Surfing's golden age

By Steve Barilotti. Excerpt from the book "LeRoy Grannis, Surf Photography"

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The revolution was shot in black and white, on a Sunday afternoon, at 250th of a second. October 2, 1966.World Surfing Championships, Ocean Beach, San Diego. Forty thousand spectators jammed the beach and the newly opened Ocean Beach pier. At the exact moment that eighteen-year-old Robert "Nat" Young hoisted an awkward California-shaped trophy over his head, there were more than three hundred and forty thousand U.S. troops in Vietnam, Brian Wilson was on the verge of releasing his masterpiece,"Good Vibrations," and LSD would remain legal for three more months. Surfboards averaged ten and a half feet in length and weighed thirty pounds. Nat Young was now world champion. And the surfing world had quietly tilted ninety degrees off its axis.

A tall, brash Australian, Young was flanked on the victory dais by the soft-spoken Hawaiian Jock Sutherland and California small-wave whiz kid Corky Carroll. A small group of local and national media, among them Newsweek and The New York Times, jostled to get close to the winners. LeRoy Grannis, International Surfing magazine's sole staff photographer, roamed the fringes of the crowd, methodically snapping off trophy shots with his salt-corroded Pentax S camera. At a key instant in the ceremony he focused and framed the jubilant Young cheering, "I feel jazzed!"

Despite the palpable buzz on the beach, Grannis remained stoically detached. For him, the event was simply the culmination of a year of weekends shooting club contests up and down the Southern California coast. Grannis, then forty-nine, was in his sixth year of surf photography and thirty-fifth as a surfer. The next weekend he would likely be back up at Malibu or Huntington Beach for another small regional contest, and the World Surfing Championships qualifying process would start anew.

LeRoy Grannis came to surf photography in late 1959, not as a professional or an artist, but as a middle-aged family man looking for a hobby to reduce the stress of his job. Luckily, he happened to pick up his camera at a pivotal point in surfing history. Born in Hermosa Beach, California, in 1917, Grannis was a holdover from the redwood era of West Coast surfing, when a scant two hundred California surfers rode massive eleven-foot boards on the slow rollers off San Onofre and Palos Verdes Cove with a dignified, gentlemanly esprit. They were the first generation of mainland surfers to take up the ancient sport, newly exported by Hawaiians George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku. They were also part of surfing's renaissance, which grew from a handful of Hawaiian beach boys in Waikiki during the late nineteenth century.

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Pipeline, Hawaii, 1977