Welcome to the second episode of our third series! Today with us, is the legendary surf photographer Art Brewer.
We discussed with him about surf, surf photography, his career and much more!
You can find our podcast in all major podcast platforms (Spotify, ITunes, YouTube, Amazon,..) or read the interview below (please forgive us of spelling mistakes). Mahalo!
TTOS: Aloha Mr Brewer, welcome to the show! Where are you today?
I’m in my studio in Dana’s Point, California.
TTOS: first question I have for you is, in your opinion, what is the most important thing in surfing?
Being in the water, getting some exercise and cleansing your soul and, there is something about the ocean and the saltwater, it just better than doctors. I think, you know, it just really cleanses, you go in and you could be on a bummer and you come out, you’re usually pretty stoked.
TTOS: We will talk later on how you did start to be a surf-photographer, of course, but how did you start to surf?
I was probably around 10 years old and I lived a couple blocks from the beach and, where I lived, there was a big shore break beach….It wasn’t a good surfing beach, we used to skim board, we’d take a three quarter inch piece of plywood and shape it and throw it into the wet sand and ride on it into the wave. That’s what started me, we started body surfing and then raft riding and standing up on air mattresses, you know, real hard ones. From that time, I turned 12 years old. I had helped my dad working in and cleaning up a bunch of stuff in our yard, major overhaul, while we were heading down to the dump to take all the debris, I said something about a surfboard and he pulled over right in front of Hobie’s surfboards in Dana point, that was in 1963. Next thing I knew he was buying me a surfboard, it was $110, which is expensive at that time, but we put the order in and that’s why it got me going.
TTOS: you got your first surfboard at Hobie’s Dana’s Point, that, at that time, was one of the most iconic shop in California right?
Yeah, at that time it was….what was funny is in Laguna beach where we lived later, I found out that my dad, he was a contractor and he had worked in help lay the foundations for the Hobie’s shop, the first one there in Dana point, he worked with him, so he knew Hobie….. it was small town, everybody knew everybody else in that town, it was pretty friendly back then.
TTOS: I spoke with several legendary surfers of those years and they all told me how different surf was compared to today, especially no crowds and you could surf all day long…
Well, you know, there weren’t all the crowds and, sometimes, it was hard to find someone to go surfing with because it was so spread out and so few people……it was sort of nice. I think that’s how we ended up having a lot of good friendships, it was through surfing because I had always wanted to surf with people that you like and people you get along with, you know, they call surfing like a tribe, the original surfers. It was sort of tribe in a sense, we were very close and everybody sort of knew everybody else.
I remember when Joey Cabell came through Laguna beach, with a lot of other surfers from Hawaii, they were on their way to the world contest in Peru and they stopped with Bruce Brown. And Bruce was doing some photography for Hobie at the time.
TTOS: What you are saying is so true and many guests of the show that lived those years told me the same, back in those days, surf and surfers were kind of a community of people, the competition was something else, it was not the main thing, friendship was the most important thing and having good time with each other.
Yeah, that was why I liked it, now surfing is more about the competition and everybody is on the money thing it has become a professional sport, like baseball players or football players….that mentality sometimes outweighs what the soulfulness of what surfing really came from….
TTOS: Do you still have that surfboard that your father gave you?
I kept that for probably about 10 years and then it got passed on to someone else.
TTOS: We discussed about what is the important thing in surfing, if I have to ask you the same question in surf photography, what would you answer?
I loved surfing and the photography just sort of came by accident, I happened to be out surfing one day and a good friend of mine who he surfed a little bit, but his father had bought him a camera. It was an old Pentax with a 400-millimeter Tamar on lens. It looked like toilet paper rolls, but together. He came down and he didn’t want to shoot photos, but he wanted to go surfing, I just came in and he asked to borrow my board and I said, sure, and he goes, “you watch my camera, if you want to use it, you’re more than welcome to do so”, I shot some film, got the film back two days later from Kodak and I knew that’s what I wanted to do that was like just immediately addicted to it and the color and just everything about it and capturing something that I really love to do, which was surfing.
And then it just engulfed my life, I ended up after that going and getting a job, working in mopping floors at acorns market and Laguna beach at four in the morning before I go to school every day and saved up, ,got paid 10 bucks a week. I knew the local camera store owner, I grew up with his son and all that, I went in looking and he gave me a camera and told me, pay me off as quickly as you can, and you can take it now. I did that and I ended up sending some stuff to Surfer Magazine and they picked a couple images and I just kept doing it….I had a great crew of people to surf with at the time, because there were a lot of good surfers in Laguna beach and, you know, being so close to Hobie and that crew of people, it just made total sense to jump in….
