Sunset Blvd, 1976
Southwest Africa, 1975
North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii 1975
(Left) Bunker (Right) Art
Art Brewer is a legend. A true artisan and master of the lens. Perhaps the Godfather of cool. He had already been around the block a few times, before you even learned how to crawl down it. If he isn't shooting beach goddesses, your hero, going on a surf safari, he's probably going to the places you've only dreamed of (twice). We got the opportunity to catch up with him in between all of this to talk about his past, Bunker, and surf industry bunks.
Abstractfilth: Where did you start shaping yourself as the Art Brewer we know today?
Art Brewer: Ah I don’t know man… I think it started out with my mom. We lived in Laguna, didn’t have that much money, but she would drop me off at the beach everyday on her way to work in the summer time. So I’d go down to Oak, Agate or Thalia St. growing up with the lifeguards who were my babysitters, kept me in line and gave me a focus. There were all sorts of characters, good ones and some bad ones, but you know my mom kept me real, and gave me a proper perspective.
From there you went to Surfer, and out of Surfer there were guys like Rick Griffin, Salisbury, to John Van Hamersveld and yourself who made the jump from the mag to pop culture. Why do you think that is?
I just think that there is more than just surfing. [laughs] There is just so much more in life. I was just so lucky that I was interested in the arts, before photography. That’s just why photography was so natural, because I was interested in painting, jewelry, sculpting and pottery. Fucking you name it. Making shoes, or leather goods… working with my hands. So I liked to do it all but master of none of them in a sense. Photography gave me a little different perspective on things and it just kind of fit.
When did you start going over to the North Shore?
1969 was the first year I went to Hawaii. I was hired right out of high school with Surfer. At first I was just taking weeds out of the hills in Laguna for fire protection for the city. Slave labor to go to art school, I had a couple scholarships but nothing to pay for the full ticket, cutting brush and putting it in the back of dump trucks. Severson called me up out of the blue, I was interested in talking with him, and so I just went down there. Stoner was having a bit of a meltdown because he had taken too much LSD. So they asked me if I would be interested in being the assistant to Stoner… and I was like, “Shit, yeah.” A week later I was hired by them, they offered 400 bucks a month and a gas credit card. I went: “I’m in there…” 18 years old and that was a lot of money back then, and it blew my mom’s mind. They had all the gear that I could use too. I was there a week and a half and Stoner just left the planet. Next thing I know they told me I was going to be Senior Photographer all of the sudden. When that happened, the pay increased occurred at the same time. Another 100 bucks a month. Then they told me they wanted me to go to Hawaii for 3 months. They paid for the car, the gas and even gave me a food allowance of 125 bucks a month. Bought a lot of rice and papayas.
Everyone and their brother has a camera in their hand these days, how would you describe the complexity that went into your profession back then to now?
Back then it was all a mystery you know, you didn’t plug and play. Today, you can always circle yourself back in with Photoshop, or reprocess stuff. I think it used to have more of a magic to it, because you had all these unknowns, and you’d have to wait a couple days. It had a little bit of voodoo magic because it didn’t pop out the back of the camera. There were also all the things that could go wrong between getting to the camera store, to Kodak and getting it back to you. That was the reality of it. If you lose a roll, people talk about it today, when you think your shooting but there’s nothing in there. You thought you were loaded but you weren’t, then it turns out you were loaded. [laughs]
Being an artist, do you find any component that has helped expand your creativity?
Um… I just think you know its other people, and everyone just pushing on the box. I think everyone tries inspiring each other. I think you know, that I’m inspired by guys in the past and what they have done. There were the ones who first showed me how it was done, and it was time to do things a little different. You don’t want to be following everyone all the time. You want to be the guy who wants to make something different. To show surfing differently than how everyone else does. There’s all these other components, and there’s so much blue porn going on right now, that it doesn’t get out of the box that much anymore. Surf photography was created to show photos you know. People out surfing, shared their photos with each other on a good day, what they performed or at that new spot. That’s where this whole industry came from. I think the people and the media don’t really look back it like that. I think they have a foreshortened vision of what surfing is about or the industry of where it came from.
Roots are lost?
Oh it’s going quick for sure, these companies that claim to be so deeply seeded… you can surprise me.
With [Takuji] Masuda working on your flick, Bunker 77, how do you think the masses will respond?
Well the documentary is interesting, but I think it’s more of a teaching thing. Here’s this guy who everyone thought was just this kook, he was more than just a kook, he was a fucking great surfer. But it can show you how someone can just go from the basics, and soul of things to you know to the hyper overload of what money and drugs can buy you. It basically can take you off the map. The whole thing I learned about Bunker, I was 24 when I started travelling with him, and I had never really travelled. Just some local stuff, Mexico, California, Hawaii and stuff like that. But I had never travelled, and here is this guy who’s calling me up, and asked me what I was doing the coming summer. I said I was thinking about going to Puerto Escondido, just to get off the rock, and not be on the North Shore. He then asked if I wanted to go to Jeffreys Bay, I was like, “Oh yeah sure…” calling bullshit sorta. Next thing I know a few months later he calls me up and goes, “You got your passport, come to town.” So I go to town, and he says, “We’re going to the Pan Am offices.” I was like, “What for?” He answered, “We’re going to South Africa.” No shit. We go into Pan Am, and he buys 3 first class tickets around the world, first London, South Africa, Paris and back home. I was going “Fuck… first class.” But I was in a sense in pay for free work for him you know. And I didn’t have any dough, so I was at his mercy so if anything went south I had to make sure that I had myself covered. In the end, I had a contract that basically said if I quit I had to pay my way back, but if I was fired then I had 100% first class coverage. But there were a few times I wanted out of there so bad, that I was willing to sacrifice it just to bail. I learned what to do and what not to do while travelling, how to make sure you can get out of a tight situation.
