In most cases, looking at the 1960s surf photography of Bob Weeks also means viewing the only existing record of some enviable days along Australia’s East Coast. Weeks’ images provide surfers access to a brief period that would have otherwise quickly faded from memory. As the tendency toward over-documentation renders photography a deflating currency, that kind of finitude is easy to appreciate. Weeks now lives in Northern New South Wales. He took a solid four-decade pause from working with his surf photos. But in issue 23.6 readers will find a selection from his archive that includes pristine early-60s lineups from Sydney to Noosa. Here Weeks talks about photography vs. memory and the striking changes to many of the surf breaks he’s been returning to over the years.
You didn’t return to your archive of 60s surf photos for almost 40 years, when you began restoring them. Do the photographs live up to your memories of the better sessions from that time period?
That’s difficult to answer. There are some sessions when I can remember my camera shaking in my hands because the waves were so good. But I think the photos do live up to my memory. I can recall traveling up the north coast to surf Crescent Head, Angourie, and Byron. The spots were just magic. I still look at the photos and think, “Wow.” The boards were really heavy and difficult to maneuver, so you didn’t get the dramatic looking images you see in so many magazines now. But it’s still amazing to see photos of those breaks without people all over them.
Do you think that’s part of the attraction of your archival images to surfers—seeing these breaks before they were overrun?
A lot of younger people who surf the places I’ve photographed are interested in seeing how much the surrounding landscape has changed. Most of my photos were taken until about ’66. At the time it was just a lot of country towns and dirt roads north of Sydney. It was pretty primitive. There were a few fishing shacks at Angourie and that was it. Now there’s a wide [paved] road that leads to a luxury township with beautiful houses. I suppose people like observing those kinds of changes in my photographs. There were no other surf photographers in Cronulla that early on. At the time, camera equipment—like a 400-mil lens—was so expensive. It wasn’t until the late 60s that there were more photographers.
What made you return to your archive of surf photos?
Around 2000, when I first started transferring images onto my computer, there wasn’t any demand or interest in my surf photography from the 60s. Then I was contacted by [writer] Andrew Crockett, when he was assembling his second book. He wanted to do a portfolio of my photos. He’d probably seen a few of them in old magazines or something. And that’s what really made me think, “Well, I better start scanning all of these.” Once people realized I had the images, they began reaching out. But there were also more people doing book projects on surfing, and more magazines started doing archival stories, so there actually became a greater demand. As time goes on and people’s memories are erased, I suppose they’ve become more valuable. I haven’t finished scanning my negs yet either. There are more images to go through—not many—but I’m not interested in publishing more at the moment.(Left) The road to Angourie, 1965. “There were a few fishing shacks at Angourie and that was it. Now there’s a wide [paved] road that leads to a luxury township.” (Right) Bob Kennerson at North Narrabeen, 1963. Weeks says, “People at school would hear the surf was good, come down at lunchtime, then never go back to class.” Photos: Weeks
What came first for you: an interest in surfing or photography?
Long before I started surfing, I was obsessed with photography. I put a lot of research into my work. There wasn’t as much information on photography out there at the time. I read whatever I could in magazines and went to a show in Sydney with a German photographer to learn how he processed film. You look at the images from the early 60s and a lot of the quality is not very good, so you really had to know what you were doing. The quality of film has improved dramatically, of course. But the tonal range of black and white film has also changed, which gives the images a much different feel.
How did you get interested in surfing in those early years?
My family moved to Cronulla in ’58. I went down to the beach there one day, saw these guys surfing, and thought, “That’s for me.” I didn’t know anyone who surfed but I bought a board and met people that way. No one was earning money from surfing or surf photography. There were hardly any magazines and the quality of printing in magazines was poor. People didn’t think of it as something you could get paid for. It was always a hobby.“Most people call this place Oak Park, near Cronulla Beach,” says Weeks of his photo from 1964. “We christened it ‘Sand Shoes’ when we first started surfing there, because if you lost your board it would wash up on these rocks that were full of sea urchins. People started paddling out in their sand shoes.” Photo: Weeks
Are you still able to tap into that kind of amateur’s enjoyment of surfing now?
When I started surfing we weren’t aware of what was around us. So a lot of the fun of it was just finding that out. Most breaks were pretty isolated. Surfing is so much more competitive now. Even just paddling out at an average break, the atmosphere is so much different. But I still get a little bit of it now, with two of my friends. We go to a beach that’s a little out of the way. The waves aren’t the best but we have it to ourselves.
A selection of the finest images from Bob Weeks’ archive of 1960s surf photography is available in issue 23.6 of TSJ