Photographer, filmmaker, former Follow The Light winner and current SURFING Union member Morgan Maassen gives us a glimpse into his world and his photography. Interview by Peter Taras
SURFING: I heard you spent 364 days traveling last year? Is that true? 364 days on the road?
[laughs] 304 was the exact number. Last year was insane. February through December, I almost never slept in my bed for more than one night at a time. Even when I wasn’t out of the country, I’d be bouncing between NY, LA and SF for meetings. But I’m kind of addicted to my job and the lifestyle. I can’t sit still — there’s so much opportunity to be had and so many things to do.
Your work is and always has been completely void of surf influence. At least it feels that way to me. How is that possible? How have you been able to stay focused on your vision while being exposed to surf every day?
I actually struggle with this a bit. I try and surf everyday. I’m obsessed with it, but ever since I was young, I’ve always been interested in entities like film, art, architecture, politics, music and more. I glean inspiration from so many different things — my mind and creativity wander aimlessly. It’s been a blessing in that it has opened my mind and my life to so many things beyond surfing. But from an omnipotent viewpoint, I can see how its placed me and my style so far away from the norm.
Your shooting style has influenced a lot of people. I constantly find myself shooting images with certain depths of fields and focal lengths thinking “Oh man, this is so Morgan Maassen.” You came at a time when a lot of people, including myself, thought that everything in surfing had been done and you were part of this new breed of artisan photographers who had a vision and ran with it. How important is it to have your own style?
Very. A lot of people lambast digital cameras, GoPros, and the internet for turning everyone into a photographer. But I think it’s amazing! So many people who never had the means or interest to shoot photos are now photographers, sometimes even more proactive or talented than professionals. So now that everyone has picked up some sort of camera, the two most important things have become style and productivity. One or the other will get you somewhere, but both will empower you to use the glorious internet and social media to reach endless potential.
I put two of your speed blur lineup shots those in the book Evan Slater and I curated back in 2012. At that point, I’d never seen anything like it. But since then, you see a lot of people creating images very similar to it. Are you more flattered or bummed that it’s become such thing?
It’s a weird one. I’ve been shooting those ever since I dropped a camera while riding my bike home from work when I was 19. I picked it back up, pointed it at the horizon and started panning it and taking slow shutters for reasons I could never explain. Since then, it’s become my most long-standing (and maybe only?) photo series, and some of my most well-received work. I get emails and messages everyday asking how I shoot them, and I get really stoked! I explain to every single kid what tripod I use, the optimum shutter speed, panning technique, etc. I think it’s awesome that my photos have gone above and beyond making me happy, and have inspired people to go out there and try it themselves.
But it does kind of bum me out to see more evolved photographers consciously shoot them and have no qualms selling it or claiming it as their own. I’m trying to teach myself not to dwell on it, but those photos mean a lot to me and represent my own personal growth and exploration into photography. It hurts to see them be replicated and sold as someone else’s work.
What’s your photo to video ratio like these days and what was like it like when you first started?
I started with video when I was 13, and did that non-stop until I started photography when I was 18. After that, it was four years of shooting almost all stills, and then I bought a RED and jumped right back into video. Now its fifty-fifty for work, but I think my heart is 100% invested in motion. I don’t think I’ll be shooting any stills next year, unless its for a conceptualized project.
I heard you got accepted to a good college right after high school? You obviously didn’t go. What did you do instead?
I actually never made it to that point. Most of my peers from high school just finished at Yale, Harvard, Standford, UCLA, RISD, etc, but I don’t even have my AA from City College.
I took all AP classes in high school and had immaculate grades, but I tapped out in 11th Grade. I completely snapped from the stress. I was waking up at 6AM, swimming until 7AM for Water Polo, going to school until 3pm, and then doing homework until well-past dinner. Every single day. So I took the exit exam and started doing graphic design full-time for Shawn Stussy, and casually taking classes at the local city college. My plan was to chip away at my AA, and then transfer to a school with two years already under my belt, but photography took over and I never looked back. It’s a weird thing that I often ponder, both what I would have gotten out of higher education, and how my life would be different. Who knows…Yadin Nicol.
What do you have cooking for 2016?
Breakfast! I’m opening up a massive coffee shop/art gallery/retail store in downtown Santa Barbara. It’s a project I’ve dreamt about for years, and it’s coming to fruition this April. I’m steeped in art, architecture, design, retail, commerce…so many new passions to learn! Also, I just finished remodeling my house, and am really excited to do another. It was fascinating, and the next time around I want to start with a way cleaner slate to really delve into architecture and landscaping without constraints.
In the film/photography department, I’m doing my best to recalculate my efforts and goals. I’ve schemed several films I’m dying to make, that will mark both a huge growing point in my passion, as well as hopefully set my trajectory towards projects of larger scale and significance. Photography…I’m probably going to just keep snapping away, but I’m working on one new project where I’m trying to create a body of work of surf photos that captures “the feeling”, and nothing more. Less travel, more time with my dog.
What a time to be alive.