TTOS: Doing photography It was your passion, as it was surfing, it came natural for you, but today, people refer to you as a legend….. do you consider yourself one?
I’m just another person, I just happened to be lucky enough to be in certain places at certain times and recording something I really enjoyed and being with the people that I enjoyed sharing that sport with. It was funny because I did end up meeting more and more people, my mom made a statement to me probably before I was ever hired by Surfer Magazine, she said, “if you have a camera, everybody will want to be your friend” . sort of cracked up, never paid attention to that, but it sort of worked like that somewhat.
I never thought of it as something negative and I don’t think she meant it that way, but it opened doors, you know, to better surfers and just different kinds of people. It was something I just loved, I love taking photographs, not just surfing…. it’s about life. Surfing just happened to be part of my life, all that in all those years and still, it continues today. I don’t shoot that much now, but if I go on a trip or something, you know, I always have that camera along and it gives me a reason to make special trips. I’m not big on going and photographing surf contests, I’ve done that, but that I would consider something I did for money, it wasn’t to gain any sort of fame or credibility, it was about sort of doing a job because that’s what I thought of contest stuff.
Going on a surf trip, that’s a whole different experience, you have a camaraderie with great people and you make friends for life when you do that.
The photography in surfing changes from just being an observer, taking photographs to where you’re actually a part of it, that’s why I look at contests in that way, you’re really not connected.
In a contest you’re observing it, you’re sort of poaching off of what is there, but if you go on a trip you’re, you’re living it and that just makes a whole makes more sense to me. It gives me a better feeling.
TTOS: You met a lot of surfers and people gravitating around the surf world, was there a particular person you met that was particularly meaningful to you?
That’s too hard, you know, it’s like if you go on a surf trip, you get together with those people….every time it’s a different experience and, it’s hard to weigh one out; it is something more memorable to than the other? I mean, there’s certain trips that are just were amazing, you know, you go for seven weeks with Rory Russell to Morocco, him and Bruce Baluzi, then Margo shows up and then, you know, then next thing we find out is these guys from American Sportsman show up and they want to do a TV program about the people that I’m hanging with. It was supposed to be a three week trip and we ended up spending seven weeks and Morocco, and then had to drive back to Portugal in a car that we had totaled…..it’s the whole experience and there are so many of those, you have people that you are exposed to.
TTOS: Rory Russel seems like such a fun guy…..
You know, he’s out there to have a good time wherever he is and he doesn’t hesitate.
TTOS: What was the defining moment of your career?
Probably one of the most rewarding things was after I was hired by Surfer and I got to meet Rick Griffin, the artist, and I knew him for his work that he had done with the Grateful Dead album covers and some of his posters from the psychedelic era up there at the Fillmore and all that.
He was affiliated with Zak Comics and Art Crumb and S Clay Wilson, bunch of different, great artists.
Rick came to me and asked me if I wanted to go to San Francisco, which was a crazy, crazy trip, I was 18 years old, just graduated from high school and, here I am, going to San Francisco with Rick Griffin, got to share that experience and, you know, we became friends over the years up until when he passed away or he got killed.
Other accomplishments, I don’t know, they’re just they’re too many, that I’ve been lucky enough to experience. I think just “being there” was my biggest accomplishment ….
Once you have that, you can’t ever take it away, it’s something that’s in the memory banks. I’ve had so many magical trips with different people, I remember chasing Tom Curren down in France or trying to find potter for a portrait that I needed to do of him, he had just won the world title and it took four weeks, but I chased him down in Spain after he had a heavy night of partying. I ended up, you know, jumping into an elevator after we’d been with pops and Martin Potter, Tom Carroll Jeff Horn Baker and myself, but we all got stuck in it for a good 45 minutes yelling and trying to get out, we’re all jumping in unison thinking that the elevator will get lighter, door will open….just telling each other the different stories that would come out in those moments and, you know, pretty classic situation with those characters.
TTOS: I guess 45 minutes with those people are going fast and it is a lot of fun!
It was funny and one of the little old bask lady finally heard us and she hit the emergency and all of a sudden that the elevator lifted up and then the experience was over. It was so bizarre, you know?
