Ron Perrott was instrumental in documenting 1960s surf culture—in both Australia and places beyond. Then he disappeared.
Words by Andrew Crockett | Photography by Ron Perrott
Light / Dark
There are some curious characters in 1960s surfing culture, which, it seems, often attracted the fringe dwellers of society. Professional lensman Ron Perrott is of particular intrigue in that regard.
Perrott’s captures of the era, in both black and white as well as colorful Kodachrome ignited the pages of surf magazines, and his roaming tales of adventure are credited with turning on a generation of surf exploration. He was the first Australian surf photographer to gain attention in America, with his photo scribing of “Down Under With Ron Perrott” being a semi-regular feature in Surfer magazine. His artistic output could be said to rival that of the famed Ron Stoner. Paralleling Stoner’s own role in the history of surf photography, by the 1970s Perrott, too, had vanished almost as quickly as he’d arrived.
Following Perrott’s departure from shooting surf, rumors circulated that the photographic maestro was living quietly in an unknown corner of New Zealand. Other rumblings had him residing in Europe. Still more said he was encamped on islands off the coast of Africa. It wasn’t until around 1980 that anyone really began to look for him. By 1988, he had died. It would be another two decades until his image archive would finally be uncovered.
Equally as strange—considering his central place in documenting that period of the country’s emerging surf movement, and among the many foundational figures who passed in front of his camera and who were directly influenced by his work—no one in the surfing clan really knew him personally or even much about him.
There are a few details of Perrott’s personal life, however, that can be discerned, and his path from obscurity to pioneering surf photographer and back again is traceable in the moments he shot.
Born in 1935, Perrot grew up on the Northern Beaches of Sydney. His personality has been described as quiet and thoughtful. He married briefly and had no children. He was a qualified carpenter who worked for his father’s joinery business, which supplemented the meager paychecks from the surf magazines that published his work. In addition to photography, he was involved in motorbike racing. Like photography, he was supposedly quite good at it. In the early 1960s, when time permitted, Perrott would often team up with surfer, shaper, and industry player Barry Bennett to roadshow the latest surf films along the east coast of Australia.
In the microcosm that was the Northern Beaches of Sydney in the early 1960s, Perrott went from a mostly innocuous existence to pseudo-celebrity status with one photo shoot: the famed images of Dave Jackman riding a heavy, D-fin balsa gun at the Queenscliff Bombora in June 1961. It was a pioneering moment in Australian big-wave surfing, with Bob Evans’ footage splashed all over Australian national television and Perrott’s photos celebrated in Sydney newspapers and on the front cover of Australia’s first surfing magazine, The Australian Surfer, complete with adoring profiles of the day’s heroes: Jackman, Scott Dillon, and Bob Pike.
It was also through those images that American surfers first became aware of Perrott. Months after the session, John Severson republished the shots in Surfer. The two stayed in touch thereafter, as Severson could sense the passion and exactness in Perrott’s work, and it would set up a significant global connection in surfing photography from then on out.
Perrott managed to capture another significant moment in surf history just a few years later, leaning out the side of a helicopter to shoot the 1964 World Surfing Championships at Manly Beach, the much-hyped and inaugural event of that title and prestige. Perrott’s resulting images of the men’s and women’s champions, Midget Farrelly and Phyllis O’Donnel, in full wave-riding flight remain perhaps the most recognizable shots of the two.
But just after the landmark event and the accompanying images Perrott created, he disappeared from the Northern Beaches, appearing never to return.
Photographically, in both major happenings and everyday images of the surf and its lifestyle, Perrott’s output in the early 60s remains historically significant—in the same echelon as the late Jack Eden, who founded Surfabout magazine, and noted Australian lensmen John Witzig, Bob Weeks, and John Pennings.
In fact, Perrott’s influence can be directly traced to those younger photographers, even if his interactions with them were fleeting.
In 1961, young Witzig was already a fan of Perrott’s work. Witzig recalls the older shooter inviting him to his darkroom, situated in a wing off of his family’s joinery factory, to offer him advice and introduce him to the joys and disappointments of photo processing. Perrott also loaned Witzig a camera and lens. A short time later, Witzig shot his first roll of film at Collaroy on the borrowed equipment. The subject of those images? A gangly teenager named Nat Young. It was from there that Witzig was truly turned on in terms of documenting wave riding.
Fellow pioneering Australian surf photographer Pennings met Perrott only once, but the encounter nevertheless had a lasting effect. It was on the sand at Sydney’s Palm Beach in 1960, during an extraordinarily large swell that was bouncing the outer islands and creating a wave unusual enough to catch the attention of Perrott, who was set up on the shore with his tripod and camera cases at the ready. A curious Pennings, not yet equipped with his own camera gear, sidled up to Perrott to learn more. Pennings walked away with a small black-and-white print of the famed Queenscliff Bombora and further interest in the art of photography, a craft he would pursue with vigor from 1963 to 1969. Asked if Perrott was part of his motivation to pursue surf photography, Pennings replies, “Without question.”
While Perrott and Pennings are seemingly from the same era and the same part of Sydney when surfing was still limited to a small group of participants, Pennings, like others, knew little else about the photographer who influenced him.
“Everyone sort of knew everyone back then on the Northern Beaches,” says the laconic Mick Dooley of the period. Except Perrott, it seems. Farrelly, Young, and Dillon might have been hip to Perrott’s images of themselves and each other, yet none could claim they actually knew him.