Your book dives into the trenches of your experiences with him. From going nuts to surfing, what moment do you think was the most hectic?
Oh there were so many on that trip. I mean we were in Jeffreys Bay for 51 days, and we even went up on safari. There were a couple critical times, when he pulled a knife on a guy at a banquet who challenged him. Also people who thought I was him at the time he pulled a gun and shot at me in Jeffreys Bay. So there were a couple incidents you know. You know his birthday party where he totaled two Mercedes and I being 24 years old being like, “Woah dude!”
When he passed away in 77 do you remember your last encounter with him?
The last encounter was up in LA up at the Sunset Towers, where he had an apartment up there. Actually I heard from him two days before, Stecyk and I were working on a piece for him for Rolling Stone, and Stecyk was working on the interviews. Bunker called him and when he came back and basically in the middle of the night threatened us, telling us he was gonna have us killed… because the thing wasn’t happening quick enough, but we sort of blew it off. Two days later we get a call, telling us he passed.
What was your response?
At first we thought it was bullshit… it was one of the Bunker games or a Bunker joke, because he’s known for pulling weird shit. Then we got calls from other people who confirmed it… it was the real deal. When they brought the body back, and had the funeral… it was gnarly. He could be your friend, then he could be your enemy, he was a trip. I didn’t like the guy you know that would buy a beer for anyone just to get him to entertain him, or the druggy side of him. Though there moments where he could be the coolest nicest guy. He was quite articulate and talented person in his own right.
Yeah it was fast and quick. I met him when he was 19 years old at the Pipeline, on a full moon. I think it was December, and I was walking on the beach. He was thinking about going surfing, and he goes, “Hey, would you take some pictures of me.” Then I went, “Sure,” and introduced myself. I heard of him, and that’s when I took the first photographs of him on the cover of the Masters book. Then I didn’t see him till 73’, and boy he changed totally morphed into the big boy version.
It seemed he couldn’t handle what he was given.
Well to a point, you know when he got into the heroin that didn’t do any good at all.
Is that how he went out?
Oh I bet money on it. I heard different stories, I don’t know what the official autopsy is sealed or not. I knew he was using heroin from different people that I know. I knew that he was trying to get it back together, just going through the Cedar Sinai detox program and last report I was told that he was on 714 Quaaludes. He was drinking vodka or scotch. That he was staying at Charlies Sneed’s house at Rocky Point, sort of coke dealer scammer, and his wife was a flight attendant. Then they left him in the living room and they found him the next morning. Like Jimmy Hendrix or Janis Joplin… at 27 years old.
Weird connection 27 years old…
I don’t know, weird cosmic connection. Some written deal somewhere.
Since you have deep roots down south, how do you think the southern Orange County culture correlates with beach culture?
Uh, I think Laguna was an artist community and then south of there was a lead off. San Clemente was a military type town to a lot of people. While in Dana Point, you could get cheap housing, if you were young and surfed. Like Phil Edwards and those guys had places down there, like the first industry for surfboards and stuff came. I think that’s where a lot of the created stuff came. A lot of artists had little studios and enclaves down here, who weren’t in Laguna. There was so much going on in Laguna and San Clemente. Also you had Velzy and San Onofre where people were coming out of LA, South Bay or inland who were a whole different type of people. They weren’t straight and uptight, the people who knew the ocean, though they had to work inland, but they were always here on the weekends man.
It seemed like you guys had a huge melting pot from the Laguna Brotherhood to Leary.
So a lot of my early teachers were tied into early surfing growing up. They were all surfers, from 4th grade on. All my teachers surfed or grew up in this area. They were smart enough where they bought plots of land inland when it was cheap and they were growing oranges and shit like that.
Going forward, with your book Beach Culture still being relevant today, how do you think its influence is on modern surf publications?
Oh I think it was a part of the edge. There was another magazine called Wet that came out of LA that Salisbury was a part of. Beach Culture stemmed from that, but Wet was more of that Venice vibe. While Beach Culture jumped on the artist vibe but tied it in with the surf and the skate stuff. It opened people’s eyes and showed them that there was more than that tunnel vision of pure surf. It showed that there’s guys out there who aren’t pro surfers that are artists, musicians but they surf and they’re good surfers. You know I think some surfers are a little blinded in some sense, not the older ones but there was that period of time in the 70’s and 80’s where guys were a little clueless. You have to check out Super X, it was something that came a little later in 96’ after Beach Culture had died and all of that it Takuji Masuda, Craig Stecyk, Paul Haven, Glen Friedman and myself were involved in that. Each issue came out four times a year, in multi languages, one would be spiral bound, one would be saddle stitched or perfect bound in different types of papers. We did a lot of innovative stuff with it. It’s definitely worth a look. Super X is what all these guys are doing now, it was like Monster Children, except our art format would change quarter to quarter.
Thank you Art, you’re a legend…
My pleasure, stay out of trouble… be good.