As we drown in 'content', Marlee Owen's surf photography pops out: capturing the amazing colours of the Sunshine Coast in Australia and the ever-changing texture of the ocean, it naturally begets the question: can surf photography be art?
Rewind. Marlee grew up in a little surfing town on the North Coast of Australia. It was his uncle who first pushed him onto a wave on a boogie board: "that experience got me super stoked about surfing and I always think of that moment as the beginning of my surfing lifestyle." Surf photography followed soon: "I used to buy disposable under-water cameras when I was a grom. Surf photography was a natural progression for me, as I'd spent most of my life in the water. When I first started out and bought my first decent DSLR camera, within a month, I ordered a housing for it."
Our Instagram walls are awash with barrels that all end up looking samey, and there's a reason why it's often referred to as #surfporn: the ultimate insult to true fun and passion, being desensitized to stoke, creating unrealistic expectations, eye-rolling unless the lip is the size of Teahupoo's... Standing out, Marlee's pop colours, eye-grabbing texture play and evocative slow-shutter recreate the sense of wonder we experience as surfers. Which is a deliberate process for Marlee, who exhorts fellow photographers to 'make art, not content':
'That comment kind of has two meanings for me. It came to me when I was sitting out in the surf one day thinking. In one way, it’s a bit of a stab at all the ‘content creators’ out there; people just filling up their Instagram with mindless images of no substance. Secondly, it’s something I say to myself when I’m out there shooting, to give me the motivation to try something different, maybe a new technique. I push myself to create something from the conditions, the situation, rather than just photographing what is there; to create my own perception, rather than just shooting blindly.
Art: of course, it's different for everybody. For me, art is just expressing how you’re visualising or feeling about something, and putting thought into the process; it’s a personal perception of that moment or time.'
In terms of style and art reference, Marlee feels he is still developing his style. Shooting mostly in #Noosa at sunrise and sunset, he draws great inspiration from the local scene:
I found Kane Brown's shoots unique from what I had seen before and would look at his work and try to figure out how he did it. That’s the way I have taught myself mostly. Study, try to replicate, then use it in a way that I find appeals to me personally. Other locals who are killing it and I aspire to would be Woody Gooch, Harry Mark and Andy Staley and on the wave/ocean side of things, the crew from the south coast of Aus, Ray Collins, Warren Keelan and Lloyd Meudell.
And while it is true we can see some of the influences of the trademark light and texture style of Collins or Meudell for example, Marlee's own exploration is starting to shape into something unique. A grafter who's not afraid to spend hours hunting the improbable, or experimenting at the risk of losing shots ("I really enjoy the challenge of nailing slow shutter shots. Although you lose a hell of a lot more images when you're trying to nail a good one, the end result is worth it"), Marlee will do it 'for the art'.
And when it's on, it's on. A striking light will draw him away from the party like a beautiful stranger in the night. On cue his 'purple haze storm' picture (below):
"Been watching this storm build up all evening at Christmas gatherings, got home about 10pm and grabbed my gear. It was pissing down rain and pitch black except when the strikes hit. Unfortunately it seemed to be getting less consistent but I swam out and bobbed around for 1hr anyway. Ended up coming home with this. Not exactly what I had in my head but stoked none the less."
And so are we! Doggy-bag the party hat and keep on chasing Marlee!
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Chief Storyteller at Swellbound