Art Brewer, Leading Photographer of Surfers, Is Dead at 71
Art Brewer, an adventurous photographer whose pictures of surfers, both on land and challenging monumental waves around the world, established him as one of the sport’s most influential visual chroniclers, died on Nov. 9 in Los Angeles. He was 71.
The cause was liver disease, said his wife, Kathleen (Beckner) Brewer. He had received a liver transplant in September.
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.
“Art had a knack for combining the atmospheric background that surfing gives you, with the sunset and waves, with an emotional appeal and a definite sense of place,” Jim Kempton, the president of the California Surf Museum, said in a phone interview.
Malcolm Lightner, who was a curator of the retrospective “Art Brewer: Surf Evolution,” at the SVA Gramercy Gallery in Manhattan in 2012, said that Mr. Brewer developed a distinctly personal palette.
“If you look at his photographs,” he said, “there’s a lot of blue, as is the nature of surf photography, but there is an infinite range of subtleties, from silver turquoise and deep, dark blues, each expressing the raw power and fickle beauty of the ocean.”
Many of his subjects were elite surfers, but Mr. Brewer’s best-known subject was a hedonistic young millionaire named Bunker Spreckels. Mr. Spreckels, who was Clark Gable’s stepson, became a muse to Mr. Brewer, who captured him in various poses on trips around the world, from looking dissipated after too much partying to standing on a leopard-skin rug with an array of surfboards laid out before him. He died of a heart attack at 27 in 1977.
“They were like ill-fitting brothers,” said C.R. Stecyk III, who collaborated with Mr. Brewer on the book “Bunker Spreckels: Surfing’s Divine Prince of Decadence” (2007). “They were out touring the world, living a life you couldn’t live. Art was an emerging documentarian at the time, and here was Bunker, whose great-grandfather had played poker with the king of Hawaii.” (His great-grandfather Claus Spreckels was a sugar baron who provided financing to King David Kalakaua.)
Mr. Brewer told the California newspaper The Dana Point Times in 2016: “All he wanted me to do was to come along and take pictures. I wasn’t being paid, I was just going along to take pictures. There really wasn’t anything specific about it, it was a funny little show.”
Arthur Jennings Brewer was born on Feb. 14, 1951, in Orange, Calif., and grew up in nearby Laguna Beach. His father, Daniel, did masonry work; his mother, Florence (Wellman) Brewer, was a bookkeeper and seamstress.
Art started surfing at 12 and began taking photographs a few years later when a friend with a new Pentax camera came to surf with him.
“He asked to borrow my board and I said, ‘Sure,’ and he goes, ‘You watch my camera; if you want to use it, you’re more than welcome to do so,’” he recalled on the podcast “Temple of Surf” in 2021. “I shot some film, got the film back two days later from Kodak, and I knew what I wanted to do.”
He saved money to buy his own camera and quickly started sending pictures to Surfer magazine. He soon became a staff photographer, earning $500 a month, and in the 1970s he became the magazine’s photo editor. In all, he said, 36 of his photographs appeared on the cover of Surfer.
“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.”
Mr. Brewer’s book “Masters of Surf Photography: Art Brewer” was published in 2001.
“The surf shots are what they are supposed to be: tack sharp, peak action, perfect composition, but also inspirational,” Tim Ryan wrote in a review of the book in The Honolulu Star-Bulletin. “Portraits of the world’s greatest wave riders since 1969 show surfers in their most relaxed realm — the ocean — but also show them in hotel rooms, sitting on the beach, traveling and contemplating.”
Mr. Brewer’s photographs also appeared in Esquire, GQ, Men’s Journal, Men’s Health and many other magazines. He took pictures of volleyball, football and soccer players and of golfers, skateboarders, professional wrestlers and martial artists. He photographed the cyclist Lance Armstrong for Dasani water and the soccer star Mia Hamm for Gatorade.
Over the past decade, he also conducted workshops in action surf photography for the School of Visual Arts in Puerto Rico, Nicaragua and Bali.
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 on his website.
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.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Brewer, who lived in Dana Point, is survived by his daughter, Alana Mack, and two grandchildren. His marriage to Debra Bedwell ended in divorce.
Mr. Brewer spoke mystically about surf photography to The Olympian, a newspaper in Washington State, in 2005 when he recalled being in a boat off Oahu’s North Shore at sunrise a decade earlier. Waves 30 to 50 feet high surrounded him and a small crew that included the surfer Darrick Doerner.
“It’s a feeling that there’s nothing else like it in the world,” he said. “It’s magic.”
He added: “You might call it the most religious experience you could ever have. You’re out there with God.”