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Stranger in a Strange Sea

Decisive photographer Leigh Wiener coaxed poetry from surfing’s golden years.

Light / Dark

In the summer of 1974, when I was 15, Leigh Wiener had me take photos around his Hollywood Hills house with one of his high-end cameras after I’d gawked at his astonishing collection of Leicas, Hasselblads, and Nikons. Wiener, one of the country’s most accomplished freelance photographers, wanted to teach me a lesson. He took pictures alongside me, only he used a Polaroid. We later developed and printed my images in his darkroom to compare our work. 

You can guess the outcome.

After cutting his teeth as a staff photographer at the Los Angeles Times in the 1950s, Wiener built a prominent name for himself shooting for Life, Time, Sports Illustrated, and other major outlets. He specialized in portraits, taking pictures of people so famous that you don’t need their full names to know exactly who they are: JFK, RFK, LBJ. Miles, Marilyn, Janis. Groucho, Sinatra, Koufax. Durante, Nixon, Stravinsky, Brando.

Wiener wasn’t a surfer—didn’t know a right from a left, a cross-step from a cutback, a peeling point from a beachbreak closeout—and famous surfers of the era were never the intended focus of his lens. However, he did on occasion shoot surfing and beach culture of the era, and entirely by happenstance captured some of surfing’s icons, and did so in a way that still resonates today.

Tourists watch Starfish Prime, a high-altitude nuclear test above Johnston Atoll conducted by the US government, from the beach at Waikiki, July 9, 1962.

While he of course knew composition and light, he also had an innate feel for the important people and scenes that were happening around him. This applied, certainly, to the surf, and he intuitively got it without any real knowledge of the subject. He patiently read the horizon, moved into position at the right moment, knew when to turn and, yes, when to snap the shutter.

In his craft, Wiener fiercely rejected the notion that great

photographers capture “the decisive moment,” a conceit popularized by Dick Simon of Simon & Schuster, who used it for the title of a book he published featuring the work of pioneering photojournalist

Henri Cartier-Bresson. On a television show Wiener hosted, called Talk About Pictures, he gave an example of a photographer on the street below the Empire State Building as a man is threatening to jump from the 92nd floor. Is the decisive moment when he pushes off, is halfway down, hits, or bounces up?

“Photographers are decisive,” he said in summation. “Not moments.”

I met Wiener’s son, Devik, in 1968, when we were in the same fifth-grade class. We started surfing together the next year, and we’ve remained friends ever since. Over the years, he’s often joined me to surf near my home in San Diego. 

When his father passed away in 1993, Devik inherited a photo archive that contains half a million black-and-white negatives and 50,000 color transparencies. A few months ago, we began combing through it together, looking for surf and surf-related imagery. 

(Top) Johnny Cash at Columbia Studios, Los Angeles, 1961. (Bottom) Miles Davis at the Black Hawk, San Francisco, 1961. Davis said not to shoot with lights. Later, he asked if the images would turn out. “When you blow that thing,” Wiener responded, “does noise come out?”

Devik, who recently retired from a career lighting films and TV shows, still lives in Los Angeles. He houses his father’s work at Hollywood Vaults, in a room that resembles a bank safe and offers “climate-controlled, high-security, disaster-proof storage.” Other clients, who must remain nameless for security reasons, include movie studios and TV stations storing original films and videos, rock stars protecting instruments and master recordings, art collectors, and, of course, other photographers.

When we pull up to the gate, a scan of Devik’s fingertip lets us drive into the high-tech facility, which has cameras pointing at us from every direction. We climb a flight of stairs, where we complete a second finger scan and an ethereal voice says, “Access granted.”

The vaults in this wing of the building happen to be named after surf towns: Huntington, Newport, Laguna, Montecito. Wiener’s collection is in the Santa Monica Room. A third finger scan opens a massive metal door. On the back is a life-size poster of Johnny Cash from a 1960 shoot at Wiener’s studio, which, coincidentally, was located in Santa Monica. 

