Thomas Campbell spoke with John about Slide Your Brains Out, his taste in coconspirators, and how he chooses filming locations. Campbell’s photo exhibit at Mollusk San Francisco opens Friday, November 9 at 7 pm.
John McCambridge: What timeframe do the photos featured in Slide Your Brains Out fall into?
Thomas Campbell: They span the past fifteen years—from 1997, when I more or less started documenting surfing, to 2012.
JM: Can you talk about how you developed your aesthetic and how you came to document surfing in stills and filmmaking?
TMOE: Well, I grew up skateboarding. I think I started riding a skateboard in 1974 at five years old, during the craze of seventies skateboarding. Every girl and boy on my street had a skateboard, and that's what everyone did. It seemed like an epic time to be alive. We felt a lot of freedom and radness. In high school, I used to make skate fanzines with my friends. Skateboarding in the early eighties was pretty interesting. There was more or less no money in it; it was a few people having fun and being creative for creativity's sake. After making zines for a few years, Transworld Skateboarding asked me to write for them, which I did for a bit, but I eventually gave in to taking skate photos. Mostly I didn't want to shoot skate photos and just wanted to skate and be in on the sessions. Anyway, I spent about seven years as a skate photographer, during which I learned about how cameras work and composition and stuff like that.
JM: So how did you develop your style of documenting surfing?
TMOE: In general, I just adapted the things I learned in skateboarding and other art faggy techniques I developed in my formative years to documenting surfing. When I met Joel Tudor he was familiar with my work in the skateboarding world and suggested making a movie together (The Seedling). That was more or less the start of a long fun adventure of shooting surfing.
JM: I’ve met a lot of the people featured in your book in the shop, and everybody’s cool. Nobody I’ve met in this book is a . . .
JM: Yes, not too many dickheads. When you’re deciding who to film, is personality a big consideration, or is it more a person’s level of surfing?
TMOE: I think the people I like to work with are full-package people. They’re cool, I want to spend time with them, and they surf in an interesting manner and probably have a style I find aesthetically pleasing. But yes, minimal dickheadage is ideal. Good people are the key to good times.
JM: What’s the most amazing place you’ve been to shoot?
TMOE: Indonesia’s a fantasy place. It’s really hard to go any place in the world where you can have that much access to that many different kinds of waves. Out of the places I’ve been, it’s definitely my favorite. I experienced overwhelming feelings of gratitude when I was there; it was almost like I was in the womb of life and surfing.
JM: Some of the places you go might be considered difficult travel destinations, like Sri Lanka for instance. How do you choose filming locations?
TMOE: When making the movies, I really didn’t want tons of people around. I wanted a clean slate—to shoot places people could go and not have to compete for waves. I wanted surfers to be able to relax and have serious fun, and I tried to capture that vibe. There are still a lot of remote uncrowded places. You just have to do the research to figure out where and when they might be good, go the distance to get there, spend time there, be there, feel the place, and hopefully the waves will come.
JM: How do you get the look of your photographs? It’s a look that’s a bit borrowed from now, but it’s a look you pioneered in the surf world.
TMOE: Well, I’m an artist, and I try to look at things in an artful way. There is a long awesome history of awesome surf photographers. I look up to a lot of photographers from the past like Ron Stoner, Jeff Divine, Leroy Grannis, and Art Brewer. I like younger guys like Todd Glaser, Nathan Lawrence, and Dane Peterson. Dudes are ripping behind the lens, for sure. I wouldn't say I am a super great surf photographer like the people I mentioned. I give it a good shot and just try to present my images in slightly different contexts. With a photograph you never really capture the full range of emotions that actually played out in a given moment, but I think by shooting with film and using, for instance, black and white, or cross process you can exaggerate certain aspects of a photo and heighten it to a place where it resonates with people so they can maybe feel it. Film feels alive to me.
Photo of Thomas by Roger Mihalko
For more information about Thomas' show click here.
Watch a video about the making of the book here.