Skip to main content

Legendary surf photographer Jeff Divine shares John “Doc” Ball’s early career of surf photography

John Heath “Doc” Ball 1907-2001

Doc Ball, a Los Angeles-area dentist and avid surfer, was one of the first photographers to seriously document the sport, using a waterproof box system that he designed and built himself. In 1946 he published a book of his surfing images, California Surfriders 1946 – A Scrapbook of Surfriding and Beach Stuff, taken from Pedro Point in northern California, south to the Tijuana Sloughs in Imperial Beach. This was the first book about surfing that included many exciting photos of the Golden State’s plentiful waves, and the handful of men and women who rode them. Doc numbered and personally inscribed each book and even created a beautiful receipt book, using one of the book’s images. The original books (about 500 were printed), are highly valued collectibles today.

The Waterbox

In the words of surfing dentist John Heath “Doc” Ball: “Before evolving my present camera, dubbed the “waterbox,” I left a horrible trail of battered, salt-encrusted, water-logged cameras behind me. Eventually I came up with a brass-rigged, wood-encased, stripped down 31/4”x 4-1/4” Graflex, which is a honey. It weighs about 15 pounds, loaded. To date it has turned out hundreds of pictures and withstood all the onslaughts of brine, waves, loose surfboards, and curious onlookers.”

“I made the case of waterproof 5-ply veneer and outfitted it with brass pack nuts for the focusing and trigger controls. I used marine glue and nails except for the lid which is set on with brass screws and elastic seam putty. There is an access door for the lens, and another for shutter controls and film magazine. They can be quickly shut and screwed down tight against rubber gaskets in between shot-taking.”

“Surfers are nuts about pictures of themselves, especially ones that show agility in coping with the big waves. They began clamoring for the snaps I made of them with a little stinkin’ box camera.”

Making good use of his action-packed images, Doc subsequently wrote and published California Surfriders 1946, the first picture-book of surfing.

Thank you to  KOCT for producing this great video!