Sharpshooting arcade ducks for nearly four decades…and counting
Words by Scott HuletPhotos by Tom Servais
Light / Dark
Built to Last
Tom Servais recently visited The Journal at our specific bidding, which he does regularly. He goes way back with founders Steve and Debbee Pezman. During Jeff Divine’s long tenure here, Servais would often drop in to heckle and be heckled. I could hear the old friends from my office. Depending on who was gaining the upper hand, I’d holler kill shots in support of the underdog—even if it meant fragging Divine.
This was an edit bullpen, not some eight-cornered HR/PC situation. Things were loose. Surf-lot banter. Parentage, inclinations, public gaffes—no gloves. Mostly it was good-natured and harmlessly juvenile. “Serv-anus.” “Div-Einstein.” Grown men with grown-men problems at play in what Pezman once called the toy department of world affairs. Surf publishing. Having yuks. I gained a friendship with the energetic and even-keeled Servais that I enjoy to this day. I also gained respect for his inarguably accomplished output.
The longtime in-house Surfer senior photographer’s work exudes an enthusiast’s stoke and a dead-nuts technical mastery. That is to say, he’s one of surfing’s true sports photographers. He’s also known for occasionally definitive and always flattering portraiture (another reason the pros love him).
Servais makes his bones crafting needle-sharp, balanced compositions of the world’s best professional surfers on redlining days at the heaviest waves. Usually in the Pacific. Typically in Hawaii, Fiji, and Tahiti. And he’s done it for the lion’s share of a half century.
For a pro surfing fan, he’s far from immune to surfing’s mood and natural-world appeal. The art of it. No lifelong surfer can be, can they? Think “Curren Cutback.” Everyone on the beach was using Canon glass. Most were shooting underexposed Fuji Velvia pushed a full stop. But Servais’ angle and timing yielded a frame that honored and celebrated Curren’s line of dance. He knows how to trigger emotion. His life’s list of colleagues don’t hedge.
Early 90s Surfer editor Steve Hawk knew just how to exploit Servais’ talents. During a redesign of that title, a merging of sport and art was leveraged. Servais’ intangibles were invaluable.
“His humility and gentle spirit mean that other surfers, even the most self-enamored pros, like to travel with him,” Hawk says. “And once the action starts, he’s tireless. I’ve seen him stand in hot sand, sit in rickety skiffs, and bob on sponges in the channel for endless hours, waiting for that instant when it all comes together. But he’s way more than a sideline photojournalist. Most of my favorite Servais photos are true art, and they involve empty lineups and mysterious light. Cloudbreak. G-Land. Peahi. I have several Servais images in my head that I can conjure anytime, anywhere. I close my eyes and they take me away.”
But Servais doesn’t bristle at the sport aspect. He claims it. The most professionally lauded surfers at the most heralded spots. The front-runners and downward dogs. The winners and also-rans. So long as they suit up, paddle out, and knife in at Pipe, Cloudbreak, Chopes, or Jaws, Servais will be there to shoot them.
“I’ve always felt like the photos that are going to stand the test of time are photos of the places, mostly,” Servais says. “So that’s kind of where I put my focus. Especially in the last ten years, since I left Surfer and I’ve been more self-funded. I want to go places where, even if I don’t make any money, I’m at least going to get some photos that I think are valuable to my collection and might stand the test of time. And because all the best surfers in the world are there, you kind of have all the fish in the pond in front of you. You don’t have to go chasing people around or hope that someone shows up. I like shooting where I don’t have to be in a car with surfers and do exactly what they want to do all day long. I like to go to Hawaii or Tahiti where I can do my own thing, but I know when it’s good I can go shoot and the guys are there.”
Fastidious but unfussy, Servais’ mode of travel continues to serve him well. Given the surf industry’s dwarf star implosion, expense budgets are a fond memory. More Stoic than Gucci, he’s built to ride out downturns.
“I don’t mind roughing it a little bit,” Servais says. “I have a family I’ve stayed with in Tahiti since 1998, when I first went there. In Hawaii, I’ve got a really nice place for 50 bucks a night. Fiji, I’ve been going [to Tavarua] since day one so they take care of me there. And, you know, I camped out in Australia for a lot of years. I had a storage unit. I’d go straight from the airport, grab my gear, and just live in my tent for five or six weeks. Which I loved. I don’t really like hotel rooms, so it wasn’t really such a sacrifice. Sure, I would love to be able to travel and not worry about excess luggage or sitting in a crappy seat. Sure, I’d love to sit in business class every time, because those long flights in economy can be tough. But I’m not one of these guys that needs to be pampered. I like camping out and being outside.”
No matter. Bivouac or billet, he gets the job done relentlessly, and has earned the trust of publishers, photo editors, and art directors in every time zone.
“Designing Australia’s Surfing Life through the 90s and 2000s,” says media impresario Gra Murdoch, “I developed a bit of a sixth sense about a stack of sheets on the lightbox before even flicking the flouros on. Maybe it was more Pavlovian conditioning.”
Murdoch, the Aussie who is today responsible for the stunning print effort White Horses, continues:
“I’d see a sheet of trannies with ‘SERVAIS,’ and before even getting the loupe out, I’d see the Pacific blues and the pulled-back, you-are-there perspectives, and I’d kind of drool. I’d just know there was going to be stuff that was special, technically brilliant, and would print up a dream. It was fitting that an image of his graced the launch issue of Horses in 2012.”
Alas, the era of the traditional ad-driven surf magazine hangs suspended, Wile E. Coyote-like, above the abyss. Many titles were forcibly disappeared, others are balefully eating last suppers. Servais sometimes wonders about the future of surf photography. How will the young bucks come up without mentorship, entry-level employment, and professional criticism? What does one say when the landlord refuses “likes” as payment? Hollering “OK Boomer” won’t settle the tab. Servais cites two young shooters who, by force of will and raw talent, have made it work.
“I don’t know Morgan Maassen very well,” says Servais, “but he’s directing commercials and he’s got a lot of skills as far as handling pressure jobs. Chris Burkard is doing lectures and selling scenic photos. They’re both successful, obviously. But the surfers have gotten to the point where they hire their own guy to go shoot a RED camera, and then their sponsors take still-frame grabs off the video.”
Etiher way, Servais is still at it. A working relationship with Kai Lenny has yielded some earth-shakers. He enjoys shooting regular punters at Tavarua. He still self-funds trips for the contests in Fiji, Tahiti, and at Jaws. He’s proud of his last decade of work, as featured in this piece.
“I’ve always been addicted [to the surfing topic] and I guess I still am,” he says. “I have a group of people I mountain bike with, and some new guy will show up and go, ‘Oh, I heard you’re the surf photographer, Tom Servais. I know your photos!’ I’m like, ‘Hey, man, can we talk about something else right now?’”
His stance is understandable, given his time at the tripod. But damn, does the work hold up.