DOC BALL LEGENDARY LENSMAN
The photograph has become the most significant element in the surf magazines of
today. Not only are the surf stories told by using surf photography, but the Industry
giants rely on the camera and shootist to provide alluring statements of light, color and
form to help in the marketing of their products. A most significant visual record has been
the by-product of the surf magazine. From the turn of the century and up until the
1930's, many photographers captured the exciting image of wave and rider. None,
however, dedicated the art of photography solely to surfing and its life-style until John
Heath "DOC" Ball, DDS. For a ten year period, 1931-41, Doc Ball made over 900
photographic exposures of the California surf scene. Historically, his collection is the
most complete record that exists today of this prewar period. Generally known as the
first surf photographer, Doc Ball sparked a fire that has spread world-wide. Considered
a troubadour of good will and innovation among his many acquaintances, Doc Ball has
an international following of pen pals and students of "life".
Doc was born January 25, 1907, in Los Angeles and raised in Redlands, California by
his mother Genevieve and father Archibald E. Ball, DDS. "Old California", unspoiled in
sight and smell, provided Doc with the basics of nature and he used them as a guide.
Active in family fellowship and school sports, Doc was, and is, healthy in both mind and
By the age of ten, Doc was introduced to the Pacific Ocean when the Ball family
vacationed at Hermosa Beach. His attraction to the sea started early. While he was
working as a junior lifeguard at the Redlands Municipal Pool, the great Duke
Kahanamoku visited as master of ceremonies at an inauguration. Like Tom Blake
before him, one chance encounter with the legendary waterman and his glorious aura of
deserved confidence and respect set the wheels in motion. Doc mentally took note that
the Duke and the sea were synonymous.
Following his father's profession, in 1929 Doc enrolled at the University of Southern
California Dental School. Doc says, "This is where I learned to put my hands in people's
mouths and not get bit". Choosing this route was the basis for the nickname of "Doc" by
his close friends. Dental school brought Doc into close proximity of the Los Angeles
area beaches and his interest in surfing began.
Encouraged by a Hawaiian schoolmate, Doc soon built his first plank style surf board.
Doc carved it out of a large slab of redwood with an adz. This adz was recently given to
Greg Noll by Doc, appointing Greg as keeper of the flame. Doc's first hand built
surfboard was white in color and decorated with copper studs which formed the outline
of a shield with the words "Na Alii" (The King) inside.
One of Doc's earliest surf related photographs (circa 1929) pictures his mother on a
surfboard at Palos Verdes Cove. Doc reminisces, " My mother was a beautiful chicken,
you have to admit it, a natural child psychologist. She raised us right".
The times were both innocent and exciting. When youth and freedom couple with
surfboard and the ocean, the future unfolds minute by minute into a green wall of rolling
energy. This experience was so cherished by the kings of the Hawaiian Islands that
many surf sessions were reserved for royalty.
The film industry was entering its prime and actors and actresses utilized the same
beaches as the new wave of California surfers. From Hollywood to the Los Angeles
beaches was a vortex of creativity. "Pete", OUR GANG'S (The Little Rascals) trusted
dog, roamed the Palos Verdes Cove; Dagwood Bumstead, Tarzan, Stan Laurel, and
Leo Carillo were but a few faces in the crowd amongst the writers, directors, and
general public of the Los Angeles basin who frequented the beaches.
Although Doc had been taking photographs since 1926, when his father's dental
assistant gave him a Kodak folding autographic camera, it was not until January 1931
that Doc dedicated his photographic skills to surf photography. On this date, a sepia
toned, full spread, rotogravure photograph of four surfers at Waikiki sliding straight for
the camera appeared in the L.A. Times newspaper. The photograph was taken by Tom
Blake, using his new waterproof camera housing. This image, titled "Riders of Sunset
Seas", astonished Doc and the public alike with its unique perspective of wave and rider
in deep water, at an angle seen by few.
Using his old Kodak Autographic camera. Doc started producing photographs of surfers
surfing, their boards, cars, girlfriends, parties, surfboard construction, living quarters,
club houses and just about all activities related to this new breed of Californian. Comedy
often played a part in the composition of Doc's photographs.
