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Surfing in the Sixties 


Barrie Sutherland 

After a few turns of the pages, Because Eileen became enthralled by the imagery shot by four surfers that occupied Australia's shores in the 60s. This 300+ page coffee table book embodies an era in which surfing and photography was young and has since matured. It is no secret that we are avid fans of 35mm and in the 60s that was the only photography medium available. Surfing in the Sixties resonated with us. The colours and textures that 35mm produced, intimately represent an era of Australia's surfing culture. Barrie Sutherland, the Victorian photo-journalist and surfer who captured some of Melbourne's prime surfing locations -- Winky Pop and Bells Beach -- answers our questions about what it was like to surf and photograph in the sixties. Not only can Sutherland capture ethereal images, he writes with eloquence. 

Photo above: 'Dora Surfboards' advertising photo shoot, Point Lonsdale, December 1996. By Barrie Sutherland 

What inspired you to take photos at the beach?

Thought it would be nice to capture friends surfing, as simple as that. I had just graduated in civil engineering and with my first pay packet (all cash then) I could afford to buy a camera. I had no plan or vision to become a photographer. My previous experience had been limited to occasionally using my parents’ very basic Kodak Box Brownie camera. It was primitive with low grade results.

What type of camera did you use?

I had no idea what sort of camera I should purchase, although from what I’d read and seen in the surfing magazines of the early 1960s I had to go with 35mm format. I’d at least learnt that action photography required high shutter speeds, portability and interchangeable lenses. That meant single lens reflex cameras. I started with a second hand 35mm Practika which I purchased from Camera House in Geelong. There was only one media option and it was film. You could get negatives processed in black & white and color, and transparencies only in colour.

My early foray into photography using the Practika started slowly with less than average results! I knew how to hold the camera and press the shutter. But without interchangeable lenses, I was limited and extension tubes produced terrible results. I needed to learn some basics. Don Roydhouse, Camera House owner, advised me to join the Geelong Camera Club, which I did. The Club quickly showed me I had much to learn, so I commenced a steep learning program through their monthly competitions. They taught me how to develop film (black & white, colour was far too complex and costly), to make darkroom prints (I used our laundry) and prepare them for judging.

I had that Practika for about 8 months before I upgraded to the new generation of 35mm single lens reflex cameras. My choice lay between Minolta, Pentax and Nikon products. Canon was way off the pace then. I chose the Minolta because it was robust, had a wide range of bayonet mount interchangeable lenses and price-wise was higher than the Pentax but just below Nikon. I liked the look and feel of the Minolta SR1. Over 50 years later I still use that wonderful camera with its range of lenses.

Photo above: Richard Kavanaugh, Wye River. By Barrie Sutherland 

What were you looking to capture?

With the Camera Club I worked hard on the monthly competitions. The Club would set the subject theme and we had 4 weeks to photograph, develop the film and make prints for submissions. There was a limit of three prints per competition, so there was substantial pressure to perform at a high standard. It implanted in me a work ethic and a passion for composition and quality. I adapted very quickly, learning from the judges’ comments and critiques. The keys that were instilled in me were – light, angles and composition. I discovered it in my surf photography after photographing Southside Bells one day in mid-1964. After I developed the film and contact-printed the film strips, and saw the light glistening on the waves and the crystal clear spray, I knew I’d captured what was missing in my photography. I never looked back and gathered momentum from that day to begin the process of moving towards photo journalism. I set benchmarks of what I wanted to achieve before I approached any surfing magazine.

What was beach culture like in the 60s? Did it vary from state to state?

There was an underlying common culture across all states. We wanted to surf, explore our coastline and communicate with other surfers. Meeting other surfers was like the tribe coming together to tell stories and tales. There was an open friendliness. We had something in common that was different to established main-stream community expectations of what you should and should not do. For example, surfing in winter, spending all day surfing (dawn to dark), talking a new language, daily checking of weather charts to figure out when and where we could surf, not working, taking ‘sickies’ to surf and abandoning established sports. The status symbol was driving around Geelong with surfboards on your roof racks. Few vehicles did that, so it stood out.

There were variations from state to state driven by climate, distance and population centres. In Victoria our ocean beaches south of Melbourne were always popular destinations throughout the summer period. After Easter the coastal towns were remote and quiet, but we discovered something very different. As the weather cooled down throughout autumn the frequency of ground swells and offshore winds increased. That translated into good consistent waves! But there was one problem. Our ocean water temperatures plunged from their summer highs and winter surfing became more challenging than our northern cousins in NSW and QLD. Victorian winter surfing was very tribal, tough and enduring. We needed wetsuits and the early ones, although very helpful, were bulky and uncomfortable. Rip Curl solved that one for us!

What was the biggest cultural change in surfing over the past 50 years?

It would be the short board revolution which, for me, occurred in July 1966. Madeleine and I were holidaying on the Gold Coast and I was surfing on my 9’0” Malibu board. One day I paddled out at Currumbin and was confronted with Peter Drouyn surfing very differently on a shorter board, probably about 8’. The change in surfing was a paradigm shift for me. When I returned home, I sold that board and had a new one made, about 8’ long, thinner and lighter. That board enabled me to take-off deeper at Bells and surf at higher speeds with more manoeuverability.

