The artistry of photographers Ron Stoner and LeRoy Grannis (among others) contributed mightily to the boom in surfing in the 1960s. Their Technicolor spreads of big-wave riders and sun-drenched beaches inspired a generation of Jeff Spicolis to get stoked, and, in turn, helped make surfing a billion-dollar industry. But years before the advent of something called "surf culture," it was a black-and-white photograph taken by an unsung freelancer that jolted the nascent surf community and gave the sport a tidal push toward the mainstream.
Up until World War II, surfing had not traveled far beyond its ancient birthplace, Hawaii, and, in particular, Waikiki. Small enclaves could be found along the California coast and in Australia, in large part due to the efforts of Duke Kahanamoku, the Olympic swimming champ whose exhibitions spread surfing like an aquatic Johnny Appleseed (Applesurf?).
But peace unleashed the pent-up energy of a new breed of young and adventurous surfers. They left the balmy waters of Waikiki, which was now being overrun by tourists, to chase new challenges. One of their favorite spots was Makaha, on Oahu's west shore. Its isolation was part of its allure (the road from Honolulu was unpaved in sections) as were its awesome wintertime waves.
The standup stylings of Duke Kahanamoku and his beachboy brethren (including his five brothers) that had dominated the prewar scene were paleolithic by comparison. They surfed on boards made of solid redwood that weighed upwards of 125 pounds. They were shaped like coffin lids and were so unwieldy that no one dared challenge the big waves that roiled the North Shore of Oahu during wintertime.
Here, the war effort directly brought about technological changes that would drastically broaden what could be surfed. As authors Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul point out in their recent book, The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing (Crown), the military's efforts to defeat Japan and Germany produced myriad innovations that would transform surfing and enable it to spread beyond Hawaii.
Physicist Hugh Bradner had developed the neoprene wetsuit so that Navy frogmen could stay underwater for long periods of time in cool temperatures. When Bill and Bob Meistrell (who later founded Body Glove) and Jack O'Neill adopted the technology for recreation, it allowed surfers to ply their moves in unchartered and chilly waters. (Good luck surfing Santa Cruz, where O'Neill based his business, without a wetsuit.) Polyurethane foam and fiberglass were developed to lighten the weight of military aircraft, allowing them to probe deep into enemy territory. Engineering student Bob Simmons was among a fervent crew of surfer-tinkerers who thought to use foam for their boards. Foam boards were lighter, cheaper, and more maneuverable—and better able to handle the exigencies of 20-foot waves. Wood would soon be displaced entirely.
Surf photography, too, barely resembled its parochial beginnings. The sport's first lensman, A.R. Gurrey Jr., shot Duke in Waikiki as early as 1910-11, but in the days before waterproof cameras and monster-sized lenses, getting close enough to capture surfing's exhilarating joyrides was nigh impossible. Only a few people—like Tom Blake and Doc Ball—were intrepid enough to try.
But in November of 1953, the coconut wireless buzzed that surf at Makaha was up. WAY up. A freelance photographer named Thomas "Scoop" Tsuzuki heard the news and decamped from Honolulu, from where he frequently contributed breaking-news photos to the local papers.
When Tsuzuki arrived and saw what was happening in the water, he set up his Graflex Speed Graphic on the edge of the coral reef and took aim at three human specks braving the 20-foot cumulus waves. According to lore, he may have tipped his camera to make the wave appear bigger.
The photo made the front page of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin on November 27, 1953. The three surfers were later identified as Woody Brown (left), George Downing, and Buzzy Trent, among the three best surfers of that or any era. "[Brown] was the only one that made the wave," Downing later told the newspaper. "That was point break at Makaha. Where Woody was he was on the perfect place on the wave."
The true impact of Tsuzuki's photo came after it crossed the Pacific and was reprinted in other newspapers. "This simple image sent shock waves through California's emerging surf culture," according to director Stacy Peralta (Riding Giants, Dogtown and Z-Boys), "triggering the first migration of West Coast surfers to the Hawaiian Islands.
"California surfers started coming over, after that picture," Brown told Legendary Surfers historian Malcolm Gault-Williams. "That went to the mainland and, boy, that drove everybody crazy. They couldn't believe that. So, they all wanted to come out here and see for themselves."
Fred Van Dyke was one of those awestruck Californians. According to author-historian Matt Warshaw, Van Dyke quit his teaching gig in Santa Cruz to surf in Hawaii. Ricky Grigg was a 14-year-old paperboy who saw the photo when he was delivering the Santa Monica Evening Outlook. He was instantly smitten. He later moved to Hawaii and became a noted surfer and oceanographer. (Grigg passed away this summer.)
The image earned Tsuzuki an honorable mention award for best sports photo from Look magazine, for meeting the "highest standards of pictorial journalism." More importantly, the photo drew a generational line in the sand. Surfing was no longer going to be dominated by the traditional methodology of Duke Kahanamoku, standing regally on his massive redwood board as he glided to the beach at Waikiki, the dulcet sounds of the ukulele as background music.
No, surfing was poised to head in a new direction. The surfers in this generation lived to chase the gnarliest waves and to ride as close to the curl as possible, to the accompaniment of a snarling electric guitar. These big-wave hunters were competitive, too, holding the first modern-day surf contest in Hawaii, in 1954 at Makaha, before going on to establish the North Shore as the premiere surf spot on Oahu.
The photo also heralded a shift from Hawaii. Propelled by the twin engines of the aviation and the entertainment industries, California soon rivaled (or even surpassed) Hawaii as the epicenter of surfing. The top board shapers established hubs along Pacific Coast Highway; the film Gidget and the music of Dick Dale and the Beach Boys brought legions to the beach (for better and worse). John Severson's Surfer magazine, published in Dana Point, became their Bible.
Scoop Tsuzuki passed away more than a decade ago. His contribution to surfing is noteworthy because he didn't just document a moment in time. His photograph was among the first to capture the adrenaline surge — the raw exhilaration — of surfing, and helps explain why surfing can be so addictive.
As Severson recently told me, Tsuzuki's photo "sent a lot of kids to bed with dreams—20-foot dreams."
David Davis is the author of Water Man: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku, a biography that will be published by the Univ. of Nebraska Press in 2015.