Intro by Michael Machemer
Interview by Tyler Breuer
Over the past ten years Thomas Colla’s work has come to define the New York surfing experience, capturing the essence of varied seasons and swells. But he swears he’s not a photographer. Tommy’s documented countless hurricanes and nor’easters at the best spots in the region, had his work published internationally and on the sides of NYC buildings but will still convince you he’s a “fotohack,” a “hydrophilic” or some other word denoting an unserious approach from an otherwise committed individual.
He was born and raised in central Long Island which might explain some of his Nicola Tesla-esque ideas. Making photos is something he’s done since his mom gave him a single-lens reflex as a kid. A simple part of every living rather than a medium for trending or coattail riding. He’s equally skilled in the darkroom as in photoshop and will joke, “Photography is something everyone should do but not everyone should be called a photographer.”
His approach is that of the ultimate mysto-man creeper and not because he prefers to go to the beach solo or sometimes leaves the state or even the country without a mention. He gets you when you least expect it. Once his peers start regularly expecting new imagery of him or making demands on his schedule, he retreats back to one of his favorite pastimes of dodging traffic on his track bike at night in high winds. A few months later saturated images from another coastline show up on your Instagram feed. Colla’s in the Caribbean? There will be a variation in his work, playing with a different lens or composition style continually throwing off preconceptions and keep things fresh. Taking the passion of surfing seriously but never himself.
What was your first surfing experience? Where did you grow up surfing?
My parents had this little 20′ boat and we used to go to Fire Island every weekend. My cousin and I used to ride air mattresses. Catching waves on the way, way outside. We spent most of our time at Talisman and Watch Hill Beach. Looking back we would be paddling for 45 minutes or so just to get to the outside. It looked like a half mile from the beach. Little kids with little arms barely long enough to get our hands into the water. We hadn’t even realized that concept of fins. No duck diving. Didn’t even know what that was, nor could we submerge these big air mats with our little bodies. We would take vicious beatings just to slide water, prone. That shit was hardcore. We used to stay out for hours, skimming sideways at the mercy of the whitewater. Getting rashed-up from the vinyl and totally fried from the sun. Then my parents took us to Great Gun for the first time. We walked across the dunes and we thought we were looking at Pipeline. My jaw just dropped. Stomach high mush plowing for dozens of yards in knee-deep water. I thought it was amazing that I didn’t have to put in a half-day’s work just to get to the surf. I could walk out with my raft, turn around and go all the way to the beach. That day was also the first time we saw body boards. I had no idea they existed before that. The next Christmas my cousin, my sister and I all got Morey Aussies Boogie boards with the exposed bottom. That’s all there was. They were total unreinforced crap but they were probably our most prized possessions at the time. They meant everything in the world to us for a few summers. Great Gun became an occasional treat b/c the gas was too much to get us there so we were doing Fire Island mostly and paddling way outside.
We graduated to slick bottom sponges for our birthdays and were amazed by the speed. We still didn’t realize we should be using flippers until we saw a body board contest on TV. Now we were legit. Getting out was a breeze and my cousin even bought a wetsuit top from Ski Stop while I was still out there shivering all day in the breeze. The difference now was we were standing up. That was huge!!! I knew all along I wanted to standup surf and be on a surfboard but my parents couldn’t really afford to get me one. One weekday my dad took off from work and it was just the two of us at Watch Hill Beach. I was now scoping out spots to sponge and had seen this batch of whitewater East of Watch Hill (“The Cove”). We trekked down there. I had my Morey playing in the surf all morning. 4 or 5 of these high school kids came over on the ferry, walked down to the Cove with a couple of surfboards. One guy eventually told me it was his older brother’s board. They were drinking all day and trying to standup surf. One kid noticed me standing on my boogie and he asked me if I wanted to take out one of the thrusters. I couldn’t believe he asked. I paddled the thing out and the first wave I tried to stand up and ended up riding it all the way to the beach. I was in Heaven and put my parents in nagging Hell, begging for a surfboard for Christmas and Birthdays the next few years. I couldn’t get one. The new boards were just too expensive and I had no idea where to get a used one on the cheap. Fast forward to 9th grade and I end up in the little surf clique in Sachem High School, more or less ran by skate/surf rat, Mark Petrocelli. Petro had already been surfing a few years and I got my first few boards (a G&S and a couple WRV’s), used from him as gifts for various occasions from my parents (I still have the 2nd board I bought from him). Petro is shaping under the Faktion label and I still get boards from him to this day (and I also used to get Cannibals back when he owned part of that company).
