos of him on our wall from some big days at Waimea-but it wasn't until later on that I learned of what he and the other guys did in the early days of the North Shore and that he was actually one of the more respected guys from that time.

You spent a great deal of time in your early years travelling with your mother to watch Tom compete. As a kid, this must have been a pretty cool experience? Did these experiences influence you to become a surfer yourself?

JC: Yeah it was cool. I was only about 4-8 years old then. I didn't surf yet. I was more into playing on the beach and throwing sand at people. I was very hyperactive when I was a kid. Sure, I think that time influenced me to become a surfer. They were my first memories. I think those times were also a big influence on me wanting to travel. One of my very first memories is from when I was four-years-old and being in the back of our car with Tom leaving Santa Barbara on our way to the East Coast for the U.S. Championship. Along with my mom and sister, we spent two weeks driving across the country, stopping on the way in places like New Orleans, and Nashville. It was exciting to see so much new stuff at such an early age

You embarked on a career as a professional surfer at 18… And you still make a living through surfing as well as your photography now…?

JC: Somewhere along the way in my surfing "career", when I was about 26 or 27, I started to get into photography. Now photography has turned into another "career". Fortunately, they both feed off each other and I'm able to continue on with both.

When did you first discover an interest in photography?

JC: Well, it's hard to say when I first took an interest in photography. Like most people, I've always appreciated good photos. I was a typical grom and mostly looked at surf mags growing up. But in the late 80s and early 90s I really loved Australia's Surfing World Magazine. I loved the art direction. Two photographers put the magazine together, Hugh Macleod, who also did the art direction, and Bruce Channon. While it was a surf magazine, it wasn't typical of surf magazines today. They were really good at conveying a sense of place. Hugh and Bruce took surf photos, but they also weren't afraid to include other aspects of the places they visited. I also appreciated that it wasn't all tight, full-frame action photos and they were creative and broke the rules by shooting backlit scenes sometimes with grainy film and they would use black and white in situations when most people would use color. It was also laid-out in a very interesting way. Those mags really left an impression on me and really made me want to travel. It's kind of embarrassing to admit, but I would make big collages from the photos in those mags and put them on my wall.

I guess another point in time when I discovered that I liked photography was after a trip to New Zealand. I only had a disposable point and shoot camera with me, but when I came home I had a lot of compliments on the shots. At the time, I wasn't really doing anything other than travelling around and being a lazy pro surfer. I thought, here was something I could attempt and hopefully improve on for many years to come compared to surfing where you reach a certain point relatively early in life and then it all goes down hill from there. I thought that on my next trip I would get a decent camera and learn how to use it properly.

Travel has played a large part in your life. Your travels have taken you to "over forty countries on six continents", where have been your favourite places to travel so far?

JC: I have a few: Norway, Iceland, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Greece, and Scotland.

You've exhibited your work all over the world, including California, New York, Sydney, Paris, London and Tokyo… What have been your fondest memories from these experiences?

JC: I think the best part has been meeting and getting to know some of the artists involved with the shows. It has been inspiring to interact with so many creative people.

You have a book out, entitled "ONE"…

JC: Yes. Last year, Bueno! Books in Japan put together a nice little compilation of my photos and released it in Japan. It's available outside of Japan directly through my website www.JoeCurrenPhotography.com

When shooting surfing, do you prefer to shoot from land or in the water?

JC: I haven't really shot much surfing, although I do like to take photos of empty waves from the water.

You have a vast and varied portfolio. As well as a series of black & white prints, your colour work is so wonderfully rich and vivid… Is this a style you've developed over time, or did you set out with a particular style in mind? And are there any other artists/photographers that inspire you?

JC: Well, I think it goes back to those guys who put together the Surfing World Magazines. I like how they used a variety of films. They used whatever they thought was best for a certain scene and lighting conditions and whatever mood they wanted to convey. I focused on black and white at first mainly because I was having better luck with it. Then once I got quality lenses my color stuff improved. Sometimes I think it would be smart to just pick one film and one camera and lens in order to have more continuity, but then I feel like one of the best things about photography is experimenting and being creative.

As far as artists and photographers go, I seem to look for inspiration outside of the surf world, and for some reason mostly black and white photographers like Peter Beard and Sebastiao Salgodo.

So where can one go to see your work and purchase prints?

JC: The best way is to go to my website. You can purchase a limited edition print of any of my photos directly through me.

You like to work with wood, is that correct? I heard you've built frames and other things to compliment your photography work?

JC: Yes, working with wood is something I've been getting into lately. It started about 5 years ago when I decided to make frames for an exhibition. Custom framing is pretty expensive, so I thought I would just make my own to save money. As it turned out it was pretty challenging. To do it right it's not about just popping a photo in a frame. You need to have a bit of woodworking knowledge which, beforehand, I didn't have any. I've enjoyed learning about different species of wood and how they work up. I also enjoy the challenge and in the same way as photography, there's lots of time for improvement.

Speaking of craftsmanship… Your father [Pat Curren] among other things is famous for being a highly skilled shaper, has this been passed down to you?

JC: I've shaped a couple boards, but I mostly just tinker. Until recently I wasn't really interested in board design, but after getting into woodworking I've been thinking about it more and more. I think the interest in woodworking comes in part from seeing what my dad can do. He is a master craftsman, builder, and surfboard shaper. He is also so knowledgeable when it comes to design. He has a background in surveying and at one point was a draftsman, which has given him a deeper understanding. I don't know if I could be a production shaper. Not that I don't have respect for what they do. But personally, I feel like it could become redundant. I like the fact that my dad is so well rounded and excels in many areas as a craftsman. That would keep things interesting. I recently helped design a fish with Channel Islands Surfboards, so that's taught me a bit. I'd like to make some boards in the near future; I've actually just accumulated all the shaping tools, so now I just need to find the time.

Finally, what does the future hold for you and your work?

JC: For the last seven or eight years surf, travel and photography have been my main focus, along with some writing and photo exhibits. I'd like to continue with that but I feel like I'm at the point where I'd like to try my hand at some other stuff like possibly shaping and designing books which I have some ideas for, mostly with my photos. That's something I would really enjoy doing.

Thanks again Joe for this insight into your work.

Bookmark and Share Joe Curren & COTW / 2008

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