Habitat-Art Brewer 4-4

Habitat: Art Brewer
Finding Art in suburban California.
By Joel Patterson

Art Brewer’s studio isn’t what you might expect.

Grant Brittain and I arrive there promptly at nine o’clock on a perfectly cloudless Thursday morning in early February, and we look at each other with puzzled expressions. I ask Grant, “Is this really his studio?”
We are parked in front of a blue-gray, two-story house with white trim on a quiet street that was unmistakably part of the suburban sprawl that trails almost unbroken from downtown L.A. to Camp Pendleton 50 miles south-a 3,000-square-mile grid of track homes, strip malls, condominium complexes, Volvo dealerships, and any other landmarks stereotypical of suburbia. Grant takes a second look at the map he’s printed from an online search engine and reads the directions out loud. They are correct. We’re here. “This is it,” Grant shrugs.
It’s not that Art’s studio is the picture of conformist southern Orange County, it’s just not what I’d imagined. For some reason, I don’t associate inspired creativity with stucco, SUVs, and beautifully manicured front lawns. Art’s street seems infinitely more like the perfect place to walk your dog than the headquarters of one of surfing’s great artists.
At the front door we’re greeted by a sign telling us the studio is around the back. We find a gate next to the garage, where another sign assures us we are on the right track. “Studio Entrance,” it reads. Inside the backyard, the house suddenly looks substantially taller than it had from the front, as if it’s grown from two stories to three.
Ten seconds into searching for another sign to tell us what our next move should be, a door opens, and a surfer in his early twenties wearing a beanie, T-shirt, cords, and sandals greets us. This is J.P., Art’s main assistant (he has three, but only J.P. is full-time), he’s friendly and casual, and he invites us to follow him.
Through the door you can either walk straight into what looks like a comfortable, middle-class home, or take the stairs on the left, which lead to Art’s second-floor work area. The stairwell is lined with photographs. Some are gifts from friends; others are creative projects of Art’s, including some work he’d done with a stereo camera. There are some circa-1920s panoramic photographs of Dana Point, California back when the area was farmland, forest, and the occasional barn-a stark contrast to the street my car is now parked on. Near the top of the stairs are framed Surfer magazine covers, given to Art as a sign of appreciation for decades of hard work. And in the center of it all, a print of a photo by Richard Avedon-the photographer’s photographer.
With the exception of miscellaneous framed posters and an autographed photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the photo-gallery feeling of the stairwell ends at the top step. Standing in the studio, the first thing I notice is the height of the vaulted ceiling (seventeen feet at the peak) and the vast amount of space it creates. This room, which from the outside appears to be little more than a master bedroom, is cavernous. The room’s size is punctuated by a seamless backdrop (a quarterpipe-like transition connecting the floor to the wall that serves to erase the horizon line, creating a sense of endlessness) that spans the entire length of the wall opposite the stairs, giving the room a feeling of infinity. If you turned right at the top of the stairs, it’s as if you could walk forever.
The walls that run perpendicular to the seamless backdrop are almost hidden by storage containers that range from cardboard boxes and metal filing cabinets to poster tubes and chests of drawers. Boxes are stacked high on shelves of mixed origin and interspersed with various pieces of photographic equipment, including large studio lights, thousands of yards of cable, and caches of seemingly discarded camera equipment. A note taped to one of the cabinets is a reminder of the million things that can wrong during a photo shoot:

Think!
Details
When packing equipment for
Photo Shoots
Cameras
Strobes
Film
Remember the small stuff
Think!
Again

