There are few things as quintessentially Australian as the work of Eugene Tan. The Aquabumps creator, who moved from Perth to Sydney in his early twenties, has become somewhat of an unofficial photographer of beachside life, capturing everything from quiet early-morning moments in the swell to busy, sweltering summer days on the sands of Bondi Beach.
While his success seems to some like an explosion, considering he’s been shooting since childhood, in reality it’s been more of a slow burn. From the purchase of his first camera – a Kodak Instamatic that the then-eight year-old bought at a garage sale for two bucks – Eugene, better known as ‘Uge’, began documenting “everything” from then on.
“I wasn’t that into school so [I] mostly hid in the darkroom developing pictures,” he tells Collective Hub. “[I] almost converted the bathroom at home into a darkroom, much to Mum’s dismay. I was into it from an early age.”
Eugene moved to Sydney with his graphic design job when they opened a NSW office. A keen surfer since age 14, he combined his passions of surfing and photography and started snapping his new surrounds.
“Every morning I would head to the beach to surf and swim before I would head into my job in the city, and I would take my camera,” Uge says. “I documented whatever I saw every morning and sent an email to about 15 mates, showing them how good it was in Sydney. All in an attempt to get them to move over! Mates sent it to mates and everyone kept asking for more, so it became my morning ritual before I would head into the city to work a 14-hour day.”
The jump to creating a full-time position from his photography was a little less organic. After quitting his role as Creative Director at the digital agency, he took his first retail space in Bondi with very little money in his back pocket.
“I worked day and night, so I didn’t go out much in those early days, lived on bread and water,” he says. “Nah, you just make it work when you have to – borrowed some money from my folks to help me set up the first gallery [and] took any freelance design jobs I could get my hands on, to help me through.”
When his now-wife Deborah Tan turned up to buy a print (and the two met, fell in love and tied the knot), things amped up once more.
“Deb’s background is advertising agencies,” he explains. “She was the Sales Director at Harper’s BAZAAR for many years, so she really took Aquabumps to the next level by commercialising the blog and website, while remaining true to the brand.
“It provided a new revenue stream to the business but she also harnesses the philosophy that everything we do has to drive the core business as a fine art gallery. We now partner with some of the best brands in the business, do collaborations like we are [now doing] with Blacklist, produce video content – it creates awareness of Aquabumps to new customers while also generating income outside of fine art gallery sales.”
She was also instrumental to one of the biggest-selling Aquabumps shots ever.
“Deb brought me a chopper ride for Christmas about 9 years ago – and one of the first images I took on that first flight was lone swimmer – which is probably one of the best selling Aquabumps images in history.”
Aquabumps has since collaborated with brands like Havaianas, Speedo, Bailey Nelson and local artist Nathan Johnson of Blacklist, pushing his work further afield. He’s also since travelled to destinations like Hawaii, Italy and Brazil, where he hones his signature aerial style, booking a chopper ride in every new place he visits.
“Aerial and water is my signature style,” Eugene explains. “It evolves, you have to after shooting the same thing for 17 years – that’s important.”