California native and photographer Morgan Maassen documents the surf culture above the waves, and also beneath them. Both in his professional work and on his well-followed Instagram (to the tune of 115k followers), Maassen posts underwater shots that reveal a whole other world. Beneath rolling waves lit by glittering sunlight, an alien world exists while surfers cut across the water above.
e spoke to Maassen about how he ended up pursuing photography full-time after spending every spare minute on the beach as a kid, and also how his short film “Water” took over the Internet for a hot minute (it racked up the crucial “Staff Pick” nod on Vimeo). A young man with years already under his belt, he has an enviable client list that includes the likes of Apple, Patagonia, Nike, Wired, and National Geographic. He even let us in on his packing strategy for trips around the world — the gear alone is a photo junkie’s dream.
Tell us about your early life growing up,
and how you came to be interested in photography.
Morgan: I grew up spending all my free time at the beach, surfing and boating with my friends and family.
A surfing injury sidelined me at the age of 13, so I took
the time I had out of the water to make a short film on
my friends surfing around our hometown. From that point on, I spent my teens reveling in all things filmmaking, learning anything I could from the Internet and trial-by-error. I continued to pursue these passions, and around the age of 18 started shooting photos to supplement my little videos. My passion for photography clicked immediately, and has been nonstop ever since....
If you had a "big break" moment, what was it?
M: I realized photography was not just a passion
but also a career when I was 19, about a year and a half —
"I was utterly speechless — I'd never even had a quarter-page photo run in a surf magazine before. From that point on, I was able to leave my desk job to pursue my photography career."
— after starting shooting. I'd taken a leave of absence from my job as a graphic designer to travel abroad and had just returned from a sailing adventure in Fiji with my two best friends.
By chance, one was associated with Patagonia, and they asked to see my photos of him surfing and adventuring through the islands. I sent them my work, and several months later they purchased multiple pictures for the cover of their catalog, front-page of the website, and much more. I was utterly speechless — I'd never even had a quarter-page photo run in a surf magazine before. From that point on, I was able to leave my desk job to pursue my photography career.
You obviously travel quite a bit for your work. What's the usual set of gear that you pack for every trip?
M: I'm in the interesting position where my time traveling is split between stills and motion work, so often times I'm carrying both a full Nikon digital package and my RED motion camera setup. As ludicrous as this sounds, I am happiest when I can shoot both formats, and am often connecting jobs and travel from one shoot to the next. In a nutshell: I've condensed both so I have only a backpack for my Laptop, two Nikon D4s's, Nikon lenses, and miscellaneous travel accessories. My roller bag is my complete RED Dragon kit, which is mainly weighed down by the five power bricks.
Thankfully, I share Nikon lenses between the two systems, which is incredibly convenient. Both bags are on me at all times, and I never check-in camera equipment. My suitcase contains clothes, a tripod, swim fins, toiletries, and a pelican case that’s sometimes in tow with water housings and wetsuits for my water-based jobs.
Your film "Water" caught on like wildfire when it came out. It conveys your style pretty well, with you shooting below or at the surface like in many of your Instagram posts. What was the process like of putting that video together?
M: After several back-to-back commercial jobs in Tahiti in Hawaii, I had a lot of leftover scenic and underwater footage sitting on my hard drive that I wanted to engage somehow. After mulling it over, I found a song my friend Sean (SJD) had made years ago that really clicked, so I sat down and laid out what I wanted to be my tribute to what I am captivated most by — the sea.
I had no clue how the clip would fare and only really made it to scratch my own itch, but I was beyond honored when it was chosen as a Vimeo Staff Pick. Since then, it has been spectacular to watch it travel far and wide, and has been a pivotal point in my motion career.
If you could pick an artist that has influenced your work the most, who would it be?
M: Will Adler is one of my best friends, and an incredible fine artist. It never ceases to amaze me how he can apply his sense of style to anything he touches, be it a short film, photographs, or art. He also has been a huge motivation for me to never limit my style or work to any one subject matter in particular—he's made everything from short films on tract home communities to photographing police raids and trans-pacific sailing journeys. He is my constant source of inspiration and collaborator on countless projects. [H]