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Don James

Bel Air Bay Club Jetty, 1939.

In the late 1930s, Santa Monica teenager Don James roamed the California coastline with a band of friends and their 90-pound wooden surfboards. They slept in lifeguard huts and lived off of abalone scooped from the ocean, and avocados and oranges pilfered from nearby farms. They did it all in the name of surfing, which had recently landed in their home state.

James had seen Tom Blake’s surf photographs in National Geographic, and at the age of 16, he began taking his own with his dad’s Kodak Brownie—the first camera marketed and accessible to non-professionals. The black-and-white photos he made in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s show his friends riding waves in tandem and replenishing themselves after a long day in the water by catching lobsters, strumming on ukuleles, and lounging under palms.

He became one of the first to chronicle the culture developing around surfing as it spread south from Malibu to Santa Monica and San Onofre. By the 1960s, when the sport broke into the mainstream, James remained one of its most celebrated documentarians. Surfer Magazine tapped James and younger photographers like Ron Stoner to shoot the exploding California surf community. He updated his craft as the technology changed, too, eventually capturing teeming surf contests and crowded beaches in color.

Ralph Kiewit, Jack Quigg, Dick Reed and Roger Bohning, Malibu 1939.

During the post Gidget era his talents appeared in commercials and on posters, Don James has been described as "The Premier Photographer of Surfing".

Don's beloved best-seller book is finally back in print, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume: 1936-1942 , tells the story of the heady and innocent years of Santa Monica's nascent surf scene just prior to America's entry into World War II. Beautifully designed, this intimate, album-sized collection of photographs, printed in rich duotones and evocative color, captures the optimism and experimentation, the styles, the flirtatiousness and the freedoms taken--all from an insider's point of view. They were made by the young Don James, a teenager who documented the scene with his father's old Kodak folding camera when he wasn't up on a longboard himself. Out in the surf, down on the sand, aboard somebody's boat, dancing around a campfire, back-flipping off the lifeguard stand, collecting lobster, drinking at the bar and generally wearing as little as possible, here are the regulars of the southern California beach scene, un-self-conscious and perpetually glamorous, alongside loving portraits of the beach and the ocean themselves.

"It was a balmy Sunday and the news about the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor was coming in over the radio. We were paying $60 a month for rent, which was split three ways, and life was good. Suddenly everything had changed. We all knew we were going off to war." For the half-decade preceding World War II, photographer Don James and his cronies lived in the balmy Eden of the southern California coastline, surfing from San Onofre north to Point Dume. "Surfing is life all the rest is details," someone once philosophized. In Don James's six-year diary of life in paradise, surfing is indeed life, but the beauty is in the details. James's sun-drenched remembrance of a paradise lost introduces us to a cast of golden children that Bruce Weber might well envy, and leaves us with at least one mystery: What ever became of Jack Power? According to Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume , "One day he walked down the beach and was never seen nor heard of again." Where did Jack Power go? Into the sunset, no doubt. Where the details hide.
Imagine surfing a perfect blue wave on a 90-pound redwood longboard, off a deserted beach of sparkling white sand. Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume takes us back to the halcyon days of pre-war California, when the earliest American surfers were busy inventing beach culture. Meet these tussle-haired free spirits who camped on the deserted beaches of Southern California, had lobster bakes and luaus with local Hollywood girls, and surfed at a time when nobody knew what surfing was. The beautiful and nostalgic photographs that surfer Don James took of himself and his friends capture the lost Eden of the California surf dream in all its glory and innocence.


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