Joe Curren is the surfing equivalent of old growth, his style in the water and behind a lens is deeply rooted, contemplative and quietly powerful.
Jair Bortoleto caught up with Joe to talk about family, travel, and shooting analogue in the digital age.
Words: Jair Bortoleto Photos: Joe Curren
*Every Thursday (#TBT) Drift is republishing a timeless feature from the archives… enjoy
Jair Bortoleto: Tell me about your childhood…
Joe Curren: I have good memories of childhood. I remember travelling around a lot when I was three years old my family moved out of our home in Montecito and into a cargo van and travelled up and down the West Coast for a year. Then when I was four my mom drove my older brother and sister and I across the United States so Tom could compete in the U.S. Championships in North Carolina. We slept in the back of our hatchback Oldsmobile, me in the lowest part of the trunk, down by the rest of my family’s feet. Those are some of my earliest memories.
I spent a lot of time hanging around Tom’s contests back then. At the time I was around 5 or 6 years old, and very, very hyperactive. I would wreak havoc at all the events – running around, getting into trouble in various ways, maybe by throwing sand at people… My brother’s friends would provoke me but I guess I was just also in my own world. I’m not sure why, but after I went through that hyper stage I eventually became pretty shy and didn’t like the being the centre of attention anymore
JB: What was it like growing up around Tom? Did you feel pressure to match his achievements?
JC: Actually, I didn’t really grow up with Tom simply because he’s that much older than me. Of course, I have early memories and Tom was always around when I was very young, but by the time I was conscious of who I was – about the time I started surfing, eight years old – Tom was 18, married, and spent most of his time on tour or in France. It was tough competing in amateur contests because while my brother was world champ I was just starting out and people expected great things of me. This was really challenging for an uncompetitive person who didn’t like being the centre of attention. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I really got to spend time with Tom and got to know him closely… He moved back to California and we were able to relate to each other more because the age gap wasn’t as much of an issue.
JB: Describe an average day in your life…
JC: A day in the life for me involves corresponding with people and keeping up on the projects I have going. Sometimes I write or work on photos. Besides work, I try to spend as much time as possible outside. I surf when the waves are good, especially in Santa Barbara in winter. And it also seems like I’m always getting ready for my next trip.
JB: I’ve always found that travel really changes people’s whole perspective on life – it’s like opening a huge door in a small room. How did it affect you?
JC: I didn’t go to college because I started travelling right after high school. But I’ve been fortunate enough travel so much, and because when I travel I also go to really experience a place, I make an effort to meet new people and learn about their history and culture. I feel like travelling has been my college and I think I’ve gotten more from it than I could have ever gotten out of going to school.
I would say Sri Lanka. It has a little bit of everything: fun surf, an interesting culture and good portrait subjects, wildlife and beautiful landscapes
JB: And of everywhere you’ve been, what’s your favourite destination?
JC: I get asked this a lot. It’s really difficult to pick one place that has everything, but if I have to pick one for both photography and surfing I would say Sri Lanka. It has a little bit of everything: fun surf, an interesting culture and good portrait subjects, wildlife and beautiful landscapes. For just surfing I would say South Africa and all its perfect right points. And for just photography, Iceland and West Africa were very good.
JB: And you travel a lot. Is there anything from home that you miss when you’re away?
JC: Since my wife gets to travel with me a lot, the only thing I miss when I’m gone is when I hear the surf is good in Santa Barbara in winter, but I’m usually home by then anyway!
JB: Your surfing is really smooth – you have a free-form, almost jazzy approach to the wave. Where does this come from?
JC: Thank you. I think it comes from the area I grew up [Santa Barbara]. Here we have long right point breaks, and the conditions are usually really glassy and clean. There are surfers here that I have been influenced by who might not be the most explosive surfers in the world, but their surfing really fits the waves. That’s something that has always been impressive to me. If you have ugly style on the points it really stands out in a bad way… so that was one thing that was always important to me.
JB: Your dad’s an all-around master – he’s a real waterman, a great shaper and has a vast knowledge of the ocean.
JC: Yeah, I respect my dad more than anyone.
He is able to easily grasp things that he finds interesting and really become great at whatever it may be
JB: I loved your dad’s appearance in ‘Glass Love’. The way he looks at the world is quite unique.
JC: He’s a perfectionist with an impeccable eye, and he’s always been good with his hands. He is able to easily grasp things that he finds interesting and really become great at whatever it may be. At the same time, he might neglect something other people consider to be important or simple and is hopeless at it. My brother is the same way, but with music, writing and learning languages.
JB: You’re known now for your photography. How did this career path develop?
JC: I love photography – all of your life’s experiences and influences come out when you take photos. Andrew Kidman really helped me look at the way light hits a subject; before I met him I would just shoot indiscriminately. Watching him shoot and having him point out the subtleties in light and how they can determine whether a photograph will be compelling or not is something that can’t be taught in school. His ideology about commercialism has influenced me as well. He reminds me of my dad in that way – they are the only people I know that wouldn’t sell out in many ways most people wouldn’t think twice about.
JB: What’s your preference, format wise? Digital? Film?
JC: I can understand the appeal of certain aspects of digital and I’m sure the learning curve is quicker, but I honestly don’t understand how a digital 35mm camera can beat the look, for example, of a Hasselblad medium format camera. Never say never, but right now I prefer the look of film and unless they stop making it entirely or one day someone figures out a way to make digital look better, or least as good as film, I feel the differences in the two mediums are enough for me to stick with film despite its inconveniences.
The Japanese craftsmanship really shows in the production. There were 1,400 books printed on the first run – I’m actually out of regular edition copies indefinitely
JB: Tell me a little about your book, ‘One’.
JC: It’s a collection photos taken over the past few years, published in December, 2007 by Bueno! Books Japan. I’m happy with how it came out; the Japanese craftsmanship really shows in the production. There were 1,400 books printed on the first run – I’m actually out of regular edition copies indefinitely, but I have a some limited edition copies with a wood slip I made. They’re available for purchase on my website www.joecurrenphotography.com.
JB: Any big projects in the works?
JC: Nothing huge, but I am working on some book projects and some long term photo essays at the moment. I’d just like to keep the travel thing going until I can’t do it anymore.