Surfing's golden age

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

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With its perfect, tapering waves and proximity to Hollywood, "the 'Bu" had become a bona fide scene that drew surfing's elite each summer. Although extremely crowded even then, the break featured surf stars such as Lance Carson, Johnny Fain, Mike Hynson, and the legendary Miki Dora dancing across the face of the swells with a quick, theatrical style that came to be known as "hotdogging."Grannis's photographic skills were improving, and he sold his early Malibu shots to the short-lived Reef magazine, initiating his career in print. In November 1961 Grannis made his first trip to Hawaii, the epicenter of the surfing frontier at the time. After photographing small waves in Waikiki and Makaha for two weeks, he headed for the fabled North Shore of Oahu. By then a large swell had filled in, and Grannis was stunned by the sheer magnitude and power of Hawaiian waves. Using a 650mm telephoto lens, he captured the likes of Rick Grigg, Peter Cole, and Phil Edwards racing down the massive concave faces of the infamous "West Bowl" at Sunset Beach.

Grannis returned to California with renewed fervor. Over the next few years, he tripled his output and began shooting more color, lifestyle, contest, and advertising photos. Insular and budget-minded, early surf marketers looked to their own for graphic design and photos. Grannis had no experience as a commercial photographer, nonetheless he acquitted himself with simple, clever concepts. His photo of Hermosa Beach surfer Ricky Hatch deftly stepping to the tip in shoes and a spiffy business suit for Jacobs Surfboards is considered a surf-photography classic. In 1963 Grannis bought a Calypso water camera (invented by Jacques Cousteau, and the precursor of the Nikonos), and produced a touchstone shot of Henry Ford executing a perfect bottom turn at 22nd Street.

Grannis found out early on, however, that surf photography could be dangerous for even the most experienced waterman.While shooting Hawaii's Sunset Beach with his Nikonos from the water one day, a massive "West Peak Bowl" swung unexpectedly toward the channel, breaking far outside and trapping Grannis directly in its path. He looked up to see a twenty-foot wall of whitewater and three thickset eleven-foot surfboards hurtling toward his unprotected head. He dove beneath the maelstrom but managed to keep his precious camera safe. Later, with help from his old friend Doc Ball, Grannis designed and built his first rubber-lined, suction-cupped waterproof box, which allowed him to change film and shoot from the water with longer lenses and sit in the relative safety of Sunset Beach or the Waimea Bay channel for hours without returning to shore.
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Mike Doyle, Hermosa Beach, 1963