At age 23, Granny got a job as a laborer at Standard Oil in El Segundo and worked his way up to boilermaker. In his free time, he continued to surf until World War II blew the entire California
surfing scene apart.
“We were down at the beach on December 7 of 1941
,” Granny vividly remembers much in the same way a later generation surfer might remember where he or she was when we first landed on the moon or terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “A whole bunch of us down there, right next to Hermosa Pier. I don’t what we were doing; playing volleyball or something. All of a sudden – somebody had a radio – and we heard over the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and we all looked at each other and we knew that nothing would ever be the same. Eventually, just about all of us ended up in one branch [of the armed forces] or another.”
In 1943, while his brother Don patrolled Malibu
as a Marine, Granny joined the Army Air Force and trained to be a pilot. Toward the end of the war, he became a flight instructor. After the war, he toyed with becoming a commercial pilot, but opted to go back to Standard Oil. He then went to work for Pacific Bell
Telephone, where he worked in management for 31 years before retiring in 1977.
Meanwhile, Granny and Katie had a family on their hands, which meant that surfing and hanging out at the beach became less of a priority than raising four kids.
“Immediately,” after World War II
was won, “my first week back [September 1945], I went to Malibu
. We were walking along the beach and looked out and saw probably around 12 guys out. I turned to the guy [I was with and said], ‘Jeez, the place is ruined.’
“Before the war, you’d call somebody before you went to Malibu
because you didn’t want to surf alone… What we considered to be a crowd, back then, would be a beautiful day, today.”
“Our old club members got together,” after the war, Granny said. “We all got together again. We all got married and we all had to have jobs. About once a month, we’d get together and have a poker party or something like that. A lot of the guys joined the San Onofre Surf Club [in the 1950s] and that became our common meeting point after that, for most of us – in the summertime, anyway.”
Even though he now surfed the South Bay
and San Onofre only on occasion and was, in essence, on sabbatical from surfing, LeRoy remained well known amongst SoCal surfers. As late as 1948, most all Southern California surfers still knew or knew of each other and surfboards were still pretty much of the redwood & balsa variety.
A case in point of how Granny was remembered by others even after the war was Greg Noll
. In his autobiography Da Bull
, Noll recalled, "When I first started surfing… there was Matt Kivlin and Joe Quigg riding redwoods at Malibu
. Doc Ball
and the guys at the Palos Verdes Surfboard Club. Velzy
, Leroy Grannis, Ted Kerwin, the Edgar brothers at Hermosa and Manhattan. Lorrin Harrison
, Burrhead and the guys at San Onofre. A few guys down in La Jolla. The entire surfing population consisted of maybe a couple hundred guys, most of them riding redwood boards, paddleboards and balsa/redwoods."
Another example of LeRoy’s status and regard is how he was looked at by waterman Mike Doyle
in the mid-1950s. Doyle wrote in his autobiography, Morning Glass
"One of the older surfers down at Manhattan
Pier told me about a book called California Surfriders
by Doc Ball. It focused on surfing in the 1930s and '40s… I took Doc Ball's book home and studied each picture for an hour at a time, scrutinizing each grain in the black-and-white photos, the way the water flowed over the board, the way the wave was breaking -- every detail -- until I could feel what it was like trimming across a wall of water. I studied each of the surfers' styles, their hand movements, the way their feet were placed on the boards, and I came to understand that each surfer in that era ‑ Hoppy Swarts, LeRoy Grannis, Pete Peterson
-- had his own individual style.
"I saw that the surfers in the book had a wonderful camaraderie that I didn't have in my own life. They were healthy and joyful, and they enjoyed being with each other. I could see a community spirit there that I wanted to be a part of.”
“Once I got the kids’ teeth straightened,” Granny declared, “and got that burden off my back, I was able to quit working weekends as a carpenter and start putting in more time in the water, again.”
Granny’s return from his surfing “sabbatical” took place at the beginning of the foam board era. His foray into surf photography developed soon afterward, beginning in 1960. Doc Ball tells the story of the continuity between what he was doing in the 1930s and ‘40s and what Granny later did in the 1960s:
“My surf photography began in 1935,” Doc Ball told Brad Barrett for the foreward to Granny’s modern pictorial coffee table classic Photo: Grannis
, “when I beheld the Los Angeles Times
Sunday paper. Their Rotogravure Section was filled with enlargements of photos by Tom Blake
called ‘Riders of the Sunset Seas,’ surf pix taken at Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Territory of Hawai‘i. It got me started photographing surfing in California
. Some time after, my surfing buddy, LeRoy Grannis got stoked on surf pix, and began taking surf photos. He took over when I slowed down, and went big time! He is now international and increasing in surf photo production, like a TNT blast. We are still in contact and, I gotta say, he’s a blessing to me, like no other surf photog.”
