The wild force of a wave. Sun reflecting off a frothy crest. Zinc slathered on noses. Piles of salty wetsuits. Surfboards being packed into beat-up vans. Pre-dawn trips up the coast to find a perfect break.
These are just a few of the ingredients that make the sport of surfing, and the culture that surrounds it, so darn intoxicating: a heady mix of hot beaches, hypnotizing athleticism, and the ocean’s unpredictable, all-powerful impulses.
It’s not an easy combination to capture. But over the last century, a handful of photographers have managed to harness surfing’s most captivating—if fleeting—moments. They’ve documented the first surfers to descend on Southern California, the mad pleasure of riding a barrel all the way to shore, and the serenity of waiting patiently for a wave. They’ve also tracked the evolution of boards from wooden clunkers to silky fiberglass blades, and the sport’s transformation from the pastime of Hawaiian kings to a global phenomenon that’s been the subject of Hollywood blockbusters, like Gidget (1959) and Blue Crush (2002), and Pulitzer-prize winning memoirs, like William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days (2015).
Below, we spotlight 10 photographers who’ve chronicled the camaraderie, sublimity, and visceral thrill of surfing, from the 1930s through today.