Through the years Doc tried many methods of surf photography. Holding the camera by
hand, by teeth, strapped to body parts and surfboard, and shooting off piers and rocks,
from airplanes and towers, automobiles and trees, from boats and rubber rafts and cliffs
and caves. Doc tried to expand both perspective and perception in the minds of his
viewers. The main objective was to keep the camera dry while making exposures close
enough to provide a large clear image on the negative. Salt water, dust, sand, and
bright sun light became intruders, always lurking close by and waiting for a chance to
foul the shot.
Although the main object of surf photography was to enlighten the viewer to the rewards
and pleasures of sliding on a rolling liquid mound of natural origins, two Doc Ball
photographs come to mind that demonstrate other facets of the life of a surfer. With
pools of blood as a backdrop, one such photograph reveals the innermost composition
of famed daredevil surfer Cliff Tucker's leg. With his leg filleted to the bone by the metal
fins that were once screwed to the rear of the enormous boards and resembled
medieval weapons, Cliff Tucker lies on a bench waiting to be transported to the hospital
where some forty stitches later he could once again use his leg to support his torso.
Tucker was noted for breaking boards in half along with assorted body parts. The Los
Angeles Times newspaper once declared in an article published the night before a San
Onofre contest that, "Cliff Tucker is the most daring surf rider on the California coast".
Another photograph, lighthearted on the surface but with overtones of impending doom,
shows a Palos Verdes Surfing Club member in a drunken stupor being helped to his
feet and taken to a waiting car. The reason for such overindulgent merriment was that
the young healthy surfer, in the prime of life, was to enter the armed forces the next day.
With WWII raging, everyone knew that his chances of ever surfing or seeing his friends
During the period of 1929-34, Doc became friends with just about every California surfer
from Corona Del Mar to Santa Monica. After many informal gatherings of paddlers,
swimmers, and surfers, Adie Bayer, accomplished waterman and one of California's
best hollow board surfers suggested to Doc that they should form a surfing club. In
1935, California's first official surfing club was created by the efforts of Adie Bayer and
Doc Ball. Eventually they decided on the name "PALOS VERDES SURFING CLUB",
named after their favorite surf break and all-around recreation area.
In 1933, Doc graduated from dental school and in 1934, opened up an office on South
Vermont Ave. in Los Angeles. He rented a second story, three room suite above a
movie theatre that then stood at that address. On a surviving photograph of the office
and theater beneath, the marquee clearly informs us that the movie "Algiers" was
showing, starring Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr. One room was dedicated to working
on his patients and one room served as his bedroom, office, darkroom, and laboratory.
Doc recalls, "In those days I didn't have enough money to rent another building to sleep
in. We made our own boards and swimming trunks, camera tripods, and copy stands.
We bought very little. It was good for you. After all that, you really knew how to get there
from here. It was a do-it-yourself age". In 1935, the third remaining room became the
official clubhouse of the Palos Verdes Surfing Club.
The interior of the club room was elaborately decorated with photographs of all
members with their boards, trophies won by club members, surfing paintings, a
president's desk with gavel, and a set of shark's jaws that housed the club creed which
reads as follows;
I as a member of the Palos Verdes Surfing Club, Do solemnly swear: To be ever
steadfast in my allegiance to the club and to Its members, To respect and adhere to the
aims and ideals set forth in its constitution, To cheerfully meet and accept my
responsibilities hereby incurred, and at all times strive to conduct myself as a club
member and a gentleman, So help me God.
Entrance into the PVSC club room was by invitation only for nonmembers. The club had
a sargent-at-arms and no smoking was allowed in the club room. The PVSC organized
paddling races, paddle board water polo, and surfing contests. Within a few years time
many other clubs sprung up around the L.A. area and as far away as Santa Cruz.
Doc's reputation as a surf photographer was well established by this time. In 1937 Doc
Ball perfected a light, watertight "shoots box" that housed a stripped down Graflex
camera. Now his photographs were clearer and closer than ever.