The shelves hold stacks of more than 3,000 labeled, alphabetized boxes filled with nearly 25,000 enlarged prints Wiener made by hand. It’s a who’s who of the twentieth century. Duke Ellington sits atop the Everly Brothers, Redd Foxx, Percy Faith, Errol Flynn, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Norman Mailer rests above Groucho Marx, Johnny Mathis, Willie Mays, and Marilyn Monroe. There are two boxes of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, including an image of her leaning on his shoulder that earned a spot in The Best of Life coffee-table book. There are topics, too: the Dachau concentration camp, Tijuana bullfights, the last day at Alcatraz, the lost women of skid row. 

(Top) John and Robert Kennedy in repose at the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel, in town for the Democratic National Convention, July 1960. (Bottom) Marilyn Monroe, May 1956. The portrait opens Wiener’s 1990 book, Marilyn: A Hollywood Farewell, which documents her body after her death as it was moved from her home to the morgue, and then at her funeral. 

At first, there’s nothing that smells of surfing. But as we dive into the black-and-white negatives and color slides, however, we begin to find, here and there, what we’re looking for.

The earliest dates back to 1950s San Onofre. Wiener had just returned from a stint in the Army, during which he’d been stationed in Germany and shot for Stars and Stripes. On his tour, he became friends with Dick DeWitt, whose father owned General Veneer, an LA-based company that sold door panels and model airplanes, briefly made paipo-like “hotel boards” for Waikiki customers in the 1930s, and later provided balsa and plywood for cutting-edge surfboards made by craftsmen like Bob Simmons, Pat Curren, Dale Velzy, and Hobie Alter. DeWitt was the company’s liaison to the then-budding surfboard industry, and by association he had started surfing himself.

Inside a manilla envelope dated November 1954, we find a dashing shot of a bare-chested DeWitt wearing sunglasses. Another image

celebrates the large headlamps and oversize grill of a Model A Ford with a San Onofre Surfing Club sticker in the corner of the front window. There are photos of the beach showing all sorts of odd surfboards, including a twin-fin, standing tall in the sand.

We also find images from the following year of the inaugural 32-mile paddleboard race from the Catalina Island isthmus to Manhattan Beach Pier, the longest of any such race in the world. The 15 entrants included Greg Noll, George Downing, Ricky Grigg, and Tommy Zahn. Hundreds of spectators jammed the beach and lined the pier to watch the race’s end, where Zahn came in first. For some reason, though, Wiener focused on Grigg, maybe because he crossed the finish line at the appropriate location—and was named the winner after judges disqualified Zahn for having strayed from the course. Then 18, Grigg had grown up in Santa Monica near the pier, in a house that was a few blocks away from the beach where Devik and I learned to surf. At 11, a surfboard hit Grigg’s belly so hard that he had to have his spleen removed. One of Wiener’s photos captures the scar.

Ad shoot for Standard Oil on Los Feliz Boulevard, Glendale, August 22, 1961.

Two years after that 1955 race, Life ran a story about the publication of the novel Gidget and her “catching the ‘bitchen wetbacks’ (big waves)” at Malibu. That ridiculous lingo signaled the start of what surf historian Matt Warshaw dubbed “The Ten-Year Boom,” and Wiener, a professional zeitgeister, was on it. 

In 1960, The Southern California Prompter, which would later become Los Angeles magazine, assigned Wiener to shoot Surfrider State Beach in Malibu. It was chest high on the May day he showed up, and, I suppose largely by accident, Wiener caught a stylish noseride. But the charm of the photos—or the horror, if you’d enjoyed empty Malibu five years earlier—is the overall happenings, not the surfing. The water, the beach, and Highway 1 are packed. Four guys on some waves. A teenager wearing trunks and a double-breasted sport coat, à la Dora, struts down with a pack of friends. Bongos played in the sand. A backward swastika painted on a brick wall. Pairs of boards slotted into the backseats of convertibles, sticking out like bunny ears. A winding chain-link fence that holds up dozens of similar logs, one of which says, “For Sale, Rent, Etc.” 

Etcetera?

Surfing by then had become a way for businesses as stodgy as Standard Oil to show off that they were with it, which led to Wiener shooting an ad for the company at an LA gas station in 1961. It features an attendant helping customers who have

two surfboards in the back of a Rambler convertible. The aw-shucks scene spotlights two clean-cut fellas and their gal pal, all in trunks and Hawaiian-print shirts, joshing with the attendant, who is outfitted in khaki slacks, a collared shirt with a bow tie, and a soldier’s garrison cap. 

