I first fell in love with the photographs of Ron Stoner through that iconic image of the balloons and surfer. Then there was the shot of the boards on roof, surfers checking waves, waves pumping. It was the juxtaposition of compositional elements that appealed to me: balloon + surfer = fun and childlike joy; boards on roof + awestruck surfers + pumping surf = adrenaline rush = sprint seaward = splash in the divinity of the ocean.
Stoner’s pics do a lot of this. Sometimes in a single frame, other times in a series of images that collectively get at the experience of surfing. He understood that wave riding is a holistic thing—it includes the drive to the beach, the banter in the parking lot, the post-session plate of pancakes with hot waitress and saltwater-drenched, after-glowing friend recounting hang tens and dances with curl.
Ron Stoner was hailed as the best surf photographer in the business in 1966. He shot six consecutive Surfer covers between 1967 and 1968. He also did a lot of LSD, which would lead to a mental breakdown—at one point he was seen dressed up as Jesus and dragging a large wooden cross through the streets of his Dana Point neighborhood. When he was 23 his parents checked him into a mental hospital, where he was diagnosed as schizophrenic and given 18 electroshock therapy treatments. He got out, continued to shoot for a couple of years, then slipped deep into himself. In 1978 he was listed as a missing person. In 1994 he was declared dead.
The myth of Ron Stoner looms large in surfing. His biography epitomizes the ecstasies and evils of the ‘60s. Says Encyclopedia of Surfing author Matt Warshaw, “My mind has drifted back to Stoner’s story more than any other person or event I’ve written about.” There are some who believe he’s still alive.
I’ve yet to plunge into Stoner’s life story mainly because I’m still swimming around in the body of work he left behind. It’s an enchanting one. It feels light, innocent, playful. It presents ‘60s surfing with an Edenic purity. In his lineup shots the water seems cleaner, more sparkling and effervescent than it does today. In his portraits and lifestyle images the surfers seem greener and less complicated. And then there’s that shot of the balloons and surfer—by placing those two elements together he posits surfing in the realm of carnivals and amusement parks. Hang ten for fifty yards and win a stuffed animal! Dance across wave, step off on shore, and maybe grab a whirl of cotton candy to lick while you cruise the beach and marvel at the earthly delights.
“I want to live with a cinnamon girl, I could be happy, the rest of my life, with a cinnamon girl,” sang Neil Young on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, released in 1969. Around this same time Ron Stoner was peering through the lens of his Century 1000-millimeter lens, picking off the images that will live in the surfing world forever.
Special thanks to Barry Haun at the Surfing Heritage & Culture Center and Grant Ellis at Surfer.