At age 42, LeRoy took up surf photography as a hobby in 1960, at the suggestion of his doctor. He’d developed an ulcer due to stress at his day job. His doctor figured a hobby would get Granny’s mind off the tension at work.
“I thought,” Granny told me, “well, Doc’s gone [up north and retired] and I don’t know too many guys taking pictures of surfers, so I decided to jump into it. I built a third garage and made half of it into a darkroom and started shooting the kids at 22nd Street and Hermosa; sold ‘em 8 by 10’s for a buck a piece to get a little money back.”
So, Granny took his doctor up on his suggestion, also buying a 35mm camera and a 400mm lens to get the job done.
“I actually started in late ’59,” LeRoy clarified, “but I didn’t have any decent equipment. In the spring of 1960
I decided to build a darkroom and get some better equipment. I bought an East German 35mm camera and a 400mm Meyer lens (I had been using a 50mm lens). The lens was all right, it did the job, but it had a flaw that left dark spots at the bottom of the images. I was primarily shooting black-and-white and selling 8x10s to the kids at 22nd
Street for a buck a piece to pay for supplies, and then I just went on from there.”
It was in June of 1960 that Granny added another garage to his Hermosa Beach home and built the darkroom inside it. His first shots were taken at 22nd
Street, in Hermosa Beach
, but it wasn’t until July that he had anything really notable. That second month of his shooting, he caught a decent day at Sequit (aka Arroyo Secos -- Secos, for short -- or Leo Carrillo) and again on July 12th
. That day, he got some a good shot of Dewey Weber
on the nose and one of skier Ed Schuyler powering through some whitewater. These two photographs, along with a half dozen others from both Sequit and 22nd
Street were published in the September 1960 issue of Reef Magazine
“They bought six or eight of them,” LeRoy remembered, “and paid me five bucks a piece. I was in hog heaven.” Stated another way, Granny told me, “About that time, this little Reef magazine started. I sold them some pictures for five bucks a piece and thought I was in hog heaven. Then, a little later, Surfer got started.”
Although short-lived as a publication, Reef Magazine was the second surf magazine to come on line, after The Surfer.
His first year shooting, Granny pumped out 2,500 frames of black-and-white.
Of the surf photographers at that time, Granny listed: “Don James, John Severson, Ron Church, Ron Stoner, the Brown’s [Bud Browne
and Bruce Brown]. There weren’t too many of us and there weren’t too many places to peddle our wares, either... The ‘60s were fun cuz there weren’t that many of us in it [surf photography]… We were sort of a fraternity.
In 1961, John Severson’s The Surfer
went from an annual to a quarterly and then, a year and a half later, to a bi-monthly. Granny’s photographs started showing up in Hal Jacobs ads, then in the “Photos from the Readers” and “Toes on the Nose” sections. By 1962, there were South Bay
articles and other spots complete with photographs from LeRoy Grannis.
“Walt Phillips came up to me in ’62 and wanted to start a magazine,” Granny said, “which we did, called Surfing Illustrated. We got out a couple of issues, but we weren’t too well organized and I was working full time [with the telephone company]. So, money got to be a problem… So, Walt sold it or did something with it and then went to work for the people who bought it.”
Working with Panatomic-X, a very slow, fine grain, low contrast film that he pushed up to the speed of Plus-X (which most surf photographers used for surfing photography), Granny’s pictures were not only published in The Surfer and Reef, but also Surfing Illustrated, Surf Guide and other early-to-middle 1960s surf mags.
In developing his film, LeRoy developed Panatomic-X pushed with Acufine developer and double weight Agfa paper.
At about this time, Granny and Hoppy were also working with kids in the Boy Scouts program. One of their favorite things to do was lead Explorer Scout troops on surfari to Malibu
In 1961, Granny went to the Islands for the first time.
“In ’61, I started going to Hawaii
every winter cuz my wife’s sister lives over there. So, I combined the visits with surf photography. I went to Hawaii
every December from ’61 to ’66.” In attempting to shoot Sunset, he first shot from a surfboard, hand-holding a Pentax with a 200mm Takumar lens wrapped in a plastic bag. “When a sneaker set broke in the channel,” wrote Brad Barrett, “he almost lost the rig and decided maybe the plastic bag idea wasn’t such a good one.”
