For more than five decades, the photo editors at SURFER have pored over the countless photos that arrive at their office every month, sifting through the gold in search of a single piece of platinum for the cover. Sometimes, they’ll know a cover the moment they first lay eyes on a photo; other times it’s an uphill battle. A good cover shot shouldn’t just sum up the issue, but it should also drop your jaw, make you think, and evoke an emotion. Below, our photo editor Grant Ellis combed his way through the SURFER archive for his 10 favorite covers. It’s a subjective task to say the least, and the roundup will inherently be different for everyone—all of which begs the question: what’s your favorite SURFER cover? Let us know below.
DISCOVERY ON THE WAY HOME
This is a really special cover to me. It’s from a Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson trip to a place called Petacalco in Mexico. I love how this cover really makes you feel like you’re there with them. It almost looks like it could be pulled from a movie set. It’s surreal. To me, it really captures the dream of traveling and scoring waves with just you and your friend. And that’s what it’s all about, right? You can’t look at this and not want to go on a surf trip. I think that’s what makes this so special. The way it pulls you away from your life and places you squarely in the midst of their journey.
STRENUOUS THEATER SLIDE
This is a Steve Wilkins shot of M.R. on the North Shore in the late 1970s. It was a really ballsy decision to use a pulled back shot of a slide on the cover. The image itself is so microscopic—and coupled with all the white space—it really forces the reader to do a double-take. I’m sure the publisher and advertising execs at the time had a heart attack when they heard that this was going to be the cover, but people really remember this one and it made a big impact because, well, it was just so different than what people were used to seeing. We actually recreated it with the 45th anniversary issue and it was really well received then as well.
LOPEZ SPEED BLUR
To me, this is an absolutely perfect cover. Everything about it is flawless. It’s classic Gerry Lopez at Pipe and he’s absolutely pin sharp. The speed blur really sets it apart from other covers at the time and the color of his board really pops out at you. The fact that he’s not wearing a leash is pretty classic, too. All in all, it’s the essence of a classic surf photo. They don’t get too much better than this.
THE ORANGE TENT
Travel has always been an important part of our collective identity as surfers. So when you see an image that really captures what it means to travel as a surfer, you’ve tapped into something special. That’s what this cover does so well. It puts you in the tent with those guys in Baja. I’ve seen a lot of people try and recreate this image, but I don’t think anyone’s been as successful as Craig Peterson, who shot the original.
TOM CURREN UP CLOSE
David Carson, who’s became a very famous art director, was laying out SURFER when this came out and he brought a really different approach to the magazine. At the time, running a crop of a photo like this was a really gutsy call, but it turned out that people were really into it. It was different, but at the same time it was also classic. You had Curren, not doing anything really special, but at the same time looking very stylish, set against this really close angle that we’d never run before. It just really works well.
HAWAII PIPE WIPEOUT
This is one of the few wipeout covers we’ve done. At first glance, it looks like it’s an open-ended wave at Pipe, but when you look a little bit closer, buried in the spray, you’ll see there’s a guy and his board going over the falls. I also think the blurb “Hawaii” married with this heavy wipeout sums up a lot of people’s experiences in the islands.
This issue came out in 2000, when Bruce was really coming onto the scene. He was changing the way we surfed and what we perceived was possible. Tom Servais shot it in the Mentawais I believe, during the OP Boat Trip Challenge. The composure is really good and it’s just an all-around perfect moment. Bruce was blowing people’s minds with his airs, and this one was so massive and styled out that it just dropped your jaw.
Jason Childs snapped this shot of Timmy Turner deep in Indo back in the early 2000s. Timmy and his crew were actually shooting his film, Second Thoughts, when this was taken. What makes this one special to me is the way Timmy just looks so relaxed amid such a heavy wave. It really makes me want to head to Indo.
ANDY AT TEAHUPOO
At the time this was taken, we’d seen Teahupoo shot from a long lens a lot, but never from this angle. It’s a Scott Aichner shot, but it’s different from most of his other work where he’s right there in the lip. To me, this feels like it could almost be the cover of a travel mag. You have this amazingly blue Tahitian water, you can see shades of the reef sucking up towards the face, and you can just make out a touch of land in the corner. Plus, it’s Andy and he’s looking really composed in some really heavy conditions.
THE DUKE COVER
This portrait shot of Duke proved to be a favorite cover for a lot of people. Believe it or not, they had to fight for this to be run. It was really controversial in the office, but like I said, a lot of people, myself included, really loved it. We don’t often run portraits as covers, but when we do, they’re really impactful. It’s hard to look at that shot of Duke and not be moved by our sport’s history.