The Ranch, 1966. Photo: Stoner
The Ranch, 1966. Photo: Stoner

History of Surfing: Beautiful From Any Angle

How Ron Stoner, LeRoy Grannis, and Don James reimagined surf photography

"SURFER is a dream magazine,” said the publication’s founder John Severson, “thanks to the photographers." Surf magazines grew more popular by the day through the 1960s, and the ever-increasing page count gave space to show off more surf photography, for which readers had a bottomless appetite. Soon, the surf press had its first crop of celebrity photographers: a 45-year-old Beverly Hills Dentist named Don James; a 49-year-old Pacific Bell switchboard installer named Leroy Grannis; and a handsome 21-year-old named Ron Stoner. All three pushed the creative limitations of surf photography, but it was Stoner who, in the words of History of Surfing‘s Matt Warshaw, “had a vision of surfing that was broader, brighter, and more unified.” Here’s more from Warshaw on Stoner:

He took one or two photography classes in junior college, and John Severson was an informal mentor. But as Surfer art director John Van Hamersveld later put it, Stoner operated "completely on intuition." (Van Hamersveld went further and wondered if Stoner was in fact an “idiot savant.” Another photographer, with no malice intended, said that on a technical level, "all Ron really knew how to do was open the film box and stick it in the camera.") Like Grannis and James, much of Stoner's work consisted of front-on, tight-frame action shots of cutbacks, bottom turns, noserides, and trimming—the bread-and-butter images that all surf magazines required. But Stoner actually did his best work while meandering around the perimeter. He'd paddle 20 yards out beyond a group of surfers, turn, and shoot back toward shore during a quiet moment between sets. Or he'd climb a hill, turn and drop to his knees, and take a lineup shot with a field mustard grass spread across the bottom two-thirds of the viewfinder. Stoner picked up shades and hues that everyone else missed. He buffed and polished the everyday surf-world greens and blues until they looked new again. He did for Southern California surf breaks what artist David Hockney later did for Southern California swimming pools, and to the same effect: you didn't want to just look at their work, you longed to step inside and become part of it.

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We reached out to Warshaw for more about Stoner, and about surfing’s triad of photographer-pioneers of the ’60s.

[L to R] Ron Stoner, LeRoy Grannis, and Don James, 1966

15 surf magazines had come and gone worldwide by 1966. The mags that folded — what did they get wrong? Why didn't they have the longevity of SURFER?

You could slice and dice it a bunch of ways, but really, it comes down to John Severson. He was a one-man band on the editorial side, he could shoot, write, design, and draw. He was a smart, semi-vicious businessman. He hired the right people, and those people liked and respected and feared him. A couple of the other early mags—Surf Guide in particular—had some of the pieces in place. But nobody brought to the table as much as John brought, not even close.

How did Severson respond to his Life Magazine profile in ’66, and its description of his workday as a casual three hours?

He owned it. In one of the Life photos, John's got his feet up there on his desk. Casual to perfection. It wasn't true, of course. The man never stopped working. But he sent the message he wanted to send.

What kind of influence did Doc Ball have on the photography of James and Grannis?

Not much on Don James. But Doc and Grannis were lifelong pals, almost like brothers, going back to their days with the Palos Verdes Surf Club. And it was like that all the way to the end. LeRoy was still driving up to Northern California to visit Doc in 1990s.

Don James, Sunset. Photo: Grannis

"The best moments of a surfer's life," Art Brewer said, "Stoner caught 'em. His view of surfing was so generous." What do you think Brewer meant by that?

I think he means that Stoner took the kind of shots that you didn't want to look at as much as you wanted to step into. Ron's best photos are 50 years old, but you almost don't notice. A Stoner shot will harmonize with your own best surfing experiences. His work is both of his time, and timeless.

Between the schizophrenia, drug use, and the electroshock therapy, which do you think most radically changed Stoner?

Schizophrenia, without a doubt. Heavy drug use made it worse, but mental illness was likely always going to take Stoner down. That said, in a different time and place, with different people around him, it might have been managed a lot better.

In today's surf photography, what can we look at, or what can we feel deep down, that we can look up and thank Stoner for?

Artistically, Ron Stoner begat Art Brewer, who in turn—in my opinion, anyway—inspired surf photography's entire next generation. Stoner and Brewer got as close as possible to making surfing look as diverse and gorgeous on the page as it was in real life, and everybody else since has just been adding here and there to what those two guys created.

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