Arruza Light

During a still-Holocene era of surf photography, the work of Cuba-born, Florida-bred photographer Tony Arruza provided a distinctive point of view.

Light / Dark

Torquay. 1980. After a several-month stay in Australia, mostly shooting around Victoria and Melbourne, Tony Arruza put a handful of rolls of film in the hands of Aaron Chang and Jeff Hornbaker, fellow Surfing magazine contributing photographers. Arruza, confident he’d made the best of his time abroad, hoped his work would end up on the San Clemente, California, light table of Larry “Flame” Moore and eventually be included in Surfing’s upcoming feature on the country.

The images didn’t make it by deadline. “Flame said I would have had the cover shot after he finally saw the photos,” Arruza says without a shred of malice in his voice.

The story serves as a window into a distinctive era of surf photography—a still somewhat Holocene period of the craft in which cross words, the occasional scrap, even sabotage were not uncommon occurrences among the day’s shooters, who were fighting over both their places in the pecking order and a finite number of pages in the two major American surf magazines of the day. 

Chang chalked up the alleged disappearance of Arruza’s photos to the unreliability of the era’s ad hoc dissemination system, calling it “business as usual.” “We were couriering film often through surfers,” he says, laughing as he struggled to recall any memory of the episode. “It’s amazing that photos ever got back to California. A lot of stuff got lost in those days.” 

Peter McCabe, Padang Padang, Bali, Indonesia, 1980.
Marvin Foster, paddling out at Pipeline, 1981.

The top tier of the era’s photographers, including Arruza’s would-be couriers Hornbaker and Chang, became household names. All of the best images taken during that period were sent to the desks of Flame at Surfing and/or Jeff Divine at Surfer, whose spots on the Mount Rushmore of surf shooters had long ago been decided.

Judging by quantity of earned spreads during that same span, Arruza was a peer among a group of seemingly peerless photographers. An elite swimmer and deft sniper from the water, he had an unimpeachably artistic eye. Starting with his first-ever submission to Surfing—a roll of backlit, silhouetted, and undeniably amorous water shots from Puerto Rico—he provided a steady diet of Caribbean goodness to the magazine. Later, images from his “have camera, will travel” period opened viewers’ eyes to both the potential of unheralded locales and a world beyond the waves. 

“The same way you say ‘Jeff Divine’ and images flash into my head, you could say ‘Tony Arruza’ and I can see his distinct work,” says Dave Gilovich, whose tenure at the Surfing editorial desk overlapped with Arruza’s most productive surf-shooting years. “It was a moody, almost romantic view of surfing. I’d say it was fine art before any of us understood what fine art was.” 

Humble and naturally curious, Arruza stuck to the periphery, more inclined to seek out a singular perspective than hassle with the masses. 

“He’s a very bright guy and he has a really easygoing personality,” says Chang of how Arruza fit in—or didn’t. “In those days, we were in 100 percent surf mode, competing for scraps. He was a little too smart to get sucked into the whole competitive arena. He found other avenues. That attitude, to me, was really refreshing—like, ‘How can you be so cool?’” 

A natural talent who kept his aperture wide open, by the mid-’80s Arruza had found there was a demand for his unique perspective in non-surf publications. But he remained a key contributor to Surfing for the next two decades, his dispatches from the Caribbean and especially from his home base of West Palm Beach, Florida, playing an instrumental role in the unveiling of East Coast quality that, to a largely California-centric surf media, was something of a revelation.  

“I would have hoped that more people would be familiar with Tony’s work or at least his name,” Gilovich says. “During a particular period of time he was the Aaron Chang, the Jeff Hornbaker, the Don King of his zone.”

“There it is, Mar-a-Lago,” Arruza says. I’m riding shotgun in his truck as he conducts a tour of West Palm Beach, a vividly tropical hamlet 70 miles north of Miami and directly east of the tear duct of Lake Okeechobee, the eyeball to Florida’s zoomorphic head.

Arruza is, of course, pointing out the gaudy golf club that’s lately become infamous as a destination for right-wing soldatos looking to kiss the ring of their neo-populist don. The club is within spitting distance of Arruza’s house, just on the other side of Lake Worth Lagoon, an extension of the brackish Intracoastal Waterway, which, as it cuts in and out of the Atlantic Ocean, renders many East Coast towns islands onto themselves. 

