Last year the seaside village of Yamba in northern NSW was voted by Australian Traveller Magazine to be the ‘Best Town in Australia’, and now organisers of their annual community festival are looking to claim another title for the town: “Is Yamba the birthplace of Australia’s surfing photography?”
To find the answer to this question the festival organising committee is seeking the help of the Australian surfing community.
Driving the quest for the answer is the festival chairperson and professional photographer Debrah Novak.
Ms Novak said: “Our committee’s sudden interest in surfing photography stems from the fact we have included a ‘Soul Surfing’ event in this year’s festival.
“The cultural contribution surfing gives to our community through music, art, graphics and film is huge and we want to acknowledge and honour that by involving and including the surfing fraternity in our community festival.
“Pioneer surf photographer John Witzig and award-winning travel photographer Mike Larder have both accepted our invitation to be our inaugural exhibitors.
“John’s surfing images are world-renowned for capturing the essence of freedom in Australian counter culture’s early days; while Mike’s contemporary digital style lends itself to ethereal reflective imagery.”
Ms Novak’s interest in the origins of surfing photography came when a friend recently showed her an old newspaper clipping of a guy standing on a surfboard at Main Beach Yamba.
“There was nothing overtly special about the surf photo until you noticed the date when it was taken. The photo is named and dated: ‘Tommy Walker 1912–13 season’ and taken by O B Notley at Main Beach Yamba,” she said.
As a press photographer, the first thing Ms Novak thought of when she first looked at the photo was, is this the first surfing photo taken in Australia?
Ms Novak’s investigations began as soon as she was home and looked in a local historical book that placed the photographer, O B Notley, as living in nearby Maclean where he had a professional studio.
The next person she spoke with was the original custodian of the Tommy Walker photo, Manly Surf Life Saving Club life member and historian Ray Moran.
Ms Novak had spoken with Mr Moran at length in his Sydney home and he told her Tommy Walker was the person now accredited with introducing surfboard riding to Australia, five years before the famous visit/tour of Hawaii’s Olympic swimming champion, Duke Kahanamoku.
Mr Moran believes this photo, and a couple of others taken of Mr Walker at Yamba around the same time, could possibly be Australia’s first surfboard riding photos. Tommy Walker was a member of both the (short-lived) Manly Seagulls Surf Club and Yamba Life Saving Brigade at the time.
“As Manly club historian I have had numerous opportunities to look at hundreds of old photos and I can’t find anything that pre-dates this one of Tommy Walker surfing at Main Beach Yamba. However, there is a 1909 photo taken of Tommy Walker at Manly standing alongside his surfboard on the beach – it’s a nice portrait but he’s not surfing. If there is one that is older I would definitely be interested in seeing it,” Mr Moran said.
South Coast surfing historian Geoff Cater also believes these early Yamba photos are possibly Australia’s earliest known surfboard riding photos. Mr Cater last year celebrated Tommy Walker’s achievements with a ‘100 years of Australian Surfboard Riding Exhibition’ at Gerringong.
Mr Cater’s website surfresearch.com.au has extensive information about surfing history and notes that Tommy Walker purchased his board at Waikiki in 1909 for $2, and these images confirm contemporary written accounts of his surfing skills.
Ms Novak did further investigations with the Port of Yamba Historical Society and turned up another two photos that look like they were taken earlier in 1910 and 1911.
The photos were also taken by O B Notley, but the actual photos don’t identify the location like the one of Tommy Walker at Main Beach Yamba. However, one of them does have a hand-written inscription.
Tommy Walker was a seaman and worked extensively on the SS Kyogle which travelled between Yamba and Sydney regularly. He would spend the winter months in Yamba and in summer head back to Manly.
Meanwhile, professional photographer O B Notley served as a surf instructor and treasurer at the Yamba Surf Life Saving Club (Brigade in 1910) and he would have had numerous opportunities to photograph Mr Walker in the surf.
Ms Novak is hoping to claim the title ‘Yamba is the birthplace of Australia’s surfing photography’ before August for a number of reasons.
“If we can claim that particular cultural sporting crown, it means our committee can start planning to celebrate ‘100 years of Surfing Photography’ and the ‘Tommy Walker Long board Classic’ for next year’s festival,” she said.
“We will also have a framed triptych of the Tommy Walker’s historic collection on display during the festival in August so we can auction it to raise funds for next year’s event.
“However, what is really exciting for our committee is a living relative of the Father of Australian Surfboard Riding Tommy Walker has agreed to open our very first ‘Soul Surfing’ exhibition.
“She has accepted our invitation to open the exhibition and in doing so remarked ‘this family member was always regarded as the black sheep of the family because he liked to surf and travel’.
“Well, it appears some things never change!”
The two other historic Tommy Walker photos can be viewed on line at www.weloveyamba.com
And for those who are interested in surf photography here is your chance to be part of surfing history. On Sunday morning 22nd August at Main Beach Yamba a photograph will be taken by Debrah Novak on the steps of the Yamba Surf Club of anyone who is part of the local surfing community.
The intention of this photograph is to capture the Lower Clarence surfing community of 2010, surfboards and all! The photo will be then framed and a copy will also be sent to the Australian National Archives.
If you have any Australian stand-up surf board riding photos pre-dating 1911, please contact Debrah Novak (0266461174) or Ray Moran (0299776667), they would love to hear from you.