Forty years of Ted Grambeau’s wandering and searching eye.
Introduction by Sean Doherty | Photos and captions by Ted Grambeau
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Seeing Ted Grambeau pulling up in the driveway comes as quite the surprise. I thought he was in Portugal, for starters. But hey, that’s Ted. He comes and he goes. He arrives in an old hatchback with Queensland plates that he’s driven from the Gold Coast all the way down to Torquay, a two-day haul. It strikes me that I’ve only ever seen Ted in rental cars and until now have had no idea what he actually drives at home. The car is too small for his tall frame, and it takes a choreographed series of movements for him to extricate himself. His bags and cameras are in the back seat.
Lots of questions, the obvious first: What’s he doing here? Ted doesn’t generally need a reason to be anywhere—he moves with the wind—but I ask regardless. “So, it’s a little bit awkward at the moment,” he replies with a nod toward the car. “Sort of…jumping around from place to place right now.”
Turns out Ted is currently homeless, by choice. Before leaving for Portugal, he’d packed up his Gold Coast apartment, put everything in storage, and moved out. Now back in Australia, he’s bouncing between friends’ houses, traveling around the country at a loose end, shooting whatever gets in front of his camera. “I’ve always got a room wherever I go,” he offers, relaxed. Often, becoming homeless marks some kind of rock-bottom episode, but Ted appears to have never been happier. Home has never been home for Ted.
Surf writer Steve Barilotti used to stay at Ted’s apartment on the Gold Coast when he was visiting from California. Ted was rarely there, of course. He was always swanning off on some exotic adventure, shooting bikini models in Belize or embarking on a solo scouting mission for surf in Cape Verde. Ted would leave a spare key under the flowerpot with the dead fern in it. Barlo would always quip that the only thing he ever found in Ted’s fridge was film and margarine. The apartment, Barlo said, felt more like a hotel room. “Now I don’t even have a fridge,” Ted says, half-laughing.
Having spent most of the past four decades on the road, he explains, he’s cutting all ties for another grand odyssey. The Portugal trip was part reccy for this great trip, but also a conditioned response. After two years of pandemic lockdowns on the Gold Coast, Ted was in flight mode. It didn’t matter where. “It’s the longest time in 40 years that I’ve been in one place,” he offers. “I couldn’t really plan or do anything. That was the most frustrating thing. I couldn’t even go interstate, let alone overseas.”
For a guy who’s built a life around traveling, two years confined to the suburb of Currumbin, putting the bins out on Thursdays, presented challenges to his sanity. He describes those two years, spent watching swell systems traveling free while he was stationary, as “a special kind of torture. I was just waiting for them to leave the gate open a touch and I was gone.”
That was Portugal. Ted left the day after the Omicron variant hit Australia. He set out with no real plan. He spent most of the past winter in Nazaré, “photographing the ocean more than I was photographing the surf.” As Ted tends to do, he started taking trips within trips. He woke up one morning and thought, “A snowstorm would be good,” so he flew to New York to shoot one. He later hired a car and drove to Norway on his own, 5,000 miles in ten days: “It was stunning. I’d just pull over, taking photos for no one other than myself.” Originally a Victorian, Ted has always had an affinity for the cold. He once described it this way: “Summer is a color; winter is a mood.”
While in Europe, he also set his sights on North Africa, drove to Morocco, and found it eerily deserted. He’d last been there three years prior with Torren Martyn. The points had been a parking lot, lined with Sprinter vans from Europe. Not this time. “I heard there were a couple of guys from Hawaii there,” he says, “but I never actually got to see them. Other than that, there were no foreign travelers down there at all.”
It reminded him of a trip to Morocco in the late 80s, driving an old Citroën down from Paris with Brock Little and Gary Green. They’d crossed from Gibraltar on the ferry, Brock diving overboard a mile off the African coast and swimming the rest of the way in. “We didn’t have a clue what we were doing,” Ted recalls. “Brock would buy beer, Greeny would buy other Moroccan delights, and I’d drive. There was no pressure. We were just looking for some good surf, and it was so easy. Word of mouth saw us end up at Anchor Point, which we didn’t really get on, but nearby there were other waves—the Boiler—that were better, and there was no one there. The really good waves weren’t getting surfed because no one there was good enough to surf them.”
The Morocco trip predated Rip Curl’s The Search by a couple of years, but captured the spirit of what that campaign would soon become. Ted would provide a pivotal figure when it launched. He was on all the early trips, the iconic ones: Curren at J-Bay. The first Mentawai trips on the Indies Trader I.
