The Hydrologist

A young shooter from Australia’s Victorian Coast in the time of Instagram.

Light / Dark

In no other sport/hobby/recreation/lifestyle does the image hold such importance in defining the iconic and the era. By and large it is images we remember—Dora at Malibu, Lopez at Pipe, Shaun at Off the Wall, Laird on his Millennium Wave, Craig Anderson at No Kandui—while the words are forgotten. This makes the cruel devaluation of the image at the hands of digital “democracy” a clear and present danger for those at the coalface of delivering the images: the working photographers. How does one differentiate oneself from the mass of imagery, find a payday and a career path? 

For Victorian photographer Ed Sloane, the answer lies in adaptability and an acceptance of reality. “I think about this [digital disruption] all the time, ” he says, surveying the current surf photography landscape. “I started shooting in 2009, just before Instagram, so this is all I know. My perspective comes from a place of ‘This is how it is.’ I think it’s opened up a lot of opportunities: you do a lot of work for brands and their social media content. I do find it interesting because it’s such a rapidly evolving landscape.” 

Pipe Silhouette
This is also from my inaugural Hawaii trip. I’d been shooting elsewhere on the first day that Pipe was good for the season and I hadn’t even laid eyes on it yet. It was raw but beautiful. I was kind of scared and confused when I swam out, so I hung back behind everyone and just took it in. I think that’s really important to do in surf photography, even though it’s often hard to avoid getting sucked into a moment.
Joe van Dijk
A recent image from Joe van Dijk’s home on Phillip Island in Victoria. As the crow flies it would be only a 30-minute drive from my house, but it takes over three hours to get there, thanks to a couple of large bodies of water. I like this because his nose is separated from the lip, his fins are above the horizon line, and his technique is spot on. His leash bugs me a bit though.
This is my favorite view of the spot. There’s no phone reception in this little zone so you’re watching it with nobody bugging you. You can only hear waves and it’s really peaceful. I spent two hours up here this evening, just frothing on that shadow falling.
Shark JAWS 
Detail from the workspace of Ben Wilkinson. I was at his place to shoot some pictures of him working on his acclaimed furniture. When I see details like this around, I feel like it’s a sign people are connected to where they live. They’re in tune with their environment. Ben is definitely like that. 
Shipstern Bluff Mikey Brennan is amazing at Shipstern—all the Tasmanian regulars are. What I find just as impressive down there is the way they include you. I’ve only been there a few times and I don’t know them super well. But each time we end up at the pub by a fire having a few beers and going over the day. They’ve got such a great community around that wave. I really wish every place had the same vibe.

Is there still a career path out there for a photographer to make a living shooting surf? “I don’t know who’s making a full-time living out of it now, actually. I know lots of people doing amazing work but it’s a part-time thing and it is for me too. Unless you are full-time with a brand, it’s not a full-time living. There will always be a home, though, for classic images. It’s made me appreciate print so much more because you get exposed to so many disposable images on social media.”

Sloane was born and bred in the inland Victorian town of Ballarat, picking up surfing at a young age and running weekend trips to the coast through high school and university, where he graduated as an environmental scientist. That qualification got him a career as a hydrologist working mostly outside in the rugged mountainous terrain of the Otway Ranges. Shooting surf started in 2009 when he picked up a camera from his brother who was a keen photographer. 

“I was working full-time and had the money to buy housings and just thought, ‘Fuck it. I’m going to swim straight away.’ Second time I ever shot anything was at Bird Rock on a nice clean morning and straight up I knew: this is it, this is what I’m going to do.”

Craig Anderson
This is an occasionally amazing novelty wave that you actually can’t shoot from land. A penguin colony lives on the beach there and many years ago some idiots went down and killed them. The parks service decided to close the beach forever and the penguins are back and undisturbed now. The rangers enforce it well and you get fined if you are on the beach—very rare in Australia. We took a ski in and I waded the shallows for a few.
The cliffs down the coast from where I live are ancient and unique, even for Australia. It’s one of the most beautiful places to go surfing in the world, I think.

Surf photography as a career path wasn’t on the menu initially for Sloane. “As a result of working professionally I had a sense of the value of the work but six years into a science career, surf photography didn’t really seem a possibility. I started selling to websites then got some magazine work and graduated to covering events for Surfline and now the WSL. It’s been a pretty steep trajectory.”

