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Dreaming of the ‘empty line-up’

Logan Murray is a name that has been synonymous with surfing in New Zealand since most surfers can remember but that recall is assisted by more than three decades of surf photography, as Logan explains to Mark Peters.

Exploration of remote locations is key to surf photojournalist Logan Murray's life behind the lens. Most recently, his pictures of peeling line-ups foregrounded with a distinctively New Zealand coastal setting make up a 12-page spread and cover shot in high-end, coffee table publication, The Surfer's Journal.

Logan's quest for surf locations to photograph often requires hard trekking, climbing, clinging, slipping and sliding. When we meet at his Wainui Beach home, the veteran surf photojournalist's legs are lacerated with blackberry cuts from a mission to a secret spot at one of Mahia's beaches. We sit at the table in his open-fronted dining and kitchen area at Wainui. Although the sea is across the road, and not visible from the table, the room brings to mind the arrangement of a surfer's beachfront hut in a tropical setting. A lounging cat pays no attention to the two wild ducks who waddle up to the door, possibly for a look at Logan's war wounds.

“If you want the shot, you want the shot. There's no room for lazy photographers. It's too competitive,” says Logan.

“I like exploring for waves and angles and compositions that haven't been photographed before. I still get up in the dark to drive off and be somewhere remote, ready for the dawn light.”

To maintain a level of fitness that allows him to trek through challenging terrain, sometimes hang off it, and occasionally to wrestle with a blackberry bush, to take a photograph, he walks the beach, and goes on a bike-ride every day.

“I train for my photography,” he says.

“These remote places are steep and sometimes populated with gnarly farmers.”

For trips to hard-to-reach surf locations, Logan often joins a friend with a six-wheel ATV and legal access through his work to farms and forests.

“The tray on the back carries our food, hot water and camera gear and the roll-bars serve as a roof rack for his boards,” says Logan.

“We have remote-area surf adventures with world-class waves.”

Logan chooses not to photograph sponsored or “hotshot” surfing identities who provide many photographers all over the world with dramatic action in perfect waves.

“If I shoot surfers at all I prefer more underground, low-key people. I regularly do lifestyle features and portraits related to specific themes,” he says.

“My chosen genre is the empty line-up using rural landscapes with farms, forest and native vegetation to give a distinctly New Zealand look and feel. I want the reader to be able to almost smell the mud, sheep and cattle dung so I might include cabbage trees and toi toi to give it that real sense of New Zealand.”

In recent years, high-end publications White Horses, and now, The Surfer's Journal, have featured his very New Zealand pictures. Last year, White Horses ran Logan's piece about the tribal surfers of New Zealand. The pictorial included an image of an East Coast surfer with board under arm on a horse en route to the sea. And although The Boardroom's Tommy Dalton flies along the face of a translucent barrel (and, says the blurb, “breathes through his nose and keeps his mouth shut in the rural heartland of New Zealand”), Logan's 12-page spread in The Surfer's Journal focuses on a series of pristine waves as they unzip in sequence. Such Pacific perfection is possibly inconceivable to the many urbanites who can only dream of the uncrowded line-up where the surf is watched over only by rocks, the bush and the photojournalist.

“It's wave porn,” says Logan.

“We're 50 years behind Southern California and 30 years behind Australia for crowds and coastal development so I'm generally shooting for a market of city dwellers whose surf environments are packed. They dream of escape, of the empty line-up.”

Brought up in Ruakaka south of Whangarei where his parents worked as dairy share-milkers, Logan took up board-riding as a 12-year-old in 1965 when his sister began dating a surfer.

“When he and his mates came in from a surf I pestered them for a board while they warmed up before going out again.”

Six years later he got into surf journalism. The then-18-year-old owned a camera and lens but no car. Both items were expensive back then, he says. To get to surf locations he hitch-hiked.

As of this year, Logan has contributed to overseas surf publications for 50 years. He is the first New Zealand surf photojournalist to achieve that, he says.

His 1978, Punis Farm picture is said to be New Zealand's most famous surfing photograph, while he has been voted third best in Longboard magazine's poll for “the best surf photo ever taken”.

In 2001, he was inducted into the New Zealand surfing hall of fame, his pictures have featured in world champion wave-rider Nat Young's book, The History of Surfing, and one of his pictures made the cover of Chris Bystrum's book The Glide — The Renaissance of Modern Longboarding.

In 2004, he produced The Surf Photography of Logan Murray, and is now working with publishers Potton and Burton on a second book due for publication this year.

At first, he had no desire to write stories to accompany his pictures. It felt like schoolwork, he says. But, motivated by the realisation surfing magazines preferred the whole package — words and pictures — he started writing and soon learned to enjoy it as much as he does the photography.

“When I look back at my early stuff I cringe. Writing wasn't a natural gift with me but the more I did it, the better I got . . . and the more confident.”

Despite his achievements in surf photojournalism, work can be as inconsistent as the surf he photographs. To support his vocation he has worked as a press photographer with The Bay of Plenty Times; as a travel agent; library assistant; and a forestry research technician trainee. Whatever job he had, it was to support his surf photojournalism, an increasingly- competitive market in which he needs a point of difference. For the high-end publications his work has appeared in, he is mindful of presenting that point of difference for the mostly US and Australian readers.

“Now, waves have to be perfect,” he says.

“With fewer surf magazines left standing, the competition is fierce. Surfer magazine, the first surf publication, set up in the 1960s, folded this year. I'm competing with photojournalists from all over the world. I have to be on top of my game.”

A LIFE BEHIND THE LENS: Wainui Beach-based surf photojournalist Logan Murray has clocked up 50 years in contributions to overseas surf publications and is in no hurry to stop.Picture by Liam Clayton