In Frame: Morgan Maassen

Style is everything

You have to have a style. Any photographer can create a single beautiful image with tones of originality from all four corners of a print. Any filmmaker can create a scene that’s so sensational that it remains engraved into your cranium for weeks to come. The trick is, how can you do it over and over again? And for 99% of us artists, we can’t. We ride the tidal ebb and flow of creativity throughout our careers, entering the batting box once again to stand at the plate of what could be the possible home-run or the depressing strikeout. It’s this repetition that makes some artists go nuts. There rarely is a middle ground between that dwelling on failures and the over-celebratory buzz you get from success. That is, unless you have a style.

Style triumphs everything. Style allows you to go into your work wholeheartedly and uniquely, without feeling the need to be someone else. And that’s Morgan Maassen. From winning Follow The Light when he was a teen to his last showreel at age 26, his work for close to a decade now oozes with a style that he has patented. We caught up with him in Australia, while on a campaign shoot, to see just how things are lining up for 2017.

How has your 2017 been so far? What have you been up to?

It’s been incredible so far. I normally take January and February off to regroup, organize, relax, and just surf. I made several visits to New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles and then back to San Francisco, but for the most part, I spent my time enjoying the rain and surf at home in Santa Barbara. A couple weeks ago I embarked on what I would say is my most ambitious project yet: traveling the world creating a series of commercials and documentaries for Corona, highlighting plastic pollution, recycling, and repurposing. We started in Hawaii, are in Australia now, and heading to the Maldives in several days, followed by Hong Kong, Indonesia, Taiwan, Italy, Chile and Mexico, over the next seven weeks.

Do you have any passion projects you want to do in the next year or two? In your younger years, you did some pretty interesting passion projects. Brazil, for one, seems to stand out in my mind.

I have a notebook full of passion projects, and this year I really want to get to them – although I feel like I say this at the beginning of every year [Laughs]. There are several that I’m chipping away at right now: a short film on one of my closest friends and greatest inspirations, the artist Zio Ziegler; a very personal film about death; and a film about my dad and the mysterious beauty of urchin-diving in the Channel Islands, which revisits an idea I previously did with Yeti.

I’ve been spending a lot of time retrospectively editing all the photos I’ve aimlessly shot over the years into bodies of work. The one I’m most passionate about is my series of “Dogs of the World,” as I’ve always photographed them wherever I’ve traveled to. Also, I’ve been steadily trying to hone my photography more into minimalism. Someone recently asked why, and I couldn’t find a succinct answer, aside from that it’s caused me to reevaluate what I want to tackle with photography, and right now, it seems to be color and texture. I want to take some time this year to travel and satisfy that appetite, be it a road trip through Northern California or exploring the desert of Qatar.

Whats your photography to filmmaking ratio like these days? And why? 

It hovers at around 50/50. I’m in the unfortunate pickle where almost everything I want to film, I also want to photograph. Be it a still scene of a cloudscape or the movement of birds, I innately want to gather as much media of it as possible, with context usually being an afterthought.

Tell us about one of your favorite shoots this last year.

It would be a even tie between three different trips: Barbados, Chile, and El Niño at home. Barbados was a run-of-the-mill shoot, a place I’ve visited before to capture fashion/lifestyle/adventure. But this one day, I snuck away from everyone eating lunch and posted up on a pier overlooking a small shorebreak, and shot a series of photos of waves that had such a synergy with one another, yet are so varied in color and texture, that it was truly the first time I created a body of work deliberately and with purpose. It was kind of an a-ha! moment. I found a bit more depth to my photography than I previously worked with.

Chile was an incredible shoot by all accounts of subject matter: heli-skiing on active volcanos, thermal hot springs in the back country, getting to snowboard fresh powder on “work” days. It was the first time I had ever truly photographed snow, and it was exhilarating. It was like hearing classical music for the first time. It was so grandiose and foreign and enchanting.

I surfed my brains out over last year’s El Nino, but I finally realized that, aside from being a below-average surfer and wasting a great many waves my friends could have surfed properly, I had lost enthusiasm on something that had once meant so much to me. So before I grabbed my camera and shot the next swell, I conceptualized an approach to reinvigorate my excitement, and I came up with an angle to focus on capturing the feeling of surfing, to create immersive photos into the moments of surfing that are so magical to me. It sounds kind of kooky, but I went out and shot as much as I could over January and February, and really focused on incorporating textures, emotions, and movement into my pictures, all to ultimately parley the oddities I love so much about those moments when I’m on a surfboard.

How much does music play a role in your editing? 

Music is everything. I think music is actually the ultimate source of inspiration to me, for everything I do. I find my brain inventing visuals based off of songs, before I have even seen or experienced moments. Last winter, I listened to three songs that I later linked together, which then sent me off to Hawaii to film a ‘storied’ piece with Stephanie Gilmore. I had the visuals, color correction, chronology – everything was laid out. I couldn’t make the weather, but if you saw what was in my mind the day I started shooting on December 5th, versus what I had finished editing by December 20th, it would be pretty damn close. I can safely say that music is the guiding force of my visual storytelling.

Besides some of the aesthetics in your film, you’ve always stuck to a genre of music I feel almost goes hand in hand with your edits. For a while there, you were using these funky, jazzy, minimalistic songs. Has that changed at all?  I hear songs from time to time, and I’m like, that’s such a M.M. song.

My taste in music is constantly growing and evolving, but I’ve always stuck true to avoiding lyrics and, instead, harnessing simple beats and structure. I’ve gone through phases of classical Indian music, to punk or dub, ’90s hip-hop, and even out to Euro telepop. But I think there are underlying similarities that emerge over time, almost always through pacing and beat.

Who would you want to work with this year?

In the surf world, Ari Browne’s finless surfing is one of the most unbelievable expressions of motion and creativity I’ve ever seen. I’d be honored to document it.

Oh, and also tell us about Breakfast. When did that start?

I started Breakfast in 2014 as a way to profile the incredible artists, filmmakers, and photographers I’ve met and admired across the world, an index of young people doing interesting things. I brought in one of my closest friends, Tosh Clements, and we grew it into a web platform, then a clothing line, and now a gallery/coffee shop/retail store in downtown Santa Barbara. We’ve been having art shows, movie nights, poetry slams, women’s workshops, rap concerts. We’ve even turned it into a private nightclub several times. I’d like to think of it as a clubhouse for Santa Barbara, an outlet for a lot of young people who previously didn’t have any means to showcase artwork in our city, myself included. And this is just the beginning.