John Ogden - Photographer/ Cinematographer

When and where did you start surfing?
My family moved to the beachside suburb of Brighton on Gulf St Vincent in the 1950s, and by the mid 1960s and the arrival of the fiberglass Malibu boards I was firmly hooked to surfing. 

Do you remember your first board?
My father made my first board … an 18 foot ‘toothpick’. He worked as a carpenter after the war, and, using the family garage as his workshop, he constructed the hollow board using wood ribs wrapped with marine ply. This craft was mainly used as a paddle-board, but the occasional storm would churn the placid Gulf waters to create waves to challenge us. By about 1966 I graduated to a second hand 9 foot Ron foam and fiberglass Malibu. 

What is it that you love about surfing and the ocean?
The unpredictability of the ocean was a mirror to my own teenage turmoil. As a young kid, summers were spent fishing and swimming, and the ocean became a sanctuary where I could keep out of trouble. I found peace submerged in this watery, gravity-free realm, and trained myself to be able to stay underwater for long periods. The first time I saw a surfer take off on a wave and steer his board across the glassy wall I was instantly stoked. Surfing was much more in tune with my nature than the school team sports like cricket and football. Waves were repetitive but never the same, and surfing offered an individual challenge that was a relief from the pressures to conform.

What education have you had?
I never did that well at school as the curriculum never matched my interests. Besides, I was more interested in surfing and took off as soon as possible. I bummed around the Victorian west coast and northern NSW, living at Angourie for a while. When I was 19 I won the birthday lottery and escaped to Bali in those magic days before Morning of the Earth and the building of an international airport. This was in early 1972. After Gough was elected and conscription ended I returned to Adelaide and began studying psychology while working at a psychiatric hospital. I also got my first 35mm camera, and after about 18 months I left the hospital and returned to SE Asia to work as a photojournalist. The day I was to fly to Vietnam to photograph the war was the day that Saigon fell and I ended up documenting the war in Laos instead. In Bangkok I met Neil Davis , an Australian cinematographer whose work got me interested in moving pictures. I went to London in 1975 to study filmmaking but could not afford the fees, and when the Whitlam government was dismissed I decided to return home for the revolution. Strangely enough, many Australians thought it was okay that the Queen’s representative had sacked our elected Prime Minister and there was no revolution. Fortunately, Gough had brought in free tertiary education, and at the age of 25 I became the first in my family to be able to have a university education. I graduated (from what is now known as Curtin University) with a BA in English, majoring in film and photography.

How did your career in photography/ photo-journalism progress?
While studying in Perth during the second half of the 1970s I became the West Coast correspondent for Tracks magazine. Surf photography didn’t pay too well in those days and I now had a young family to support, which meant that I could not afford specialized equipment. To compensate, I did articles about the more esoteric adjuncts to surfing than following the contest scene. On graduating, I was employed as the water cameraman on a surf film, and spent much on 1980-81 filming in Indonesia, Hawaii and the east coast of Australia. This gig ended with the huge waves at the 1981 Bells Beach contest won by Simon Anderson. Despite having just completed a season in big Hawaiian surf, the waves were too big to swim out through, so Peter Crawford and me were dropped out the back from a helicopter. It was a frightening trip back to the beach with the rip pushing you towards the rocks at Winkipop. After that early surf film I worked on many different genres of cinematography, including documentaries, MTV, TV drama, feature films and commercials. 

You've also been involved in filmmaking. From your experiences, in what ways do photography and cinematography compliment each other?
The kind of social documentary photojournalism I did taught you a lot about using available light and the nature of light, about exposure and composition. It also taught you about how best to convey the message in what you were documenting, by using the right lens and point of view. In photography the art is the achieve this in one frame, while in cinematography it usually involves a progression of shots to move the story forward and evoke the appropriate mood. In this ways it’s a bit like arranging a song, or publishing a book. Taking photographs is a more solitary pursuit, like going surfing, while filmmaking is usually a team effort. When it all comes together there is no better feeling, but one weak link can really poison the experience. 