Now in the surf clique at school the roid-ragers used to pick on us and call us “squids.” There were conflicts all the time as Sachem wasn’t the easiest place to grow up as a surfer back then. So as little “squids” we used to get dropped off at the pencil at Robert Moses and used to stay there all day no matter what the conditions. The sand used to switch from field to field each summer until the nude beach at Field 5 had the best bottom. That was the best spot growing up and the older guys used to get arrested almost daily because surfing was only allowed at Field 2. It was a big scene and a lot of drama used to go down. Guys would get hauled away in wetsuits and handcuffs. When my dad took weekdays off he would take me out to the Hamptons to surf. Guys I used to hang with were old enough to drive and we would go all over but Smith’s Point and Moses were our main spots.
When did you first start getting into photography?
I got my first instamatic for Christmas around 5th or 6th grade. The Kodak Disc camera came out about the same time so Mom swapped my insta for the Disc. I used to take BMX shots of my friends in the woods and just snaps of my friends and I being dumb in my bedroom hanging out. I had shoeboxes full of snaps. I used to get film as gifts and my mom used to get the film developed for me cheap at her job. My mom used to shoot with her Minolta SLR until her eyesight dulled a bit and she couldn’t focus it. She then handed it to me. That was about 9th grade. A Minolta X700. She gave it to me with a nice 200mm lens. I used to try to shoot surfing with it at the nude beach but, the break was still a bit too far out for it. When I got the film back you could barely see what was going on. Every once in a while I’d get a shot back with the occasional nudie in the frame that happened to walk in front of my lens while I was trying to shoot my friends surfing.
What cameras are you using?
Mostly Canon 6d and 7d . . . I have a pretty extensive camera collection (mostly of old and broken cams) but the Canon DSLR’s I used the most for practical purposes. I use film and Polaroid cams sometimes but it can get expensive. I usually take a film cam with my DSLR’s when I travel but unless I make a point to use it, I don’t always get a chance to unless I have the time to dedicate towards shooting film. If I’m shooting a lot of action on a trip both in and out of the water, a film setup is not necessarily going to provide me with the most efficient results. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always love film, but I also respect it as well, where it’s a lot less forgiving of a genre over digital.
What sort of non-surfing photos do you enjoy taking?
Flowers and Trees . . . A lot of trees but, mostly during the colder months when there’s no leaves on them. There are a couple batches of woods on Long Island I retreat to when I’m having a difficult time with something or my mind is getting the best of me. I’ll walk around for hours staring upwards at the branches, trying to meet the open air. I’ll shoot the sections that stand out with nothing but contrasting sky behind them. Some trees seem so alone even though they may be surrounded by dozens of other trees in the area. Without trying to sound too dramatic, I feel I can relate to that concept. When I’m in a “lonely but not alone” type of way. Most of the time I won’t even look at those captures until months and sometimes even years later. It bothers me so much that I’m there in the first place that I’m not quite ready to be reminded of seeing what I actually shot. That actually happens to me more than I’d like to admit with subjects other than trees. Ha, too much that it’s almost a validated part of my “process.” The act of “capturing” and “creating” aren’t just passions, they’re part of coping mechanism for me. I like to put the headphones on and drift away with the camera for a little bit.
I like taking long rides and shooting my track bike with my iPhone at the various places I end up. I like shooting scenery from my paddleboard as well. I get asked to shoot weddings all the time or various family events or portraits, etc. I do that stuff sometimes but that’s not really my thing. I like shooting candids when I travel but generally, I don’t really like shooting people unless it’s action or we’re doing things under water, or set up in some compromising position.
Do you like Instagram?
Love it!!! My brain really works in a visual sense. Words and numbers aren’t really my thing so Instagram is like Facebook without all the blah blah blah’s– A lot less baby and food pics on Instagram and a lot less political nonsense on there as well . . . I feel like I use Facebook to connect with family, friends, and events but, I feel a freedom to connect with those on Instagram that most interest my social or creative life: Bikes, surfing, art, etc.
Do you think the accessibility of digital photography has been a good thing for photography?
Definitely. Everything happens faster and the post process is streamlined from the comfort of your home or wherever you may be with power for your machines (computers, etc). Plus, you don’t need space for a darkroom. You don’t need to buy and store chemicals to develop or pay someone to develop for you.
What are some of difficulties with being a photographer, especially one that focuses on surfing?
Real, working “photographers” can go out and shoot anything and make it work. People expect me to be a “photographer” and I’m not really comfortable with that title. It takes more than going down to Best Buy and picking up a digi or GoPro and throwing your name with a copyright, “John Doe ‘Photography,’” on your images after your first week of shooting (no matter how good they might be . . . No matter who you think is going to “steal” your images . . . Please, you should be flattered if that happens). Come on now. Am I a “telecom specialist” because I own and use a cell phone all day??? I don’t mean to sound like I take myself seriously, because I don’t … But I feel like I have years to go before I walk around with the polished skills needed to identify myself as a “Photographer.”
