Freezing the Moment with Doc Ball

Doc Ball, right. Photo: Tom Blake
Doc Ball
California Surfriders, 1946
California Surfriders

In late 1946, John “Doc” Ball, the amiable round-faced founder of the Palos Verdes Surf Club, published California Surfriders, one of the sport’s first books. Just back from his wartime posting as a Coast Guard dentist, Ball threw himself into this friendly vanity project, producing 510 copies of the faux-leather-bound book, which Ball sold himself, mostly to his surf buddies up and down the coast, charging a stiff $7.25 for each slender 118-page volume.

At the time, Ball and Tom Blake were the sport’s two top photographers—in a field that consisted of just three or four other photo-hobbyists. While Ball shot the occasional beach-scene candid or portrait, his signature work was done from the water at Palos Verdes Cove. Ball would place his blocky Graflex D Series camera inside an elaborate hinged and clasped rubbed-sealed pinewood housing of his own design, carefully balance the box on the deck of his board, and then paddle through a channel adjacent to the break and wait. When a surfer approached, Ball lifted the box up by its brass side-handle, flipped open a small round wooden portal covering the lens, took the shot, and quickly snapped the portal closed before a rogue drop of water could splash into the camera.

In 1944, National Geographic published “Surf-Boarders Capture California,” an eight-page portfolio of Ball’s work, and because the sport was at that point deep into its wartime state of suspended animation, the photos all looked snappy and new. California Surfriders, on the other hand, published just two years later, had a distinct air of nostalgia from the moment it came off the presses. Nearly all of the 150 images were taken before the war, for one thing. Also, Ball’s photo captions were often recollective, even wistful, as he described the “good old days” at the Cove with the tenor of an old-timer, and harkened back to, among other events, the 1940 Pacific Coast Surf Riding Championships and the big Thanksgiving Day swell of 1937.

But it was more than that. Within a year after V-J Day, surfing had already entered one of its great periods of change, and the nation as a whole—glad to be distancing itself from war and the Depression—now had its gaze excitedly pointed to the future. California Surfriders not only asked readers to look back, it depicted a sport that in many respects no longer existed. Surf clubs, matching team jackets, the Pacific Coast Championships, jetty surf at Corona del Mar, headstands, hollow boards, diaper-like woolen surf trunks, Long Beach Flood Control—by 1947, when California surfers first got a look at Ball’s book—all gone, or nearly so.

Ball produced California Surfriders himself, and sold them mostly to his surf buddies up and down the coast, charging a stiff $7.25 per copy.