Can you tell us about Cyclops Press and the philosophy behind the work you're doing there?
Well Cyclops Press is actually a one-man-operation. I am the Director, researcher, author, photographer (although I often work with many other talented photographers), designer (with help from freelance designers to do the final layouts), publisher, promoter and distributor. It is necessary to do all this as the types of books I publish are limited editions with small profit margins. Cyclops Press is a boutique publishing company that specializes in books promoting Australian photography and reconciliation. Having said that, I am currently working on a novel. The company was formed in 1999 after I lost my right eye in a surfing accident and produced my first book Australienation while in recovery. 

You created the Saltwater People series that focuses on the rich history of Sydney's beaches. Can you tell us a little bit about the books and the story behind them?
Saltwater People of the Broken Bays focuses on Sydney’s northern beaches from Barrenjoey to North Head, while Saltwater People of the Fatal Shore looks at that historic coastline stretching from South Head to Royal National Park. Sydney’s beaches are recognised as the birthplace of Australian beach culture, but there is a much older history. The Saltwater People books acknowledge the coastal clans of the Dharug, Eora and Dharawal Nations, who were the custodians of this coastline for tens of thousands of years before the arrival of James Cook. The Saltwater People companion books took out the 2013 Biennial Frank Broeze Maritime History book prize awarded by the Australian National Maritime Museum.


How much research and time did you put into producing these books?
I began with the northern beaches book because I live there. It took about 2 years to research, write and produce this book. On release it was received very well by the community and critics, and emboldened I embarked on a companion book on the beaches on the south-side of the harbor.  I had collected a lot of information on this side while researching the first book, so the development time was just over a year for this edition. 

What were some of the major findings of your research in regards to the influence of Indigenous Australians and their impact on our current surf/beach culture?
The coastal clans had lived a sustainable lifestyle for tens of thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans. Theirs was a canoe culture and they took these craft out into big surf. They were excellent fishermen/women and confident swimmers. They enjoyed body surfing and occasionally used pieces of wood as you would use a kick board. The English in 1788 ruled the seas with their abilities as mariners, but few knew how to swim. It would be another 100 years before they took an interest in the surf zone. By that time the traditional coastal clans had been destroyed. In fact, within two years of the arrival of the First Fleet, it is estimated that something like 70% of the Aboriginal custodians of the Sydney coastline had been wiped out by introduced diseases and violent land grabs. Through the Saltwater People books I have attempted to raise awareness that our proud history as watermen and women has a much longer incubation than many acknowledge. The coastal clans lived along these beautiful beaches and lagoons, and harvested the ocean’s bounty in a sustainable manner for over 2000 generations. For me, as a publisher, my most rewarding moments have been when people have approached me, sometimes with tears in their eyes, to thank me for writing about something that they had already known, but only as a gnawing in their hearts. 

Who/ what are your major influences in regards to your work?
As a photographer I have been inspired by many great photographers, including: Edward S Curtis, Baldwin Spencer, Frank Hurley, W Eugene Smith, Donald Thomson. Max Dupain, David Moore, Sebastiao Salgado, Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark, Kenro Izu and Don McCullin.

Films, like surfing, have always been one of my favourite escapes. Too many to list here, but here’s a few: Bicycle Theives, Metropolis, Rashomon, Citizen Kane, Momento, The God Father, City of God, American Beauty, Blade Runner, The Princess Bride, Spinal Tap, Seven, Her and House of Sticks.

What is it that you love about your job?
Whether if be a photograph, film, book or painting I create, it is when people are moved, inspired and even changed by the work that I feel most rewarded. Naturally, some monetary compensation is much appreciated in order to realize the next project, but this is not my main motivation. It was when I went to Bali in 1972 and saw that everyone in the community was an artist – a dancer, gamelan player, painter, craftsman etc. – I realized the importance of the role of arts, community and spirituality in our lives. It is a travesty that this island Shangri-La has been consumed by outside greed to become a kind of sordid SE Asian Surfers Paradise, but I live in hope that the arts will continue to act as an antidote to base human greed and ignorance.

Where can we find you online? 



Posted by: Matthew Ryan, on October 29, 2014
Categories: Interviews