Surf’s Up Again​​​

Photographer LeRoy Grannis captured this set of wipeouts in the 1960s

Taschen’s newest collector’s book captures the innocent early days of surf culture

ou’d never guess from the 365 images in Taschen’s Surfing that the sport is a grueling workout. Released this spring as part of the publisher’s 365 Day-by-Day series, the book includes both illustrated and photographic depictions—one for each day of the year—of smiling, poised riders perched atop their board or lounging indolently on the beach. Surfing, it appears, is all fun and relaxation.

But catching a wave, in truth, is a drawn-out process of shoulder-wrenching paddling through breaking waves, followed by sometimes tedious spells of waiting for the next set. Then it’s another arm-burning dash to catch the rising swell and push oneself up in the blink of an eye. All this time and energy can result in a ride that lasts only a few seconds, but what a rush it brings.

The book cover features a 1965 poster designed by Earl Newman

 

According to Jim Heimann, who assembled the book and works at Taschen as an executive editor, Surfing is one of the largest and most tightly edited collections of ephemera documenting the sport’s portrayal, often glamorized, in popular media. While it spans the years 1870 through 1970, the bulk of Surfing is focused on the late 1950s and early ’60s, the era that brought us the surfing craze chronicled and fueled by Gidget and even Elvis Presley.

This craze coincided with the cult of Polynesian kitsch—tiki bars, bongo music, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical South Pacific—that followed World War II, when so many soldiers and sailors were stationed on islands. But Surfing also shows that the mainland’s fascination with the activity goes further back. Included among the pages are 19th-century engravings of Hawaiians surfing, quotes from Mark Twain and Jack London, plus a host of travel-related images from the 1920s and ’30s, when cruises to the Hawaiian islands were promoted with depictions of surf culture. Heimann’s next project will be a hefty 600-page history of the sport.

Oddly enough, however, Heimann is not a lifelong wave rider but instead an inveterate collector. At age 12, he began amassing printed matter about California pop culture. (His collection of vintage Los Angeles nightclub ephemera, he says proudly, is unrivaled.) Since 1971, he has spent every Sunday morning at Southern California’s leading flea markets, including the Rose Bowl Flea Market, in Pasadena, and in the process has built a collection of several hundred thousand pieces, from tiki-themed restaurant menus to postcards to travel posters for Tijuana (a popular getaway spot during the golden age of Hollywood). This collection has resulted in a number of image-laden books for Taschen, including a massive series called All-American Ads that is organized by decade.

About half the images in Surfing are from Heimann’s own collection, and you don’t have to flip too many pages before noting the dearth of images beyond 1970. Just as American culture went through a turbulent change at the close of the ’60s, so too did surfing, the so-called sport of Hawaiian kings. Long boards, which were ridden in a graceful manner and seemed to harmonize with the ocean, were rapidly replaced by short boards, vehicles used to “rip” the waves, as if fighting against nature rather than going with the flow. Prize money and corporate sponsors gradually entered the arena, and talented wave riders without competitive ambition became known as soul surfers.

Surfing’s seductive visuals come down to a simple set of ingredients. All you need are sunshine, the ocean, a board and a tan young body and the imagination fills in the rest.

Thus Surfing largely depicts the preprofessional culture of recreational surfing, with more smiling faces among the waves than gritty gazes of aspiring champions. Also absent are the problems that began to plague the sport in the 1970s, including drugs, what came to be known as surf rage (the attitude when a surfer believes he or she owns a wave and fellow riders must keep away) and, finally, the concept of “locals only,” in which surfers protect their home breaks by starting fights or slashing the tires of anyone from outside the immediate community.

Grannis’ 1963 picture of boards in the sand captures the color and energy of mid-century surf culture, even as a still life

 

ortraying an idyllic time before the fall, Surfing’s seductive visuals come down to a simple set of ingredients. All you need are sunshine, the ocean, a board and a tan young body and the imagination fills in the rest. But the book’s accompanying quotes, as well as some of the more contemplative imagery, emphasize the deeper side of surfing: an awareness of the ocean’s rhythms and life-giving power. What’s much harder to capture by camera or artist’s rendering are the connection with nature and the brief but exhilarating rush when feeling that one has the power to walk on water, like a god.

Perhaps Duke Kahanamoku, a Hawaiian native and five-time Olympic swimming medalist, said it best of all: “Out of the water, I’m nothing.”

 

Christian Chensvold is coauthor of Ivy Style. He lives in New York City.

  • Photograph by LeRoy Grannis; Courtesy of the LeRoy Grannis Collection and TASCHEN
  • Image by Earl Newman; Courtesy of TASCHEN
  • Photograph by LeRoy Grannis; Courtesy of the LeRoy Grannis Collection and TASCHEN