Developing Tank // <br>The Story of The First In-Water Photographs of Surfing at Porthleven
In the early 1970s, when the British surf scene was still in its infancy and long before the days of glossy surf magazines and social media, a Cornish teenager named John Gollop swam out at Porthleven with his Konica rangefinder camera, encased in it’s specific plastic water-housing, to shoot the small group of local chargers pioneering the spot. “It was the bee’s knees,” John recounts wistfully, “I just did it for my mates and for personal interest.”
Few people ever saw those photographs. But five decades on and after a very successful career as a professional photographer, John recently took some boxes of his old photo negatives down from the loft and rediscovered the surf photos that he shot as a teenager.
“I was at school, in the lower sixth form then, and my friend whispered, ‘John, John, there’s this place that’s really good: Porthleven.’ I remember the very first time we went there, we could see it over on the right but we were on the pier. We saw a couple of guys out but we didn’t know the best way to access the break or anything like that. It really was an unknown spot.”
John was almost certainly the first person to shoot surf photos in the water at the now infamous West Cornwall break, and possibly the first person to photograph surfing there, full stop. “A lot of the guys that surfed there were big names - for me anyway. There was Tris Coates, Tigger Newlyn, Charlie Williams. They were sort of the premiership footballers of the day for British surfing! It was like, ‘wow, I’m out here with these guys, and they’re talking to me!’ I was accepted, and I sold them pictures. I wasn’t there to make money, but I was chuffed that they wanted to buy a picture from me.” Some of John’s photographs were printed in a small black and white newssheet produced by an American who worked for Bilbo that was sold at their shop in Newquay, and he copped a few bad vibes from some surfers who felt he was publicizing their secret spot – but that didn’t last long once they got photos of themselves surfing.
John started surfing at the age of 13. A Portreath boy, he began with the local surf life saving club, although, “I wasn’t really interested in the lifesaving part, more the surfing.” This passion led him onto leash-less longboards, followed by the shortboard revolution, before he settled on a knee board. “The reason I was a knee boarder is because I’m not a strong swimmer. I hated swimming. They used to train you in the surf club until you basically threw up. I thought, stuff that. So I got a knee board because I thought, well, if you’re in a big swell and your leash snaps, you still have a pair of fins and it’ll be easier to swim in!”
Floating around on the peak at Porthleven, John’s confidence in his swimming didn’t put him off his passion for in-water surf photography, “I consider myself a survival swimmer. I could be out there for hours and hours and hours and be quite comfortable.” Endlessly in search of ways to stay in longer, John laughed as he described how he once swam out in a tractor tyre for a float, before realising how much trouble he’d be in if he got caught on the inside. “It was a good 8ft that day, but it was good fun. Live and learn!”
Porthleven breaks best and most frequently through the winter months. John recalls that, just as digital replacing 35mm film opened up and democratised photography, so too did the development of wetsuits open up and democratise surfing in Britain, particularly through the colder half of the year. “In terms of development, the wetsuit, the boots, gloves, hood, I saw all that come through, and it made it possible.” Many of these photographs were taken in the depths of winter, in January and February. “Wetsuits weren’t that good in those days!” John says, “I had 36 pictures on a roll of film and a set coming through every two or three minutes, sometimes five minutes apart. If the surfer was too far away, or missed the wave or I missed the shot, I’d be lucky to even shoot half a roll of film before I started getting too cold!"
Without peers within the surf photography industry to learn from, John took his inspiration from American surf photographers and surf films. “I got the basics. My all time favourite film was Five Summer Stories. You could see the photography there, and that was the YouTube of the day. George Greenough, too… Those were the guys that I aspired to be like. I wanted to go and develop surf photography as a career but in those days you just took pictures of surfing or your mates on the beach.”
John’s three passions were surfing, photography and science; his surf photography allowed him to indulge all three at the same time as he set up a dark room in his parents’ spare room and developed his films himself there. “Some of the colour photographs are a bit pink, because of the way I developed them,” he recalls. “I had a passion for photography. That’s all I wanted to do. It was great taking pictures of surfing, but then you’d look at the American surf magazines that we were able to get over here, and there was a big difference; all of our pictures were grey and all of the photos in the American surf mags were bright blues. So I knew that it wasn’t going to take off because there wasn’t a market for photographs of surfing in Britain.”
From his teenage years photographing friends around Cornwall, John went on to carve out his fortune in the big smoke, where he attended the prestigious London College of Printing (now the London College of Communications). He went on to work for publications such as The Observer and The Radio Times, before setting up a very successful advertising and photography studio of his own producing images for all the major agencies. It was one of the biggest studios outside of central London and had a dedicated photography lab for developing their films. Keeping his toe dipped in the saltwater, he also had a house in Croyde, (“you can’t get a better British beach break than Croyde at low tide”) and was close with the local ‘old boys’ and original surf shops in North Devon. His career allowed him the budget to travel, achieving his goal of surfing the three major oceans in his lifetime. In the early 90s he headed over to Hawaii where he photographed the local surfers at Sunset Beach, “Whilst it wasn’t that big, probably about 6-8ft, not 20ft and triple overhead, it still took a bit of courage to swim out, and it was still interesting.”
“I didn’t do a lot of surfing when I lived in London,” John recalls sadly, “But I have very fond memories of surfing up in North Devon. I used to love the winter. My favourite spots were the left-hand point breaks on the coast above Exmoor – one of which can be a summer break as well if you kept an eye on the forecast. One of those spots is a real little barrel, but it only breaks once or twice a year as it’s got to be wild. I had a VW camper with a raised roof and my mate used to have to hang onto it when we were driving along because the wind was so strong. But it was sheltered down there and a good wave. They were the best breaks.”
Around the year 2000, John decided to head home. “I wanted to get back to Cornwall; all the happy memories. Everyone is the same. You go to college, try and earn a fortune, fail miserably and come back to Cornwall. I wasn’t one of those people who could just stick it out in London. It was hard. I didn’t like London.” Whilst his business was extremely successful, a few major life events (a serious motorbike accident being one) drove home that he didn’t want to be working with art directors in the city all his life. The rise of digital photography was looming, and with the cost to re-equip his studio for the digital age potentially running into the hundreds of thousands of pounds (just to keep their clients and maintain the business), John realized that London, agencies and being so far from the ocean just wasn’t for him anymore.
He now works with the National Trust but once a photographer, always a photographer, and he also produces stock imagery for Getty [one of the biggest photographic agencies in the world] in his spare time. John lives by the beach once again, recently swam round St Michaels Mount, and has found his feet once again firmly planted in Cornish sand. Although the treasure that he found wasn’t buried in that sand, but up in his loft.
We’d like to thank John for sharing his photography with us, and for being so generous with his time and stories. You can follow John on Instagram at @johngollopphoto ready for next time he takes down and scans a box of old negatives.