By Michael Fordham
Litmus was defining moment in surf film making of the 1990s - a meditative counterpoint to the slash-and-burn ethos of the era.
Though Australian photographer, musician, surfer and film maker Andrew Kidman may not have realised it when he was shooting footage around the world in the mid nineties, Litmus would touch a nerve that helped spark an aesthetic revolution in surf media. It blazed a trail and forged an open-minded vision of surfing that still burns brightly. In one of the defining segments of the film, wirey polemicist and surfboard design savant Derek Hynd hooks into a tight top turn, driving then beautifully off the bottom in a graceful display of compression and extension. This faded from an outrageous display of trim through offbeat form on a 9'9" Dick Brewer Thruster. Cut now to the high-line, and Hynd jives the rail of a 5-8 Skip Frye twin keel into forward projection at lightning speed as he taps the power of the curling lip, swooping, driving and releasing into weightless flow. The sequence and the film that emerged from this striking core was devoid of the hard-driving, thrash and burn soundtrack and the hucks and gouges of a flotilla of teeny bopper brand reps. And the stars of this show were approaching the age when the world would have them stashing the surfboards and taking up membership of the golf club. Wayne Lynch's powerful backside attack, his channelling of aboriginal wisdom and discussions of surfing's lasting blessings sealed the deal. The film evoked a type of surfing that had very little to do with the mainstream surf industry's marketing of the surfing way of life as elemental youth cult. If surfing was a cult, through the lens of Litmus it was re-imagined as a one of eternal youth - accessible by an incredibly wide range of wave riders and the hydrodynamic potential of a universe of surfboards.
Litmus helped shake the surfing world awake to the fact that stylish, flowing surfing didn't fade out with the advent of the tri-finned shortboard, and that the act of surfing itself is far richer than a set of saleable clichés. The film spread the gospel of what has been labelled a 'retro-progressive' school of aesthetic exploration, and what was being practiced by a core avante-garde soon spread all over the world. Kidman: "Originally cinematographer Jon Frank and I just wanted to make a film that showed how Wayne Lynch and Derek Hynd had remained surfing extremely well into their forties, and how they had achieved this through design exploration. Other things happened along the way, like the waves in Ireland. We just put the time into the subjects and the places until we felt like we'd represented them with honesty."
In addition to it's creative new approach, for the first time Kidman showed the cold, powerful quality waves of Ireland to the surfing masses. While he was at it he represented the essential part that genealogy played in surfing's evolution by focussing on Terry Fitzgerald's son Joel surfing his family's ancestral coastline with a radical style that bridged the generations.
With its inclusion of soft-focus, less than perfectly-lit action, a hand wrought soundtrack and an unashamedly opinionated message, the film sounded a chord for a generation of surfers who had become alienated by the way their passion was being represented by the surf media. "I guess the reason Litmus touched people was it lacked commercial influence. I guess what disappointed me in some the films that followed was they lifted the style but thought nothing of subjects selling out in the process. One day they were pro surfers, the next day they were soul surfers. That's a pretty cynical shift."
Litmus was, of course as much a product of the demographic shifts in surfing as a spark that ignited a new, more open minded era within surf culture. But the surf culture that survives to this day, a scene where surfers you can ride any sort of board they imagine and be by and large respected for their choices, owes much to Kidman's foresighted exploration of what sort of surfing could be and should be immortalised on screen. But the truly lasting influence of Litmus just might be the ambience, the elevated mood and the meditative approach that Kidman took to making a film about surfing. Ultimately Litmus's mission was to waken the world to the beauty that surfers are heir to. "We weren't trying to change the world when we made Litmus, we were just trying to show how rich what we're involved in is. We're given such a window into how the world works each time we paddle out into that fathomless force, surely we should take that back into what we do and reflect it to others."
The Book of Surfing
For more like this check out the Killer Guide to Surf Culture From the creator of the September Project, Stranger Magazine and cult freesports magazine Adrenalin comes 288 pages of illustrated loveliness on surf culture. Representing the work of some of the greatest lensmen, pensmen and artists ever to train their sensibilities on the beautifully meaningless act of riding a wave, the Book of Surfing is a tempestuous, full colour celebration of the surfing life. The roll call of contributors include: Thomas Campbell, Leroy Grannis, Albe Falzon, Ron Church, Art Brewer, Jeff Divine and Rick Griffin - and there's everything from an ode to the Feral surfer, sketches of the influence of surf music, to the benefits of sun salutations and bottom turns. Hipping the legions of the newly stoked to the breadth and depths of surf culture as well as keeping the old salts smiling, the whole package lands as the 21st century's coolest guide to surf-culture, like, ever. The following is an excerpt. Look out for more posts over the coming weeks.