Greatest Rides of Tom Servais

The soft-spoken photographer opens up about three of his most celebrated images

| posted on July 02, 2013

Three of the more memorable images in this issue’s “Greatest Rides of All Time” feature (Tom Carroll, Pipeline, 1991; Tom Curren, Backdoor, 1991; Andy Irons, Teahupoo, 2002) were captured by the same tireless lensman—Tom Servais. For parts of five decades Servais has quietly built a legendary portfolio of some of surfing’s most treasured photos. I recently spoke with Servais about his contributions to the “Greatest Rides” list for the 2013 Big Issue. Servais, easily one of the most published photographers in the 1990s and 2000s, was quick to deflect praise, chalking up his success to luck and lots of hard work.

Tom Curren, Backdoor. Photo: A-Frame/Servais

I want to talk to you first about my (and probably every surfer who came of age in the 1990s) favorite surf shot of all time—Curren’s cutback at Backdoor on his magic, stickerless Maurice Cole. Did you know immediately that you had an iconic photo on your hands when you first saw the image?

You know I didn’t quite realize that I had that good of a shot when I actually took it. At least I don’t remember thinking that. I was in Hawaii at the Surfer house and Art Brewer and Jeff Divine were staying there at the time. And I remember when we got the photos back, I was going through my box of slides and when I saw that slide I thought “Wow, this is pretty good.” Then I showed it to Jeff and Art. I got the idea that they were kind of jealous, like they thought “Oh, that’s a really good one.” Within a week or two I started realizing that it was a really special shot. I thought it should have been a cover shot, and I think most everybody on the staff thought it should have been a cover shot. But I think because Curren didn’t have the logos on his board the magazine didn’t want to put it on the cover. They didn’t want to piss off the advertisers and put out a cover shot of a guy with no logos.

Was that an arranged photo session or just a freesurf?

No we weren’t working together or anything. Tom’s really elusive to get photos of. He almost seemed like he was making it difficult to get photos of him, although I don’t think he was doing that on purpose. He just wasn’t comfortable with people taking his picture all the time. I think he almost avoided cameras.

Tom Carroll, Pipeline. Photo: A-Frame/Servais

Let’s talk about another North Shore moment, Tom Carroll’s snap at Pipeline in 1991. Were you aware of how significant that sequence would turn out to be?

We didn’t know how good the photo would be, but I knew right away that the maneuver was just incredible. I always thought Tommy was the best surfer at Pipeline—and this is in the Derek Ho era—especially since he didn’t even live in Hawaii. He was only surfing Pipe part of the year and he didn’t get as much practice out there, but still no one surfed the rail and did the kind of bottom turns and fades, and set up for the tube the way he did. When he did that snap, everybody on the beach kind of looked at each other like, “Oh my god, did you see that?” We didn’t know it was going to be so famous and endure the the test of time and become this iconic thing.

After decades of shooting Pipe does that turn hold up as one of the best maneuvers you’ve seen out there?

I still think that sticks out as one of the best things I’ve ever seen at Pipeline. At Pipeline now, guys take off so late they basically take off under the lip and get barreled right at takeoff, so we don’t see that fade bottom turn. The way guys ride Pipeline today is just so different. Tom used to lay it on rail and drive off the bottom so hard. I don’t remember anybody doing a turn like that before or after. It was just a very special moment in the history of surfing Pipeline. A lot of us always said that Tom Carroll was our favorite surfer, he was just so powerful, it was like he was built to surf the North Shore.

Andy Irons, Teahupoo. Photo: A-Frame/Servais

Tell me about the shot of Andy at Teahupoo in 2002. How did that image take shape?

That’s one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken. In the mornings at Teahupoo, all the photographers try to get on the middle boat that sits in the channel and looks right into the wave. That morning the photographers were all fighting about it, and I just kind of went fuck it, and got on the first boat, the inside boat that gives more of a beach angle rather than looking straight into the barrel. I was lucky enough to be in the boat with only one other photographer. He shot it too, but kinda tight, and I just got really lucky to get that particular photo. There were a lot of guys shooting but nobody else got a photo like that from that angle.