In 1964, LeRoy built a 9”x9”x12” wooden box with suction cups on the corners and a waterproof cover. Mounting this on his surfboard, Granny shot from the water and was able to change rolls of film without having to return to the beach. He shot Sunset, Waimea Bay
and Makaha this way.
Granny also came back home to Hermosa Beach, California winter surf and the first United States Invitational at Oceanside Pier. The Oceanside
contest was a rarity: good surf with offshore winds. Standouts included Mark Martinson and Corky Carroll battling for first slot in the junior men’s division.
During this time, Granny was jumping around between surf mags. At the beginning of 1964
, he was still on the roster at Surfer
, but by summer he’d joined Petersen’s Surfing Magazine
. The July issue of that mag declared that “Photos by Grannis’ has become a household phrase all over the surfing world.” Even so, Petersen’s Surfing Magazine
bit the dust a couple of issues later. LeRoy was not left high and dry. By late that year, he’d teamed up with Dick Graham, who he’d worked with at Petersen’s Surfing Magazine
. They created its successor in International Surfing
Also, before the year was out, Surfing Illustrated
printed some Granny photos from its inaugural issue of 1962
. Surf Guide
also ran some Grannis photos of Mickey Dora
, LeRoy Grannis was holding down three jobs: Pacific Bell
executive, magazine editor, and surf photographer. International Surfing
had quickly become the second most popular surfing magazine, behind Surfer
. Surf Guide
was in decline and Surfing Illustrated
was barely making it.
Most of Granny’s photos from this period were shots taken at surfing contests:
February – Oceanside
September – Malibu
December – 1st Annual Duke Kahanamoku Invitational
December – 13th Annual Makaha International Surfing Championships
LeRoy would follow this pattern of shooting primarily contest shots for the remainder of the decade.
Even with all his was doing, Granny continued to manage his 4th
“job,” as organizer of the WSA. “I was a cofounder of the Western Surfing Association in the late ‘50s. Hoppy Swarts had seen the Makaha contest and wanted to start something on the mainland, so we did…”
Granny’s only rival, at this point, was Ron Stoner, the sole staff photographer at Surfer. The two of them were seen at all the surf contests and were publishing similar photographs in competing surf magazines. Stoner shot color. Granny usually shot black and white.
It is curious to note that the June 1965
edition of International Surfing
contained a half page article, with photographs, of a “New French Gadget.” It was the first surf leash, invented by a Frenchman named Durcudoy. Editor Dick Graham wrote, “Personally I’d rather take a swim than have my leg snapped off. If anyone feels like testing this trick, be sure and stay in small surf (under one foot), and never try more than one spinner.” His dismissal of the leash, obviously, lacked the requisite vision.
, Granny’s production numbers dropped, probably because of the many hats he was wearing at the time. International Surfing
held its own version of the Surfer Poll. At the First Annual International Surfing Hall of Fame, LeRoy was voted number one surf photographer, with Dr. Don James coming in second, and Ron Stoner third.
At the beginning of 1967, Granny went back to the Islands to shoot. December 1966’s Duke had been cancelled due to poor surf at Makaha. It was rescheduled for February 1967. Granny was there, as well as the end of the year Duke Kahanamoku Invitational, held at Sunset Beach.
Granny shot less film in 1968 than in previous years. International Surfing was sold and his duties as editor increased. “Between traveling from Hermosa Beach to the IS offices in Reseda,” wrote Brad Barrett in Photo: Grannis, published in 1998, “and continuing his evening shift at the phone company on Vermont Avenue there wasn’t much coastal time left in the day.”
In the June 1968 issue of International Surfing, the first issue under new ownership, LeRoy wrote his most controversial editorial. It was a reaction to the anti-competition feelings that were growing at that time. Granny condemned the “rash of sick articles knocking competition by surfing has-beens… and frustrated would-be editors.” He argued that “without competition, the desire to excel would not be evident.”
“Well,” he responded when I asked him about the editorial approximately 30 years after it was printed, “being involved in competition – not only as a competitor, but helping help Swarts putting on contests – I thought it was helping the sport. That was before it became professional. This was strictly amateur. I enjoyed getting together with my fellow surfers of my age group to compete because they came from up and down the coast and that was the only chance I had to get together and surf with them. So, I got a little upset with some of the attitudes that just thought that competition was NOT the way to go.
“Now that they’ve got professional competition, I’m with ‘em,” LeRoy adds, laughing. “Oh, I guess professional competition is OK. It certainly made the magazines go that direction 100%. You very seldom see anything other than about competitive surfers anymore; at least in Surfer