Visual Culture

Photographers Who’ve Captured the Camaraderie and Solitude of Surf Culture

Alexxa Gotthardt
Jun 13, 2018 12:00PM

Jeff Divine, Steve Massefellar, Honolua Bay, Maui, 1978. Courtesy of the artist.

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.

Tom Blake


In a timeline of surf photography, Tom Blake is often situated at the very beginning. His images of Hawaiians and expats surfing Waikiki in the 1930s were some of the first to grace publications with multinational circulation. In 1935, National Geographic ran eight pages of his silvery duotone images in a feature titled “Waves & Thrills at Waikiki.”

A landlocked Wisconsin native, Blake was introduced to the sport by Duke Kahanamoku, a surfer and Olympic swimmer whom he met in a Midwestern movie theater at age 18. Not long after, Kahanamoku convinced Blake to relocate to California, where he took up lifeguarding, part-time acting, and surfing. In 1926, Blake became the first to surf Malibu’s then-deserted waters, riding on a 10-foot, solid wood board hewn from a Redwood trunk. (He went on to revolutionize board technology by adding fins.) By 1935, he bought his inaugural camera and promptly devised an ad hoc water-resistant box for it, which allowed him to paddle into the water with it in hand. In the process, he launched a long line of surf photographers who’d follow him.  

Don James

Don James, Bel Air Bay Club Jetty, 1939. © Don James Estate. Courtesy of ARCHIV-E.COM.

In the late 1930s, a teenaged Don James roamed the California coastline with a band of friends and their 90-pound wooden surfboards. They slept in lifeguard huts and lived off of abalone scooped from the ocean, and avocados and oranges pilfered from nearby farms. They did it all in the name of surfing, which had recently landed in their home state.

James had seen Tom Blake’s photographs, and at the age of 16, he began taking his own with his dad’s Kodak Brownie—the first camera marketed and accessible to non-professionals. The black-and-white photos he made in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s show his friends riding waves in tandem and replenishing themselves after a long day in the water by catching lobsters, strumming on ukuleles, and lounging under palms.

He became one of the first to chronicle the culture developing around surfing as it spread south from Malibu to Santa Monica and San Onofre. By the 1960s, when the sport broke into the mainstream, James remained one of its most celebrated documentarians. Surfer Magazine (at the time, a new venture by John Severson; now, one of surfing’s bibles) tapped James and younger photographers like Ron Stoner to shoot the exploding California surf community. He updated his craft as the technology changed, too, eventually capturing teeming surf contests and crowded beaches in color.

LeRoy Grannis

LeRoy Grannis, Pipeline (No.  77),  1965. Courtesy of M+B.

LeRoy Grannis started surfing in 1931 at age 14. But it wasn’t until 1960, when he was in his early forties, that he picked up a camera and began documenting the booming surf scene of his native Hermosa Beach, California. (It was “Doc” Ball, pioneering surf photographer and Grannis’s dear friend, who encouraged him take up the hobby.)

Despite his late start, Grannis quickly built one of surf photography’s most iconic and charismatic bodies of work. His favorite subjects were the dramatic, towering swells of Hawaii and California and the gutsy souls who surfed them, whom he shot in technicolor close-ups. In one, surf legend Miki Dora rides a Malibu wave nonchalantly. In another, a board that’s been snapped in half by Oahu’s infamous Pipeline—one of the globe’s biggest, most explosive breaks—is collected sheepishly by its bronzed owner. “Shoot it now or you’ll never get it back,” was Grannis’s motto. But some of his most spellbinding shots depict playful moments beyond the world’s more ferocious waves. We see peacocking surfers posing next to very tall, shiny boards; the pastel façades and hand-painted signs of now-legendary surf shops; and sun-kissed, salty-haired young things horsing around on the sand.

Jeff Divine, PCH, Laguna Beach, Calif., 1971. Courtesy of the artist.

Jeff Divine’s bright, sun-bathed images show surfing’s development through 1970s hippie culture and the swaggering, fluorescent-swathed 1980s. He got his start in La Jolla, California, where his family lived a few blocks from the beach. By the ’70s, Divine surfed and photographed religiously, paddling into breaks and perching on walls across California and Hawaii to shoot the era’s surf masters, like Dicky Moon and Mike Doyle.

In the process, Divine immersed himself in the trappings of 1970s surf culture and counterculture. He had long hair, listened to The Rolling Stones, covered his bungalow in beaded curtains, and asked “hippie seamstresses” to make custom shirts with coconut buttons. His prized possessions, though, were his “garage-made surfboards all lined up in the side yard,” he said later. “They mattered the most.”

Like the objects that surrounded him, Divine’s photographs embodied both his passion for surfing and the culture that gave color to it. He shot the sport’s first professionals riding the world’s most ferocious swells and occasionally wiping out hard. But he also showed less-prominent surfers packing into air-brushed jalopies and hauling their fluorescent boards with glee. Divine’s images oozed with the inimitable style and individuality of each subject.

Don King

If you’ve seen the 2002 cult romantic comedy Blue Crush, you know Don King’s work. He was the film’s cinematographer, who shot its protagonists as they carved into Hawaii waves and waited patiently for the next set, legs dangling into shimmering turquoise water.

