On Surfing

Thomas Campbell

Portrait by Matt Titone

For Thomas Campbell, the porous borders that stake out surfing, skating, and art-making formed the covalent bond for his career as an artist and filmmaker. His seminal surf films remain waypoints on the arc of surfing writ large, precursors of what was to follow in their wake, and maybe most importantly show that there is more to surf culture than surfing.

Can you describe one of the most challenging aspects of surfing to you?

I would say, on an entry level, something that I noticed when going to the ocean with people who don’t have a lot of experience with the ocean is just how they position their bodies and how it’s like a dance of force. The wave is coming toward you, and you have an ability to read it and position your body where you’re at the point of least resistance. I find that detail is the beginning of the dance. It’s a fascinating metaphor for life: what position do I need to be in for this to work the most fluidly? Life is learning, so that movement is just all about learning the maneuvers to have a more fluid experience.

I’m definitely experiencing things in my own surfing practice where I feel like I have more the “eye of the hamster” than the “eye of the tiger.” I’m just not very into confrontation or paddle-battling. I tend to surf diminishingly lower quality waves as I get older just to be away from people and to have a mellower experience. I feel like I have the skill, but I just don’t have the other part of it anymore to really mix it up and get in there. I’m not a lame duck. It’s not like I don’t go out there and get my waves, but it’s just not as interesting to me anymore. At a certain time, I rode much bigger

waves, and now I’m like: “double-overhead’s fine.” I mean, I would probably ride some triple overhead waves if they were really well formed, but there was a time when I’d ride quadruple or quintuple overhead waves, and that’s probably not going to happen anymore. That doesn’t sound interesting to me.

What’s one of the most redemptive or rewarding parts of surfing?

I guess that on an energetic level the feeling that I get from being in the water and expending that kind of energy. It’s a really nice way of exercising to me. On the second tier, I have a pretty low threshold of what I need out of a session, but if I don’t see it when I’m observing what’s happening in the water, I won’t go. If I can imagine that I could have one decent trim section, I will go in the water. If I can achieve that, that’s pretty much a good session. A lot of times, I can’t see it. And then the other thing I would say I need is just one good basic turn, almost like a turn down — ride high and then turn down. My stipulations aren’t high, but that’s where they’re at.

It’s kind of like when you’re — whatever size wave it is — locked in and in a more or less good positioning, where your rail’s engaged on the height of the wave, where you’re having the most connection or availability to control the speed. It’s actually quite complex. I don’t know. I’ve tried to explain it to people. In the simplest context, that you’re feeling the connection between yourself, your surfboard, and the ocean. I think if you can achieve a really decent trim, it’s a resounding feeling that lasts — in me — for a while. Even if it’s a chest-high wave and you’re just petting the kitty as you’re going, no pumps involved, that’s wonderful. That sustains me. I really love that.

Has surfing afforded you anything in life? If so, what?

I come from skateboarding culture, and that’s culturally more dynamic, and I think surfing takes vastly from skateboarding culture. I do think there’s some very cool creatives in surfing, like John Severson, who I think was an exceptional visionary in print, in film, and in art. People like that are inspiring to me, but a lot of my artistic instincts come from out- side of surfing.

I would say the thing that most resonates is a respect for nature and the movements on this planet. I’ve been in some somewhat serious situations in the ocean, and it’s taught me to respect it and think about everything in a respectful realm. This is funny, not as much now, but for many years I was enthralled with “fail videos.” Like, I’d watch tons of them all the time, but they also gave me a potent view of what can happen and the motivation to be somewhat cautious. I swear it’s super healthy, but I mean, surfing is the same way. Like, “I should have come in at a lower tide, then I wouldn’t have missed that little corner pocket and got slammed up against the boulders.” That sucked, and it affected me for months. It’s just real-life, in your face learning. It’s humbling. I think it’s good to be humbled.

How long can you go without surfing?

Sometimes it’s months. It depends what’s on offer. Sometimes when I’m preparing for exhibitions, there’s a lot to deal with, and I don’t want to not surf for that long, but sometimes life just tells you what you’re doing.

I skateboard a lot, and I like it, but it just seems to me… I think about it a lot, and I think about things other people do, like going snowboarding. The best day snowboarding to me is like an intermediate day surfing at my local break. I think with surfing, you put so much time into it, and it’s very difficult; the more time you put in, the more returns there are, I think. Surfing is a sensational activity, so those sensations are heightened.

Like tube riding — I’d say I’m one of the best tube-out runners in the world. But really locking in and tube riding is just an ultimate death trip. I mean, you’re probably not going to die, but you feel like it, or there’s an aspect of that flowering within that experience. It’s totally amazing. I don’t know anything else. I mean, I believe people are just going to give you the sexual equivalent, but I would say that’s probably realistic.

How and when did you fall in love with surfing?

When I was a kid, I grew up in Dana Point. I was born in 1969, so I started surfing 1979, I think, and I started working at the harbor the year be- fore. But before that, I was riding a boogie board, getting familiar with the ocean from probably when I was five, which I really enjoyed. I worked cleaning fishing boats, and I lived atop a big hill, and I skateboarded down the hill, but on the way was Doheny State Beach.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, people didn’t really longboard. Some days I would go to Doheny and see if one of these two older guys was there. One of them had a Chuck Dent, and I think it might have been a pop-out, and the other had a Dextra, which was a pop-out. They both seemed like pretty crude surfboards, but anyway, they were both long- boards from the 1960s, and I’d ask them if I could borrow their boards, and they would let me borrow them. I learned how to surf there. There was barely anyone out, like a few kids learning how to shortboard. I fell in love with it then, and it was just a wonderful time.

It was empty. Now you can go there and there could be 200 to 300 people along that beach. And usually, there would not be over 10 at most. It was just wonderful. I really enjoyed that period in my life, and then eventually I got my own mid-length board and then my own longboard. It was just really fucking great, and I loved it.

What’s one of your pre/post-surf rituals you hold dear?

Now and probably for the last 25 years, I do a basic sun salutation movement and then a child’s pose. A yoga teacher told me that’s one of the best stretches you can do for yourself, because it makes your spinal fluid lubricate your spine. I don’t even know the names of what I’m doing, but I do them pretty much every time.

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On Surfing is generously supported by our friends at McTavish

Michael Adno

Michael is a writer and photographer born in Florida as a first-generation American to Austrian and South African parents. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Bitter Southerner, and The Surfer’s Journal among other magazines.

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