This box also allowed for the lensman to get close to large waves and their riders. The
water box had a large brass handle attached for the photographer to grasp when caught
inside the power zone on large sets. Although the Graflex camera, was big and bulky
compared to today's camera bodies used for surf photography, it used large format cut
sheet film which provided sharp enlargements. "I traded the chief of photography in the
Los Angeles fire department arson squad for one of my Graflex cameras. I made him a
three unit gold inlaid bridge", Doc distinctly recalls. From the folding style camera Doc
used in the early 1930's, he soon acquired assorted styles of large format Graflex
cameras. During WWII he was Issued a Speed Graphic camera while serving as official
ship's photographer in the Coast Guard. Doc Ball has since adopted the small
lightweight 35mm camera as his third eye.
Up and down the California coast, Doc's surf photos were in demand. When arriving at
distant surf breaks such as San Onofre, Doc often was besieged by the crowds,
demanding a look at the most recent prints that he had produced in his small darkroom.
Amused by the interest (which at times became a burden), Doc on one occasion
handed a group of young Nofre surfers his newest spiral bound photo book titled
BEACH STUFF and stepped back to record the image with his new Graflex camera.
The photograph that resulted still survives and clearly shows the enthusiasm of the
group. Piled head over head, shoulder to shoulder, everyone eagerly scanned the
pages looking for that special image that would portray them as masters of the rolling
comber. "Obviously these boys were interested in surf photography" smiles Doc. A
surfing book with photographic illustrations was inevitable. There was no way to satisfy
demand without one.
It would not be until 1946 that California Surfriders 1946, would finally be published in a
limited edition of 510. Original cost for the first edition was $7.25 a book. Doc kept a
complete and detailed list of who bought his book. This list still survives and provides an
astonishing array of Who's Who in the world of California surfing. Names only hardcore
surf historians would recognize such as Bob French and Jamison Handy to other more
familiar names like Preston Peterson and Peanuts Larson fill the pages. Now in its fifth
edition, this book has become popular worldwide and is often a starting point for the
novice surf historian.
The L.A. Times newspaper published many Doc Ball photographs. Doc became friends
with many of the Times photographers and the newspaper often relied on Doc's images
when huge storm surf or surfing contests made news at the beaches. His creative eye
caught the imagination of many. Eventually Doc's photographs would find their way into
Life Magazine, Look Magazine, Encyclopedia Britannica, news magazines and papers,
art galleries, national and international photography competitions, surf board brochures,
advertisements, documentaries, foreign publications, and National Geographic
Magazine. "During September 1944, I got a big surprise. While I was out on the South
Pacific someone said the new issue of National Geographic had my surfing
photographs in it. Sure enough, there they were", remembers Doc. Another
internationally published photograph of Doc's shows Jim Bailey and his dog Rusty
sliding on a small PV Cove swell. This image brought outcries from England that the
surfers were committing animal abuse. "The simple truth is that Rusty the dog would
darn near scratch the deck off of your board when he wanted to go out", a quick talking
Doc Ball replies.
In the late 1930's, Doc also shot a small amount of 16mm movie film which documented
the heyday of prewar California surfing. This footage contains an extraordinary sight:
surf photography from a bi-winged airplane. During the aerial photography shoot, Doc
turns the camera on the pilot. With his leather cap slapping in the wind, the pilot's eyes
grow wide from behind his goggles and a large grin appears on his startled face. Other
notable footage includes Martha Chapin, sister of pioneer surfer Guard Chapin, and
step-aunt to Mickey Dora. Martha stands in front of an enlarged map of Los Angeles
wearing an eye-catching swimsuit. Looking like a Hollywood film actress, she points out
the way from Hollywood to Palos Verdes Estates. This was a promotion device for the
new Palos Verdes Estates subdivision. It should be mentioned that on this rare footage
is recorded an astonishing look at what the surfer sees while sliding a comber. While
surfing on a wave with his hollow board, named "The Wonder Board" because of it’s
paddling and surfing qualities, Doc hand holds his 16mm camera while filming. On the
deck of the board, the Palos Verdes Surf Club logo is clearly visible along with Oscar
the surfing gopher snake. With water splashing off the rails and ocean whizzing by, the
club's pet snake lies on the nose of the board, head and upper third of body erect,
apparently enjoying the ride.
