Ray Collins Re­de­fines The De­ci­sive Mo­ment

ProPhoto - - FRONT PAGE - in­ter­view by bruce usher.

“You’re in­signif­i­cant at this place. It’s so deep, a sub­merged moun­tain… the tip is barely un­der the wa­ter. There’s no idea how much it drops off. It’s black and way fur­ther than I can see. Peo­ple are al­ways fish­ing off the cliffs and you can see things churn­ing through the fish. Birds div­ing, whales flap­ping. It’s just crazy. Two seals al­ways come up and nudge us, a mother and a pup, I think.”

Meet Ray Collins. He’s talk­ing about a pho­tog­ra­phy lo­ca­tion three hour’s drive south of his home. Ray and Ja­son – his solid, ocean-loving Kiwi as­sis­tant – left home at 4.00am in or­der to be there for the sun­rise. They’ve scaled down a cliff to get to the point of the hop, skip and jump. Ray uses ei­ther a Nikon D4 for its 11 frames-per-sec­ond speed or the D800 for its big file sizes and they’re usu­ally cou­pled with 35mm, 50mm or 85mm prime lenses. When they’re not in the ocean tak­ing photographs, both men are coal min­ers and their of­fice is un­der the Illawarra Es­carp­ment… lit­er­ally.

Win­dang Is­land, lo­cated at the mouth of Lake Illawarra, is another lo­ca­tion for Ray’s wave pho­tog­ra­phy and a no­to­ri­ous site for bull and ham­mer­head sharks.

“I’ll see some­thing there, and know it’s a fin” re­lates Ray. “I’ll say to Ja­son, ‘Did you

see that?’ And he’ll say, ‘It was just a cou­ple of fish, don’t worry about it’. But I know he’s seen it too. We both try and calm each other down through pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment. Re­cently, nearby fish­er­men were scream­ing at us while they pulled up a half-eaten fish. That hap­pened three times one morn­ing, and they were whistling at us from 50 me­tres away. What­ever is hap­pen­ing over there! I don’t ever say the ‘S’ word when I’m in the ocean. But it’s knee deep where I am, the waves churn­ing and ex­plod­ing with the help of the back­wash off the cliff. The sharks don’t want that, they want deep wa­ter and fish. Hope­fully, I’m not even a pass­ing thought to those sharks.

“I ex­pect to get caught out by the wave at least three times when I do a shoot here… oth­er­wise I’m not close enough! I have to be on this fine line be­tween the back­wash and the bar­rel of the wave. Get­ting caught out means I get shot about 20 feet into the air.”

By Ac­ci­dent

To un­der­stand how this all started for Ray, we must go back to mid-April in 2007. He was work­ing dayshifts in the mine, re­lo­cat­ing a 30-tonne long­wall chock and, while ne­go­ti­at­ing a tight squeeze around a cor­ner, stepped out of the ma­chine to check the clear­ance, his foot landed three feet down on un­even ground. His knee buck­led, mak­ing a ter­ri­ble pop­ping, tear­ing sound. Ly­ing on the coal floor in agony, he knew some­thing ter­ri­ble had hap­pened.

A week after his ac­ci­dent, Ray re­alised how much spare time he now had, but as he couldn’t do any­thing phys­i­cal, he de­cided his best bet was to ex­er­cise his mind. He’d dab­bled with pho­tog­ra­phy and a lineup shot of waves in Su­ma­tra – taken with a $70 dig­i­tal cam­era – was his screen­saver. He knew pho­tog­ra­phy was some­thing he wanted to “…delve deeper into and try to have a proper un­der­stand­ing of the com­plex­i­ties of light”. So, a few weeks later, Ray bought a D-SLR in a twin lens kit from Har­vey Nor­man.

He con­fesses he had no idea what was good at the time, he just knew he wanted to start tak­ing photographs.

