Morgan Maassen is a 27-year-old photographer and filmmaker from Santa Barbara, California. Passionate about the ocean, he is known for working with some of the most cherished surfer girls. Six-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore is his favourite subject to shoot, not to say his muse.
How did you get into surf photography?
I grew up spending all my free time surfing and skateboarding. I was addicted to both from the age of seven. As a teenager, a surfing injury saw me out of the water for about a month. At the same time, a school project led me to ask a family friend to teach me how to make a surf movie of my mates ripping it up and exploring our local haunts. I made short films all throughout high school and at the age of 18, I randomly decided to play around with my dad’s still cameras. I immediately fell in love with photography. Naturally, I started shooting the things I loved the most: surfing, my girlfriend, and my friendship group’s adventures.
What does filming bring you that photography doesn’t, and vice versa?
I love motion and the way it can dance with music. Photography can freeze movement in an unexplainable way, but crafting a visual narrative and working with the beauty of music will forever hold the key to my heart.
“I’ve been circled by sharks, thrown over the falls at Teahupoo, nearly drowned amongst heavy waves in Australia…”
You don’t spend much time at home. What do you always travel with?
Starting with my cameras, a Red Weapon for video and Nikon D4s’s for stills. Lenses are simple: 14mm, 35mm and 80-400mm for video, and 16mm, 20mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm and 300mm for photos. I have 2 backpacks, one for stills and one for video. Each contains an extra set of every battery, memory card, wire, lcd screen, etc that you can imagine. Beyond that, my essentials are rather random but absolutely key to my survival on the road for months at a time: a sewing kit, multiple pairs of boardshorts, clean socks, surfboard straps, swim fins, mask and snorkel, universal power adapter, red beanie, auxiliary cord and a packet of fake tribal tattoos.
You do a lot of water shots. Any scary stories to share that happened in the ocean?
I’ve been circled by sharks, thrown over the falls at Teahupoo, nearly drowned amongst heavy waves in Australia, had jet skis fly over my head, broken down in the middle of French forests with no cell service… The list goes on and on!
Talking about sharks, which is a hot topic in Australia at the moment… Do you usually think about the risk when in the water shooting?
I focus on key factors that I see as indicators of a potential encounter: murky water, bait balls and sea life activity, known shark sightings, and deep and/or dark water. I’m not worried about sharks when I feel like I know how they can approach me and what their local population is like.
You are an inspiration for many photographers out there, but who are yours?
I look to artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Ashley Bickerton, Jean Michel Basquiat, Pablo Picasso, Zio Ziegler, James Ettelson, etc. Their imagination with a blank canvas and paint is what I use to guide my lenses through capturing moments, textures, feelings…
“I just focus on capturing moments of beauty, grace and simplicity in their surfing.”
A large part of your work is done with women. What do you like about female surfing?
I find my interest in photographing surfing craves style over performance… And the grace of women in surfing delivers exactly what I yearn to capture.
Is the way you work with them different?
I don’t think so… I just focus on capturing moments of beauty, grace and simplicity in their surfing.
You have developed a very special relationship with one of them, Stephanie Gilmore…
Steph exemplifies everything I could ever hope for in a subject to shoot. She also happens to be my hero as a surfer, and an amazing friend throughout all of our travels, interests and experiences.
You also did a memorable photo shoot with Coco Ho for the ESPN’s yearly Body Issue. How was that?
Coco grabbed this shoot by the horns. She was a badass and handled it like a champ. She wore her bathrobe around the set, which was a massive yacht and jet skis at an outer reef off of Honolulu, but when a ski would take us to the reef where she surfed, she would slide in naked and just do her thing. Sometimes I’d swim up to her to give her direction, sometimes she would paddle past me after catching a wave. Mind you, she was bare naked with no body tape nor makeup. She was totally comfortable, and aside from getting a bit cold when the wind came up, acted as if it was just another normal surf session.
“I’ve been having a blast exploring the simplicity and grace of women longboarding”
What are your next projects involving women and surfing?
Lately, I’ve been having a blast exploring the simplicity and grace of women longboarding.
What advice would you give to someone who dreams of having a career as a surf photographer or film-maker?
Pursue what inspires you, what captivates your dreams and emotions. While beauty is riveting, the complexity of what it takes to make surfing look graceful is what truly lights my fire. Find that motivation and do everything within your means to ignite your inquisition into photography.