The next day Andy explained the whole wave to me. He said it was really, really scary and he was so late getting into it that he was just about ready to jump off his board. But he held on, caught his edge at the bottom, and the lip of the wave landed right in front of him, just outside the rail of his board. He thought that the lip hitting down below him actually helped him make the wave by pushing him up into the wave face while it barreled over him. I thought that was pretty heavy. I’d never had anybody tell me that the lip bounce from below actually helped them make the wave.

Do you feel like these shots will be your legacy at the end of your career?

I don’t know, I don’t really like to talk about myself to tell the truth. I don’t feel like I’m some genius like Art Brewer or Jeff Hornbaker. I think those guys are way better photographers than I am. I guess I just feel like I’m really lucky. There were 30 other photographers and I got the Andy Irons shot. I just got lucky to go down the beach at the end of the day to get the Tom Curren photo, so I feel like I’ve been a lucky photographer more than a good photographer. I work really hard, but I just really had a lot of luck going for me all the time.

See the stories behind these photos and the rest of “The Greatest Rides of All Time” in our Big Issue.

  • Mik

    Luck is created by being in a place (often enough) where luck can happen.

    Experientially, as a graphic designer in the industry, i found Servais to be rad to interact with, because he IS a great photographer, he is in the thick of what’s going on, and he spends allot of time searching amongst his images to find something really unique.

    I agree that Hornbaker follows his own drum, and will surprise you with new ideas (like Brewer), so yeah, those two are exceptional…

    But for sure, Tom Servais is right in there…

    And these three images are almost the apex of everything, then and now.


    • G

      Luck = Timing + Positioning + Ability/Talent. Tom Servais definitely has the ability/talent.

  • Victoria Cooke Photography

    Tom you may have experienced having a “lucky streak” or you were “on a roll” but when one good thing happen’s after another the only reason these times occur is not luck! It is because you have given more passion to your photography and your “right time at the right place” attitude is because you attracted this energy to you. From one photographer to another it is all about “Good Vibrations”.

  • Ben

    To me, the AI wave is the greatest ever, at least in terms of spectacular commitment, difficulty, and “holy shit!” factor.

  • robot

    That Curren turn is so much like the MP turn from “Morning of the Earth.” It’s on a different scale, but his form and the board and the simple beauty of harnessing the speed and power are much the same. Great photos by a great photographer, by the way.

  • Bronson

    Wow, these are truly epic shots, I especially love the one of Andy Irons in Teahupoo – pure stoke right there.

  • Mal Stewart

    Hey Tom, I’ve always admired your work, it has inspired me every time I see it, and seeing these three images just re enforces why. Beautiful work for sure. I couldn’t pick the “best” here as they are all special in their own right.
    Cheers, Mal.

  • Glenn Walton

    Those certainly were some great moments in surfing history you captured Tom. We always enjoy your work..,,,cheers & stoke

  • Suzanne Rush

    Tahiti held promise in the 60s- but not many believed it then! I was a lucky one to see that area long before things got commercialized! Ia Orana!

  • http://none Keoni Cameron

    I would have thought the Magazine would’ve put way more photos of Hawaii, in that article, the Greatest Rides, I’m sure Michael Ho should be in there, as well as Rory Russell, Buttons, Mark Liddel, Dane, Larry Bertleman, and many, many more whose name’s have never appeared in the Magazine. If you’re going to make a “giant” issue then include some GIANT names.

    • ernest


  • Vince Street

    Great shots Tom!

  • Jim Ferguson

    It’s good that you admit you we’re “lucky” cause as you know any monkey can stand on the beach or sit in a boat with an auto focus lens and fire away. Right place, right time.


  • Kook

    Dang it, I thought they were going to show the greatest waves Tom rode. Haha

  • whamo

    Didn’t “Army” hit the bottom long and hard (Mike Armstrong) at Pipe in the 60’s?