Wiener’s other work  from that year includes Miles Davis enjoying a smoke at the renowned Black Hawk jazz club in San Francisco, a Life spread on the unicycle craze, a Mexican high-diver jumping off

Venice’s Pacific Ocean Park Pier, and Robert F. Kennedy at a fundraising dinner with the Rat Pack and Liz Taylor. But time can turn mundane images into delightful curiosities, especially when they show moments that can no longer be recreated, whether it’s midcentury celebrities mingling together after-hours or an unknown surfer gliding across a waist-high roller on an impossibly long and heavy piece of lumber at Dana Point before the harbor killed the spot. 

Surf-influenced gasoline sales may be hard to calculate, but the cha-ching of music, movies, and TV shows that loaded up the woodie and shot the curl meant a handful of other goofy 60s shoots for Wiener. 

First came the cover of a 1963 album by Bruce Johnston, who would join the Beach Boys two years later. The eminently forgettable record in question, Surfin’ ’Round the World, includes what may be the all-time silliest title of a surf song: “Hot Pastrami, Mashed Potatoes, Come On to Rincon—Yeah!!!” 

Bruce Johnston in the middle of Long Beach Harbor, in
an outtake from his album cover shoot with Wiener, June 1963.

My personal favorite cut is “Surfin’s Here to Stay,” which comes off like a Spinal Tap-ish spoof of the genre. “We’re all surfin’ from dawn and dusk/ We’re in the water so much you think we’d rust,” Johnston sings in his lovely tenor, followed by “Your honey will cry/ If you don’t let her try/ To surf a wave”—and then there’s an abrupt stop for a spoken aside from a man who sounds like he’s imitating

Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies: “I want to surf too, honey, heh-heh, heh-heh!”

When I speak with Johnston, now 79, it’s quickly clear that he can laugh at his past. He trashes what he calls his “second horrible album”—the first being Surfers’ Pajama Party—saying, “It was so opposite of what surfing should sound like.” He made the album with his friend Terry Melcher, Doris Day’s son, and at the time saw the music business primarily as a way to get girls. “You wouldn’t think a guy like me, doing stuff like that, would ever win a Grammy,” he says, referring to his Song of the Year win for his 1975 hit “I Write the Songs.” Wiener shooting for the album, Johnston says, was equally “What?!” 

Johnston knew Wiener’s name and work, as the latter had shot many album covers for top Columbia Records jazz, pop, country & western, and classical music stars. For Johnston’s own shoot, he met Wiener and DeWitt in Long Beach on a gray June morning. DeWitt arrived in a “wacky vehicle” that looked like the massive cab of a 1950s garbage truck welded onto the rear of a school bus. They took photos of Johnston with a pristine Dewey Weber atop the beast.

That shot made it onto the album’s back cover, along with a LeRoy Grannis surfing image and a note that describes Johnston as a UCLA student who was “one of Southern California’s most expert surfers.” It also suggests taking the disc and a portable phonograph to your next beach party: “Let Bruce Johnston show you and your fellow Ho-Dads and Ho-Janes how great it is SURFIN’ ’ROUND THE WORLD!”

For the main shoot of the day—the image that wound up on the album’s front—DeWitt took them out on his boat to a buoy in Long Beach Harbor and had Johnston pose as Rodin’s The Thinker with the Weber behind him. “I was kind of disappointed,” says Johnston. “It didn’t look like anything from the surf world. It looked like ‘Hollywood goes surfing,’ with a guy who wasn’t even in the water enough to be tan.”

Scenes from Malibu post-Gidget, May 14, 1960.

Around this time, Wiener also shot TV show stills on Malibu beaches, including for Gidget with Sally Field, Gidget Grows Up starring Karen Valentine, and an episode of the variety show Malibu U featuring host Ricky Nelson and his guests, The Turtles. A surf session also takes place with The Mod Squad—which had the politically incorrect tagline of “One black, one white, one blonde.” 

