The surf photographer defines heroism.
But in a world full of self-styled heroes the surf photographer defines the creed.
Off the coast of County Clare, somewhere south of Lehinch, Ireland, there is a stretch of high cliff. Beneath the precipice the coastal morphology is madly variegated, lacerated with caves and blowholes, outcrops and scars. We watch as water bleeds off a limestone platform; box-like ledges are bared and the hiss and push of another mini set explodes, obscuring it all in foam. “I’ve looked at the maritime charts for this area,” says Mickey Smith. “The reef steps down five metres, ten metres, then all of a sudden down to fifty.” We look down to the reeling little left, which may be rideable once the tide drops. There’s no continental shelf to slow the swell here – just geometric slabs that project the unmediated rawness of storms into deeply powerful waves. The water today appears deep navy and the sun is shining against a bluebell sky. These soaring cliffs arch out at right angles to a reef cut with perpendicular precision. It all hints at a fathomless kind of power.
“This place is really close to my heart,” he says. “There’s just something about it that’s magical.” Mickey first set eyes on this spot in 2007, after months if not years of serendipitous wandering, guided by maps and prevailing swells. When he got back to the van with his crew, The Who’s ‘Baba O Riley’ was playing. The name stuck – not least because it’s also the name of Mickey’s nephew, who was in hospital on that very day and therefore on his mind. Riley’s is one of the most significant and photogenic waves unearthed by the Cornish waterman in the decade or two that he’s been scouring this outcrop of Europe. As a photographer, his work is about capturing moments that can never exist twice – crystallising elemental magic that without his being there would be lost forever. “Don’t get me started,” he says. “I could go into one of my hippie rants about how magical it is to find a wave like Riley’s. When the elements come together at a certain place and a certain time and you are there to bear witness, it’s the most incredible thing. It’s what I’ve been doing all my life.”
Mickey has been showing me around his adopted home, the Irish coastline that he has become associated with ever since he inadvertently introduced it to the world of big-wave surfing. It’s a world populated by big-money marketing spend, heroic egos and incredible athletes. It’s not a world that Mickey Smith is particularly comfortable with, but there’s not a lot he can do about it now. “Growing up in Newlyn [Cornwall, England] it was just all about the sea, having a laugh, playing my music,” he tells me, as Eiva, his six-month-old daughter, coos in the sun next to where we sit. “I just lived for being out there amongst it all. I had no intention of being a ‘surf photographer’ and sending off pictures to magazines. I just wanted to capture waves that I wanted to remember.”
Dad wasn’t around as he grew up. Mum was a freethinker, independently creating in her children a sense of free-flowing adventure. One day, on the way to school, Mickey was bundled into a shitty old Fiesta and taken by some of the older crew to the West Coast of Ireland. “I phoned my mum from the ferry and said, ‘Erm, I’m not going to school today, I’m going to Ireland!’” he laughs.
This tongue-tip taster of the joys of heavy slabs sent Mickey wandering for a couple of years, making decisions on the flip of a coin. Though he had never read Luke Reinhardt’s existentially dark paean to spontaneity, The Dice Man, he was likewise living with a binary set of options. “It was just an idea that came into my head,” he says. “I was brought up to embrace everything, to follow things to their conclusion. The coin toss just became a way of surrendering to fate.” Like a lot of surfers, everything was simply about facilitating the next wave, the next feral episode. “I was in Sydney one time, I didn’t fancy having to work on any more building sites,” he smiles. “It was either go back to England or take the bus across the Nullarbor and head to Margaret River. Heads it was.”
In Western Australia he became intimate with the specific pleasures of truly powerful waves. Shooting them with whatever equipment was at hand, he cemented a vision. A few shots got published, featuring inside-out barrels and their riders. Mickey didn’t realise there might be a ‘career’ doing this shit. “So many surf photographers are total fucking wankers,” he laughs. “I’ve got no idea why they think they’re such legends. The people who they’re photographing, they are the legends. So many of them seem to be doing it to get their names known, getting into the whole heroics of the thing. It shouldn’t be about that.”
