Stoner, Ron


Gifted but troubled 1960s surf photographer from Dana Point, California; best known for his well-composed, color-saturated images of Southern California, Mexico, and Hawaii. Stoner was born (1944) in Long Beach, California, raised in Pasadena, and began surfing at 14, just before he started taking photographs. He was a masthead photographer at Surfing Illustrated magazine in 1963 at age 17, jumped to Surf Guide magazine in mid-1964, then moved to Surfer a few months later.

Over the next six years, all spent working for Surfer, Stoner's life dramatically peaked and crashed. In mid-1965 he was awarded the magazine's powerful and expensive Century 1000-millimeter lens, along with a gas card, food allowance, and a $500 monthly retainer—an unheard-of pay level at the time for a surf photographer. Stoner's formal training consisted of just a few community college photography classes, but he had an infallible eye for color and action, worked hard, and immediately justified Surfer's investment. At one point in 1967–68, his photos were featured on six consecutive Surfer covers; many Stoner images—particularly those from a series of trips he made to the Hollister Ranch, near Santa Barbara—remain surf world icons. "The best moments of a surfer's life," next-generation photographer Art Brewer later said, "Stoner caught 'em. His view of surfing was so generous."

From early 1965 to mid-1967, Stoner worked with Surfer cartoonist Rick Griffin and editor Patrick McNulty to produce what came to be known as the "Griffin-Stoner adventures," a loopy fictitious series written by McNulty, with Stoner playing the wide-eyed innocent to Griffin's hustling surfer-beatnik.

Stoner did some of his finest work in 1968, after he'd become a regular LSD user. By the end of year, however, drugs had amplified his congenital insecurity and anxiety, and he had a mental breakdown—at one point dressing up as Jesus and dragging an enormous wooden cross through the streets of his Dana Point neighborhood. Stoner was 23 when his family committed him to a mental hospital in Santa Ana, California, where he was diagnosed as schizophrenic and given 18 electroshock therapy treatments, which left him docile and nearly mute, but functional.

Stoner continued to work, returning to Hawaii in late 1968, and shooting in California the following summer. Beginning in 1969, however, he went into a kind of self-exile, first in Maui, then in his Dana Point apartment; by early 1971 he was off the Surfer masthead, in 1978 he was listed as a missing person, and in 1994 he was declared dead.

Ellen Hawley, Stoner's younger sister, seemed to tacitly acknowledge that the never-married Stoner had lived most of his life in a kind of richly colored fantasy world. "He wanted to make people look beautiful," she told the Surfer's Journal magazine in 1997, "and he wanted to put them in beautiful places."

Photo/Stoner: The Rise, Fall, and Mysterious Disappearance of Surfing's Greatest Photographer was published by Chronicle Books in 2006. Stoner's work has also been used in dozens of other books on the sport, including Surfing: The Ultimate Pleasure (1984), Stoked: A History of Surf Culture (1997),  The Perfect Day (2001), and The History of Surfing (2010).