James, Dr. Don


Laconic and durable surf photographer from Los Angeles, California; the sport's most widely published lensman during the 1960s. James was born (1921) and raised in Santa Monica, California, and began surfing in 1935. Influenced by pioneering surf-photographers Doc Ball and Tom Blake, James started taking surf photographs the following year, mainly at Santa Monica Bay and San Onofre. James built a waterproof mahogany housing for his camera in 1938, and began shooting from the surf zone; he'd remove the camera from the box while he sat on his board, hit the shutter, then replaced the camera when a wave threatened to wash over him.

Photography would always be a moonlight job for James; he worked as a lifeguard while attending dental school at the University of Southern California in the mid-'40s, then set up an office in Beverly Hills where his patient list included Hollywood stars like Clark Gable and Cary Grant. Nevertheless, James took his camera to Hawaii each winter, and contributed to virtually all California surf publications in the early and mid-'60s. He photographed both Waimea Bay and Pipeline when the two famous Hawaiian breaks were ridden for the first time in 1957 and 1961, respectively, and in the early '60s he became the first to shoot Waimea from the water.

James, while self-taught, had a natural eye for composition and framing, and his later work was richly colorful; his photos were published in Life, Time, the Saturday Evening Post, and Sports Illustrated, and his 1963 shot of California surfer Rusty Miller bombing down a huge wave at Sunset was reproduced on billboards across the country as part of a Hamm's Beer campaign. James won the Still Photography category of the 1967 International Surfing Magazine Hall of Fame Awards. He reduced his surfing output in the late '60s, but published on occasion, and in 1984 he turned in his final Surfing magazine cover shot.

James's photography was given new life in the '90s, beginning with a 10-page Surfing magazine retrospective in 1990, followed in 1994 by the release of Surfing in the 1930s, a video made up of James's own decades-old movie footage of San Onofre, Malibu, and Palos Verdes. An elegant book of prewar Southern California surfing and beach images, 1936–1942: San Onofre to Point Dume, Photographs by Don James, was published in 1996; the following year James's work was featured in the New Yorker. A 1962 James portrait of the preadolescent Jeff Hakman was used on the cover of Mr. Sunset: The Jeff Hakman Story, published in 1997; New York's Danziger Gallery presented an exhibition of James's work in 1998. His photos have also been featured in more than a half-dozen illustrated surfing books, including Where the Surfers Are (1968), A Pictorial History of Surfing (1970), and SurfRiders (1997), and The History of Surfing (2010)

James was going blind from glaucoma in 1996 when he took his own life on Christmas Eve. He was 75. He'd been married twice and had three children.