Learning his craft in Victoria presented a double-edged sword, says Sloane. “In a lot of ways I think it was advantageous that I lived there when I started because there was hardly anyone shooting water and there still isn’t—at least compared to the Gold Coast, where there are 50,000 guys with housings all shooting the same thing. But in terms of the work, I’ve always felt myself craving East Coast light or West Coast light. Our color palette is different too. It’s gray and muted. It’s harder to create work that’s [traditionally] beautiful.”

Key to Sloane’s success, according to fellow Victorian and filmmaker/publisher Mick Sowry is that, “as a scientist, he approaches things very methodically—he’s technically perfect. But that hasn’t hindered his artistic process at all because at the same time he’s got a really good eye.”

Shit Stirrer 
This is off the first roll of film I ever shot. I was trying to figure out medium format and rang up my buddy Banjo. He was shaping around the corner from me and is someone I felt I could make mistakes with and take my time. We weren’t really doing this for any reason other than me learning a new tool. But as always in a shaping bay, there’s plenty of atmosphere, details, and fun. Shapers have to be some of the best subjects in surfing, which segues into…
Maurice Cole
This portrait of Maurice Cole was captured during an interview with a journalist in Cole’s chook shed behind Bells Beach. No set-up required—the late afternoon light came through a crack in the shed and hit him perfectly.
Gabriel Medina
This was the day after the epic 2014 Teahupo’o event. There was literally nobody else going out that morning as the waves had been so good for so long. I got on a boat with Ted Grambeau and Tom Servais and, only at the last minute, put in my housing. Gabriel was surfing completely alone at first light—the morning after he won the contest. That says a lot.  

Sowry’s 2012 project The Reef, which entailed a group of classical musicians and finless surfers camped out in the W.A. desert for weeks, drew Sloane in as a photographer. According to Sowry, “I think the experience of The Reef, with mentors like Jon Frank, or at least being able to watch him work, was a really good experience for Ed. He has such a tenaciousness to get the shot. It’s been amazing to see him develop so quickly.”

Describing the abundance of free-surf images on social media as “daunting,” Sloane broke the shackles of full-time employment by spending a year traveling Europe with his fiancé in 2013. “That weaned me off a full-time income. After a year of travel with no money, it became psychologically bearable to take on something as haphazard as surf photography.”

Ed sees his style as naturalistic. “I didn’t really want to copy anyone else. I want to represent what I see in the ocean. Anytime you’re in the ocean it’s such a super-dynamic environment. I’m always keen to chase aesthetically pleasing images of good surfers. They don’t have to be pros.”

Mitch Coleborn
Late evening at Pipeline. Is there any better time or place to be shooting photos? 
Cheyne Horan
Cheyne speaks to one of my favorite elements of being a surf photographer: the sheer range of personalities makes every shoot a joy.
Surf Coast Shire
This is the most deceptive lineup ever. This wave is “a thing” but it’s absolutely nothing like this photo makes out. Don’t even waste your time looking.

In his work with the WSL, Sloane documents the world’s best surfers, both in the jersey and free surfing. His ethos centers on developing his instinct for capturing the “crux moments” that happen around events. “You get exposed to amazing situations all the time. It’s definitely a commercial role in terms of deadlines. Things have to be put out quickly. You’re not considering the art as much. You’re trying to represent what happens, and that fits in with my own style of trying to represent things naturally.”

He laughs off the question of where he might be in five or ten years’ time. “I’ve got no idea. Who knows? It’s been such an interesting ride. I used to sit in an office and go out to the same places every day and do the same job. Now, I’m freelance, not working for anyone except myself, traveling heaps. I have to pinch myself. Where this is going, I really don’t know.”

[Feature image: Dane Gudauskas 

I shot this on my first trip to Hawaii. I was in a house at Sunset for five weeks, enduring a seemingly endless run of small, rainy, windy surf. Not what I had expected. There were, however, moments to be found and I think it’s fitting that this bright image of Dane down at Rockpiles was captured in the middle of what felt, to me, like a depressingly long stretch of time.]