But there’s no surfing in any of these. The boards are mere props, arm candy for the busty girls and the boys with six-packs, planks on the roofs of cool cars, sticks standing tall in the sand with the decks typically facing the sun—surfploitation at its worst, or best.

Aside from the Catalina paddleboard race and his Malibu shoot for Prompter, which the magazine apparently never ran, Wiener’s California surf-related photography wasn’t photojournalism, his strong suit. 

Yes, the surf-related entertainment-industry jobs today provide an amusing, if cringey, look at what Johnston’s album note called the “fast-growing outdoor pastime [that] has captured the imaginations and energies of young people all over the world, wherever the ocean’s surf is sufficiently high (about ten feet or more) to make for thrilling ride-ins.” But Johnston sitting on a buoy with a board says nothing about joy, solitude, style, wonder, grit, grace, power, and the mix of water, land, sun, and wind. 

Wiener’s Hawaii work, however, does all of that and then some.  

On assignment for Life, Wiener went to Oahu in 1962 to document what’s known as Starfish Prime, the federal government’s detonation of a thermonuclear warhead in outer space that took place about 900 miles from Hawaii. “Eerie Spectacle in Pacific Sky” read the cover of Life’s July 20, 1962, issue—the inside cover had a 7-Up ad with Ho-Dads, Ho-Janes, and what looks like a Velzy and Jacobs General Veneer balsa board—with eight pages inside dedicated to the “space bomb” story. 

Wiener photographed tourists on the beach at Waikiki watching the night sky. “The blue-black tropical night suddenly turned into a hot lime green,” wrote one of Life’s correspondents. “The green changed into a lemonade pink and finally, terribly blood red. It was as if someone had poured a bucket of blood on the sky.”

The only Wiener image that made the cut is a black-and-white of gobsmacked tourists in the sand with two hula dancers wearing leis. Looking through what were actually color slides from the shoot, Devik notices that the edit had cropped out a teenager wearing a T-shirt that said Surfer.

During the daylight hours, Wiener trained his lens on ladies wearing cool shades with stylish purses parked in the sand, outriggers catching the inside waves with surfers in the background, and the sublime beauty of a rack of multicolored rental boards framed by Diamond Head in the background.

(Top) A glimpse at both tradition and “progress” at Waikiki, framed with a master’s eye, from Wiener’s 1962 trip to Oahu. (Bottom) Peter Cole, on the red gun, shares a set wave at Waimea with an unknown, November 19, 1967. The 91-year-old still recalls the session, describing it as one of his most memorable from nearly four decades surfing the Bay. 

When he returned to Hawaii in the fall of 1967, Wiener shot a roll featuring young Hawaiian boys carrying heavy boards in pairs or dragging them through the sand to reach the water. In the images, the kids drip excitement and sport nimble stances in the water as they ride into the shore. 

During that same trip, Wiener also ventured to shoot big Waimea on November 19, 1967. I shared the images with Clyde Aikau, who tells me it’s one of the first days Eddie surfed the Bay. Wiener has the wrong lens for shooting waves that big from so far away, but the greater intensity and beauty come through, especially so in a poetic, distant shot of a lone guy paddling out with an unrideable left exploding on a rock at the Bay’s southern end. Peter Cole, upon looking at the images, finds himself in one of the shots and Jose Angel in a few others, and says it was one of the best Waimea sessions he ever had.

During additional visits in the early 70s, Wiener found more painterly subjects, like an overhead shot of a man and a woman paddling together over dimpled water, no waves or beach in sight. Another image from these later trips, in more candid fashion, shows Devik flipping off his father behind the lens.

On that summer’s day in 1974, when I took pictures with Wiener’s camera, he’d hired Devik, my brother, and me to clear brush from his yard. During a break, he took a photo of the three of us longhaired teenagers, and again Devik is flipping him the bird.

Leigh Wiener could have thrown down his camera each of these times and tongue-lashed his son, but he clearly enjoyed Devik giving him the finger. It’s a decisive moment, not of rage and hate, but of rapport, comedy, and intimacy.

 “A dollar box camera, a $500 German camera, an expensive motion-picture camera,” Wiener once said on his TV show. “All it can do is record. What it records is a function of us.”

The shooter, on assignment covering Malibu wildfires, 1956.