The shorter boards led to more surfers and crowded breaks. Over the summer surfing season the Great Ocean Road ocean beaches south of Melbourne became surfing destinations. The etiquette we practiced pre-short boards changed overnight. No more sharing waves, it became a dog fight in popular breaks. Surfing took on a new paradigm of aggression, selfishness and arrogance. Waves were fought for and the new tactics were deliberate dropping in, burning and snaking. Many surfers thought that it was clever and competitive. It wasn’t, it was childish and disrespectful to the more experienced surfers and the ocean. As a result local tribal cultures developed to enforce sharing and policing etiquette.

Photo above: Madeleine, Coolangatta Beach, April 1965. By Barrie Sutherland 

How has the sport developed since you first started?

Riding a surfboard over 50 years ago was a simple process. The longer and heavier balsa come foam Malibu style boards were not high performance. The manoeuvers were basic. You paddled into a wave, stood up, turned slowly to track along the unbroken wave. If the wave slowed you cut back into it to regain wave power. It was essential to ‘walk’ the board, cross stepping towards the nose to increase speed and hold a trim line. Of course you had to reverse the process and walk backwards, which could be tricky to learn. Favourite manoeuvers were the hang five or ten nose rides, and drop-knee turns.

With the demise of longboards focus shifted to high speed turns and carves on open face steeper waves, tube riding, going vertical, re-entries and floaters. These manoeuvers were developed and perfected over since the late 1960s. Surfboard design is now more complex with significant emphasis placed on the optimum integration of plan shape, profile, rails, rocker and fins from the accumulated knowledge and experimentation over the past decades.

The game-changer for greater risk and hence development of the manoeuvers we see today was the invention of the leash. Surfers no longer had to be concerned about losing their board and the often long and sometimes challenging swim to retrieve it, or the board being badly damaged on rocks.

The contest scene existed from the beginning of surfing as far back as the early 1900s when surf life-saving was in its infancy and boards were part of the repertoire. In the 1960s contests were a means of the beach tribes competing against each other. Competition created continuous change and still does today but at much slower rate. Professional surfing now supports a life style we dreamed about.

Where do you see the sport headed?

To progress as a truly international sport as in say athletics, tennis, swimming, golf for example, surfing has to move beyond the ocean. The ocean has too many variables for consistent predicable waves that are needed to support time constrained contest surfing. Live television requires that sort of predictability for audience participation. Surfing can’t move beyond its present ocean coastal boundaries and many nations have no coastline or coasts that are wrong angles for swell attraction. So the future is already here with wave pool constructions in place that can take the sport anywhere dependent on just two variables – low cost water and power.

Have surfers’ attitudes changed since the 60s?

In many ways yes. However there is still a way to go in the culture of maturity. Take for example the respect and treatment of elders in sport and community in many non-western cultures. The baseline for surfing is the Hawaiian culture of elder appointment and therefore automatic respect. In Australia there is generally little respect; behaviours are abrupt, demeaning, patronising and intimidating. Elderly Australian surfers have a use-by-date and are often simply cast-outs.

Tell us about Gudgeon, Wood and Brooks the surfers you took a photo of at Winky Pop

In May 1966, I decided to try some water shots (using my Nikonos camera) from my board during a small but good day at Winky Pop. As there were only the five (Terry Wall was there too) of us in the water it wasn’t difficult getting in close to the action. Sitting on my board on an overcast day with a light NW wind was cold. The wind chill factor quickly kicked in once you were stationary, however this shot is an old favourite of three nice guys sharing a wave together. It was worth the discomfort.

Photo above: Beach crowd, Australia Day Carnival, South African Invitational, Torquay surf beach, Jan 1967. By Barrie Sutherland

Tell us about your relationship with Thelma and Ron Goldsworthy, also photographed in the book 

Ron and Thelma were married around the same time as Madeleine and me. They were from Melbourne and frequented Bells Beach, Torquay or wherever we may have been surfing. Ron surfed and Thelma liked the beach. They were a lovely couple who were part of our surfing community.

Spectators and surfers flocked to Bells Beach for the 1967 state titles. The first day we had a reasonable ground swell messed up with a cross south easterly one. Unable to take any decent photos I decided to wander around the beach and carpark in search of people to photograph. Looking at that collection today, I realise I should have done this more often along our Great Ocean Road beaches.

Do you still take photos? What of? Beaches, family…

I’ve been taking photographs with the Minolta SR1 using Kodak TMax 100 film for the past 10 years, building a new portfolio of film-based images. Our Gallery customers are discerning and like the film-based prints with their grain and beautiful gradation from blacks through all the tones to whites. It is more natural to the human eye than digital images. Why? Digital images are crisp and sharp from the near foreground to the far back ground. That is unnatural to the eye and brain which auto-focus on the key subject matter. Supporting matter is simply blended out until you visually focus on something else in the image theatre before you.

However I also like to use a small Panasonic Lumix for landscapes, culture, vehicles and architecture. I’m working on a number of color portfolios, one in particular, Spring Creek Valley in Torquay. I’m chasing its seasons, a changing vista of landscapes that maybe overrun with development. It’s worth preserving what it is through photography.

The film work has also been focused on two main portfolios – heritage architecture that is fast disappearing and beach landscapes. I’m exploring our beaches from a different perspective, searching those beaches less photographed. For example everyone photographs Bells Beach and Torquay’s Front Beach and Surf Beach. It’s overload and overdone. What I call pop up art, saturation photography for the masses.

I leave the family work to my daughters. They are into social media, so plenty of images to keep us busy!

Published by New Holland Publishers RRP $55.00 

Available at all good bookstores or online here

*Because Eileen have their copy on their "coffee table", which is currently a stack of old suitcases. 

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