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Ball, John "Doc"


Prototype surf photographer and surf club organizer from Los Angeles, California; founder of the Palos Verdes Surf Club in 1935; author of the seminal 1946-published California Surfriders. While Ball and Wisconsin-born Tom Blake are both credited as the forebears of surf photography, it was Ball who had the greater influence on the next generation of photographers, including fellow California surf world icons Leroy Grannis and Don James. "The quality of his shots was superb," James later said of Ball's work. "I always wanted to try and get photos as good as Doc's, and I never quite made it."

Ball was born (1907) in Los Angeles, raised in the nearby agricultural suburb of Redlands, and began surfing in 1929, just after enrolling in dental school at the University of Southern California. Three years earlier he'd begun shooting photos with a Kodak Autographic folding camera; in 1931, after seeing a Blake surf photo published in the Los Angeles Times, the stocky, round-faced Ball began studiously framing and shooting the nascent Southern California surf culture. Over the next 10 years he took about 900 black-and-white exposures showing all aspects of the sport: surfers riding waves, watching the ocean from a nearby cliff or pier, relaxing in the sand, making surfboards, or loading boards into a trailer. Ball purchased a Graflex camera in 1937, constructed a pine-box waterproof housing, and began taking photos from the water.

Ball's images appeared in LifeLookPopular Mechanics, and a half-dozen other nationally distributed magazines, as well as the Los Angeles Times. National Geographic published "Surf-Boarders Capture California," an eight-page Ball portfolio, in September 1944. Meanwhile, weekly meetings for the Palos Verdes Surf Club—the second organization of its kind in America, established two years after Ball graduated from dental school—were held at Ball's apartment/dentist office in south Los Angeles; members often adjourned to the nearby Zamboanga Club, a popular L.A. nightspot, where a four-foot by five-foot Ball surfing print was hung on the wall. Ball himself neither drank nor smoked, and was one of surfing's first health food advocates.

Ball served as a Coast Guard dentist during World War II, then returned home and fell into a restless kind of depression now associated with PTSD. He threw himself into his old surfing life and put together a book of his photos, titled California Surfriders. Along with more than 150 photographs, it featured dozens of fervid Ball-written captions: "These giant storm peaks broke in monstrous wedges," he wrote about a 1938 photo of Hermosa Beach, "spilling tons of brine into a grinding, churning 'soup,' [and] an experienced surfer trapped in a series of these behemoths can have a serious time of it." Just over 500 first-edition copies of California Surfriders were printed in 1946. Ball was unhappy, however, with the reproduction quality. 

Virtually all photo negatives used for Surfriders, along with hundreds of other negatives and prints, were damaged or destroyed when Ball's house was flooded in 1964. Later editions of Ball's book were made using reproductions shot from the original; first-edition copies of California Surfriders, as of the early 2000s, were being sold by collectors for as much as $2,500.

Ball, along with his wife and two children, moved from Los Angeles to the Northern California town of Garberville in 1952; the move was at least partly a response to Ball's ongoing difficulty adjusting to postwar life. He became devoutly religious. Normal Ball, Doc's son, later recalled of his father during this period: "He wasn’t an easy guy to talk to about anything but his spiritual interests and surfing." Ball and his wife eventually moved further north, to Eureka, where Ball continued to surf on occasion at nearby Shelter Cove. He also picked up skateboarding, and well into his 80s he could be seen weaving down a gentle slope near his house, an open grin on his face. 

Ball died of heart failure in late 2001 at age 94. In 1991, he was inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame; in 1998 he was inducted to the Surfing Walk of Fame. Ball's work has appeared in dozens of illustrated surfing books, including Surf 's Up! An Anthology of Surfing (1966), A Pictorial History of Surfing (1970), Surfing: The Ultimate Pleasure (1984), Maverick's: The Story of Big-Wave Surfing (2000), and The History of Surfing (2010).