Since surfers began putting it on rail, a lot of memorable cutbacks have been captured on film throughout the decades, but Tom Curren’s 1991 cutty at Backdoor is “The Cutback.” Google even agrees, just type “The Cutback” in an image search and Tom Servais’ iconic photo is the first result the hive-minded algorithm offers up. A framegrab of Michael Peterson’s Kirra cutback from Alby Falzon’s 1972 film, “Morning of the Earth,” is a well-worthy second.
In the “Behind the Photo” episode above, Servais tells the story of how he created the timeless image of Curren exhibiting the perfect balance of grace and power. At the time, Curren was aloof to the lens and often waited for the sun to set before going for a surf to, according to Servais, a tactic used to specifically avoid surf photographers. So when Servais happened upon the previous year’s World Champion surfing Backdoor in good light, he set up shop and began firing away.
Even Servais admits that it’s hard to believe, but Curren is laying seven feet and nine inches of rail into that Backdoor face. The board was shaped by Maurice Cole and featured reverse vee, an innovation in surfboard design that would eventually become a standard bottom contour.
Surfer Magazine’s editorial staff at the time immediately deemed Servais’ photo of Curren as cover worthy. However, because there were no logos on Curren’s board, publication politics came into play and the idea of putting the photo on the cover was squashed by advertisement guys.
As a testament to the photo’s timelessness, “The Cutback” would eventually get the real estate it deserved 22 years later as the cover shot of Surfer Magazine’s 2013 “Big Issue.”