Pat Flanagan – by Sean Laughton

This was an article in African Surf Rider Magazine from 2007.

Flash back to 1964, South Beach, Durban. An, as yet, uninitiated 15 year old newcomer stands and stares resolutely at the wind-tossed sea. Buffeted by a howling South Westerly, with a surfboard tucked under one arm, the flame of a brand new adventure is kindled. This is the beginning of stoke for evergreen photojournalist, Pat Flanagan


Pat was born in dusty Windhoek in 1949, but his family moved to Durban when he was one year old, which afforded him the opportunity to grow up in more sub-tropical climes. This move had a lot to do with directing him towards the path which he now walks. It was not very long before Pat began to feel the pull of the tides, and the years following his induction into the brotherhood of wave riders saw him notching up many hours of quality time spent close to Mother Ocean. After leaving school in ‘66, the thrill of surfing had well and truly gripped Pat and he was able to get work on the Durban docks in short, intense bursts (12 – 14 hours a day, 7 days a week) in order to finance surf trips, mainly to J-Bay. For he and his surfing peers, the relatively newly discovered Jeffreys Bay, had become the Holy Grail of road trips and they spent as much time there as life would allow, living the dream. Little did he know, at that time, where his love of surfing and its lifestyle would lead him, but all the while they were silently shaping his perceptions, preparing him for what was to come.

It was in 1974, on a vacation to Europe, that Pat was bitten by the photography bug. Two years later two big things happened. He married Jenny and bought his first real camera, an Olympus OM 1 and all but stopped surfing, opting instead to throw all his energy into learning the art of surf photography.
From that day on, he never looked back, honing his craft with the passion and tenacity of a little grom for whom the world had just become an open treasure chest. In 1977 his son Liam was born, and his photos where published for the first time internationally in Surfer Magazine. 1981 turned out to be quite an eventful year in the lives of Pat and Jenny Flanagan.

It was then that Pat decided to open a photographic studio in Stanger Street. Living in Durban, professional versatility became a necessity, as one could not have made ends meet on surf photography alone. Pat did all kinds of photographic work such as advertising campaigns, fashion spreads as well as some the less exciting work such as the inevitable, dreaded pack shots. Pat tells the story of how he once spent an entire day photographing two croissant for an advertising spread. At the same time, he was learning about design, a discipline that would become his very much mainstream in his working life. During the Gunston 500 of that year Pat’s daughter, Lauren was born. Pat recalls, “I was out shooting water shots in perfect Bay of Plenty waves when Bruce Jackson paddled out for his heat and informed me that Jenny needed to get to the hospital or Lauren was going to be born on the beach. Lauren was born and I was back on the beach in about 3 hours. Talk about dedication.”

’81 was also the year that the Flanagan family (not to mention the wider surfing family) thought that they had lost Pat forever, during one of his surfing safaris to Jeffreys Bay. As Pat relates the story, he, along with Arthur Cowan and three Aussie surfers, Terry Richardson, Gary Timperly and Richard Cram had decided to stop over in the Transkei on their way to the Promised Land (Jeffreys Bay). Hoping to find a few good, unspoilt waves and some fresh photo opportunities, they stayed and camped for about four or five days and were rewarded with just what they had been hoping for. After enjoying a couple of decent sessions and snapping some good shots, their stay in the Transkei had turned into a success and they headed out satisfied, towards greener pastures.

Unknown to them though, there had been a talented Capetonian photographer by the name of Alex Macun, who just happened to have been exploring the same stretch of coastline, at the same time. Tragically, whilst surfing, Alex lost his life in a savage shark attack at the, now notorious, Ntlonyane.

According to Pat, Alex was one of the emerging photographers who, no doubt, would have gone on to leave his mark in the world of surf photography. Sadly though, this was not to be. Obviously, in those days, there was absolutely no available contact with “civilization.” If you were visiting the Transkei, you were completely cut off from the outside world. In what turned out to be a horror movie-inspired, broken-down-telephone scenario, the story which reached home (and as far afield as Surfer Magazine) via the press, was that “a surf photographer” had died in a shark attack in the Transkei. Everybody, including Pat’s wife, Jenny, assumed that it had been Pat who had been taken by the shark. Needless to say that, when he arrived in East London, still unaware of the tradegy, he phoned Jenny to see how she was doing, she believed that she had, literally, received him back from the dead. Talk about a scare!