Before his run as one of Hollywood’s most sought-after underwater camera operators, King made an influential mark on 1980s and ’90s surf photography. Born in Hawaii, he started shooting at the age of 14 after paddling into the lineup of Pipeline. Surfing Magazine likened the stunt to “learning how to drive at the Indy 500.” From then on, he specialized in heavy water photography, using fish-eye lenses to shoot big-wave rides “from spots previously considered suicidal,” as Carve Magazine has pointed out. The resulting photos capture fast movements, physical exertion, and charging, frothy waves.

Thomas Campbell, Alex, Rincon. © Thomas Campbell. Courtesy of ARCHIV-E.COM.

Thomas Campbell never took surfing or skateboarding—the two sports he’s become known for documenting—too seriously. As a teenager in 1980s Southern California, he ran around with a group of friends who called themselves the “Hawgs.” They rode whatever they could get their hands on: shortboards, longboards, skateboards. “Who cares what we ride? Let’s have fun,” Campbell has said of his ethos.

His approach to art has been similarly playful—and eclectic. By age 17, in the late ’80s, Campbell was making underground zines and shooting for cult skater mags like Transworld; eventually, he landed a gig as photo editor of Skateboarder Magazine, working under no other than Tony Hawk. He took up painting, too, and is associated with a group of Bay Area artists including Chris Johanson, Margaret Kilgallen, and Barry McGee, known as the Beautiful Losers.

All the while, Campbell photographed his surf community, too. Images of his friends riding waves in Northern California sparked a series of cult films. The Seedling (2004) documented a crew of longboarders as they coasted expertly across little swells and fraternized on local beaches. The shots were charmingly grainy, and the voiceover calm, slow, and peppered with surf lingo. Across his surf films and photos, Campbell’s aesthetic is dreamy and elegiac, with surfers silhouetted against hyper-saturated skies as they dip and glide on shimmering water.

Joni Sternbach approaches her subjects almost anthropologically. Instead of recording fleeting moments, the Long Island- and Brooklyn-based photographer carefully composes portraits of surfers she comes across on beaches around the world, in Australia, Uruguay, the U.S., France, and beyond.

Sternbach first trained her lens on surfers after they began popping up in her camera’s frame. She had been taking photos of unpopulated seas and unsullied horizons, but as more boards began to saturate Montauk’s waters, she couldn’t help feeling intrigued.

To her, these surfers embodied a powerful “juncture between land and sea.” For all their time in the water, they seemed “closer to their primordial past.” Indeed, Sternbach’s portraits feel both ageless and age-old—untethered to a specific time. She achieves this quality through her use of a 19th-century photographic process known as tintype, which involves exposing images onto a metal plate covered in liquid chemicals. The silvery patina of the resulting portraits recalls vintage family photos, conveying both intimacy and also something closer to immortality.

Shawna Ankenbrandt’s pastel-hued images evoke the welcome solitude that can come with surfing. Often shooting from vantages high above beaches, the California-based photographer frames individual surfers as they walk across a wide stretch of sand, or float in a vast expanse of ocean as they wait for the waves to kick up. In these scenes, Ankenbrandt’s subjects are dwarfed by the vast natural world that surrounds them—and, in some cases, they seem to fuse with it.

While some come to surfing for the inevitable adrenaline rush, others are attracted to the sport’s moments of serenity: watching the waves for hours on end and becoming acquainted with their movements; learning to paddle at the ocean’s pace; lying back on a board, feet dangling in the cold water and face tipped to the sun. Ankenbrandt’s images embody this sense of tranquility.

Ray Collins

In 2007, Ray Collins was clocking long hours in a coal mine when he started taking pictures of his friends during post-work surf sessions. But he soon became more interested in capturing the waves themselves than the surfers who rode them. Collins has since become renowned for his close-up images of the ocean as it crests and crashes. As a colorblind photographer, he is more interested in the water’s texture and its relationship with light than its ever-shifting palette. His images freeze masses of water as they explode into miniscule droplets, or the meaty curl of a wave on the verge of breaking. When Collins does let a surfer sneak into his frame, the power of the sea remains his focus. In most images, surfboards look as if they are about to be swallowed by the maws of big curls.

Morgan Maassen

Morgan Maassen, Sage Erickson, duck diving in the crystalline water of the Marshall Islands. © Morgan Maassen. Courtesy of the artist.

Los Angeles-based photographer Morgan Maassen started young—at age 13, when he was forced to take a few weeks’ break from surfing thanks to an injury. That’s when he picked up a camera. Since then, he’s shot breaks around the world, many of the sport’s living masters (ahem, Kelly Slater), and all manner of surfers submerged buoyantly in tropical waters.

His images are saturated with color and light, often focusing on the relationship between surfers’ bodies and the sea that surrounds them. Some of Maassen’s most compelling closeups show waves rushing smoothly over fingers and backs, so that his human subjects look more like dolphins than creatures meant to walk on land. In others, he descends underwater to photograph what happens when surfers dive beneath waves or fall into the ocean’s depths. In these, bodies and boards are eerily, albeit peacefully, suspended in dark turquoise voids.

Alexxa Gotthardt