“The sales­man knew I was start­ing out and tried to push me into an ex­tremely ba­sic ‘SLR-look­ing’ cam­era,” Ray re­calls. “But I had my mind on the Canon EOS 30D. I had seen one be­fore… and it looked big­ger and blacker and more pro­fes­sional than the oth­ers. But I was just a clue­less kid and I wasn’t even sure they made wa­ter hous­ings for that body. For­tu­nately, they did or I would have been screwed. There was no plan­ning, just some con­se­quen­tial happy ac­ci­dents along the way. I ap­proached

I ex­pect to get caught out by the wave at least three times when I do a shoot here… oth­er­wise I’m not close enough! I have to be on this fine line be­tween the back­wash and the bar­rel of the wave. Get­ting caught out means I get shot about 20 feet into the air.

Aquat­ech – who were just around the cor­ner – to buy a wa­ter­proof hous­ing. They didn’t make lens ports for the kit lenses, so I bought a 15mm fish-eye and a dome port. I was set. Off I went to do some re­hab in the wa­ter. Swimming was part of my re­hab.”

Close En­counter

Six weeks later, in July 2007, he sent some surf­ing pic­tures to Surf­ing Life mag­a­zine and a quar­ter-page im­age was sub­se­quently pub­lished. Tim Fisher was then the ed­i­tor of Surf­ing Life mag­a­zine.

“Dur­ing a par­tic­u­larly good run of surf for the east coast of Aus­tralia and we were look­ing for images that told that story. We didn’t have many shots from Ray’s par­ticu-

lar part of the coast, and his pho­tos ticked a lot of boxes – they were well-com­posed, well-lit wa­ter shots with great ac­tion, taken at an off­shore reef break which, at the time, was rarely seen in surf mag­a­zines.”

“It’s a bomb­ora out in the ocean,” Ray ex­plains. “It’s a one kilo­me­tre swim that takes about 40 min­utes with the cur­rents. One day I was half-way out and the wa­ter felt like a boat had dumped fuel… like I was swimming through petrol or oil. Then I saw some­thing that looked like a log, but it was a seal had just been bit­ten in half! It took about three to five seconds for that to sink in, but it felt like 30 seconds. Ab­so­lutely ter­ri­fied, I turned and swam back to the beach. I sensed pri­mal fear. It was too close for com­fort to me. And it rat­tled me for about 12 months.”

Trent Mitchell was Tim Fisher’s photo ed­i­tor at Surf­ing Life, and it was he who flagged Ray’s shots im­me­di­ately and asked him to sub­mit more.

“I re­mem­ber Trent shak­ing his head be­cause the sec­ond email from Ray con­tained a shot that was even bet­ter than those in the first!” re­lates Tim Fisher. “It wasn’t long – maybe only a month or two – be­fore Ray sub­mit­ted a photo that we thought was wor­thy of the cover. Trent and I both loved be­ing able to publish the first pho­tos from a guy with such ob­vi­ous tal­ent who was doc­u­ment­ing his back­yard so well. That’s what we were re­ally look­ing for. There are al­ways young, green pho­tog­ra­phers who can take great ac­tion shots, but not many who un­der­stand that to set them­selves apart they need to recog­nise what’s unique to them. Ray re­sponded well to feed­back, and he re­ally got that what we wanted to see from him were images of waves in a part of Aus­tralia’s coast that not many pho­tog­ra­phers are able to ac­cess. A lot of young pho­tog­ra­phers are one-trick ponies, in that they may be strong swim­mers and great with a fish-eye, but they don’t have the pa­tience to com­pose a great land­scape or a great por­trait. Ray wasn’t one of those guys.”

A Beau­ti­ful Show

Ray started look­ing for the best guys in surf pho­tog­ra­phy and two that he re­ally looked up to were the Cal­i­for­ni­ans, Todd Glazer and Chris Burkhart, who had won a Follow The Light Foun­da­tion grant. This grant is awarded an­nu­ally in the spirit and mem­ory of Larry Moore who was (USA) Surf­ing mag­a­zine’s photo ed­i­tor for more than 30 years.

After sub­mit­ting a 21-im­age fo­lio, Ray was awarded the grant in 2009. The judges com­mented that there was “…a pro­found depth to the qual­ity of his pho­tog­ra­phy for somebody only shoot­ing for such a short time. Noth­ing gim­micky, no smoke and mir­rors, just a beau­ti­ful show of waves and surf­ing”.

