The other night Art Brewer, the canonical 61-year-old surf photographer was schooling me on predatory marine life and some of the other dangers that a surf photographer faces in the water.
He said, "There was this one day, a long time ago in southern Australia -- I was out at this reef that breaks about a half mile out in the ocean with [surfing legends] Wayne Lynch and Nat Young. Wayne and Nat had just taken some LSD and the first thing they said to me was, 'Don't look into the water.' "
Lynch and Young had their surfboards, of course, but Brewer was out there with just a pair of swim fins and a camera.
"It was really spooky that day," said Brewer. "And within about 20 minutes of us getting in, this snapper boat pulls up just outside of us and starts chumming the water. To this day Wayne swears he saw one of the men in the grey suits" -- great whites -- "circling around. It was touchy stuff."
Brewer seems to have a unending supply of hair-raising stories. About a thick, wide closeout at DY Point in Australia, he says, "I dive down to the bottom and try to hang on, grabbing for reef and grass and seaweed, anything I could. I get taken and tumbled along the bottom. I don't know which way is up; don't know which direction I'm traveling in. I get held down for two-and-a-half waves and come up about 100 yards from where I went underwater."
About a near-death experience at Hollow Tree in Indonesia: "I was out with [surf photographer] Ted Grambeau and [surfer and musician] Jack Johnson. This one set wave appears on the horizon and we look at each other and we just know we're in trouble. The wave breaks about 15 feet in front of us. The lip hit the water like a hatchet. Jack had has swim fins ripped off by the force of the wave and Ted busted an ear drum."
Brewer, of course, is super casual about all of it. He has been around so long that he's seen everything. He was raised in Laguna Beach, California, took up surfing at the age of 12 and photography at the age of 16 and scored his first Surfer magazine cover shoot just a year later, in 1968.
According to the "Encyclopedia of Surfing," Brewer was the magazine's dominant photorapher shooting, six out of nine of the magazine's covers during one stretch in 1970 and early 1971. Even if surf photography isn't your thing, you've probably still seen some of Brewer's iconic portraits and action shots: Kelly Slater killing some deep dish and a strawberry daiquiri; Herbie Fletcher in an impossible stretch five at Freight Trains; Barry Kanaiaupuni straight-legging a bottom turn at Sunset. Photos so rich, evocative and technically perfect that they've been described as "portals to a vastly improved universe."
On June 8, the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan will open that portal up to the public with a two-week long exhibition of 158 of Brewer's action shots, portraits, and landscape photographers taken between 1960 and the present. The exhibition, "Art Brewer: Surf Evolution," will include a number of never-before-exhibited works.
"The depth, diversity and volume of work are mind-blowing," said Malcolm Lightner, director of operations, BFA Photography at the School of Visual Arts. "Art [Brewer] photographs rare and momentous events in nature, around the globe, that only a handful of elite can access and bear witness to. His images are timeless moments of perfection and somehow make you believe there must be a divine plan. I believe Art has accomplished in print and in life that which would be impossible to repeat today."
Brewer's work, though, also constitutes a fairly comprehensive history of modern surfing.
"Surf photography," Brewer says, "Is a little like fishing. You're always looking for that shot that's better than the last one you took. Most of my work isn't of contest surfing, but of pleasure trips -- out with the boys, looking for waves, out on a specific mission. We were obsessed with finding with perfect waves -- finding adventure, discovering new spots, avoiding the crowds. I was there for the adventure."
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