1939 was a good year for surf in California. A big south swell graced her shores that spring. It was the kind of swell that morphs every cove and cranny of our sinuous coastline into a natural wave machine, churning out those leg-burning, perception-altering walls of water we all used to draw in the margins of our textbooks, or so I’m imagining as John Grannis recounts one of his favorite stories passed down from his dad.
“Do you remember that big swell we had a couple of years back?”, John asks.
“Yeah! That’s the one. Well — clears throat — it was bigger than that.” Pausing for effect. “Dad said they got waves from way out at 3rd point Malibu, outside past the pier.”
“Wheeeuw…” I whistle through the phone, trailing off as his voice cracks through the phone.
“There were guys taking off at 3rd point and riding all the way through 2nd, 1st, and in past the pier. I don’t even know how guys stood up for that long!”
That same year, John’s dad, Leroy, turned 19. He already stood out amongst the others, however few, in the surf. He grew up in Hermosa Beach, CA, and his childhood home sat just a few blocks from the sand. 4 years prior to the this swell—the swell of 39’ as I’m now calling it—he was inducted into the Palos Verdes Surfing Club alongside lifelong friends and surfing partners Lewis “Hoppy” Schwartz and John “Doc” Ball. Their houses were a stones-throw apart. Together they were the perfect trio: Doc took photos, Hoppy shaped boards, and LeRoy acted as the glue that held everything together. All three went to Redondo High School, surfing before, after, and sometimes during class. While they could most often be found surfing the cove with the rest of their club, they would occasionally venture off to the Redondo Beach break water, Flood Control, and other spots scattered around their corner of Los Angeles County — most times by themselves.
“Can you imagine what it must have been like? You know, being a surfer back then?”, I ask.
“No crowds!” John is fast to respond.
“Yeah, there’s that, but the exploration and discovery must have felt so raw. They had the whole coast to themselves.” I’m pushing a narrative here.
“It’s funny, they really just surfed at a few places. Well, Santa Cruz too. I don’t know why… It was kind of weird for them to go so far to surf.”
“I’m sure the cold water didn’t help.”
“Yeah I know. God! You know the old pictures of the guys at the cove — which really only broke in the fall or spring — they were only wearing trunks! I mean, they tried different things like wool, but neoprene didn’t get developed until the late 50s.”
For LeRoy and other members of the Palos Verdes Surfing Club — along with the few other surf clubs scattered about California — life revolved around surfing. They organized contests both internally and with other clubs. And “contest” in the traditional sense these were not. They were a celebration of a combined passion for and total involvement in surfing. They were much less a competition than a BBQ, a social gathering, and more often than not, a damn good excuse to hit the booze. Held every month across different locations throughout California, and sometimes Baja, they were a sign of the times, when surfing wasn’t a sport and surfers weren’t athletes, but family.
“Tell me more about your family, John.”
“Well, let’s see. My oldest sis was born in 1940, my brother in 45’, my other sister in 52’, and me in 56’. In 1958 my dad took me out on a surfboard and pushed me into waves.”
“Talk about an early start!” I respond with more than a hint of jealousy.
“Yeah I guess so! That same year he got an ulcer from his job at the telephone company. He was a supervisor I think, and it stressed him out. Doctor told him to get a hobby.”
“It was the kind of swell that morphs every cove and cranny of sinuous coastline into a natural wave machine, churning out those leg-burning, perception-altering walls of water we all used to draw in the margins of our textbooks, or so I’m imagining as John Grannis recounts one of his favorite stories passed down from his dad.”
By the time LeRoy picked up his first camera, Doc (his lifelong friend, not his physician) had already been shooting film for the better part of 20 years. So Doc showed him the ropes: What camera he should buy and what film he should use. By John’s account, LeRoy took both Doc’s and the doctor’s advice. It just seemed natural to combine this new hobby with the surfing he was so involved in.
“Good surfers make good surf photographers, don’t they?”
“Right! Because you have to anticipate what the wave is going to do. Plus he knew all the surfers, and knowing all the surfers meant that he knew what they were going to do.”
Leroy’s hobby took on more meaning after he turned the family garage into his personal darkroom. He developed a wonderful system. He’d take photos of all the local surfers in the morning, and by noon each day he’d have a gaggle of these sandy, scruffy looking kids sitting outside — they weren’t allowed in the house — anxiously waiting to see if they appeared in any of the day’s shots. These kids weren’t your typical surfers, they were the future of surfing: Mike Purpus, Dewey Weber, and Lance Carson to name a few.
“Did your dad ever make a decision to fully pursue his photography?”
“So my dad would go to Hawaii every year. Is that what you’re getting at?”
“Uh, yeah, that’s perfect.”
“Yeah, so all of the best surfers from around the world would come for the Makaha international surf contest.”, John continues.
“That was THE contest back in the day, right?”
“It was the biggest contest of the year, every year it ran.”
“We’re just glad your dad was there to document it.”
“My dad took so many gorgeous shots of the waves breaking at Makaha with the light from the sun setting behind them. Add in a bright colored surfboard it just looked perfect. It was just so beautiful.”
He really caught the photography bug after his first shots were published in the 3-issue run of Reef Magazine. So much so, in fact, that he started Surfing Magazine (originally International Surfing) in 1964 with a couple of friends. His work became the gold standard of surf photography, and found major success in fine art circles long after he’d set the camera down.
“Did your dad ever think that his photography would receive the attention it has?”
“It was always just something he did. In the 80s he kinda slowed down taking photos and traveling. Everybody forgot about him until the longboard made its comeback.”
“So he wasn’t properly recognized until later?”
“It went out of style and then came back. That’s when people got interested in dad’s photos again. He put a book together and that really put him on the map. But for awhile he’d forgotten about his photos. They just hung in the rafters for years and then suddenly he was world famous.”
LeRoy’s photojournalistic approach to 1960s and 70s surf and beach culture continues to inspire. Generations of photographers and surfers grew up with his shots, ripped right out of the magazines, plastered on their walls. He stands as the only surf photographer to bridge the gap between counterculturist and fine artist. His work has been featured in most every major surf publication along with others including Esquire, Vogue, and GQ. We are honored and humbled to feature select shots from his personal vault of nearly 10,000 film negatives graciously gifted to the Lost & Found Collection by John Grannis.