Wherever you are and whatever you do, a little more space would inevitably come in handy. Since moving into our workshop at the Eco Park three years ago, most of the “office” work involved with running Otter Surfboards has been done on James’ kitchen table. For a long time we’ve toyed with the idea of building a mezzanine into the workshop so that we can have an upstairs space for various elements of what we do here, and over the past three weeks those dreams and plans have finally come to fruition. Much like a traditional barn-raising where friends and neighbours would lend a hand in the building of a barn's framework (before the advent of mobile cranes), we were lucky enough to have friends on hand to help us out and it wouldn't have been possible without them.
With a couple of weeks clear(ish) before our next workshop course we emptied out as much of the workshop as possible, ordered a lot of wood, and called all-hands on deck. An old friend of James’, Tim, who is a structural engineer drew up plans for us and then James and Si, who between them have a lot of experience constructing timber-frame buildings, led the way with Chris and Tom bringing their building experience to the project too. Friends stopped by to lend a hand here and there, which was particularly helpful on the heavy lifting days, and the end result is that we’ve just increased our floor space by over 50%.
Because wood is the material that we work with on a daily basis, the main Douglas fir frame for the mezzanine was constructed using traditional joinery techniques – mortice and tenon joints secured with drawn oak pegs. All of the joists were then notched in, so there’s not a single metal joist-hanger in sight. It was saw, chisel and mallet all the way.
The two hefty wooden posts that support the central beam that runs two-thirds the length of the workshop sit on custom made steel fins and base plates. We asked our friend Dave from Cord Industries to fabricate these for us; Dave makes beautiful steel-leg furniture (such as dining tables, benches, and stools) just along the road from us, but turned his welder up to full power for us to construct these substantial steel “single-fins”.
With a fully-booked make-your-own wooden surfboard course about to start, the workshop is now back to normal; our new “upstairs” is still just a platform and we have to build a new wall across the front of it and fit it out as a kitchen, office, oiling and packing space, but that will happen over the coming weeks and months. We’re back to business as usual, but now with a bit of extra space and a view of the sea out of the skylight.
Cornwall is, and has a history of being, home to some incredibly creative people; from the artistic hubs of St Ives and Newlyn in the 19th and 20th centuries through to the present day, creativity in many mediums both develops here and is drawn here. Some people pursue their creative endeavours full tie, whilst others enjoy them as a past time that sits alongside their working lives and other hobbies. Our friend Matt Smith falls into that later category. Matt lives in St Agnes, just over the hill from us. He has a regular job, he surfs, and he has a passion for polaroid photography that often sees him taking photos before or after a surf at a local beach with one of his incredibly interesting instant cameras. In a world of instant digital photography, where people snap phone photos of the waves before or after a surf to share on social media, we wanted to shine a spotlight on Matt's interpretation of instant surf photography and celebrate some of his beautiful images.
Can you tell us a little about instant film photography?
Using Instant film, often called polaroid, is taking a photo and holding the developed print in your hand a few minutes later. They are original one-off works of art and at the same time extremely complex chemical reactions. At one point polaroid were selling millions of packs of film a year, then digital came along and sales plummeted. Now just a few companies produce it but like vinyl it's experiencing a resurgence in popularity. I've been shooting it for over 10 years and hope to do so for as long as I can get film. Instant film always generates a reaction from those seeing it the first time and it's a pretty addictive way to take photos.
Much of your work focuses on surfing and surf culture, but the action of surfing must be difficult to photograph on equipment that isn’t known for capturing fast moving subjects. How have you gone about combining your passions of surfing and instant film photography?
Yeah these old cameras have wide lenses, slow shutters and of course it's one shot at a time. You need a wave you can get pretty close to if you want to get a picture of someone surfing where they don't just look like a grain of sand stuck to the print. So I try to take photos of the things that surround surfing, like people at the beach, lineups, surfboards, landscapes and waves.
What cameras and films do you use the most?