Most of the images Ray sub­mit­ted to Follow The Light were of un­known surfers and empty waves. He didn’t re­alise it then, but that’s how he would shoot in sub­se­quent years. How­ever, at that time, Ray was try­ing to chase pro­fes­sional surfers around, think like them, turn up to the right spots and net­work. He was get­ting ads, ed­i­to­rial space and cover shots.

The Other Of­fice

From Ray’s lounge­room at his home be­tween Thirroul and Aus­timeer on the NSW coast south of Syd­ney, I’m look­ing south­west to­wards the es­carp­ment and Mount Kem­bla. He points out a far fea­ture to the left of Mount Kem­bla and com-

It felt like I was swimming through petrol or oil. Then I saw some­thing that looked like a log, but it was a seal had just been bit­ten in half!

ments, “That’s where I work, in that moun­tain. It’s given me dis­ci­pline and aware­ness. A har­dened back­bone, not sure if that’s the right term… but a rud­der in life. It’s shift work so it’s al­lowed me more time to shoot waves which is a bless­ing.

“Coal min­ing is pretty crazy. You’re in a room like we are now, but it’s kilo­me­tres and kilo­me­tres long and, if some­thing goes wrong, you’re a long way from the fire bri­gade or an am­bu­lance. It’s just you and your mates, and ev­ery­thing you do af­fects them. There’s a high gas con­tent so, if you took an alu­minium can un­der­ground and it scraped against some­thing cre­at­ing a spark, there would be a mas­sive ex­plo­sion. You have to trust your mates.

“Th­ese south­ern dis­trict mines are the gassi­est pits in the world. Meth­ane is soaked into the coal and, when you cut the coal, gas comes out. It’s usu­ally at two per­cent, but if it gets up to five per­cent it could be cur­tains. But there are also another five or six COT [colour­less, odour­less and taste­less] gasses that you have to look out for. It’s a hor­i­zon­tal mine; the old­est op­er­a­tional pit in Aus­tralia with a mas­sive net­work of roads. There’s even a petrol sta­tion and traf­fic lights.”

Dog Day Af­ter­noon

The en­thu­si­as­tic Mor­ri­son Me­dia ed­i­tor and de­signer, Gra­ham Mur­doch, be­came fa­mil­iar with Ray’s work through his sub­mis­sions to Surf­ing Life mag­a­zine and through his posts on the “almighty and ubiq­ui­tous Face­book”.

It was 2011 and Mur­doch was work­ing on the con­cept of a pub­li­ca­tion which sub­se­quently be­came White Horses mag­a­zine.

“It was time to take the leap from spec­u­la­tion to ex­e­cu­tion. One idea I was ex­cited about was com­bin­ing por­trai­ture and scenic shots; specif­i­cally blend­ing a por­trait of a surfer’s beloved dog with a telling ocean or surf line-up. For all the en­ergy and joy dogs bring to the beach, they strike me as hav­ing been vastly un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated. So the very first ac­tual brief in White Horse’s his­tory went to Ray Collins. I’d seen his Face­book posts de­voted to his dog, Chan­tic. Ray never hid his feel­ings for his beloved pet so I sent him the brief to shoot the dog/seascape hy­brid im­age.

“The odds weren’t promis­ing. Ray was grind­ing through a run of shifts un­der­ground and the brief was for a mag­a­zine that didn’t yet ex­ist. And Chan­tic has trou­ble sit­ting still un­less she’s snug­gled up to her master. The win­dow of time and tide for a good surf line-up im­age is al­ways fleet­ing. But Ray man­aged to pull him­self out of a post-night­shift af­ter­noon coma and cap­tured Chan­tic down at Sandon Point in front of an epic, barrelling right-han­der. He sent me an iPhone pic of his cam­era back. As soon as I saw it, I knew that White Horses was go­ing to hap­pen.”

As it hap­pens, 2011 was epic for Ray Collins, his best year work-wise. He won the Nikon Surf Photo Of The Year com­pe­ti­tion and the Emerg­ing Sports

Pho­tog­ra­pher Of The Year award from Cap­ture mag­a­zine. He also achieved three sil­ver point scores in the sports cat­e­gory of the AIPP’s an­nual Aus­tralian Pro­fes­sional Pho­tog­ra­phy Awards (APPAs).