Shooting alongside the late Sonny Miller, Ted captured the lost genius of Curren at his peak. Ted’s mysto lineup shots—often taken on his own sidebar trips to remote, godforsaken crumbs on a map—fueled imaginations. In many ways, he launched The Search as much as The Search launched Ted. It also hitched him to the surf industry just as it was taking off. A 30-year career as surfing’s premier travel photographer followed.
Ted grew up in rural Victoria, over on the east coast at Wonthaggi. A football injury in his teens saw him take up photography, but it was movie nights hosted by a group of local Cape Paterson surfers that really put him on the path. They’d shot Super 8 footage on their travels to Mauritius, South Africa, and other far-flung locations. Young Ted watched on, spellbound. “I’m just seeing this surf that is so perfect. Better than anything I’d ever seen,” he recalls. “These were home movies of people I knew, and I’m like, ‘This looks pretty cool. J-Bay with no houses and sand dunes. Maybe I should go there.’” Ted remembers it as “a magnetic force. I wanted to travel. I knew that from the start.”
Being Victorian, Ted had Peter Troy as a reference point. Troy’s travels by then were the stuff of legend, and Ted was adamant he was going to travel in the same romantic, Old World style: solo, overland, culturally embedded, see where the road took him. “I remember one of my first trips hitchhiking from Morocco across to Tunisia and eventually to Algeria,” Ted recalls. “No idea what I was doing. This guy’s driven me a hundred kilometers and dropped me in the middle of the Sahara Desert. No town, nowhere to stay, getting dark. I’m just sleeping on the side of the road, I guess. I thought, ‘Okay, this’ll be cool. It’ll make a good story.’ I fell asleep in the sand on the side of the road and of course it was cool. Very cool. I almost froze to death.”
There’s a classic self-portrait of Ted, taken with a timer in a $2.50-a-night hotel room in Penang, that captures the traveler as a young man. “Penang back in the day used to be a bucket stop for cheap flights through Asia,” he remembers. “You could get standby flights to pretty much anywhere in the world. It was a crossroads. There was epic food and cheap accommodation and there were so many characters there. I guess it was on the hippie trail; there were travelers moving through, workers in transit, surfers, people up to all sorts of things. And I mean all sorts of things. Not that I frequented any of those establishments myself.”
Now in his sixties, Ted has come full circle and is in many ways closer to that idealistic young traveler now than he was at the height of his career. “I guess my search has been as much about the journey as about the waves,” he says. “People see the wave as the goal, the only goal. But seriously, that’s just the end result. It’s like sex without love. The journey is what it’s all about. The whole surfing experience for me is much more sophisticated than that.”
Like most surf photographers of his era, Ted took a vow of poverty that he’s remained true to over the years. “I tend to specialize in things that don’t make a profit,” he quips. “It seems to be a theme in my life, but I’m perfectly happy. Maybe when I’m gone, the financial success will be bestowed upon my nephews and nieces, or something like that.”
The calls from the surf brands have slowed up in recent years, but that’s also fine. Ted has had a good run and remains grateful. He would have done it for free, truthfully, although he wasn’t telling the brands that at the time.
He doesn’t own much—just whatever’s in the storage locker on the Gold Coast and in the back seat of the hatch. Possessions just slow him up. An eight-month motorbike trip between Los Angeles and Patagonia taught him to travel light. Ted intends to travel even lighter on his next journey: “Other than the pharaohs, show me someone who takes everything with them.” But it’s what he intends to leave behind that’s driving him now.
This brings us back to Ted in the driveway. The old bones that creaked when he got out of the car have been telling him something. “I’m relatively healthy at the moment, but the warranty is running out,” he says. “Once you’re over 60, you start to notice a few aches and pains, and I’ve realized I’ve probably got five years of serious travel left in me.”
On the flip side, his eye is sharper than ever and he sees more. “Time is ticking on my creative potential and my ability to do that sort of travel,” he says. “These next five years are going to be pretty hardcore.”
What that looks like, Ted’s still not sure. He’s got a friend in Liberia he might go and see. He’s got friends all over the world he wants to catch up with. Ted, ever the gentleman, is welcomed back wherever he’s been. He wants to return to trophy waves he’s shot over the years, to post up for months to shoot them at their best. And he’s still a believer that there are waves out there yet to be surfed or shot. “There’s plenty left,” he says. “The world’s still there. The world’s still a big place. That’s the reason I won’t settle down.”
[Feature Photo: One of my mission statements is to photograph the best waves in the world at their very best. When a massive swell was about to hit Indonesia in 2018, I knew I had to get to Nias. Mark Healey was there and had the good fortune to break several of his smaller boards on a previous swell, leaving him with only XL craft. He was one of the few guys equipped to paddle into the double- and triple-ups. Everyone else was under-gunned and couldn’t get down the face.]