In 2004, having returned from Oz to live in a van with a pair of Australian bodyboarders who had for years been quietly seeking out and dominating treacherous waves, Mickey spotted a big-wave breaking off the cliffs of Moher. “The first time I saw Aileens, it was this amazing all-time swell, fifteen foot and lined up to the horizon,” he recalls. “We knew there must be somewhere really big and perfect, but we had more or less given up. We were sitting in the car park at Doolin Point having a cup of tea. I was like, ‘I swear I can see some big barrels breaking over there somewhere!’ We walked up the cliff line from Doolin and got to this little headland. We were basically looking from behind the peak at Aileens.”
When the world first learned of Aileens – a big wave that could match Waimea, Peahi and Mavericks – tow-in surfing was reaching its peak. An inflated culture of competition had taken hold, propelled by an obsession with surfing the biggest, heaviest, most television-friendly waves. Global marketing spend was poured into encouraging unfettered access, via Jet Ski and tow rope, to waves that were once barred to surfers who didn’t have the strength, or insanity, to attempt to paddle in. The breaking of the news that there was a truly significant big-wave spot in County Clare collided with the height of the madness. Each swell since those first, pioneering moments has thus been beset by the hoards. Mickey, understandably, has mixed feelings about the consequences. “I was really naïve then,” he tells me. “We were just a bunch of mates with no agenda. But when the Jet Ski got involved, people became interested. Next time there was a swell it was mental, photographers all over the cliffs, shit on the internet, films being made. I was like, ‘What the fuck happened to this little place?’
In the wake of the global media’s newly focused glare, Mickey, along with a core team of pioneering surfers headed up by Fergal Smith and Tom Lowe, began to eschew the tow rope and Jet Ski in favour of paddling in. “Over the last two-to-three years we’ve got sick to death of the tow-in culture,” he tells me. “It’s bizarre and horrible. Whenever there’s a proper swell, there are lenses all over the point, vans, camera crews, and about thirty skis buzzing around the water.”
This sort of scene, more akin to the North Shore of Oahu, encourages a kind of short-cut mentality to graduating towards big waves. “The way you normally grow up, you surf a one-foot wave, then two, three, four feet, etc. At ten feet, you start shitting yourself, at twenty you start thinking, maybe, just maybe of grabbing a ski and a rope. But these guys haven’t done that. It spins me out. It wouldn’t spin me out if they were quiet about it. Throwing yourself down the shoulder of a great big wave, that’s cool. But they don’t just do that. They call the BBC News, the front cover of every newspaper. They get off on that aspect of it, it becomes the main thing, they’re going out to get a shot or get a film, to be known as ‘a legend’.”
When his younger sister Cherry died in 2010, Mickey set out to evoke what it was that was so special about his relationship with the ocean. The outcome was The Dark Side of the Lens, a film that showcased his refreshingly honest, bullshit-free take on the magic of being in the ocean. “Cherry was sick of seeing my photographs in surf magazines and all the writing was about the guys in the pictures,” he remembers. “She used to say to me that she wanted to know why I was doing what I was doing, what my motivations were. She always encouraged me and supported me to do exactly what it was that I was doing. I wanted to make a tribute to her curiosity, I suppose.” Mickey looks quietly into space when he talks about his sister. It’s the same look as when he talks about waves.
“It was also coming from a feeling of frustration,” he continues. “I never went surfing or made films to make out I’m a legend. I go surfing and film waves because it’s amazing to be in the sea and I wanted to remember these amazing experiences. When it boils down to it, I was just buzzing about rocking around with my little crew around Lands End, having something rad to do. I was buzzing about getting barrelled, not about being some sort of hero. I’ve always been aware of how lucky I am to have this thing. And my work is all about reflecting that.”
Funny thing is, in the process of eschewing all the bullshit that goes with big-wave surfing, he has become a hero of ours. Sorry Mickey. Don’t take it personally.