A pillow on the floor in the middle of the room serves as a bed for Dax, the Brewers’ yellow lab.Two desks border the left side of the room; perched atop each is a Mac G4 and tons of scanning and CD-burning equipment. Sitting at one of the desks in a Herman Miller Aeron chair, wearing a blue crewneck sweatshirt, jeans, and flip-flops, staring at a large computer monitor with a hands-free phone headset strapped to his head, we find Art Brewer.
In a recent book of his photographs published by The Surfer’s Journal entitled Masters Of Surf Photography: Art Brewer, C. R. Stecyk III, action-sport’s gonzo journalist, calls Art “Man Mountain Brewer” as well as “Gruff to a fault and motivated beyond belief.” Rumors of punching out art directors and being hard to work with seem to punctuate the idea of Brewer’s gruffness.
Stecyk’s right, Art’s a big guy. When he stands to greet Grant and me, he looks more like a retired NFL offensive lineman than a surf photog. We make small talk, and I begin to realize why some have a hard time relating to Art. Quiet and thoughtful, he listens attentively and responds enthusiastically, but he seems to have a rough edge to him. He’s a complex man. There’s something wild and intelligent behind his eyes, and when they’re focused on you, it feels like you’re under a magnifying glass.
Grant decides to go to the car and grab his photo gear, which gives me a few minutes to ask Art about his studio. Twelve years ago Art was fed up with the studio he’d been using; it was far from home and lacked features he desired. He also hints that its distance prevented him from being able to open a bottle of wine or two during late nights of creativity-a corkscrew placed innocently in a cup holding pens and rulers on his desk illustrates his point.
He wanted a studio at home, but it needed to fit into his neighborhood. He worked with an architect to create a space that fit his requirements: seventeen-foot ceilings, windows and skylights that could provide ample ambient light or that could be completely shuttered if necessary, the seamless alcove, and lots of storage space. They determined that the best place for the addition would be above the house, where it would look no more intrusive than an added-on master bedroom.
Despite a conflict with the architect, who he refers to as “a f-k,” Art got pretty much what he wanted. But not everything’s perfect. When I ask him if there’s anything he’d like to change, he responds, “The angle of the cove, and I’d take fifteen more feet over the garage.” He laughs. He’s also encountered some difficulties shooting large or heavy objects in his studio. A few years back, O’Neill wanted a V8 engine in a photo shoot, but it would have been impossible to lug a thousand-pound piece of steel up the stairs.
I press him for the names of celebrities he’s photographed in his studio, but he’s not amused by such a sensationalistic question. “This is our place to work,” he answers, “we make messes here.”
With over 30 years of professional photography under his belt, Art has run into the same problem as many photographers with such large bodies of work-organization. On top of managing a photo agency that gets dozens of requests for archival photos daily and planning and executing photo trips around the globe, the task of archiving and keeping track of hundreds of thousands of photographic images is a full-time job. Art mentions a past assistant whose incompetence in coding photos set the studio back years.
I ask J.P. who knows where all the photos are. He flashes a toothy smile, and under his breath he half-whispers, “I do.” J.P. manages a computerized database that tracks the whereabouts of all Art’s photos. They’re arranged by surfer, or location, or magazine, and to prove that it works, he types in “Pipeline” and hits “Search.” The computer tells him those photos are downstairs in one of five huge four-drawer filing cabinets.
Grant sets up his photo equipment and shoots several medium-format photos of Art. The photographer-turned-subject looks somewhat uncomfortable in front of the lens. He grimaces at a Polaroid test shot and comments that he’s getting old. He looks relieved when the photo shoot’s over.
Grant climbs up on a ladder to get some overview photos of the studio. I ask him to make sure you can see the stack of big, floppy photographer hats and the general feeling of well-oiled chaos that Art’s studio exudes.
We talk a bit longer then pack up and get ready to head out. Art thanks us for coming by, shakes our hands, puts his headset back on, and turns back to his computer monitor. It’s hard to tell if he’s glad we’re going, or if he enjoyed our visit, but either way, I can’t help but like the guy. Not only did he bring personality to surfing, he brought creativity to the suburbs.
And he has a corkscrew on his desk.t works, he types in “Pipeline” and hits “Search.” The computer tells him those photos are downstairs in one of five huge four-drawer filing cabinets.
Grant sets up his photo equipment and shoots several medium-format photos of Art. The photographer-turned-subject looks somewhat uncomfortable in front of the lens. He grimaces at a Polaroid test shot and comments that he’s getting old. He looks relieved when the photo shoot’s over.
Grant climbs up on a ladder to get some overview photos of the studio. I ask him to make sure you can see the stack of big, floppy photographer hats and the general feeling of well-oiled chaos that Art’s studio exudes.
We talk a bit longer then pack up and get ready to head out. Art thanks us for coming by, shakes our hands, puts his headset back on, and turns back to his computer monitor. It’s hard to tell if he’s glad we’re going, or if he enjoyed our visit, but either way, I can’t help but like the guy. Not only did he bring personality to surfing, he brought creativity to the suburbs.
And he has a corkscrew on his desk.