LeRoy ‘Granny’ Grannis


Written by Flora King
09 Monday 09th August 2010

In 1930s America, with an economy in wretched decline and drought ravaging the heartland, a young boy from Hermosa Beach California decided to fashion a bellyboard out of a piece of wood and teach himself how to surf. This boy was LeRoy Grannis, who, decades later, would become one of the surfing industry’s best loved figures and perhaps the most important photographer and documentarian of surf culture ever to look through a lens. 

LeRoy ‘Granny’ Grannis grew up beside the ocean, and had felt drawn to it from the moment he was able to swim. When his father gave him his first proper 6” x 2” pine surfboard for his fourteenth birthday, it was a gift that ignited his interest in the water and fueled a passion for surfing that would last a lifetime. It wasn’t until 1959 however – when Grannis was a middle-aged family man working for a telecoms company, with careers behind him as a carpenter, junkyard de-tinner and WW2 Air Force pilot – that he became a photographer. Diagnosed with an ulcer due to the stress of his day job, and on advice from his Doctor to get outside more and take up a hobby, Grannis converted his garage into a darkroom, bought an East German 35mm camera, a 400mm Meyer lens, and began to create the sensational images he’s famed for today.
During the 60s his work started to appear in all of the prominent surf magazines, and a ‘photo by Grannis’ inscription soon became the hallmark of the Californian surf scene, and a household phrase across the surf world. In ‘64 the photographer developed a rubber-lined box that enabled him to change film in the lineup, while other rivals were still forced to return to land to re-load. This was a free-spirited era for surfers, when the sport was still in its adolescence, and Grannis’ pictures from the early years depict woody wagons cruising along the Pacific Highway, cobalt blue waters, languid rides on longboards and blissfully empty beach breaks.
Later in the decade, with the emergence of surf wear, surf slang and surf-inspired music like The Ventures, The Surfaris and The Beach Boys, the media began to take an interest in the culture, and surfing was soon propelled into the mainstream. Grannis’ consistent and iconic cover images from this period, decorating shop shelves from Eureka to Long Beach, were hugely attributable for this rise to prominence.
The later 60s and early 70s saw the introduction of celebrity-endorsed sponsorships and high-profile, global competitions, and Grannis travelled throughout California and Hawaii shooting the world’s best surfers riding the world’s biggest waves. The ‘Big Swell’ of ’69 brought some of the biggest surf in recorded history, marking the transition from the longboard to the shortboard era, and ‘Granny’ was on hand to capture it all. During these years he became photo editor at Surfing Illustrated magazine, co-founded International Surfing magazine, and was elected to the International Surfing Hall of Fame as number one lensman.
More recently, Grannis was the subject of The Surfers Journal's first ode to master photographers in 1998, and was awarded the SIMA lifetime of achievement award in 2002. His work also featured largely in Stacy Peralta's 2004 critically acclaimed documentary of the sport, Riding Giants.
In the early 1970s, frustrated by the increasing competition to capture that perfect angle, LeRoy Grannis began to turn his attentions from professional surf photography to photographing hang gliding and windsurfing. He remained in California and, despite having four children with his wife Katie, and later six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, still found the time to surf for pleasure. Considering the vast amount of work Grannis produced during the 60s and early 70s however, it is no wonder he remains such a respected and celebrated figure in the surfing world, regarded by many as the true godfather of surfphotography.
This August Taschen are publishing LeRoy Grannis: Surf Photography of the 1960s and 1970s, a beautiful hardcover retrospectivebook chronicling this golden era of surfing and presenting a huge collection of images from the photographer’s personal archives; from perfect barrels at San Onofre to dramatic wipeouts at Oahu's famed North Shore.
LeRoy ‘Granny’ Grannis turns 93 this Thursday.

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