THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS
TONY HARRINGTON TALKS ABOUT HIS RELENTLESS DOCUMENTATION OF THE BARREL & THOSE WHO MAKE IT THEIR LIFE'S PURPOSE.
Ican't pinpoint exactly when the obsession started, but as a grommet on the Australian coast learning to surf I worked out pretty quickly that the barrel was what it was all about. We'd listen in while local legends swapped stories about tube rides in the car park and I'd pore over magazines and dream about riding hollow waves just like my heroes in the photos I stuck all over my bedroom wall.
Almost 40 years on it's a fascination that's seen me choose a lifestyle that is driven by weather patterns, shaped by swells and probably unfathomable to anyone who leads a 'normal' life. But for those of us called to the ocean and lured by the constant possibility of grinding barrels – it couldn't make more sense.
Somewhere along the way I passed up the security of a regular pay cheque and created a nomadic life, in my case on a dual quest for waves and snow, that sees me shuttle between hemispheres and follow a path often shared with a small tribe who carry the same obsession. We run into one another at airports, cafes, car parks and most intimately in the ocean – familiar faces that I last saw on the beach in Mexico, at the luggage carousel at Denpasar or parked at a cliff-top on Maui. Wherever there is a swell drawing us all in.
I started out photographing surf when I was just 16 using a Minolta Weathermatic to get my first shots at Forresters Beach, Jewie Bay and Crackneck on the Central Coast. By 17 I had saved up and bought a Super 8mm camera and dabbled a little in filming but then moved exclusively into stills for my whole career, until just a couple of years ago when I was lured back to the moving image again.
It feels like a very natural progression to have arrived where I am today documenting surf using a RED Epic digital camera as well as filming and shooting stills on my Canons. With a stills camera we get to shoot sequences of around 10 frames per second, now I also get to play with frame rates that are anything from 25 fps to 320 fps creating super slow motion moments. I love the combination of how with a still I can show just a fraction of a second, an exact moment as someone gets the barrel of the session, the barrel of the day, the barrel of season or the barrel of their life. Then with a filming hat I can interview these people and tell an even richer story to give those images more meaning. We are also using new POV camera technology with iON cameras that gives us angles and access deep inside the wave that just didn't exist back when I got started. These moments are often so special for the surfer involved it's frankly a real honour to be able to document them and be part of that experience.
My current project is a trilogy of documentary style films that delve into what I consider the 'Holy Grail' for surfers – the hollow heart of waves that is where the magic of surfing resides. It's what it's always been about for me and as I travel the world and talk to more and more surfers it seems to be the unifying theme for us all. Whether you are a weekend warrior who enjoys a hack at your local break or are a hardened big wave charger who chases monster swells as a profession it usually always comes back to seeking out time in the barrel for all of us. As Ken 'Skindog' Collins puts it, "That's the church, that's where we all want to be".
My films explore this and it's been fascinating talking to surfers about their experiences inside waves and asking them to try and define the often slippery, intangible quality of that magic time and place they find deep in the tube. Just like trying to recall dreams and find words to make them make sense to someone else, it's hard to do but deeply personal and part of what keeps surfers eager to revisit that moment again and again.
The Barrel films are of course about documenting great rides, mesmerising tubing waves and taking surfers and non-surfers alike on a visual surfing adventure, but without getting too heavy I wanted to steer away from that wallpaper, or what I call 'surf porn', of wham, bam, wow and share a deeper story.
Surfers mostly just get on with what is often a quite private business of surfing rather than putting their heads on camera and talking up what they do; so it was a privilege to hear some of the insights into the 'why' of surfing. Just as surfers all have their distinct styles and personalities, they also have unique drivers for why they surf, why they love it and why they are compelled to seek the barrel again and again.
I've been really fortunate to include some great surfing legends and personal heroes of mine in the films so far. We had a great time with Dave Macaulay in NW Australia with his kids; John and Paul Witzig were instrumental in a number of ways back in the early '70s and we touch on some of their nostalgia in the film I'm working on now. The sport of surfing is more than just about surfers and the historians who have documented it, so we caught up with shaper Jon Pyzel on creating boards for Pipeline and the hot new generation of John John et al, Sean Ordonez about building boards specifically for riding Jaws and Mavericks and Mitchell Rae's deeply spiritually crafted art pieces that allow us all to ride inside our holy grail – the tube.
We just couldn't make a film about surfing without it being a surf trip so we are also following a bunch of kids, and some 'big' kids, from the Central Coast of NSW over 10,000km of Australian coastline from the Goldie right round to NW Australia, and a short hop across the Indian Ocean from Gnaraloo to Indo.
I seem to spend more and more time filming surfing and less time doing it myself right now but I guess I've found a way to make my obsession for surf, for the adventure and the quest a part of my life and my work. I've recently ordered a handcrafted 6'5" quad fin Outer Island gun from Mitchell Rae that has me jonesing for less camera time and more barrel time. I sincerely hope the film has the same effect on audiences who watch it; that it touches a nerve and fires them up to just drop everything and get into the water.
I'm continually pushing myself to capture these elusive moments, firstly for my own pleasure and also to share them with the surfers themselves but as a professional I get to now share it more widely through the movie, our website and articles like this one where our stories reach audiences around the world. Some people who see the shots will maybe never surf a wave in their life – but we can give them a brief window into what it's like. I think that's a pretty cool job. It may not pay very well but I know I'm alive each day and as one of my mentors Pete "Joli" Wilson says, "we are memory millionaires". I get to work with Mother Nature and she often kicks my arse and leaves me humbled but she's an inspiring lady to be around and she reminds me constantly just how short, beautiful and precious life is.
It's hard to pin down exactly why some of us choose this life, why something as fleeting as being inside a wave overrides so many other decisions but I like to think it has something to do with being present in that exact moment, surrendering ourselves to a bigger force and maybe just trying to be part of something beautiful for no other reason than that.
Harro at his post. ||
Scenes from the making of Tony Harrington's Ion the Barrel, Vol' 2.