The two leading surf magazines from the 1960s through the 2000s were Surfer and Surfing. Surfer, being the original and styled by John Severson, was always considered the frontrunner of that genre, but each title had a crew of surf photographers who strived to deliver the most impactful images. Surfing’s top guy was Larry “Flame” Moore, who was known to haunt Salt Creek—which mostly kept Surfer photogs a bit gun-shy about shooting there. Such was the battle between the mags.
The Surfer photography department, highly regarded, was led largely by Art Brewer, a burly guy with a soft heart. Art’s understanding of what the riders were doing, combined with his sense of timing and his technical skills, delivered spectacular covers and spreads throughout his seemingly forever reign. Everyone looked up to Art.
Beyond his action images, Art captured occasional moments of quiet soul—one of which is shown above. This photo lives framed on the wall next to the front door of The Surfer’s Journal office. It’s a portrait of John Kelly standing alone on the beach on Oahu’s west side, seemingly contemplating life while a wave peels off in the distance. For me, it is one of Art’s more meaningful images and provokes a sense of both Kelly as a person as well as Art, who recognized the significance of what he was viewing.
The Kelly family moved to Oahu from San Francisco in 1923, when Kelly was 4, and they settled east of Waikiki in Kahala, where they built a shingled cottage at Black Point. An old Hawaiian fisherman who lived in a cave near the Kelly home became Kelly’s adopted grandfather and taught him how to live on, around, and off the ocean. At age 6, Kelly began surfing on an old ironing board his mom gave him. By age 9, he had a custom redwood plank shaped by David Kahanamoku.
As a 17-year-old, after spending a frustrating morning in the waves, Kelly and a buddy narrowed their hot-curl tails with an ax to keep them from “sliding ass” on the larger, steeper waves. “[It was] a raw, satisfying, hugely important moment in surfboard design history,” Matt Warshaw writes in his Encyclopedia of Surfing. That impulsive moment ended up allowing surfers to explore beyond Waikiki for bigger waves.
John Kelly went on to found Save Our Surf in 1961, fighting to prevent offshore development around the Hawaiian Islands that would have destroyed reefs, surf sites, and many other ocean resources. George Downing said he couldn’t imagine what Hawaii would be like without Kelly.
Kelly passed away quietly and peacefully at age 88 in 2007. Art Brewer left us in 2022 at age 71. They both made the surfing world a far better place.
[Feature image by Art Brewer]