Logan Murray is regarded internationally as one of surfing's top line-up photographers and for more than 50 years has captured images that captivate and inspire. His new book, Line-Up, features pristine waves in Aotearoa.
I'm on the landward side of Wainui Beach in Gisborne, but I get a bit of a view of the sea from the bedroom upstairs. Enough to tell me what the swell is like, if it's clean, what direction the wind is going in and what ships are heading out to sea with a load of pine logs. I'm about 30m from the beach access.
I spend a lot of the year in bare feet. I do a beach walk every morning to stay fit, so that I can hike into places carrying camera gear — the areas I go to are often steep and if you have several lenses, it's quite a bit of weight ... Since I started, the basics of photography have not changed at all. The technology has.
I think as everywhere worldwide, as New Zealand gets more crowded, people appreciate images that show an absence of humanity. Open spaces. The wilderness. Everyone likes to dream that they can share that. Editors overseas are very conscious that most of their market is urban and coastal towns, but the surf in those places is crowded, the crowd is aggressive and greedy. It's not easy to surf in that environment. And it's not pleasant. There's a real pecking order. One of my closest friends lives in California and I asked him, "Where do you surf?" He looked at me like I was funny, like I was a bit stupid. He said, "I don't surf in California — not at all, it's just too crowded." He's been a surfer all his life and he never goes surfing where he grew up.
By the late 70s it was deteriorating. As a kid in the 60s in New Zealand you dreamed of California, the sunshine, the surf, the surf stars who were your idols ...
Here, I see more ocean than I do people. Gisborne's got a little bit busier. People have moved here because they can work remotely, and they all want to live at the beach. But it's certainly not crowded like other places.
I spent some 30 years at Mt Maunganui. I left because it got too crowded. When I went there it was just a small town of about 12,000 people; it was working-class with a bit of influx in summer when out-of-town people came to their baches. All of that has hugely changed. By the mid-to-late-90s those changes made me have a rethink. I used to be able to come home from a surf, strip off in the backyard, get under the hose and watch hang gliders coming off the top of the Mount. The town was changing so much I felt less and less at home and I was also travelling to Gisborne a lot. At the time Gisborne was in hard times. The unemployment rate when I moved there was 22.5 per cent. As for job prospects, I was terrified. One local surfer just looked me right in the eye, and said, "The town is dying." Whereas now, the population is growing and the town is booming.
I've noticed changes in the ocean, the environment. When I was a kid in the 60s, the fish were plentiful. Including sharks. There were a lot of sharks in the water in Ruakākā, in Northland, where I spent my high school years. It was very common. You never got out of the water because otherwise you'd never get a surf in. But you didn't worry because there were plenty of fish in the water for them to eat. When I first moved to Gisborne, there'd be these boil-ups of kahawai right near the beach and I'd cast a lure and quickly haul in five or six big kahawai pretty much instantly. Now you never see those big boil-ups. So I haven't caught a kahawai off the beach in 10 years or so.
Occasionally on my beach walks, I get a crayfish that's washed up into the shallows and it's still alive but doesn't have any fight in it. I carry it home and have crayfish and avocado for breakfast.
Where else in the world can you go for a walk on the beach at sunrise, there's no one else around, and pick a crayfish out of the water?
I was fortunate to have enjoyed not only the golden era of surfing but the golden era of surf publishing.
It was also the time of long-form journalism. Big features. Much to my relief, the Surfer's Journal started up and so I became a core contributor.
Surfing is a subculture. It has its own heroes and those heroes have positive and dark sides — almost like outlaws. I made some good friendships. Surfing was a working-class sport. You didn't need a lot of money to go surfing whereas you did if you wanted to go snow skiing. Your basic equipment didn't have to be new — you didn't need a lot. If we car-shared you could surf different spots without spending a lot of money. Most of those kids didn't have big egos and were nice men and women.
It's a simplistic sport but it takes years to get good at it. Those who put the time in are respected. You can learn to ski competently on a three-week holiday but surfing, if you really try and you're talented, you can become competent in three years.
I've had my moments — being fearful. One of my early overseas trips was to Hawaii, and there's no Continental shelf there so the waves are travelling a lost faster than they are here, as well as being a lot bigger. I was lucky in that I lived with this Hawaiian family and it was total immersion in Hawaiian culture. One of the guys loaned me one of his surfboards and locals paddled up to check me out because we lived in this area that was pretty much Hawaiian and I stood out ... I would say "Paul makes really nice boards," and they knew that I was okay. That I hadn't stolen a board — and I knew Paul. These guys were huge — muscular with big scars from being impaled on the coral reef.
The board this guy loaned me was designed for much bigger waves than I had surfed. Boards called guns. I was a bit over-gunned and I felt it was safer to be over-gunned. Then I noticed everyone was paddling out to the horizon and it was rippling — not good. I upped the pace, and the waves by now were still out at sea but standing up. I was like, "Oh jeez, these are huge." The speed too. When you paddled up and over a wave you would freefall off the back. Each set was bigger and bigger again and I realised I needed to get in. I managed to get a wave and ride it all the way in. I was grateful to get up on to the beach. Some of the famous Hawaiians were there — ripping it like it was 3ft [1m]. But looking at the face, you're talking 18-20ft [5-6m].
Is it ever too late to pick up surfing? I've known women in their early 60s start surfing. They surf the East Coast breaks, the bottom is sandy, and they've put a little bit of time in it, and it has become their regular exercise.
In the 70s there were very few women surfing. It was such a male-oriented thing and with shortboards and just the whole culture of surfing at the time — macho swaggering. Now in Gisborne half the surfers are women.
There is a spiritual dimension for sure. Once you're a surfer you never look at a breaking wave the same way again. Even if you have stopped surfing and you're old. You still look at a breaking wave and smile.
As told to Sarah Daniell
Line-Up: New Zealand Surf Photography, by Logan Murray
(Potton & Burton, $60), is available now