Pat started the tabloid surf publication, Wet Magazine in 1989, which he edited. He also edited Boardsailor Magazine in the early Nineties. Over the years, Pat has contributed images for Surfer Magazine (for 15 years), Surfing, Surfing World, Surfing Life (one story he co-wrote with Mark Foo), Tracks, Surf, Wet, Boardsailor, Freewind, Zigzag and, of course, African Surfrider Magazine. Not to mention photo credits in the books, ‘History of Surfing’ by Nat Young and ‘Down the Line,’ Surfline’s book on J-Bay, published this year. Add to this already impressive ream of references, fashion spreads, advertising campaigns, covers, being a stringer for the Beeld (cricket, tennis, Air India hi-jack in ’81) and even a piece on the president of the Flat Earth Society for Huisgenoot magazine and you arrive at one of the best in the business.
The truth is that photography is a science, as well as being an art form. During the golden age of surf photography photographers were required to know all there was to know about photochemistry in order to be good at what they loved and to compete with the best. Then, there was not the ‘click now, discard later’ mentality which we have today. Photography required much more forethought and planning. Mistakes were costly. This was the kind of environment in which Pat Flanagan cut his teeth, as a developing photographer (if you’ll excuse the pun)
Pat’s excellence in his work stems from a constant reach for excellence. No doubt, his competing with other photographers in the early days also had a lot to do with where he is today. He recalls that, in those days, there was a friendly, healthy rivalry between those surf photographers. Paul Naude, Paul Maartens, Chris van Lennep and Lance Slabbert are all people who, each in their own way, helped to shape Pat into the photographer and journalist that he is today.

There is a common misconception amongst South Africans, that America or Australia has always set the bar, in terms of standards of quality and that we have, basically, followed in their wake. This is simply not the case. Pat reminisces about some of his colleagues, “As early as 1980, Mike Tomson and Paul Naude were highly regarded in the International media. So, the standard here was as high as the standard was there, and that was awesome! We were competing with all the best photographers and writers in the world, for space in the best surfing magazines in the world. It was a peak that we reached, the standard was very high.” My national pride begins to brim as Pat continues, ”…In fact in some cases…in many cases, these guys were as good, if not better than them. I mean, a lot of energy was coming from here because Instinct and particularly, Gotcha, were started here. Mike Tomson was revered. His words were published by The New York Times, Rolling Stone Magazine and he became an associate editor of Surfing Magazine in no time at all.”

Being as unassuming as Pat is, he leaves out the part about how he was, and is, right up there with those guys. Make no mistake, for this man, artistic integrity is paramount. He simply will not put out work which he feels is sub-standard. He confides that the more experienced he becomes, the more meticulously he goes about his work, as it all boils down to the presentation in the end. His philosophy on photography is fairly straight forward, that is, to illicit a response in the viewer. He shares with me an experience which happened in the early 80’s which, simple as it is, stands out for him. He, along with Paul Naude, Paul Maartens, Steve Morton and Aaron Chang had put on a slide show presentation of their combined works. Afterwards, a perfect stranger had come up to him and excitedly told Pat how much he had appreciated his photos. After about twenty years had passed, he bumped into that same guy again, who remembered Pat’s photos from that slide show, so many years before. It’s funny how something as, seemingly small as that one man sharing his stoke can make it all worthwhile for an artist.

Pat entered corporate life as a marketer for a national retail chain in 96, learning lots about mega budget marketing. This lead to an association with a listed IT company in a liaison which meant moving to Johannesburg. One year later they divested and de-listed leaving Pat high and dry. “I had to do something so we started designing Websites. Best career move I ever made.The Internet is the space I want to work in.

Last year while on a surf trip to Indo, I phoned my wife, Jenny, and there and then decided to get back to Durban. I was stoked, I need the sea.” Now, after having endured 8 years ‘in the wilderness,’ the Flanagan clan are back home, in Kwazulu Natal and operating the family business of photography and web design. If you talk to Pat, you’ll realise that the same pioneering spirit which prompted him towards every venture which he has undertaken in the past, is just as evident in him today. Anyone who wishes to learn the secret of youth, should take a page out of his book. “I’m always looking for a fresh new challenge!” Pat confides, and I can’t help noticing a sparkle in his eyes. The truth is, this man loves what he does! And it shows. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then there are few out there who articulate those words more eloquently than Pat.