Shaun Abrams, Reef Road, Florida, Christmas Day, 1989. Shaun was the king of the peak back then. When a set came, everyone knew he was going.
Peru, 1978. The car belonged to Peruvian surfer Carlos Mujica. We got stuck near a village and all these kids came out to help. I was shooting on film, so I was being pretty particular, but this scene was just too good—especially the dog lounging out front.

The Intracoastal has long been a dividing line between old-money and no-money residents of many coastal Florida cities. In this part of the Sunshine State, it also divides West Palm Beach from Palm Beach. But lately, the influx of private equity into the housing market has had the effect of homogenization. That is, everywhere you look, it’s just money. 

“Palm Beach has always been a place where the rules don’t apply to the rich,” Arruza says, remarking on the lack of public access to area beaches. “Now this place is a haven for all the Wall Street firms. People buying houses sight unseen. You can’t get to the beach without fear of being arrested for trespassing on a multimillion [dollar] property.” 

Well before it was sniffed out by the conservative pundit class, South Florida was Arruza’s focus and he became one of a handful of photographers largely responsible for exposing its potential to the surf world at large. Along with Larry Pope’s chronicling of the high-performance scene at Sebastian Inlet, Arruza’s photographs from Palm Beach put a largely naive surf media on notice: Florida gets big.  

Christmas Day, 1989. A storm lit up Reef Road, a pass of barrier-bank reef on the south side of Palm Beach Inlet, producing 12- to 15-foot faces. One of Arruza’s images from that day—shot from the water looking straight out, the wave face meeting the nearly identically hued sky at the top third of the image as local standout Shaun Abrams, already to his feet, steels himself for a hellman entry—is disorienting. Abrams’ wetsuit is certainly a smoke bomb for the discerning eye. The water color, the wave’s trajectory, its size, scream more Fiji than Florida. 

“For many years, our understanding of the East Coast was that there was Hatteras, Sebastian Inlet, and the rest was a bunch of shitty beachbreaks and then rocky breaks that were too cold to surf,” says Matt Warshaw, who was editing Surfer as the work of Arruza and others brought the San Clemente editorial set up to speed. “The other thing was sometimes they would run a photo of, like, Montauk, and it was just some local guy with a shitty camera. Tony, being a real pro, would be out there on good days, getting Flame-level quality. It looked new, but it was just finally done on a professional level.”

As Arruza and I cross the lagoon, the Atlantic Ocean—in arguably its bluest, most tropical hue—comes into view from the apex of the Bingham Island Bridge. 

“We’re just 2 miles off the Gulf Stream,” Arruza says of Palm Beach’s unique tint. Even Miami Beach, world famous for the clarity of its water, can’t hold a candle to this stretch of coast. “That’s what keeps me here,” he says. “It’s the warmest and bluest water you’ll find anywhere in the States.”

Unidentified, Padang Padang, 1980. You can see I was in a fairly dicey position. I framed up this picture and then got steamrolled. The camera was torn from my wrist. My fins were ripped off my feet. Worth the effort, I guess. 
Uluwatu, Bali, 1980. The Balinese surfer who’s in the litter had injured his hip, and everybody who was in the water got out to help. They had to carry him up the cave. No steps. No roads into town. A mile walk.

We turn north on the Atlantic-adjacent Ocean Boulevard and he points out the one public beach (free two-hour parking!), where he swims most mornings. Now 68, his house paid off and worth literally 10 times what he bought it for, Arruza’s annoyingly fit for his (or any) age. “I’ve been retired since the internet retired me,” he says. “At first it was fine, but as it progressed, all the post-production that you could do with a lousy shot, it just changed the value of photography. The value of what I could offer went down. I just got tired of competing with all that.”

Though his photography career started in the water, Arruza did pretty well for himself outside of the surf. In 1985, after pictures he’d taken in Barbados appeared in Surfing, he dropped a copy of the issue off at the country’s tourism office in New York City. Weeks later, he was contacted by Hans Hofer, the publisher of Insight Guides, a popular series of travel books, and asked to take the photos for an upcoming guide to Barbados. 

For the next decade, Arruza found a niche in travel photography, taking on monthslong assignments not just for Insight, but for the
majority of the industry’s print publications of the day: Travel + Leisure, National Geographic Traveler, et cetera. He spent months biking, hiking, and kayaking through remote areas of the Bible Belt for a Smithsonian guidebook focused on the American Southeast. He did commercial work, too: Olympic athletes for Powerade, sailboats and tropical bric-a-brac for Procter & Gamble, among other jobs.

