Art Brewer’s reach is astounding. He knows (or knew) everybody, from Griffin to Stoner to Lopez, Rabbit, Curren, Slater, right on up to John John. And they love him. They may have fought with him a time or two, but they love him—partly because he made them all look so damn good, and partly because he’s another one of those free-swinging bullshit destroyers. True, he lacks the growling poetic eloquence of Flippy Hoffman. But Art calls ‘em like he sees ‘em, no two ways about it. Always a pleasure to steal a few minutes from the man, bask in a story or two, and listen to him lay down some rough truth. Brewer just turned 64. Still shooting to kill.
Isn’t there a story about you and Rick Griffin driving up the coast to San Francisco?
He grabbed me and said “Come on, I need a ride back home, let’s go.” This was 1969. He was living up there. So I picked him up in my mom’s yellow Mustang. Rick was on LSD, but I didn’t know it at the time, and of course he wanted to drive, so next thing I know I’m in the passenger seat, driving through Big Sur. Rick’s girlfriend was in the car too. We get to San Francisco, he drops me off to stay with his girlfriend, then drives over to his house on Mission Street, to his wife and kid.
How old were you?
I was 18!
Wow, culture shock!
I met all the Zap Comix guys, Robert Williams and Crumb and S. Clay Wilson. That was a trip. And yeah, its the middle of the whole “free love” deal. So I end up getting some of that, and the crabs. I lasted three days, then got paranoid and split back home.
You and George Greenough were both kneeboarders. You ever surf with him?
I had one of those super-thin kneeboards, like an inch-and-a-half thick, all scooped out on the deck. I drove up to Rincon one afternoon and rode it, and George was in the water. He had it a lot more wired than I did, though. I watched and learned.
Did you ever talk photography with him?
Oh yeah, a few years later on. Quite a bit. A bunch of times when he was working on movies; Big Wednesday and things like that. Also, George built a waterhousing for John Severson, probably in early 1969, and that was the housing I used when I shot the Tom Stone cover.
What comes to mind when you look at shots of yours from the 1970s?
Just that the sport hadn’t been sold out yet. It hadn’t gone out the window.
When did it go out the window?
I don’t know. Photography-wise, digital maybe kind of ruined it. Sometime after 2000.
Surf photography has maybe gotten too good for its own good.
It’s just so homogenized. Everything is smoothed over. All the colors are perfect.
That’s what I mean. It’s too perfect. It was more interesting when it wasn’t perfect.
The Indian blanket.
Indians would always put a flaw in the blanket, when they were weaving. You don’t want the blanket to be perfect. The world’s not perfect.
Too many perfect photos, and just too many photos in general. It’s a flood.
There’s no limit to the number of surf photos now. Photo editors used to have to to pick the best stuff from maybe just a few dozen shots. The good stuff used to really stand out. Nothing feels momumental anymore. The last mind-blowing photo was Laird at Teahupoo. We’ve seen great shots since then, but nothing that made stopped you in your tracks like that one did.
Who are your favorite surf photographers, and why?
Steve Wilkings and Jeff Hornbaker. Steve went deeper than anybody had before with his water photography. He was the first to get in there with a 200mm lens, and all of a sudden anybody picking up the magazine was in the tube at Pipeline. Jeff had a great artistic vision, and his mind wandered in a really good way. At first, when he was working at SURFER, he couldn’t expose to save his soul. And then Flame [Larry Moore] not only offered Jeff a pretty decent retainer to jump over to Surfing, but he taught him how to expose properly, and Jeff took it from there. Did the most creative work of anybody at the time. What he did, actually, was finally learn all the rules of photography, as Larry told him, but then having done that he went out and was able to break all the rules. It just worked.