At the moment pretty much just polaroid film in various cameras. Film is mainly the peel apart style but some of the classic type polaroid with the fat white bottom border too and some of the larger 4x5 size as well. I do shoot some black and white medium and large format film too occasionally. I have probably 4 or 5 cameras I use a lot and a few that get the occasional outing. Becoming a camera collector is all too easy so I sold everything I never use. And spent the proceeds on film….
What are the biggest challenges presented by instant film photography?
I prefer original polaroid film, and the last batch made expired in March 2009, so even the 'freshest' film is almost ten years old, and many of the cameras are 40 or 50+ years old as well. Putting those two elements together creates a challenge, but this is also what makes it so rewarding when it all comes together. Instant film isn't cheap to use, there are only a couple of companies left making it and Ebay prices are going through the roof. When one shot can cost the same as a beer you tend to be careful… I'm also not that good at keeping sand off the prints whilst they dry!
Your chosen medium has sometimes required you to get creative with your equipment. Can you talk to us about some of the woodworking that you’ve done to adapt your cameras?
Tinkering with cameras is all part of the process... it’s great to get something working again or to improve it and give it a new lease of life. I've modified a few cameras to put different lenses on them or to change the film they use which is fun and stops these great cameras being paperweights. I've always liked trying to work with wood and whilst I'm no expert it is something I enjoy. I wanted a camera that had some certain functions but couldn’t afford to buy one, so I decided to make one myself out of wood and attach a lens and film back to it.. It went through three versions and served me well. To be fair my woodworking skills need some polishing but it’s certainly something I’ll do more of.
Instant film produces an incredibly nostalgic look. Is this outcome part of the appeal for you, or is it the process that you love?
I think it's both. I love the soft look and colours polaroid film gives, and whilst I can't control that 100%, I have learnt how to get the results I want in a lot of situations. But I also find the process extremely rewarding, I’m often just as pleased to have created an image I like from really old film with a camera I have worked on, as with the actual image itself.
You don’t only haul your camera kit around the local beaches, you take it away on international trips. How do you balance the packing list of surfboards against cameras and film?
My hand luggage is always full of Polaroid cameras and film, anything else that fits in that bag is a bonus. I'm going to Sagres, Portugal in May with my family, which will be a different packing challenge so maybe ask me again after that!
Is your photography largely spontaneous, or do you ever plan shots?
Pretty much all spontaneous. I occasionally go out with a shot in mind but most of the time I am shooting before or after I have been surfing myself. I just like wandering around the beach and coast with a camera.
Do you have any longer term photography projects that you’re working on at the moment?
I'd like to get better at portraits, so am trying hard to do more of those.
From where do you draw your inspiration?
Mainly from being at the beach, the coast, or outdoors somewhere. There is a huge community of extremely talented instant photographers out there, all of whom give their own take to using the film and cameras. I’m inspired by wet plate photography and any of the other older photographic processes. There are so amazing surf photographers, way too many to mention or even know about. I personally prefer surfing inspired landscapes than the 600mm lens from the beach, but of course still appreciate all good surf images. Surf photography from the 60s and 70s is incredible because the film just looks so damn good. I also get a lot of inspiration from skate and snowboarding images too.
To name just a few of the many photographers that inspire me: Ryan Tatar, Bernard Testemale, Joni Sternbach, Matt Georges, Leo Sharp, Chris Burkard, Adam Harriden, Matt Schwartz, Leroy Grannis, Ron Stoner, Francois-Xavier Laurent, Morgan Maassen, Bastian Kalous , Arto Saari, Atiba Jefferson, Romain Juchereau, Rommel, Ian and Erick Regnard… this list could go on and on….
It’s easy as a small business to always be looking forwards; to plan for the future and keep on pushing ahead. It’s all too common to overlook the positive impact of reflection as a tool that can be used to both inform future decisions and also to provide a bit of affirmation that actually, we’re doing alright. A lot can happen in a year. Here’re some of the best bits of our last one:
2016 started for Otter Surfboards with James and Liz being on honeymoon in New Zealand. They had an action-packed itinerary but James did persuade his wife to let him take a surfboard with them, and he scored some fun surf on the 7’2” Coaster on the east coast of the South Island.
