Close your eyes, and sketch your vision of the photogenic surfer. Hair down to the shoulders, a thin build, but not frail, deceptively powerful. He’s a Seaside Reef icon with style that shoots like enlightened sunlight from his motionless fingers. The man with a rather deep connection with the barrel.
By the time you open them, Rob Machado’s already passing by in the backlight, painting his trail with one hand on a frontside tube ride. For over 15 years, SURFER Photo Editor Grant Ellis has shot memorable stills of Machado, from his days on Tour to his current role as surf’s style ambassador. We asked Ellis for a collection of his favorite Rob Machado images he’s taken, and we talked with him about the unique qualities of Rob’s surfing that he looks for, as well as the payoff of patience when one photographer and one surfer enjoy respectively seasoned careers.
When did you begin shooting photos of Rob?
It was when I started shooting the world tour. The very first travel event of my career that I officially went to shoot was the Lacanau Pro in 2000. I started at Jeffreys Bay and then the very next leg of the tour was the French leg of the WQS, and Rob won the stop at Lacanau. I actually wish I had more images of that over the years; the hard drives have been left in South Africa or have disappeared. From the early 2000s, I watched him surf the contests and maybe got a few shots of him here and there prior to that. That Lacanau Pro was the first one where I really started to travel with all the guys, so I got to see him surf a lot.
You two have the unique perspective of living pretty closely to one another.
[SURFER staff photographer] Todd Glaser and him are good friends, so when I moved to Cardiff in North County, I sort of tagged along to shoot as the B-team guy, just kind of backing it up with a different lens. Todd was shooting him with a fisheye, and I'd shoot him on a 50-mil. It was a little challenging to get shots in closed-out beachbreaks with a 50, and so you'd get very few chances at it. I've gotten a couple good shots, like one that ended up on the cover of the mag, but those little moments are rare. When guys are getting fisheye barrel shots, it's a shorter ride, but Rob's so talented and narrow, and a wave he’s on might have an extra little pocket that gets him to travel a little extra further, so you have to work to get that particular shot of him.
When you shoot Rob, is there anything specific about his surfing that you try to capture, compared to other guys?
You definitely try to capture that smooth style in a photo – that smooth, casual style. But most things he does capture that. It's pretty hard not to capture it with him. Everything is connected so perfectly and fluidly that he's a pleasure to shoot with, no matter what. Whether he's paddling into a wave or just getting to his feet or casually doing a bottom turn, or not doing a bottom turn [Laughs]. Everything just looks good. He's a really easy subject. No matter what the conditions are, from two-foot on up, whatever it is, he's going to do well.
Was there a trip with him that stands out in your memory?
In 2011 or 2012, we went with him on the Momentum trip in Indo with all of the Momentum generation guys. There's quite a few shots of that in this selection. On the trip, he had this single fin that might’ve been hand-shaped by him. We were surfing this little left off this island, and I shot a bunch of water shots of him, and he was looking so good on it. One day, he was sitting on the boat, and we were surfing this wave called Burgerworld, which is not the best wave for a goofy to get a shot. I was talking to him on the boat, and he was hesitant and unsure, like, he wasn’t sure if he could get a shot. And I told him, maybe the only way we get one is to get a nice down-carve off the top. He paddled out, and literally on his first wave, he went out and did exactly that. It was a testament to how on it he always is. Paddled out, ripped into that one, and the shot came out great.
Is there a photo of him that you wish you saw more of?
I wish I got to shoot him more at J-Bay and those kinds of places. I think his backside surfing is fantastic, and there are a few examples here at Swamis, but not much. His backhand surfing is insanely good. So on point. There are some famous photos of him surfing at Jeffreys and places like that on his backhand. You don't get to see him surf backside a lot.
When you do go out and surf with a guy like Rob, does it affect how you shoot him out of the water?
Oh, yeah. When you're in the water, obviously there's this moment that happens where you might be paddling out and one section looks really good, and a surfer like Rob might do a good turn right where you are. And you think, Damn, I wish I had a camera. But the chances of being in that position when you're swimming versus paddling around on a surfboard is probably way less likely for that synch to happen, if you've assessed it right. You could go swim for two hours and hope to line up with someone and get that shot, but sometimes you have to approach it later and wait for a better day or opportunity.
So how has your thinking about patience behind the camera changed over time?
When you go and shoot a session, maybe a day afterward or a week afterward, there's a selection of photos that are visible to you and that you remember. As years go by, it whittles down to one frame, "The Frame," from that session. That's kind of the story with my Rob photos. Over a 17-year period, these frames are my favorite ones of him that keep coming to the surface over and over again. If you get that one good frame on a particular day and nothing else, in the moment, it's a bummer. You think, Shit, I should've just gone and hung out with everyone else. But then that starts to change down the road, because you remember that shot above everything else. I could swim out there with Rob and a 50-mil and not get a single frame, and that's difficult with all the energy you're expending. It's cold, it's early in the morning – swim out, and only get one frame. But you can look at it from the perspective that you got one really good one. You don't know when that stuff's going to happen. You have to put yourself there.