This is more of something I love to do. It’s a documentation of things that mean something to me and sometimes mean something to others as well. As I said, the entire “capture & create” process is also a coping mechanism for me and for my life. Sometimes I go back and look and things and say to myself, “Wow, I’m so glad I got passed that difficult moment or phase in my life.” Other times it’s to remember an epic time or swell event that I hope to experience again, maybe even in a better way next time around. I’m not at all shying away from the fact that this is a creative outlet for me, sometimes even with products that deserve to be sold to help support my photo habit. But really, there’s a lot of people walking around out there calling themselves “photographers” that would be lost in a darkroom, or haven’t the slightest idea where most of the conventional foundations of Photoshop come from. I think if a lot more people concentrated more on what they were producing and less on their self-promotion, the digital world would be a much more visually pleasing place. And I’m not exempt from that either. Sometimes I go back and look and something I posted and I’m like “What the Hell was I thinking posting that garbage??!”
The expectations can make it difficult. It’s like everyone expects you to walk around with a real camera 24/7. You show up at a wedding you’re a guest at with a point and shoot and some guy who just got his first single reflex anything two months back is laughing at you “Dude, what’s that??? They told me you were a photographer . . .?” Sometimes people don’t understand that when trying to get something done, “simplicity” and trying to fly under the radar is part of the process. Every time I take my long lens out in a crowd I get a handful of people asking me what mag I shoot for, or they want to ask me a barrage of photo-related questions. I mean that’s cool, and I want to talk to people and help them out, but sometimes people just don’t get it. I’m trying to create something that when I get home I can fall in love with, so I tell them the truth. I shoot mostly for myself because it’s something I love to do and some people laugh at me, walking away muttering “Yeah right. That’s some expensive hobby,” and they think I’m some rich snob with cash to blow and they don’t consider I’ve been buying and trading-up gear for years to get to this point.
I can’t tell you how many sick waves or contest heats I’ve missed from cops or whoever chewing my ear off about their photography. I get it! You love it too. I don’t want to be a jerk but I have all this gear out getting blasted by salt spray and blistering sun for a reason. The headphones can really help avoid those situations sometimes. Lol! I don’t know, I really feel bad taking that angle but sometimes that is the only way to get what I’m looking for out of my passion. It’s sometimes hard not to draw attention to myself when the expensive stuff comes out.
The difficulty of shooting surf from the water is obvious. One of my most favorite images I bought from Hawaiian photographer Jon Mozo, and a month later he was killed while shooting at Pipeline . . .
My 2012 Ocean Conservancy Calendar cover I took a beating to get. I ended up with a sinus infection and a double inner ear infection after getting pounded in shore break for two hours. I don’t know how Clark Little is still alive doing what he does at Waimea everyday . . . His spine must be made of rubber to take those beatings and not be in a wheelchair.
Shooting surf from land is not so difficult, especially in perfect light. Trying to create a perspective that doesn’t look like the next guy’s with a tripod down the beach is where you have to get creative. Otherwise it just looks like coverage work. You go home after a swell and you see shots from five different shooters online, and they all look the same. Again, I’m not exempt . . . But the NY Quick Pro is a prime example. How long was it before you were sick of seeing Slater’s 10 point air from straight on? I think it took me like three slideshows and ten minutes.
What sort of waves turns you on?
Groundswells at any size within my limits (which is relatively small I suppose); Conditions that are a tad bit threatening but also have that element of fun. I enjoy swells that will scare the crap out of you and yet you go home feeling so “alive” and thankful that you didn’t die that day. Those surprising days where you looked at the surf and it didn’t look so good but, when it was all said and done, it was way more fun then you ever imagined it was going to be
What sort of wave turns you off?
Wind swell mush at almost any size. It’s funny how people get so hyped around here about a 6ft wind wave running at 4 seconds. I’d take a 3ft swell at 9 seconds or even smaller groundswell with some push.
What sound or noise in surfing turns you on?
The sound of waves breaking in darkness, far off in the distance. Spray from the wind or turns hitting the surface of the water, girls hooting’ on the beach, and thunder. . .
What sound or noise in surfing turns you off?
A person calling you off a wave that you know they are not going to make it. Water in my ear after a session. Lifeguard whistles, jet skis, thunder, and people calling for help (which in a weird way can go above because I get amped up to help out when a person or persons really need it- only once I have had to help out a person in distress… every other time it’s been multiple people in danger at one time)
If Heaven exists, what sort of wave would you like to surf for eternity?
7ft square, not round, with a forgiving shoulder after the barrel so I can perfect my cutties like Curren at Backdoor. Left or right, I’d be thankful for either . . .
To view more of Tommy’s work you can check him out at //www.tcolla.com/index.html
or follow him on Instagram: @tcolla