By the time the digital age began, Arruza had built a portfolio of such breadth and depth—high-quality portraiture, landscape photography, photojournalism, et al., from nearly every continent, much of which was captured while shooting for Surfing—that stock-image purveyors were champing at the bit to take a peek. Eventually, he let a few. As it turned out, he was sitting on a gold mine. 

Arruza has called West Palm Beach home off and on since 1960, when his family fled Cuba after the 26th of July Movement seized control of the country. His father, a chemical engineer, worked in agriculture in Belle Glade, but made a point to keep his family near the ocean. The family had a boat, and before Arruza got the surf bug, there was spearfishing and snorkeling. 

Surfing was still a countercultural activity in Palm Beach in the late ’60s and early ’70s. But young surfers like Arruza had a handful of core locals to look up to, including East Coast champion Maury McCoy, surfer-shaper Ted James, and Puerto Rico’s Jorge Machuca, who, as part of James’ Fox Surfboards team, made frequent visits to South Florida. “Jorge is, to date, one of the best surfers I’ve ever seen,” Arruza says. 

Arruza found equal inspiration in The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. While armed with a rudimentary Nikonos amphibious camera, Arruza shot his first photographs while swimming around the reefs of South Florida. 

Lima, Peru surf caballero, 1981.
Magazine vendor, Lima, Peru, 1978. Something I’ve noticed around the world is that when you walk into the middle of an old city, like Lima, the wealthy people live outside of it. It’s the poorer people who live and work in the city center, selling stuff to the rich when they come in to do business.

In 1973, he enrolled in the marine biology program at the University of Puerto Rico’s Mayagüez campus, located on the central coast on the island’s west side. “I wanted to be close to the ocean so I could surf, and the University of Puerto Rico was the cheapest option for my father,” Arruza says. “Plus, I speak Spanish, so it made sense.” 

On the weekends, he’d drive to the town of Arecibo on the island’s north-central coast to surf. One of Arruza’s roommates, a fellow diver, helped him craft a crude water housing out of plexiglass. He’d surf and shoot pictures of the locals. When he came home between semesters, he invited his friends over for a slideshow—the quintessential ’70s humblebrag. 

“They were like, ‘These are really cool, man. You gotta send these to a magazine,’” he remembers. “I’d never thought of that before.”

Interim Surfer photo editor Warren Bolster rejected the images. But Flame, over at Surfing, bit. The magazine ran two photos: a water shot of an azure, unridden growler and a melancholic beachscape with the shapes of a board-carrying surfer and medium-size dog etched out of the yellowing sky. It was the start of a nearly three-decade relationship between photographer and photo editor. 

Early on, Arruza provided dispatches from far and wide. A feature on Peru, which opened with a two-page full-bleed spread of Machu Picchu, broadened the scope of Arruza’s work. A fortuitously timed trip to Bali with Peter McCabe resulted in a 12-page-plus article of Arruza snaps, mostly of a code-red swell at Padang Padang. From Bali, he went to the Philippines with Steve Jones, where, though they were largely skunked, the duo became arguably the first surfers to lay eyes on Cloud 9.  

“We really didn’t often know where Tony would be,” says Gilovich, “or where he’d show up. You wouldn’t hear from him for a while and then you’d get a package in the mail and it was like, ‘Wow, check this batch.’” 

“I’ve always just been really curious about new places,” Arruza says
of his wanderlust streak. “You know when you’re in a place and you see an alley that goes this way—like, a dark alley? I wanna check out what’s in that alley.” 

In 1982, Surfing was invited on a media tour of South Africa. Gilovich sent Arruza to join a group of journalists from such reputable publications as the New York Times and the Washington Post. (No one I talked to could quite remember how or why Surfing was included on the list of invitees.)

Chappy Jennings, Pipeline, 1981. Chappy was a small-statured guy. He had balls, though. I’d met him in Bali the year before. I wasn’t surprised to see him ripping at Pipeline. This was my first time in Hawaii. Surfing used a lot of the photos I took that winter. I stayed with Eddie Rothman. He got me set up really well.

After a week of touring the country’s game parks, Arruza cut out on his own. He spent 10 days with the Xhosa people in the Eastern Cape. He hitchhiked into a Black neighborhood of Cape Town, a dangerous—and illegal—proposition in apartheid South Africa. Over the course of three months, he blazed his own trail through the country, and even did some pioneering in the water. While shooting with Mike Larmont, Martin Potter, and Shaun Tomson, he captured some of the earliest flash-assisted surf shots on record.

