I’ve got a bit of a thing for surf photography. It’s so majestic. I don’t think any other sport photography can capture such a sense of motion, grace and style. In California in the early sixties, the golden age of surfing, there were only a handful of people shooting surfers such as Leroy Grannis and Doc Ball. These guys were the old school, doubtlessly very talented but they all had other jobs and took pictures on the side for the love of it. Ron Stoner was one of the first to make a living solely out of taking pictures of surfers.
Getting a brake as a staff photographer at Surf Guide in 1964, a time when the surf mags were really starting to take off, Stoner began to make a name for himself. After several disagreements with the management over money, he left to work for Surfer Magazine just before it’s massive dominance in the 60s began.
Surfer was set up by John Severson, who in fact, pretty much invented the genre of the surf magazine after making a booklet, called The Surfer to go along with a surf film, Surf Fever that he made in 1960. Severson was initially unimpressed with Stoner and didn’t hire him, but Stoner persisted and eventually Severson buckled.
Severson, years later commented that Ron didn’t deliver much to start with, but then ‘all of a sudden he started taking these beautiful, beautiful photos’. On $500 a month, a gas money allowance and as much film as he wanted, Stoner had made it and was becoming something of a minor celebrity. Surfers would call him in the evening to see where he was going to shoot the next morning. He had the lion’s share of the Surfer cover shots and was producing great work. He had started hanging around with the trailblazers of the scene – all the coolest kids.
In 1966/7 LSD had started to become quite widely used and Stoner started dabbling with it. But where other friends and surfers would take a quarter tab Ron would take 3 hits or even more. As his LSD usage increased his mental state deteriorated. He began quoting the bible almost fanatically and would frequently zone out for hours not speaking, just staring at the wall. He was still producing great work, in fact during this period he had ever cover of Surfer for an entire year, but he was definitely losing it.
In the spring of 1968 Stoner went for a meeting with Severson at Surfer and could not communicate aside from quoting the bible. Severson, increasingly worried about his young staff photographer decided to get him help. He drove him to a local hospital when Ron was diagnosed as a schizophrenic. He was 23. Ron was a full house candidate displaying every symptom; anxiety, internal voices, sudden rage, delusions, hallucinations and paranoia. Padded cells, straight jackets and electro-shock treatment followed which unsurprisingly changed Stoner forever.
When he was released he had changed. Before his ‘treatment’, surfing and surf photography was his life, now it was just something he did as a job. He carried on working for a while but some part of his soul was missing. He drifted back and forth between Hawaii and California in the coming decade, submitting the odd photograph but sadly no work really came his way. He was filed as a missing person in 1977 and in 1996 he was declared dead, although no body has ever been found.
It’s a sad end to Ron Stoners life and meteoric rise to fame. By the late sixties professional surfing had changed forever. Short boards had taken over the sport and advertising and the corporate dollar were controlling most of the scene. Much of the magic and beauty had gone.
The handful of surf photographers in the sixties all had their own style and speciality. Ron Stoner was the king of colour and brought a warmth and beauty to the art where it had been lacking. Thankfully he lives on through his work and in the minds of people that see his shots and are motivated to go surfing.
The book Photo /Stoner is out now.