RIP Marty Tullemans

2 Dec 2020 3 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY

If Peter Crawford referred to you as “The Cosmic Pygmy”, then you must really have been out there on the dimensional fringes. But anyone who spent time with the mischievous, mercurial Marty Tullemans could only agree. In the Great Age of surf photographer eccentricity, Marty would’ve been head and shoulders above them all… if he hadn’t stood just 5’3”.

Surfing lost Marty this week. He died Monday morning from kidney failure after a long battle with dementia. His passing had a sad inevitability to it, and in recent months at his care facility on the Gold Coast he’s been enjoying visits from friends and faces from his rich surfing days.

In his early 20s, Marty Tullemans moved down to the Gold Coast from Brisbane in the mid-’70s, just as the scene was booming. He soon secured a gig with Tracks, partly because of his potential, partly because of his inside line on Michael Peterson.

Marty was in a select crew of photographers allowed into the private world of MP. Marty had a darkroom adjoining Peterson Surfboards in Hill Street, Coolangatta which he rented off Michael for $25 a month. He used his proximity to the shadowy champ to his advantage, following Michael when he slipped away to surf. Michael liked Marty. In many ways they were peas in a pod. Michael was showing early signs of what would become paranoid schizophrenia; Marty would eventually be diagnosed with bipolar. They’d play chess, siting on milk crates, the psychic energy thick. “It was early in the piece, ’75, ’76,” recalled Marty. “I moved down from Noosa at his invitation to come play chess with him. No one would – or could – play chess at his level. I remember one of the few times I was beating him, I came back from the toilet and I knew he’d moved pieces. ‘Michael, did you move pieces?’ ‘Nah, Chine.’”

An iconic MP water shot by Tullemans. Photo: Marty Tullemans

An iconic MP water shot by Tullemans. Photo: Marty Tullemans

“One of my early memories was of Michael telling me, ‘China, don’t let the bastards do a number on you.’” When Michael eventually landed in Wacol prison after his infamous Storey Bridge car chase arrest, Marty was one of his first visitors. “He was quiet and he told me, ‘Marty, I’m really glad they locked me up. I was a danger to myself.’ I stayed for three or four hours letting him know someone was there for him. Michael talked a lot about what he knew. Michael talked animal imagery and alter ego stuff. It was a great yarn and a little out there for even me.”

Marty’s own bipolar diagnosis in the years ahead would see him – for the most part – levelled out with medication. He was self-aware of his condition and, like most aspects of life, he found a way to laugh about it. He once described himself as, “a couple of chopsticks west of the Far East.” Creatively, Marty worked on an elevated plane, and he knew that while his bipolar presented challenges, as an artist it also opened doors and allowed him to see the world a little differently. “A bipolar person is like a Vinny Van Gogh,” was how he once described it.

Colourful! Marty in the 80s. Photo: Dick Hoole

Colourful! Marty in the 80s. Photo: Dick Hoole

As surfing grew in the ’80s and ’90s, and the eccentric characters of the ’70s drifted away, Marty remained the Gold Coast surf scene’s resident colour guy. Whether it was in the water shooting, or on the beach, you couldn’t miss him. Tai Chi poses between sets, bright wetsuit ensembles, oversized hats, coloured zinc… paddling out and shooting Kirra from longboards and kayaks. Marty not only captured the energy and colour of those halcyon days on the Gold Coast, he also fuelled them.

While Marty was a great photographer, like many of his kind he was a lousy businessman. He’d live shoot to shoot, shot to shot, cheque to cheque. He’d famously pile his images into his car and hit the road, selling his wares to publishers, surf companies, even printing up images and selling them to individual surfers. The travelling salesman inside him would always have an exclusive. After Cyclone Yali in the late ’90s he pitched an exclusive shoot of giant Snapper Rocks, which after some negotiation I managed to secure for Tracks. Only problem was when the other surf mags came out the same month, Marty’s shots were in all of them. Marty however, by his nature, was the kind of guy who was impossible to get mad at.

Marty was in a select crew of photographers allowed into the private world of MP. Photo: Marty Tullemans

Marty was in a select crew of photographers allowed into the private world of MP. Photo: Marty Tullemans

Marty was the unofficial Mayor of Tugun, and his little flat up on the hill in Wagawn Street housed his formidable archive, which in time overflowed from his filing cabinet and covered every square inch of floor space. Asking Marty for a particular shot would see him down on all fours, crawling under tables, narrating the whole exercise as he did so with his trademark cackle. The basement flat felt like a mystical Tibetan cave; dark, incense burning, sitar playing, Marty in a sarong. He was always sparkling conversation and a great interview subject. He’d reference great artists and Eastern philosophy and as a great storyteller he weaved it all together into a grand narrative.

The author with Marty at the launch of MP Untold

The author with Marty at the launch of MP Untold

Marty never really crossed the digital divide with his photography, and his great body of work slowed a decade ago as film phased out. He leaves behind, however, an archive that captures the most colourful and vibrant era in Australian surfing, and there’s something fitting in that.

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