Says Gilovich, “There are certain photographers whose limits of creativity ended when they got out of the ocean. Great water photographers are often like mechanics or athletes: really great at one specialized skill. Tony wasn’t that. He had a wide range in his work. And he was unafraid to take risks.”

During a nearly 30-year period, if Arruza shot surf, he shot for Surfing. He was, by all accounts, a member of a small circle of Flame favorites.

In some ways, it was an odd pairing. Like many of the photographers of that era, and especially as an editor, Flame was known to have sharp elbows. Arruza was even-tempered, nonconfrontational.

There was also a clash of styles. Flame could be a strict disciplinarian, demanding his freelancers perfect the art of “Larry light”: illuminated subject, popping color, high saturation. Arruza’s work was, especially early on, often backlit, his subjects (or surfers) often rendered detail-less silhouettes.

“For me as an editor, it was nice to have Tony’s work to run because it rounded out what we could present in an issue,” says Gilovich. “Okay, we got Martin Potter frontlit at Backdoor. Check. Great. Now, turn the page [and] here’s a completely different vibe captured in a totally different setting.” 

No doubt, Arruza’s work was a product of his environment. “The best time to shoot in Puerto Rico is in the morning, before the trades come in,” he explains. “You’re often facing toward the north coast, and the waves are mostly rights, so you’re shooting backlit waves and backlit surfers.” 

Arruza says Flame never criticized his work—only encouraged him. And when Arruza started traveling to shoot places beyond the Caribbean, Flame would put him up during layovers in California. 

“He could be a tough cookie,” Arruza says. “But he gave me my break. And I stayed true to him.”

Arruza likewise stayed true to Surfing even as he earned more opportunities outside of the world of surf media. “If there was a big swell, I’d say, ‘Hey, Larry, this thing is going to hit Puerto Rico big time.’ He’d say, ‘Okay, Tony, get on a plane and go.’ They really didn’t have anybody else, so the Caribbean—Puerto Rico, Tortola, Barbados—became my thing.”

As we reach the north end of Ocean Boulevard, the jetty on the south side of the Palm Beach Inlet comes into view, signaling our arrival at the hallowed Reef Road. We pull into the circular driveway of a house across from the beach that belongs to David Reese, first-generation Palm Beach surfer and East Coast Surfing Hall of Famer. Parking here is a special privilege, one granted to a select few from the now-three generations of Palm Beach surfers. 

As we park, I ask Arruza why his name is not as well known as some of his contemporaries. While digging into his work, I had made it a point to talk to folks from the old guard of surf media: Warshaw, Chang, Gilovich. When I offered their perspective to Arruza, that there was a naivete about and pervasive bias against the East Coast in those days, Arruza brushed it off.

“It was really competitive back then and I didn’t like being in the water with a lot of other photographers. Coming from where I came from, and really being self-taught, I never really felt like I could compete with guys like Jeff Divine or Art Brewer. I didn’t feel like my pictures had the same quality.”

We walk over dunes to the back side of Reese’s beachfront cabana, stopping to say hi to Reef Road MVP of the Winter ’89, Abrams, who was passing by. Palm Beach surfer Scott McCoy, who had parked behind us at Reese’s house, joins our surf check. 

Dino Andino, Tres Palmas, Puerto Rico, 1988. 

It’s blown out, showing few signs of Reef Road’s redeeming qualities. Talk turns to the old days. The cabana, McCoy and Arruza explain, has long been a kind of de facto clubhouse. Post-surf beers and spliffs. Barbecues. Glory days. As the memories come pouring out, McCoy begins scrolling through his phone, looking for a particular picture—quintessential crew from an epic day of surf, or something. Arruza’s listening patiently. My mind turns to Arruza’s place in the historical record. 

Like the subjects of some of his best work, Arruza’s name is a silhouette among the more full-color images we have of his contemporaries. Savvy consumers of surf imagery—those studied in the idiosyncrasies of contrapposto, hand jives—could likely ID the surfer. No doubt a similarly savvy viewer should recognize an Arruza image. 

After McCoy enthusiastically announces that he’s found the picture, Arruza and I hover over McCoy’s early generation smartphone. The image resolution is low. But we can discern the composition’s quality. Unlike many of the posed group shots that decorate the interior walls of the cabana, this one is candid. It’s moody, with a sense of drama. The boys, staring east, are heavily shadowed, on account of the image being backlit. 

Arruza lets out a hearty laugh. “That’s my picture, motherfucker!”