When Jim Heimann's Surfing: 1778-2015 (Taschen, $200) arrived here at the SURFER offices, it was wheeled in on a hand truck and made an earth-shaking thud when it was dropped on my desk. At 13"x 19.5" and weighing just shy of 16lbs, the 600-page behemoth is more than your average coffee table book. (Hell, throw some hairpin legs on it and the book on its own would make for a great coffee table.) For three-and-a-half years, Heimann collected this exhaustive visual volume, drawing on imagery from 250 years of surf photography, advertising, magazine clippings, aloha shirts, board designs, and an unholy amount of ephemera.
To handle the heavy literary lifting, Heimann brought in some of the surf world's most distinguished hired guns—among them, Matt Warshaw, Drew Kampion, and especially Steve Barilotti, whose writing accompanies each photo, adding some depth and context to the remarkable imagery (On a Severson shot of a young Kemp Aaberg: "Aaberg had a precise, yet flamboyant style that defined California class while his lean blond looks made him an early-'60s surf star in both magazines and film").
The cover is a bit of a left-field choice, a full-bleed mid-2000's original by photographer, artist, and SURFER founder, John Severson—an abstract, almost pixelated painting of surfers charging down a wave in the traditional stance. Severson's work graced the cover of SURFER a few times over the years, and it is a respectful nod, but Heimann's choice to use a recent-ish painting of Severson's is a bit surprising.
The chapters are arranged chronologically, with writers taking on specific time periods. Warshaw handles surfing's first century and a half, "Out of the Blue: 1778-1945," and delivers a historical survey that's simultaneously academic and chatty in that uniquely Warshaw way. From early Hawaiian lore through the end of World War II, Warshaw offers beautiful insights into the earliest records of Hawaiian surf riding, as well as board design, cultural reception, and some wonderful passages regarding Tom Blake and Jack London. Not surprisingly, Warshaw's telling of surfing's early years—as well-traveled as those narrative paths are—makes for thoroughly fun reading, his writer's eye always scanning the most dry, historical texts for their funniest or most absurd details. He also employs a much-appreciated economy, unpacking decades of surf history with precisely executed strokes. Take this graph, describing the sport's growth at the turn of 20th century:
"Surfing's revival in the early 20th century made perfect sense. As wealthy American and European globetrotters scanned the world for suitably exotic getaways, their attention naturally gravitated to Hawaii, which was pulsatingly tropical and yet both English speaking and American run… tourism's benefit to surfing—and vice versa—was fast and direct. This "uniquely Hawaiian water sport" as it was often described, was a calling card like no other. Local governors, plantation owners, and hoteliers immediately recognized that island romance and excitement were distilled in the act of wave-riding, and surfing imagery was soon printed, stamped, embossed, and etched onto pretty much anything connected to the islands—from postcards and travel brochures to tea cups and hotel wine glasses." And doesn't that just sum it up?
Barlo covers '45-'61, opening his chapter with the story of Minoru Nii, the Makaha tailor to first cut and sew surf trunks—the same M. Nii that graces the labels of John Moore's (Outerknown, Hollister, etc.) heritage trunks today—and brings us to the surf explosion of '61, addressing innovations in materials, products, and the small, exclusive surf scenes that formed up and down the coast of California. Peter Dixon, Kampion, as well as Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul take on the next four chapters, and do an exhaustive, entertaining job of carrying the book to modernity.
Much of the book's meat and potatoes is previously well-chewed material, most thoroughly and enjoyably in Warshaw's near-perfect The History of Surfing. But where Warshaw's was the ultimate surf nerd's tomb, Heimann's Surfing: 1778-2015 is an Everyman's or outsider's introduction to our little world, which has been given the traditional Taschen treatment. Which is to say: It's a terrific coffee table book about surfing, more than a surfer's perfect coffee table book.
When Heimann takes full advantage of the book's size, running full-bleed single-page photos and spreads, it is truly something special. But often the book gets lost trying to get too much onto the page, instead of being more sparing with imagery, letting the photographs and magazine clippings, postcards and brochures breathe a little.
But as Heimann says in Surfing: 1778-2015's intro, "To attempt to encapsulate this history in a single volume is an impossible task… A book, an article, or blog can only give a glimpse of what the world of surfing is all about… The act of being in concert with mother ocean, despite other obvious distractions, is what brings one back again and to this world."
That said, diehards and enthusiasts will find plenty in Heimann's sprawling, slab of a book. So much loose, lovely detritus from the last three centuries, so many gorgeous movie posters and magazine covers, portraits and lineup shots, heaps for those interested in the obscure. It is a very big book about surfing, and while in this case bigger might not be better, the book is a terrific addition to any serious surfer's library, and an even better introduction for outsiders.