TTOS: What is your favorite equipment to use like for surf photography? I know it depends quite a lot to where you are, like from the beach or directly in the ocean, but let’s talk about in the ocean….
In the ocean…..okay…..I used a Nikon up until 1991 and sort of stuck with that, but, since then, I’ve been using Canon ever, the reason I did that, the whole transition was changing with the auto-focus lenses.
I did some testing and, you know, if you’re a good at follow focus, you could end up getting like a good 75 to 80% sharpness with your equipment and, with water housings, it was really tough because you’re working with gears when you had to manual focus, especially if you’re using a longer lens.
I saw what Canon was doing and so I decided to test it out, I’ve been using cannon ever since then.
Regarding water housing, I originally built my own water housing, It was a takeoff of one of George Greeno housing with a friend of mine, at the time, named Scott Price.
Me and him, when I was 18, we built a replica of a Greeno housing and, what was lucky, is we had one that Surfer had it on. The combination that they had was a Nikon camera with a different kind of motor drive on the bottom and that was the one I had for the first three Surfer cover.
I shot Tom Stone at Pipeline in 1969, not a big day and out there swimming and as I was shooting, but the camera would shoot one frame then the mirror would lock up, so you couldn’t see anything….
In order to release it, I would have to shoot another frame for the mirror to drop back down….it was just bizarre so I needed to push it and get a little bit farther and do something different.
For this reason,I built my own using Greeno techniques….we used like a piston and you turn the piston and that focused your camera, it would be really hard to explain, it’s more of a visual type thing, but if you can imagine a piston in a car, you build something like that, where the rings would go, you would put o-rings and that would keep the water out.
I’ve made so many different kinds of water housings, right now I’m working with Mike Wagner from Ethics and helping him design some housings, cause I have some experience doing that and, what we’re doing is, 3d printing….it’s beautiful, they’re tough. They are made with a nylon type of material with carbon fiber, you can basically throw them on the rocks and they won’t break.
TTOS: It’s unbelievable, thinking about where you were coming from, making them yourself and now printing in carbon fiber, amazing…..
The way the technology now is, there’s no way that you can’t get better photos and what you did back in 1969 or 68, it’s a whole different visual experience.
Today the technology is just off the map and it makes it easy for so many people….today everybody is pretty much a photographer.
TTOS: sometimes you wish that,back in the sixties and the seventies, you had the equipment of today?
I always like to test myself with things we’d used to have motor drives that only shot three and a half frames a second…..it felt like it was cheating, we’d take the motor drives and turning them off and try getting that same type of shot one frame at a time it’s a whole different can of worms. It really tests your skill and timing and everything else. Now you can, you know, shoot 12 frames a second or 20 frames a second, it’s like taking a movie and you just cherry pick what you wants, it’s a whole different technique. With digital, you instantly see your mistakes where before you had to wait for your film to come back and then you didn’t know if your camera was working right, sometimes, or if the shutter had broken different times.
One of the things I teach, I do some workshops in the past for New York school of visual arts, we do a surf photography class and one of the things we do is we tape the back of the LCD screen so you couldn’t see what you just shot and make them photograph all day long and see how they do versus having that instant replay. It puts the skill in tests, if they actually have their timing and you know, their exposures, right….
If you’re a good photographer, you should be able to take any camera and use it to your advantage, it’s like the water photography, before you had 36 exposures on a roll of film, then you have to go change film, now you can put in, you know, two 56 cards and sit out there all day long.
TTOS: in your opinion, what makes up a photo iconic?
Something that’s you haven’t seen before, something that’s new, refreshing. I remember when Tim McKenna happened to get that shot when Jack McCoy was there shooting film of Laird Hamilton at Teahupoo
There was something so different also about the surfing that Laird was doing at that time. I photographed him doing the flip when he was strapped in (when he had the straps on his board and he was riding back off the wall), he came off the bottom and he went up in the air and he did a full 360 rotation and landed on the wave as it was breaking… he didn’t make it, but almost did, but, that was a big deal.
When McKenna ended up capturing that shot of Laird and McCoy, with the film, that was something nobody had seen, it was refreshing, it was on the edge of craziness or a similar thing. A couple of years back was that “Code Red” Brian Belbin with the shot that he had of Nathan Fletcher on the foam ball, inside Teahupoo, it was just so unusual,different and nobody had seen that.
