Surf Evolution | A 40-Year Retrospective of the Legendary Surf Photographer Art Brewer

Posted: Jun 20,2012 Written by 
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Exhibition:  “Art Brewer:  Surf Evolution”

School of Visual Arts (SVA) | 209 East 23rd Street | Through June 30th, 2012

Bruce Irons, Bank Vaults, Mentawais Islands, 2009

Bruce Irons, Bank Vaults, Mentawais Islands, 2009 - Art Brewer

When it comes to surf photography, Art Brewer is a god, an icon, the man.  Period.  There’s just no other way to say it.  With a career that has spanned 40 years, he’s shot it all with a classic eye and a quiet grace, letting his images do the talking.  And his pics say way more than a mere thousand words. 

Brewer’s career started at just 17 when he landed his first Surfer cover in 1968. From there, he didn’t look back, mastering portraiture, landscapes and water photography like no one before or since. He’s virtually chronicled the growth of surfing from its adolescence to the mega-billion dollar behemoth that it’s become and his images nailed pivotal moments in time that allowed the masses to understand the clear sea-changes that were occurring. Just a few of those include:

  • Bunker Spreckles’ mind-bending Pipe performances on boards that spat in the face of the longboard era (1969)  
  • Rick Griffin, who’s psychedelic ‘eyeball’ images and Murphy cartoons  brilliantly captured the surf culture of the time (1969)
  • Gerry Lopez’ easy-going style in the maws of macking Pipe (1973)
  • Terry Fitzgerald’s speed runs at Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa (1975)
  • Rabbit Bartholomew’s brash rock star posturing (1977)
  • Rory Russell, tracking across Morocco with a camel and small quiver of boards (1983)
  • A young Mark Occhilupo (Occy) in his prime and years before his world title (1990)
  • Munga Barry’s air drop at Sunset during the ’93 contest (1993)
  • Slater when he had hair and the weight of heavy expectations resting on his back (1994)
  • John John Florence’s ascension to Pipe dominance and air brilliance (2009)

In fact, as writer C.R. Steyck III points out, Brewer has photographed every surfing world champ since 1969.  That’s just crazy.

And what does a legend like Brewer do, he decides to open his mind’s vault to teach aspiring sports photographers about the intricacies of what made him famous.  It’s a generous move by any measure and the world of surf photography will surely benefit from it. The course is called “Action Surf Photography” and is part of the SVA (School of Visual Arts) Study Abroad Program, which has the expressed purpose of “immersion in another culture to expand your perspective, to better understand your own history, and to find unexpected ways to inspire your work with new exuberance and energy.”

It’s no wonder then that the SVA is currently honoring Brewer with a exhibition of his most brilliant images entitled, “Art Brewer:  Surf Evolution” at their NYC gallery (209 East 23rd Street) through June 30th.  I was honored to attend the reception for Brewer at the gallery and was thrilled by the huge crowd, sweet spread and chance to chat it up with such surf legends as Mark Cunningham (Pipe bodysurfer who changed everyone’s approach to riding waves), Jamie Brisick (prolific surf writer), C.R. Steyck III (writer and one of the main forces behind the skateboard revolution that was the Dogtown Z-boys) and, of course, the man himself.  The night was a cool, laid back affair that brought together NYC’s eclectic crowd and the rich history that makes up our beautiful sport.

So, make the trip into the city. But I will say, that while the images stand on their own, the true power lies in the stories that make the moments come alive.  If you don’t know who guys like Lopez, Griffin, Bartholomew, Spreckles, Fitzgerald or Billy Hamilton are, it’d do you good to Google ‘em before you go, only so you know just how electrifying the pictures really are. And don’t worry, there’s enough Slates, Knox, Bruce Irons, John John, Dorian and Nathan Fletcher to satiate your present-day legend fix.

By the way, ‘Like’ this article on Facebook and we’ll enter you into a drawing for the program to the show.  It’s awesome and includes frame-able reproductions of a few of the images. 

Barry Kanaiaupuni, Honolua Bay, Maui, 1971
Barry Kanaiaupuni, Honolua Bay, Maui, 1971- Art Brewer

Wayne "Rabbit" Bartholomew, Surfer Magazine Studio, Dana Point, California, 1977- Art Brewer