Joe Curren is a California surfer/photographer who is equally talented on a board as well as behind a lens. He is featured in the film “One California Day” and exhibits his work internationally. Joe took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with us.
What was it like growing up in Santa Barbara?
Santa Barbara was mostly a great place to grow up. It’s a challenging place because the cost of living is really, really high so owning a piece of anything there seems like a fantasy. The surf can get very good, but it’s fickle and extremely crowded. Fortunately, there are other things to do there that can bring a little solitude. Places close by like the backcountry, the Channel Islands, the Gaviota Coast and parts of north Santa Barbara County make it easy to get away. Growing up, my dad taught my brother, sister and I to appreciate these places. He would take us fishing and diving, and we would take camping trips in the backcountry with the whole family—sometimes for two weeks at a time.
As for the surf scene, growing up it felt like Santa Barbara was off the map. There was barely any media coverage given to it and rarely did you see cameras on the beach. Surfers definitely weren’t the cool kids at my school. We didn’t get much respect. At one point, I thought it would be great move to Australia and I tried to talk my mom into it. Surfers there seemed to be living the life.
When did you get your first surfboard?
The summer of 1983. It was a yellow 7’3” single fin Doyle. The next year, I got a 5’9” Al Merrick thruster that my brother broke in half and was later repaired.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
I felt like I was onto something good. But then, at the end of my first ride, I jumped off my board and landed on my butt on a rock.
Who did you look up to and admire when you were a young man?
People who traveled and made things with their hands. Also my dad and brother, Daffy Duck, Tintin, Indiana Jones, U2, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Rabbit Bartholomew, Derek Hynd, Occy. Also local surf heroes Chris Brown, Jamie George, Matt Mondragon and Tim Smalley.
What was it like being in such a famous surfing family?
There are some perks, one being that since my dad and brother commanded a lot of respect before I even started, there was name recognition straight away. I guess another perk was that I met most of my surf heroes at an early age. But it wasn’t all easy. From the get go, I was under a spotlight and I wasn’t comfortable with it. I was getting paid a lot of attention for being somebody’s brother and, to be honest, it was odd because Tom and I just weren’t that close back then because of our age difference and since he was gone a lot. It wasn’t like he was at all my amateur contests giving me pointers or cheering me on. I started surfing in 1983, 13 years after my brother started. At that point, Tom was married, already in the top 10 in the world and spending most of his time on tour or living in France.
My mom helped my brother a lot when he was coming up by driving him all around the country for his contests. But by the time I started to compete, my mom was working a lot so I was kind of on my own. Back then, coaching, amateurs getting paid a salary and home schooling weren’t an option. Things seem to be a lot easier for kids today. Granted, I wasn’t a natural competitor like Tom, but it would have been nice for someone to simplify contest strategy for me. I always thought there was a secret to contests. I didn’t figure out a contest strategy until a long time later, until after I didn’t care about competitive surfing anymore.
What inspired you to begin shooting images?
Traveling, old family photos, Australian Surfing World Magazine, National Geographic Magazine, photographs taken by other photographers, scenes in nature.
What do you look for in a good photograph?
Mood and composition.
What advice would you give to an aspiring photographer?
Be inspired by others but give a unique perspective, especially within your market.
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out? And why?
Iceland and Norway for their scenery. Sri Lanka and Sao Tome, Africa for their otherworldliness.
Who/what inspires you?
Art, good books and films, going to new places, cold places, wilderness, scenes in nature like trees, clouds, wildlife, etc. Also good writing—especially by Steinbeck, William T. Vollmann and Wendell Barry. And the life and work of Gerry Lopez, Wayne Lynch, Eddie Aikau, Steve Prefontaine, Terge Haakenson, Tom Waits, Will Oldham, Bob Dylan, Bill Murray, Peter Beard, Michael Kenna, Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, Sam Abell, Robert Frank, George Greenough, Tom Blake, John Severson, Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, Sebastiao Selgaldo, Anton Corbijn, Ernst Haas, Jan Tschichold, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Tom Adler, Peter Kirkeby, Les Stansell, Art Brewer, Andrew Kidman, Patrick Trefz, Dave Parmenter, Skip Frye, Richard Kenvin, Lewis & Clark, Chief Joseph, etc.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
Think positive. Wear warm clothes when it’s cold. Keeping it simple is good. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
Sure. I wish I learned a craft like woodworking or started shaping surfboards at an early age. Also, I wish I would have stuck with the piano lessons I took when I was nine. I also wish I would have started taking photographs earlier. I remember taking trips to places like Tasmania and Western South Africa when I didn’t even have a point and shoot. Also, I wish I would have gone with my brother to J-Bay in ’92 when I was invited by Rip Curl to be in “The Search” but passed so I could graduate with my high school class. That same year summer I also wish I would have hung around my brother’s place in France after I was invited by Bruce Brown to be in the Endless Summer II instead of bailing to Portugal with my friends. Oh well.
What are you most proud of?
That I’ve been able to travel to most the places I dreamed of going when I was a kid.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
Surfing has been an obsession for most of my life which has led to the desire to travel the world. Travel has taught me almost everything.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
Sand points, good food, family and friends.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
Dane Reynolds, Greg Long, Derek Hynd.
What is in your current quiver? What is your favorite board? Your favorite surfspot?
Quiver: Mostly Al Merricks with a 6’2” Taylor Knox model, 6’4” to 7’3” deep six channel bottoms, 5’7” Even Keel traditional fish. Favorite boards: a couple Pavel micro wing fish and a Pat Curren 7’3” semi gun. Surf spots: Rincon, Sandspit, Hossegor, J-Bay, Ballito, Oaxaca sand points.
What’s your favorite meal?
Zen Yai Thai, Santa Barbara or a seafood feast of salmon, albacore, abalone and dungeness crab.
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
The Avett Brothers, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Waits, Bonnie Prince Billy, Jason Molina, Songs: Ohia, Cat Power, Wilco, Gillian Welch, Sigur Ros, Neko Case, Lucinda Williams, Grant Lee Buffalo, Pearl Jam, Ry Cooder, Little Wings, Joni Mitchell, Bjork, The Rolling Stones, Ali Farka Toure, Fela Kuti, The Descendents, The Smiths, U2, Feist, Emmylou Harris, Fleet Foxes, The Heartless Bastards, Julie Doiran, Sun Kil Moon, Mum, Nicolai Dunger, etc.
What are you most grateful for?
My health and friends and family, especially my wife Teasha.
What’s next for Joe Curren?
I’m going on a surf and snowboard trip to Northern Japan and hopefully a couple book projects in the works will be released next year.