Things like that are what makes images iconic.
TTOS: I agree with you, I spoke with Tim McKenna recently about the “Millennium Wave” and he told me that was the defining moment of his career…..
I knew Tim before that, but, he was at the right time at the right place. I think he was doing some work for Oxbow at the time, over there shooting in Tahiti and , now, he lives here.
TTOS: You know I told him the same , he answered, right place, right time, but also preparation….he told me : “I was prepared for that shot”….
He knew what he was doing, he trained himself as a photographer and, you know, that’s the thing that you want to do, you want to be in control when it happens. You don’t want to underexpose or overexpose, you want to be right on the money, you want to have everything in order to really capture something like that, that’s the difference between being a professional and, like a musician, where they have a one hit wonder, and then you never hear from them again versus continue to make great images.
TTOS: I guess consistency is the key of the game, right?
Yes. Very much.
TTOS: I know that is a very difficult question, but maybe you can answer me….what was your most meaningful photo/picture?
Really tough, I look back on stuff and it’s so different than what is being done now.
Maybe it would be, it was such a simple shot, it was probably that shot of Tom Stone in the tube, at Pipeline in 1969, that shooting with that Nikon camera with the mirror that kept blocking up, I had only 18 shots out of the roll of film because every other one was blank, just being lucky enough.
Supposedly I had the best equipment that the magazine could buy at the time, but that one thing didn’t work, but I got lucky and just hit it right.
It’s hard because I don’t know what one personal thing is iconic is different than what someone else would choose. I had 36 covers of surfer magazine, I think more than any other one photographer over the period of time that I’ve been doing this, I look at them and I don’t think they’re all iconic. Why a few of them were even chosen? it’s bizarre….I don’t know, I would have to ask someone else to ask them what they think is iconic, because it becomes a personal preference….. what relates to them….
TTOS: What are your current projects? You’re still doing teaching or … of course the coronavirus is limiting trips and travels around the world….what are you working on?
Right now I just finished up a semester where I do a lot of independent mentoring with Orange Coast College, I was teaching up until June of this last year because of the coronavirus we had to go online. After that, the type of photography I teach, is pretty much hands-on as I do action sports classes and which involves using some water equipment and things like that.
I also do environmental portraiture for advertising and editorial where we’re doing portrait work, but we’re it’s about where the subject lives or might be or where you put them, it involves the environment around them. That’s made it really tough to teach those two classes.
We did finish up the class, it was interesting cause I had some students that we had a self portrait series that we did with that environmental portraiture and some of the stuff I had three students that were just completely outstanding and they came up with some of the weirdest stuff I’ve ever seen, but you know, had some humor to it and then sort of made fun of the situation…..
And then I’m doing my limited edition series, right now we’re we have a series of small prints, eight by tens of box sets of five and they’ve been doing that, just trying to keep money coming…..
I figured I’m out there and try to make them affordable because the big prints that we do and the limited edition they’re expensive, they have to really want it to purchase it.
TTOS: we’re going to finish our interview with a short Q/A session, please answer the first thing that comes up to your mind.
The best surfboard that you ever ridden…
Boy, that’s tough, probably a board made by Israel, Paskowitz, which was a longboard, very fast, so much fun!
TTOS: your favorite shaper?
It would probably would have been Mike Diffenderfer, he is a good friend. I had the pleasure of living with him on the North Shore for a period of time and we were always close right up until the time that he passed.
TTOS: Your favorite song?
Beatles, Strawberry Fields Forever….
There is a surfing film called “free and easy” that Greg McGilvery did back in 1968. It pirated music for that, Bill Hamilton was in it and a whole crew of Hawaiian surfers, it was a pretty amazing film, but he can’t re-release it…. really sad because of the music rights, he got caught.
TTOS: Your favorite surf spot
It would probably be Lance’s Rights in the Mentawai Islands.
TTOS: Your favorite surfer?
Tom Carrol, because his personality, I call him Brown Dog and that name stuck with him in me, we just had a good, good vibe together, he is really a great person, not only a fantastic surfer, but it’s about his soul.
TTOS: Last question is a bit unusual, we want to know, your best relationship advice…..
Be a good person, be accountable for yourself, that is the starting point of everything right in life and the way that you want to be treated by other people
Everything starts from ourself, that’s the key, it’s funny, over the years, I have had this habit when I finished talking to someone, I always tell them to be good.
Recorded in December 2020