August 12, 1917 ~ February 3, 2011
Leroy Grannis is generally recognized as the first professional surf photographer. He helped John Severson found Surfer magazine in the early 1960s. He passed away this week at age 93.
Leroy worked nights for General Telephone and surfed and took surf photos during the day. It was his surfing experience that set him apart from other surf photographers of his era. He regularly finished in the top third of the U.S. Surfing Association contests, which he helped run with his friend and race director Hoppy Swartz.
His photos from the 1960s, surfingâ€™s Golden Age, have stood the test of time. Surferâ€™s Journal published a coffee table book of his photos in 1998 titled Photo: Grannis, Surfingâ€™s Golden Age 1960-1969. In 2007, a second collection of his photos, titled Leroy Grannis: Surf Photography of the 1960s and 1970s was published by the prestigious German press Taschen.
Leroy Grannis' iconic photo of Dewey Weber at 22nd Street in Hermosa Beach.
Leroyâ€™s favorite, among his own photos, was Johnny Fain arching his back, carving up the face of a six-foot wall of glass at Malibu Point, a demonstration of the bottom turn in its purest form. But Leroyâ€™s most famous photo is of Dewey Weber fading left while leaning right at 22nd Street in Hermosa. The photo documents the advent of hotdogging.
When I was 12-years-old and just learning to surf, my friend Don Craig and I would raid LeRoyâ€™s trash cans the night before trash pick-up for the photos he had thrown away. Weâ€™d sell the photos we didnâ€™t want to other surfers at Pier Avenue Junior High.
Leroy went to Hawaii every winter. One day, when I was 16 he caught me dropping in on a 20-foot face at Makaha. After the wave, he paddled over to me and said, â€œI got the photo. Now get out of the water.â€ I did what he told me to do. The photo was made into a poster. Leroy was the first photographer to shoot big Hawaiian surf from the water. He would paddle out with his camera in a water-tight, wooden box, stuck to the nose of his board with suction cups. As the towering sets would come in, he would paddle from the channel into the impact zone. Then heâ€™d sit up, take his camera out of the box, snap the photo, put the camera back in the box and race back to the channel to avoid the advancing avalanche of white water.
His son John told me that twice Leroy got caught inside at Waimea Bay, and pummeled. But his camera survived, undamaged.
Hawaiian surfing great Rabbit Kekai with Leroy Grannis. Photo by Joey Lombardo
Leroy had the respect of the Hawaiians because he surfed big waves almost as well as he photographed them. The Hawaiians considered him family.
One afternoon during the late 1960s, Leroy was shooting the Duke Kahanamoku Surfing Classic from Val Valentineâ€™s porch, right in front of the competition. The surf was 20 feet. Buffalo Keaulana was lifeguarding from his powerboat in the channel. By mid-day, he had rescued Rusty Miller, who broke his leg on a late take-off and a second surfer who had broken two ribs.
Soon-to-be world champion, Australian Nat Young took off on a mountain of a wave and carved left off the bottom. But then he got sucked back up the face and pitched over the falls.
Nat came up uninjured, but lost his board. So he screamed at Buffalo to give him a ride to the beach. Buffalo told Nat to swim, that his job was to rescue injured surfers. Nat started to swim, but not before cussing out the big Hawaiian.
After the heat Buffalo went looking for Young and found him on Valâ€™s porch, talking to Leroy.
â€œExcuse me, Leroy, but there is something I have to do,â€ Buffalo said. Then he punched Young in the mouth and told him never to swear at a lifeguard again.
When Young picked himself up off the porch, he asked Leroy why he let Buffalo hit him.
Leroy answered, â€œIf Buffalo hit you, he must have had a good reason.â€
I owe a lot to Leroy, not because of all the photos he took of me that got in the magazines, but because of all the things he taught me about surfing, life, and myself.
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