To those aware of his presence, Perrott seemingly would appear out of nowhere, shoot some photos, and quietly retreat into his own world away from surfing. Aside from assisting in the screenings of the latest movies, he didn’t attend the notorious parties and gatherings of the surfing tribe. While most surfers from that era talk fondly of him and his genuine and quiet nature, and though they respect in particular his unique imagery and terrific eye, that’s about where their relationship began and ended.
“Ron would sometimes come into the factory in Brookvale,” offered the late Dillon, “and show us some photos of us surfing at Dee Why or the Bommie. We had no idea he was even there shooting photos.”
What they can recall about Perrott’s personality, specifically, was that he appeared to be intense about understanding his equipment and mastering the use of it. Pennings, even in their single meeting, recalls that Perrott was engrossed in his craft, immersed in the knowledge of his equipment, and dedicated to combining it all by sinking his funds into furthering his trade with top-quality film, lenses, and camera bodies. Perrott owned a gamut of high-quality Nikon equipment, much of it modified to fit his specific needs. He also used a diverse range of Kodachrome, Ektachrome, and boutique color slide films in various formats.
Likewise, surfer David “Mex” Sumpter remembers being intrigued by Perrott’s use of high-powered WWII telephoto lenses that were capable of getting a sharp shot from nearly a mile away.
“Perrott had this big lens set up on the beach at Queenscliff and he was shooting us surfing with it,” Sumpter says. “The lens was so big and powerful that when we came in, he aimed it up at the cathedral on the hill behind the Bower and we zoomed in through the windows and clearly saw the nuns in their habits and the priests in their gowns.”
Looking at Perrott’s photos, there’s the sense that part of their uniqueness is in this choice and mastery of his equipment. For example, his use of those long lenses has an effect that separates his work from the close-cropped action that dominated the period. The famous Midget “spinner” photo—taken from far away, possibly on a high-rise veranda or balcony—is a case in point. Taken in sum, there’s a more powerful sentiment to such images. Perhaps Perrott was sensitive enough to understand that if he could document surfers without them knowing it, especially in this early and commercial-free era, then he could capture the true essence of the individual riding waves.
As Australia’s surf presence grew in the mid and late 1960s, and as those early surfers who had been the focus of Perrott’s eye, as well as the younger lensmen who were influenced by him, became renowned and luminous figures in their own right, Perrott seems to have not just left that initial visual resource, but the country entirely.
Still, for the next few years, his byline remained consistent and significant in the pages of surf magazines. After leaving Australia, he landed in South Africa, where he stayed for close to a decade, fine-tuning his surf photography and developing his skills for unusual and fascinating images of the continent.
In 1967, word was out that there might be waves in the Seychelles, islands located in the Somali Sea. Perrott negotiated an article with Surfer on the archipelago’s wave holdings and signed on as part of the crew of a trimaran to get there. The trip would take Perrott to Greece by way of the Red Sea and up the east coast of Africa by navigating through the Mozambique Channel, a stretch of water over a thousand miles long and feared for its stormy nature and large sharks. They stopped in a small volcanic archipelago called the Comoro Islands (Ngazidja, Mwali, Ndzuwani, and Maore), at the time considered one of the most mysterious and unexplored places on the planet, to stock up on water, food, and other supplies.
Perrott’s photos and journal entries from that adventure tantalized the surfers who saw them when they were published in the magazine shortly thereafter. They were morsels that left readers hungry for more. Perrott had somewhat unwittingly contributed to the travel and exploration craze that would soon follow in surf culture and, for some of that time, it would remain what the Australian was best known for.
In the 1970s, Perrott left South Africa for New Zealand. There, he married and enjoyed a semi-rural life outside of Auckland, and even established a successful commercial photography business. At some point, he quietly returned to Australia, settling into the northern New South Wales coast near Coffs Harbour, where he died alone and of unknown causes in 1988 at the age of 53.
His photographs were said to have died with him, having been lost completely or stored somewhere in an unmarked shoebox. Ironically, the search for empty waves that Perrott had inspired with his images of African islands came to mirror the search for his film negatives and slides.
By the late 1990s, nearly a decade after Perrott had passed, there were considerable efforts being made to try to find his archive. Tipped off by O’Donnel and Sumpter, Bruce Channon, then-editor of Australian Longboarding magazine and former editor of Surfing World magazine, drove the search for Perrott’s imagery, which ultimately led to Perrott’s sister, Cathy. Channon was told that the archive did survive, and all the material had been given to Perrott’s cousin and fellow surfer Ron Saggers.
After nearly a decade of people poking around looking for that missing link of Australian and global surf history, Channon dialed up the phone number he believed could finally hold the answer. Indeed, Saggers was in possession of the loot, and said he was happy to discuss sharing it. In fact, Saggers had recently spent a week scouring over the photos and was wondering what possibly could be done with them.
The search for the images had traversed the globe, from Europe to South Africa to New Zealand. But when Channon inquired as to where Saggers lived and how he could finally view the archives, Saggers explained that he lived on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, on the headland between two noted stretches. To Channon’s complete bemusement, Saggers was describing the exact location where Channon himself lived. They were effectively neighbors.
The serendipity of how Perrott’s imagery survived invokes a strong lasting feeling toward both the man and the period he preserved. Though he remains something of an enigma, both he and his work completed a full-circle track, ultimately presenting a bygone era in a way that feels, all these years later, fresh and pointed. For as significant as the photographs were when they were taken, they possess a quality that makes them equally so today.