“His portraits were character studies.”
It’s been three weeks since big, beautiful Art Brewer, the Laguna Beach photographer whose work defined surfing over five decades, and who created the legend of Bunker Spreckels via his ionic imagery, died following a liver transplant.
Referred to “as the sport’s most naturally gifted surf photographer”, Art owned the seventies, eighties and nineties in the American surf mags before splitting to do more lucrative commercial work, although his surf spirit still soared.
A dozen or so years ago, I got Arty to put the blossoming Jordy Smith in front of his muzzle for a cover for Stab, the kid wearing a Shaun Tomson-era yellow vest.
I pleaded poverty (partly true) and paid five hundred bucks for a studio shoot with full lighting rig and assistants. Rad thing is, even if I had a budget of fifty gees no one could’ve shot it with the same panache as Art.
“Brewer’s eye for color and framing is unmatched in the surf world, and much of his best work has been done as a portraitist when he has unfettered control over light, texture, and mood,” says Matt Warshaw.
A giant in the game.
And, so, rightly, Art’s just been lauded in the New York Times.
Mr. Brewer published his first photograph in Surfer magazine in the late 1960s and quickly became the surfing world’s dominant photographer for the next few years. For the next half-century, from a small boat or while treading water, wearing fins and dealing with rip currents, he showed a deft eye for lighting and framing in capturing the thrilling sights of great surfers.
Through Mr. Brewer’s lens, Bruce Irons surfed into what looked like the eye of a hurricane in Indonesia; Barry Kanaiaupuni darted through Honolulu Bay like a speedboat, leaving a wake behind him; Shane Dorian, also in Indonesia, appeared to split the ocean; and Strider Wasilewski seemingly rode his board underwater off Oahu.
“He was almost the Richard Avedon of surfing,” said Mr. Kempton, who edited the magazine in the late 1970s and early ’80s and is the author of “Women on Waves” (2021). “His portraits were character studies.”
A portrait of Mr. Spreckels shows him on a beach, his gleaming blond hair almost disappearing into the sand, sitting behind a red surfboard. Montgomery Kaluhiokalani, known as Buttons, poses in a green and yellow striped wet suit (“looking like the court jester,” Mr. Brewer wrote on Instagram) holding a board, with his thumb out as if he were hitchhiking.
Mark Occhilupo gazes skyward from inside a sugar cane field in Hawaii, looking deliriously happy. John Kelly, an early surf pioneer, stands alone on a beach, with his back to the camera, looking out at the ocean.
“Surfers would come to the magazine and he’d coax them into his studio,” Mr. Kempton said. “He did great portraits of Rabbit Bartholomew being David Bowie and Mick Jagger.”
One of Mr. Brewer’s most stunning photographs was taken in the water, but it is not of a surfer. He was sailing around the Andaman Islands, off the coast of India, and asked the captain if he had ever seen elephants swimming.
“I talked to the boat’s captain about it and he mentioned a logging camp on one of the islands where the handlers take their elephants to the beach to bathe in the afternoon after working all day,” he said.
A few days later, he saw a mother elephant and her baby leave the jungle for the beach and head into the water. The image he shot is almost phantasmagorical: the elephant underwater, her legs kicking, her gray body swaddled in blue water, a handler in a red shirt atop her.
Still hard to believe the big man has pivoted to the other side.