Matt Tildesley's flash-lit night series might be the most otherworldly, ethereal empty waves ever shot.

REAL DARK MOFO

A surfer’s life in Tasmania usually involves getting not just in the water, but on it as well. Boats are to Tasmanians what Vespas are to Romans. Mat Tildesley from the bucolic East Coast is no exception. He uses his dinghy to reach outer island slabs in the depths of winter. He waits for the sun to set, then swims out with a mate to create unique photographs of waves, lit from underneath the water by a large studio flash. When prompted for an interview, Mat suggested he call me at 3am Tassie time, which translated to 6pm for me, currently in self-isolation in a small Ibis hotel room with a view of the Wembley Stadium carpark. – JON FRANK

SW So where were you at 3am?

Ah, I slept till 4 I guess.

SW It’s an unusual time to schedule an interview.

I have a habit of waking up at three with my creative mind racing.

SW Do you normally wake up early?

It changes all the time. Yeah, my eldest son Eddy usually wakes up at about three, or if it’s a full moon I’ll wake up throughout the night and after two or three won’t be able to get back to sleep. Yeah, I think I get affected by the moon. Sometimes it’s really gnarly. But also in those sleep cycles, that’s where I’ve come up with some of these ideas for the photoshoots. I wake up, brain racing, and just need to execute them. That’s where some of these ideas have come from. They just come at me, really clearly.

SW Do you find these ideas are the most you could hope for, or do you end up sometimes creating a picture more interesting than you could have imagined?

I’ve achieved some preconceived visions, but there have been times in the water when things have gone a lot better that I could have dreamed, usually due to a wave doing some crazy thing. It’s such an interesting way to shoot waves. You can’t exactly see them coming, like you would in daylight. It’s so different, even though we’re not doing it in the pitch black, more like twilight hours.  

SW Are you getting up early to do this or heading out once the sun has set?

Ah, both. The last session was an evening. Most of the sessions have been in the morning, and it’s a bit of a race against the sun before it gets too light. You can’t see the flash if there’s too much daylight. In the afternoons it’s a race against the dark. I’ve felt more comfortable in the mornings, sometimes in the afternoons I’ve felt a bit spooked out. These waves are generally breaking quite far out at sea, so it does feel like you’re out in the middle of nowhere. One key thing I’ve worked out is it’s a lot easier to shoot these in winter, because the twilight is longer. Plus the fact that the days are shorter means you are working at a more civilised hour. 

SW I guess you’re out there with a mate? It must be good fun to have someone else out in the water with you.

Yeah, it is fun. That last session was amazing. I was on such a high with it all. I even brought my Dad out the last time and anchored the boat near the reef and he was watching on and he couldn’t believe how the waves looked when the flash lit it all up from underneath.

SW Do you think living in a remote area, and not having crowds everywhere, enables you to be more creative with your approach?

Yeah, I think it does. I’ve got the perfect set-up, launching the dinghy and heading out to these reefs and executing these plans. 

SW I just imagine you being out there and being able to get really deep into the process of it, with no distractions. Like having your own studio.

Through the beginning of experimenting with these photos, I did kind of compete with myself. I remember thinking I’ve gotta really start nailing these before someone beats me to it. I don’t know what the end goal is, I’m still just making it up as I go along.

SW Have you got this series to a point where you are content, or do you have more ideas you want to explore?

There are so many little experiments I want to try. I actually had some prints made this week; it can be difficult to see the subtleties on a small screen, but they look amazing printed big.

SW There is just so much in these pictures. A big part is the lighting. The beauty of the water when it is lit like that, it becomes otherworldly, not like liquid at all.

Yeah, it’s as if the wave becomes an ice sculpture from the intensity of the light dispersing through the wave.

SW What else inspires you? Is this your full-time job?

No, this is not my job at all, it’s just a hobby really. I skipper tour boats for work. I really get into looking at surfboard design, more traditional shapes. And I’m into boat building and woodwork. I appreciate sailing boats and I’ve got a couple of sailing dinghies in the yard at the moment that I’m fixing up. I built the big flash housing myself out of fibreglass with a bit of help from Aquatech who make the camera water housing that I use. They sent me some waterproof buttons and I tapped those into the perspex window. It’s dodgy as hell but it works. It hasn’t leaked… yet.

SW