You’d think that someone who is as accomplished as Pat, would have run out of goals to aim for by now. This is far from being the case, though. Pat has immediate goals of further travel. He is also busy incubating ideas for a project, which will hopefully develop into a book, in the near future. “My third dream is to get a cover shot…A COVER!” He repeats this last part quite, um…”assertively” into my dictaphone, no doubt, for Hugh Thompson’s attention. But I know he’s joking with me…kind of. Of course, like all of us, Pat also aspires to surf a whole lot. I can promise you this much, that wherever you find Pat, you will find him “keeping the dream alive. None are more proud than we are to have this talented artist back in the fold and staring down the barrel of his “gun,” once again. To be sure, we can look forward to Pat’s classic surf images, gracing the pages of local and international surfing publications, alike. Thanks Pat, for keeping the stoke burning, for we who are privileged enough to call ourselves “Surfers.”
Nowadays ownership of a 600mm digital lens coupled to a 1D Canon digital camera, set on a strong tripod, qualifies just about anyone to become a surf photographer. With auto focus and an eight frames per second motor drive mean that it’s pretty hard to miss.
Creativity suffers.

Digital vs Film

Without any doubt, shooting on transparency film will provide a smoothness of image and a translucent snap that has yet to be attained by any digital setup. However, I shoot digital almost exclusively nowadays on an Olympus E 500, using some new auto focus lenses and some mature manual focused Zuiko lenses. The reason – I can see the images that I’ve just shot immediately and that’s worth the difference in quality. Water housings have come a long way. You now have total control without having to pre-set anything.

Surf Photography in South Africa

Over the years, many good SA surf photographers have supplied us with great images. Four lensmen stand out.

Paul Naude
Without so many other interests, Paul might have been the best all rounder. In the water and behind a telephoto, his inherent surfing knowledge and his natural creativity makes his collection of photos a body of work of serious significance.

Paul Maartens
Paul’s water stuff at Cave Rock is legendary. Who will forget the time he stepped off Dane Keoloha’s head, thinking it was the reef, this after having gone over the falls trying to get in the barrel with the Hawaiian master. Paul makes my top ten worldwide water photographers of all time. Remember the Gunston poster of Cheyne Horan at the Rock.

Lance Slabbert
Surfline’s book ‘Jeffreys Bay’, (published 2007) is full of Lance’s red hot pictures. Lance really nailed down the 90’s with great action, technical brilliance and sweet sensitivity.
Thanks Lance.

Chris Van Lennep
Even before Chris started photography, he always had a desire to be in the thick of things. Picture this. Big Wednesday at The Bay of Plenty in 81 with 20 wave 10 foot sets detonating in front of the rock pier. Chris being so thrashed on the bank that I thought he might drown. He ripped. No surprise then, that once he got into photography he was so good. For years, Chris was, in my opinion, the foremost water photographer in world surfing.

Art Brewer
His portraits of surf people are a statement in 20th century photographic art. Who else’s pictures capture surfing’s essence more eloquently?

Dan Merkel
Free Ride – wide angle, in the tube, Dan did as much for surf photography as Shaun Tomson did for tube riding.

Jeff Divine
The photographer whose style I most admire and tried to emulate. You didn’t have to check byline to recognise one of Divine’s pictures.

Don King
With a degree of fitness and swimming ability coupled with the most insane super wide angle perspective, he took water photography to ballistic levels. Unassuming, Don is an unsung Hawaiian hero.

Jeff Crawford
The late Jeff Crawford’s work is so pure.
With minimum equipment (a non motorised Nikonos 111 water camera was the centre piece his camera bag in the early days), he was able to make the transition between brilliant artist and all time water photographer. When I think of Australian surfing, his pictures come to mind first.

The Surf media and how it’s changed in the ten years I was away:
The Internet
Many new opportunities to gather relevant knowledge for logged-on surfers are available on Net. Surf conditions across the planet are available at the touch of a button. Video streaming major surf events are commonplace and very relevant to many people who follow the tour from all over the world. Travel information has encouraged more trips for an ever increasing number of surfers. Shaper software, e-mailed to a far distant shaping machine has improved board design.

Most magazines have matured. However, in my opinion, journalists and editors are playing it safe by mostly using tried and tested formulae. Some magazine makers need to get out of their comfort zones and engage the status quo. We’re all stocked up on veneer.

The latest crop of South African surfers are red hot. Travis Logie has put a South African back in the top ten for the frist time in 20 years.

The Future
Before we know it, the first decade of the 21st century will be over, and what then?

My predictions are-
There will be more girls in the line-up. The constant drive for uncrowded surf breaks will unearth new spots, but not at a rate previously seen.
Carbon counts will make all travel more expensive. With good leadership surfing will not go too corporate. Tow-in surfing will become a substantial competitive category.