photographic giant of surfing | Dana Point Time

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Few have left an impression and impact on the sport and culture of surfing quite like Art Brewer.

By Jake Howard

I’m a sucker for a story. Art Brewer has plenty. The first time I met the iconoclastic surf photographer was on a trip to Fiji to Surfer reviewed in 2003.

Andy and Bruce Irons, Mick Fanning, Ian Walsh, Jamie O’Brien and a whole cast of characters were on board trying to find undocumented queues in the southern Lau Group. Brewer was there to capture the action.

Brewer’s reputation as a gruff old grizzly preceded him. The guys in the Surfer The photo department proudly wore shirts that read “Art Brewer hates me.” Somehow we got along.

Right now, Brewer is dealing with some pretty tough health issues, and this week I wanted to take a minute to let him know just how much love there is for him.

Over the weekend, my daughter and I were at the Ohana Fest in Doheny looking at a collection of oldtimer photos Surfing magazine photographer Steve Sherman. I introduced him to my daughter and explained to her that she was taking pictures at San Clemente High of Brewer’s daughter, Alana Mack.

“I wouldn’t do what I do today without art,” Steve told my daughter. “He’s a top notch legend.”

I would venture to say that almost every other surf photographer on the planet today would share a similar sentiment. For all intents and purposes, Brewer is the man.

Growing up in Laguna Beach, Brewer took his first surf photos in the winter of 1967, when a friend of his asked him to watch his gear.

“He wanted to go out and surf. He told me I could take some pictures if I wanted,” Art recalled in an interview we did together a few years ago. “I shot a roll and a half of film.”

This roll and a half of film would change the course of surfing as we know it. In 1967, Surfer magazine was a fledgling publication run by Dana Point surfer/artist John Severson. Brewer decided to submit some images to the “reader photos” section. One has been published.

(Left to right) Legendary surf photographer Art Brewer enjoys a sunny afternoon with longtime friend and occasional fellow adventurer Herbie Fletcher. Photo: Courtesy of JP Van Swae

One photo led to two, which then led to publicity work with local businesses, including Hobie.

“I was running more of my photos, and one day Surfer called me and asked if I wanted to be a personal photographer,” Brewer said. “It paid $500 a month, and I thought I made a lot of money. I went out and bought a new car.

Working under senior photographer Ron Stoner, Brewer’s photography quickly evolved. In ’69 Stoner retired from the magazine and Brewer took the helm. He was sent directly to the North Shore of Oahu for his very first field assignment.

“There were only a few other people shooting. The North Shore was a completely different world back then, very quiet, very off the beaten track. I was going to stay there for four months,” he said.

The timing couldn’t have been better for Brewer. In December, the historic “Swell of ’69” hits the North Shore. Waimea Bay was so large that waves closed off the entire bay and over 60 homes were destroyed.

“It was dark when the swell really hit, and we could hear the emergency sirens and public address warnings,” he continued. “We were evacuated to the lot where Sunset Elementary School is now.”

The ’69 Swell was just the start of a 40-year adventure that took Brewer to some of the world’s most remote corners with some of the best surfers in the world. He served as Surfer photo editor until 1981, then left to explore the limits of his photography.

Brewer has spent a lot of time traveling, spending a lot of time in Africa, Indonesia, the South Pacific, and pretty much everywhere in between. He has also branched out outside of surfing, working with a list of Hall of Fame athletes including Michael Phelps, Derek Jeter and Dwyane Wade.

“It was one hell of a ride,” he said. ” I can not complain. I had a lot of fun.

Today, Brewer lives in Dana Point. He has grandchildren, a yellow lab, and a pair of flippers that keep him in the water. He teaches a photography class at Orange Coast College and works with the New York School of Visual Arts teaching a surf photography program.

Jake Howard is a local surfer and freelance writer living in San Clemente. A former editor of Surfer Magazine, The Surfer’s Journal and ESPN, he now writes for several publications, including Picket Fence Media, Surfline and the World Surf League. He also works with philanthropic organizations such as the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center and the Positive Vibe Warriors Foundation.

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Michael E. Marquez