The latest wooden surfboard model to take it’s place in the Otter Surfboards rack was our 6’8” semi-gun, named The Riser. Designed to perform in the best waves, it’s already got our Chris into and out of some truly memorable situations.
The Art of Making Film
Our friend Al visited us for a week at the start of the summer, and brought along with him bags and boxes of filming gear. We shot anything and everything, from workshop courses through to dolphins jumping through waves whilst we bodysurfed. The first edit to be released, earlier this year, was The Art of Making. And, there’ll be more to come in 2017.
Shaping at Surf Snowdonia
In the spring James ran a very special week-long workshop course at Surf Snowdonia. Building and shaping a wooden surfboard mere metres from the lagoon, they were able to wash the sawdust off at the end of each day with an hour of regular, predictable waves before bedding down in the wooden camping cabins that line the side of the lagoon. It was great knowing that at the end of each day, the waves would be there waiting for them.
At Easter, James and our friend Tony jumped in the van and made their way to the west coast of Ireland for a few weeks. They toured the wild Atlantic Way, surfing and sleeping in the van in classic
surf-trip style, and scored some incredible waves. They rounded their trip out with a visit to Matt Smith, Fergal Smith, and the Moyhill Farm crew to check out the great work that they’re doing and help plant a few trees.
Our latest foray into finless fun saw us running a new workshop course at the start of the summer for Dougie, who wanted to shape an alaia with us. After some head scratching and a bit of ingenuity, we came up with a method of shaping a perfect graduated concave into the bottom of the board and the results, both our first board and Dougie’s, were brilliant. They aren’t half difficult to catch waves on, though!
In Print – A Surf Odyssey and With Love Project
We are always incredibly grateful to see ourselves in print, and this year we were fortunate enough to be featured in two beautiful coffee table books: Gestalten’s A Surf Odyssey and the With Love Project. Thank you, to all of those involved.
With festival season in full swing here in the UK, we loaded up the van and headed off “on tour”. We were lucky enough to be invited to exhibit and demonstrate our craft at the last ever Art in Action festival in Oxfordshire, an event that James used to visit when he was younger, and following that it was back to Cornwall for the wonderful Port Eliot festival where we ran some handplane workshops in the Hole & Corner tent. We’re hoping to visit some more festivals in 2017, so hopefully we’ll see some of you out there!
Nature Trumps Walls
As the run-up to the U.S. presidential election held the attention of the world we shared the news that republican candidate Donald Trump, famous for his plans to build a wall along the Mexican border, was also trying to build a wall across a beautiful beach in Ireland to protect one of his golf courses. Thanks to the campaigning of a coalition led by our friends at Save the Waves, his shortsighted and elitist plan was rejected by the local authorities (the final stage, his application having been turned down by the national authorities) and Doughmore Beach was saved!
Finisterre Talks and Workshops
James was invited to present his story as part of the series of regular Thursday night talks at the Finisterre store in Seven Dials, Covent Garden, back in April. For the first time in the history of the series, his talk sold out and they put on a second night, which we couldn’t quite believe! On the day following the second talk, we ran two “Make-Your-Own” bodysurfing handplane workshops in-store, and there are now plans in the pipeline for us to offer these again in both Finisterre’s London and Bristol stores in 2017.
Workshops and the AGM
As ever, we couldn’t list our high points of a year without celebrating the best thing (collectively), which are the wonderful friends that we make through running our workshop courses. Alongside new friends from 2016’s series of wooden surfboard courses, a real highlight of our year is welcoming back previous year’s workshoppers to our “Annual Gathering of Makers” AGM, for a communal surf and evening of food and sharing stories at the farm where it all began for us. We look forward to growing this community further next year, and to another wonderful celebration at our 2017 AGM.