Life was grand around the California beaches even though the Great Depression had
drained the savings and expectations of many. For as little as $15-$25 one could build a
hollow board or plank style surf board, sew a pair of swim trunks out of canvas and feel
like a king at the beach. When the swell was small, Palos Verdes Cove provided food
as well as recreation for the surfers. A number of interesting photographs taken by Doc
demonstrate that a paddleboard could be used as an abalone diving platform. Green
abalone were abundant and the limit was twenty a day. Diving for abalone in
combination with fishing made for a pleasant existence. Driftwood still existed on the
Southern California beaches and a warm fire often was the centerpiece for the daily
Junk food was nearly nonexistent. Good diet 1n combination with the dally walk from
the house or car to the beach carrying a 75+ pound surfboard kept the surfers as buffed
as body builders. This fact is clearly illustrated in many single and group portraits taken
by Doc during this period,
Doc also created surf posters using his photographs. These quality posters used the
Images of surfers and waves to beckon all who viewed them. The majority of these
posters announced that the Palos Verdes Surfing Club was holding a Hula Luau.
Hawaiian music, food and drink, female companionship, and of course, the newest
surfing photographic Images to leave the darkroom were the rewards if one attended
the event. These posters, photographically printed, one by one, by Doc, and ranging in
size from wallet size (used to gain entrance to the event) to 8"x10" posters, have
become the rarest California surf posters for collectors to obtain.
Fine glossy photographically printed post cards that the Palos Verdes Drug Store
published also boasted Doc Ball surfing images. These post cards were sold inside the
drug store to help promote the new subdivision being built in the area. Auction shots of
surfers such as Hoppy Swarts or Tom Blake caught the eye of the customers as they
passed by the post card rack, demonstrating the pleasures of beach life. Now a rare
item, these cards are delightful to study.
When the United States declared war in December 1941, it broke the back of the
California surfer’s life-style. The California surf clubs disbanded and almost every able-
bodied man enlisted in the armed services. Many of the fascinating personalities of the
1930's would never be seen again. The war took some of the best men surfing had to
offer, leaving a trail of waste and broken dreams. If not for the persistent efforts of Doc
with his camera we may never have known what the life and times of the first wave of
California surfers was like.
After the war, families regrouped and tried to start life where it ended in 1941. Doc
rebuilt his dental practice, finished his surfing book and, with his wife Evelyn,
concentrated on raising their two sons.
In 1953, the Ball family moved from the Southern California area to uppermost Northern
California. This move provided him with a more peaceful environment in which to live
During December of 1964, a devastating flood savaged Northern California, destroying
Doc's negative and photographic print archives. The flood left little but memories of the
surf related photographs he had produced.
Because Doc was so prolific as a photographer, he gave hundreds of his photographs
away during the 1930's. The author has traveled the coast of California photocopying
the remaining images, helping the Ball family rebuild its historic archives.
Doc has spent the past 17 years sharing the Christian experience with others. He
regularly visits churches, community organizations, care homes, and schools, helping to
provide both young and old with a positive direction and a meaningful future.
To this day Doc Ball is still a dedicated beachcomber. Every morning at daybreak he
can be found at water's edge checking the tides and swells. Such activities also help
provide him with a supply of driftwood perches and body parts for his hobby of bird
Doc can be found with camera in hand, roaming the Northern California coastal range,
which provides exciting pristine vistas from mountaintop to sea. From easy access
beaches to secret surf breaks located in the wilderness, Doc's footprints are made fresh
There is always an exciting ending with each visit to the Ball residence. As you depart,
you get into your car and start to pull away from his house. A glance back at the front
porch reveals a smiling Doc giving you the "thumbs up" and yelling, "Hang in there".
Returning the gesture, you feel privileged he has given you his blessing to enjoy surfing,
and most of all, to keep the tradition alive.
Doc reassures the surfers of today that his 83 years of insight and energy is available to
those who seek it by generously autographing his California Surf riders 1946, book as
follows: "Yours till the surf quits rollin", Doc
Copy Attribution: Gary Lynch