Tom Carroll’s Photos Perfectly Capture 80s Tour Life

All photos by Tom Carroll

Photography is now so accessible that it’s unavoidable.

But if the social media revolution’s proved anything, it’s that the majority of photos aren’t interesting in the slightest. Perfect technical skill is nothing without a compelling subject, and vice versa. Often the ability to wade through the dross and put your faith in finding that one photograph is the most valuable skill of all. Which leads us to Ben Chadbond—someone who lists his occupation as “photography”, but doesn’t take photos (anymore), and Tom Carroll—a 2x World Champion surfer and Australian national treasure, who’s been taking photos for 40 years and storing them in boxes in his garage.

Tom’s been travelling the world since he was 16, many of those years spent on the (ASP, formerly IPS) World Tour. Tom comes from a journalistic lineage. His father Vic Carroll, is one of the most distinguished journalists in Australia and the former Editor-in-Chief of the Sydney Morning Herald, and his brother Nick is one of the most prolific and well respected writers in surfing. Tom’s medium is the camera, and during his many years on tour, he captured moments that few others could’ve, given his unique perspective and access. Tom and Ben have recently completed the hefty task of archiving the contents of Tom’s garage—some 20 boxes, full of slide film and negatives that needed to be scanned and printed—and have curated an exhibition of Tom’s documentation of tour life between the years of 1980 and 1985.

Ben describes the part of his skillset that he used to help Tom come to terms with his body of work as, “working with photographers to help them realise their projects,” and the sheer volume of work that went into this project on Ben’s behalf is not to be sold short. “I got a call from Canon and they had been in contact with Tom and said that he had boxes and boxes of images from his career,” Ben told me, stepping outside UTS where he lectures in search of reception. “At that stage I didn’t know a lot about who Tom was and what Tom had done, I was just told that he was a surfer. But I was really interested in it from an Australian counterculture and a historical perspective.”

“I had no idea what to do to be honest,” says Tom. “I was looking at all of these photographs just going, where do I start? I was way too close to each of the images and just couldn’t pick one from the other. So I really needed Ben to help me, to urge me in one direction.” Ben employed his unique skillset to curate an exhibition that would appeal to surf fans, and photography enthusiasts, and everyday browsers alike. If you know what a clique surfing is, you’ll appreciate the difficulty of this task.

Ben decided that for Tom’s first show they had to set some parameters to deal with the volume. Which is why they chose the five-year period when Tom won his two world titles, when tour life was at its debaucherous best. Professional surfing in the 80’s was out there. The money was big, the attire short, tight and loud, and the events were a circus; a stark contrast to the professionalism put forward today. Tom was at the centre of it all, running around with a camera, firing off frames at anything that caught his flittering attention.

Tom’s photographic love affair began on his first trip to surfing’s mecca, Hawaii, aged 16. A surf photographer friend left Tom with a camera (which was subsequently stolen, but that’s another story), and he was captivated by the process of framing, focussing, and then having to wait to get the results back. Shortly after, Tom went to Japan, and got himself his first Canon from the heart of Tokyo, a camera that he still has today.

“I was just relentless with it,” he tells me. “I’d take the camera everywhere and go off, trip out, take photos of whatever interested me. A lot of surfers would look at me and just go, ‘why have you got a camera?’. I guess when I look back on it, I didn’t really feel odd at the time, but there were a few comments (laughs).”

The photos that Tom captured during those five years on tour offer an insider’s perspective of a pivotal, largely forgotten era in surfing. The work also gives an insight into the fledgling years of Tom’s photography. “In the 80’s he’s new to photography and you can see him experimenting and learning,” Ben tells me. “But you can also see that he’s very unencumbered as a photographer. He hasn’t quite been influenced yet by other photographers, he’s not really thinking too much about it. There’s a snapshot aesthetic to it, and sometimes you even have Tom himself in the frame.” One of the photos that Ben’s referring to is a portrait of Tom’s brother Nick, that has Tom’s foot in the bottom right of the frame. A technical no-no, sure, but it adds to the charm of it all. “It’s a photograph of his brother, and a self-portrait,” Ben says.

The first glance that the public got at Tom’s work, was a few weeks back at SUNSTUDIOS in Alexandria. Tom’s no stranger to the spotlight—of “baring himself” as he describes it—having been in the media extensively for his surfing, and more recently coming forward about his battle with addiction. But he admits that he was nervous in the week leading up to showing his photos. “I was definitely self-conscious,” he told me, “but there were some very cool things going on at the same time.” Tom’s daughter Amelia is an artist, and had the opening night of her first solo exhibition, Mnemon, on the same night as Tom’s show. She sold all of her oil paintings, and rushed from Darlinghurst to Alexandria, so she could be there for her dad.

“Not only was it humbling to put my photos up, but for her to do so well with her oil paintings… it was just a really nice feeling,” Tom explains. “It takes the ego completely out, and allows all this other really cool stuff to happen. It made the evening really special.”

1980-1985 will be on exhibition during April at Quiksilver’s Bar 61 in Torquay.

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