Art Brewer SVA Show

Photographer/Artist Art Brewer is someone I’ve written about before, and someone I will surely write about again. I’m a big fan of cool people. I’m a big fan of good photography, and I’m a big fan of photographers who have poured their lives into creating an archive on one particular topic or subject. Art is all the above. Recently, I was able to stop by Art’s studio to check out a few of the images he is printing for a MASSIVE show at the School of Visual Arts in New York. This show will highlight over 150 individual pieces from Art’s collection on the history of modern surfing.

At 43 I finally feel like I found a subject I can work on the rest of my life. Starting now I’m way behind the game. Art has been covering modern surfing for over thirty-years and his archive is one of the greatest ever compiled. Years ago, when I worked for Kodak in Southern California, I realized there was an opportunity for me, and for the company, in working with the global collection of surfing photographers. Problem was I didn’t know a single surfing photographer. So, being a good corporate detective, I called around. “Talk to Art Brewer,” was the response I heard over and over again. Not only was Art open and receptive to learning what Kodak had to offer he also became my link to the entire surfing photography world.

What I love about Art’s archive is the range of work. Browsing the work you see every format imaginable from 35mm to 6×6, 6×7, 6×9, 4×5, point and shoot as well as an odd assortment of other formats and techniques. When you walk into Art’s studio you find yourself frozen and wanting to simply stand and look. Big prints and artwork adorn the walls, an incredible range of oil, ink and emulsion. And every time I go there is something new to feast my eyes upon.

And as you can see by the above images, Art is also a bookmaker. And like all things Brewer, Art publishes a range of books. From his Masters of Surf Photography monograph to his two-volume Blurb masterpiece on Bunker Spreckels you never know what he is going to come up with next. And if that’s not enough…he teaches as well, which you can see in the film below. I was going to write that Art is a great person for young photographers to study, but I’m going to amend that. Art is a good person for any photographer to study. There are certain people who are creatively restless. They are creative searchers, people who run the river of life and can’t wait to see what lives beyond the next bend. Art is one of those people.

Brewer + Bunker

Years ago I worked for Eastman Kodak. I started here in Southern California as a rep for the labs and photographers, then quickly made the jump to being the rep for only the photographers. This was done because one, I knew NOTHING about labs, but two, because obviously photographers were what I was most interested in.
My job required me to cull an enormous database, which I managed to hack down from 10,000 photographers to roughly 500. This 500 was the who’s who of the professional photography world from Los Angeles to San Diego.
For those of you unfamiliar with Southern California, there is this thing called the Pacific Ocean which lies just offshore from where the sand ends. This ocean has wind blowing across it which forms something called a wave. Man, women and children of all ages, race and religious beliefs standing on fiberglass platforms called “surfboards” are propelled along the wave face. This is an enjoyable pursuit. A multi-billion dollar industry has formed around this simple act. Okay, so now that we have the background out of the way, we can move along.
After I began my Kodak recon of the area I realized that there were many surf photographers located in the area as were many of the publications devoted to the surfing industry. The only problem for me was that literally 99.9% of the surfing photography industry was using Fuji Velvia film. In fact, there was a general rule for most surf photogs and that rule was, “if you are gonna submit to the mags, you gotta shoot Velvia.”
Now being the enlightened individual I was and still am, I knew that Velvia was a damn fine film. It was. And for certain situations, it was the best.
But, for OTHER situations, it was just not the right flavor. So, I began my quest to wedge my Kodak beliefs into the world of surf photography. Only problem was, nobody knew me.
Now I was looking pretty cool. I had a denim Kodak shirt, a black Pontiac Grand Prix corporate command vehicle and the ability to give free samples, but after a few months I realized I wasn’t really getting anywhere.
And then someone said something seemingly harmless in passing. “Get Brewer to test it.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Art Brewer, you know, basically the Godfather of surf photography, staffer for decades, famous photographer, cool guy, a foundation of the industry, and someone who lives about a mile from where you are standing.”
Plugging my forty pound laptop into the cig lighter in the Pontiac I scanned my all-important database. And there he was. I called. He answered. And in a blast of leaded gas exhaust I headed to my first meeting with Art Brewer, someone who would have an immediate impact on my corporate career, and more importantly my creative life.
Walking into Art’s studio was like coming home. There were people scattered about, tanned people tinkering with tables full of odd equipment. There was a Peter Beard print over the desk and it felt like ground zero for everything cool. I had zero street cred and my denim shirt suddenly looked frayed and aged. But Art didn’t care and made me feel right at home. I gave him my rundown of what Kodak had to offer, how it was different from what he had, and how I best thought he would utilize the Kodak offerings. And to his credit Art went out and tested the film.
Before long he was using it, and not only using it but telling others he was doing so. Suddenly the magazines, some of them, and other photographers were calling and asking about Kodak(Yes, we actually used the phone).
Art taught me a lot about surf photography, the industry, where to be, who to show, etc. But more importantly, I got to know him a little and also got to know the range of his work, which is truly, truly impressive. Sometimes when you mention someone is a “surf photographer” you can see the stigma being attached, but in Art’s case it simply does not apply.
Cruising through Art’s world was looking at history, a rich history of the entire world of surfing. Yes there were peak action images, but more importantly there were the bones of a culture that was exploding on the world. The people, the tradition, the travel, the portraits and even the commercial and advertising aspects. I would say he was behind the scenes, but actually he WAS the scene, or at least a part of it. I don’t know many people like Art, but in my mind he is a national treasure. The days of creating archives like his are long gone. Today we are impressed with the right now, the temporary, the trendy, but Art’s work goes well beyond that.
And, when you mention his name in the field, there is nothing but respect.

Over the years his name has turned up in a range of odd little places. One such place was the living room of LA artist Michael Napper. Napper has been a Brewer fan for decades and when Art’s name came up Napper looked at me and said, “Oh have you seen his Bunker Spreckels work?” “Who?” I asked. “Bunker.” “You gotta see it.”
Now this little encounter happened years ago, and since that time I’ve learned myself on Art’s work regarding Anthony Bernard Spreckels III, a legendary figure in a culture of legendary figures.
So a few days ago when I received an email from Art with a link to a two volume series on Spreckels, I knew a post was in order. This work resonates with me for some many reasons, but I’ll narrow this to just one. Relationship.
This is so overlooked in our world today, but without it we are left with only superficial imagery. Take a look at this work and just know it came from the basis of a relationship.
My advice is to get your hands on a copy of these books. Sooner as opposed to later. I know I will. For anyone wanting to pursue photography, or documentary photography, I think you can learn a lot from a book like this, and I don’t mean about technique. There is so much more about being a photographer that you can pluck from these pages.
And just know, as you and I dabble in our daily pursuits, Art is out there adding to his archive.

The links below will take you to the online previews.

Volume 1 –

The Visual Ride of…
By Art Brewer

The Visual Ride of…
By Art Brewer