Warped Waves

By con­trast though, 2012 was a year with no di­rec­tion. Rays says he was “wan­der­ing in the wilder­ness”. He didn’t shoot a lot, hav­ing lost both the pas­sion and de­sire. He de­cided to take a break from pho­tog­ra­phy for a few months and surfed solely to keep fit. He also de­cided to give up al­co­hol and sub­se­quently found that his mo­ti­va­tion went up, and he had more en­ergy.

“I don’t think I will go back now,” he says. “It’s been the big­gest contributor to my ‘warped waves’ project. I have a clear head all the time which has al­lowed me to fo­cus and do the things I want to do.”

He had been chas­ing pro­fes­sional surfers around the world, but now the mo­ti­va­tion for that had waned, he asked him­self, “Where to now?”

Por­traits of the ocean be­came his call­ing. Raw, or­ganic wave sculp­tures. Not any­thing sur­fa­ble or any­thing a hu­man would want to be part of. His fu­ture di­rec­tion was locked in. “It’s both a gift and a curse be­cause it oc­cu­pies so much time. Bizarrely, a book about nude pho­tog­ra­phy which was given to me by my step­mom was the in­flu­ence for me to start pho­tograph­ing just waves.”

Per­fect Mo­ments

Aquat­ech’s Alan Love knows Ray Collins well as he lives just a stone’s throw from the company’s of­fice in Thirroul. Aquat­ech also has an of­fice in Cal­i­for­nia.

“This is un­usual be­cause our cus­tomers are mostly spread all over the world,” Alan says. “But be­ing so close has al­lowed me to watch Ray’s growth more than I would that of our other cus­tomers. He has a great work ethic, rarely miss­ing a morn­ing with good light. And he has a good out­look on the mod­ern world of pho­tog­ra­phy – where it can ap­pear you have to be a slave to so­cial me­dia.’

“How does he do that? Where does he do that? I’ve never seen a wave be­have that way,” thought Chris Duczyn­ski, one of Ray’s newish Face­book friends. “Th­ese im­pos­si­bly beau­ti­ful peaks cap­tured in per­fect mo­ments.”

Duczyn­ski worked at Qan­tas as a cam­era­man and pro­ducer for 15 years, but now has his own pro­duc­tion company. Last sum­mer Ray Collins was part of a Q&A night on surf pho­tog­ra­phy in con­junc­tion with The Green Cathe­dral ex­hi­bi­tion at the Wol­lon­gong City Gallery. Chris Duczyn­ski was in the au­di­ence and was re­ally im­pressed with the way Ray spoke about his pho­tog­ra­phy and his work ethic. After the talk, Chris ap­proached Ray and asked him if he was in­ter­ested in hav­ing the cre­ation of those “per­fect mo­ments” doc­u­mented.

So, a few weeks later, they all met at a ser­vice sta­tion in Bulli at 4.30am in buck­et­ing-down rain. They ar­rived at the film­ing lo­ca­tion be­fore sun­rise over­look­ing what Chris de­scribes as “…a shoal where the waves break at all an­gles at once and one of the least cam­era friendly places I’ve even seen”.

The sun did even­tu­ally come out and the light was sen­sa­tional.

“Ev­ery wave was com­pletely dif­fer­ent in pitch, throw, rise, power and lu­mi­nes­cent back­lit peak,” re­calls Chris who filmed from the cliff with two cam­eras while his son, Jake, was in the wa­ter with a GoPro.

“Jake couldn’t wait to get out there with Ray. He’s a surfer and re­ally con­fi­dent in the wa­ter and with­out his GoPro footage, the video wouldn’t have had any­where near the im­pact it did. It put the viewer out there with Ray.

“I con­tacted Qan­tas with the fin­ished prod­uct as I still had a few con­tacts there.”

“The early in­di­ca­tion was that Qan­tas liked what it saw,” Ray adds. “So the orig­i­nal three or four minute clip has grown to a seven-and-a-half minute clip. To date they have li­censed it for three months on all do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional flights so that’s an ap­prox­i­mate au­di­ence of three mil­lion and it was short­listed as a fi­nal­ist for the San Diego Surf Film Fes­ti­val in 2014. Pretty good for a coalminer who shoots lumps of the Pa­cific Ocean, I reckon.”

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