Three of the more memorable images in this issue’s “Greatest Rides of All Time” feature (Tom Carroll, Pipeline, 1991; Tom Curren, Backdoor, 1991; Andy Irons, Teahupoo, 2002) were captured by the same tireless lensman—Tom Servais. For parts of five decades Servais has quietly built a legendary portfolio of some of surfing’s most treasured photos. I recently spoke with Servais about his contributions to the “Greatest Rides” list for the 2013 Big Issue. Servais, easily one of the most published photographers in the 1990s and 2000s, was quick to deflect praise, chalking up his success to luck and lots of hard work.
I want to talk to you first about my (and probably every surfer who came of age in the 1990s) favorite surf shot of all time—Curren’s cutback at Backdoor on his magic, stickerless Maurice Cole. Did you know immediately that you had an iconic photo on your hands when you first saw the image?
You know I didn’t quite realize that I had that good of a shot when I actually took it. At least I don’t remember thinking that. I was in Hawaii at the Surfer house and Art Brewer and Jeff Divine were staying there at the time. And I remember when we got the photos back, I was going through my box of slides and when I saw that slide I thought “Wow, this is pretty good.” Then I showed it to Jeff and Art. I got the idea that they were kind of jealous, like they thought “Oh, that’s a really good one.” Within a week or two I started realizing that it was a really special shot. I thought it should have been a cover shot, and I think most everybody on the staff thought it should have been a cover shot. But I think because Curren didn’t have the logos on his board the magazine didn’t want to put it on the cover. They didn’t want to piss off the advertisers and put out a cover shot of a guy with no logos.
Was that an arranged photo session or just a freesurf?
No we weren’t working together or anything. Tom’s really elusive to get photos of. He almost seemed like he was making it difficult to get photos of him, although I don’t think he was doing that on purpose. He just wasn’t comfortable with people taking his picture all the time. I think he almost avoided cameras.
Let’s talk about another North Shore moment, Tom Carroll’s snap at Pipeline in 1991. Were you aware of how significant that sequence would turn out to be?
We didn’t know how good the photo would be, but I knew right away that the maneuver was just incredible. I always thought Tommy was the best surfer at Pipeline—and this is in the Derek Ho era—especially since he didn’t even live in Hawaii. He was only surfing Pipe part of the year and he didn’t get as much practice out there, but still no one surfed the rail and did the kind of bottom turns and fades, and set up for the tube the way he did. When he did that snap, everybody on the beach kind of looked at each other like, “Oh my god, did you see that?” We didn’t know it was going to be so famous and endure the the test of time and become this iconic thing.
After decades of shooting Pipe does that turn hold up as one of the best maneuvers you’ve seen out there?
I still think that sticks out as one of the best things I’ve ever seen at Pipeline. At Pipeline now, guys take off so late they basically take off under the lip and get barreled right at takeoff, so we don’t see that fade bottom turn. The way guys ride Pipeline today is just so different. Tom used to lay it on rail and drive off the bottom so hard. I don’t remember anybody doing a turn like that before or after. It was just a very special moment in the history of surfing Pipeline. A lot of us always said that Tom Carroll was our favorite surfer, he was just so powerful, it was like he was built to surf the North Shore.
Tell me about the shot of Andy at Teahupoo in 2002. How did that image take shape?
That’s one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken. In the mornings at Teahupoo, all the photographers try to get on the middle boat that sits in the channel and looks right into the wave. That morning the photographers were all fighting about it, and I just kind of went fuck it, and got on the first boat, the inside boat that gives more of a beach angle rather than looking straight into the barrel. I was lucky enough to be in the boat with only one other photographer. He shot it too, but kinda tight, and I just got really lucky to get that particular photo. There were a lot of guys shooting but nobody else got a photo like that from that angle.
The next day Andy explained the whole wave to me. He said it was really, really scary and he was so late getting into it that he was just about ready to jump off his board. But he held on, caught his edge at the bottom, and the lip of the wave landed right in front of him, just outside the rail of his board. He thought that the lip hitting down below him actually helped him make the wave by pushing him up into the wave face while it barreled over him. I thought that was pretty heavy. I’d never had anybody tell me that the lip bounce from below actually helped them make the wave.
Do you feel like these shots will be your legacy at the end of your career?
I don’t know, I don’t really like to talk about myself to tell the truth. I don’t feel like I’m some genius like Art Brewer or Jeff Hornbaker. I think those guys are way better photographers than I am. I guess I just feel like I’m really lucky. There were 30 other photographers and I got the Andy Irons shot. I just got lucky to go down the beach at the end of the day to get the Tom Curren photo, so I feel like I’ve been a lucky photographer more than a good photographer. I work really hard, but I just really had a lot of luck going for me all the time.
See the stories behind these photos and the rest of “The Greatest Rides of All Time” in our Big Issue.