Dream on, dream on, dream even when your dreams come true. Such is the case of Morgan Maassen who, at 22, has already sucked the marrow of his headiest teenage dreams, re-calibrated his line and once again taken off down the path towards salt water-soaked artistic delights unknown with a backpack full of cameras and a head full of not-so-normal ideas. He is quirky, calculating, always curious, and the type of self-taught talent that makes people whisper nasty things like "genius" and "prodigy" behind his back.
Flash back a little more than half a decade ago and Maassen was, at least on the surface, your average surf-stoked teenager. An internet and tech fluent millennial living with his family in Santa Barbara's Mesa neighborhood, a rather insulated (both geographically and socio-economically speaking) upper-middle class part of town that enjoys its own separate micro-climate as well as a couple sneaky consistent surf breaks and easy access to Santa Barbara's harbor front. However, when most his buddies were still trying to rally the motivation to make it to high school on time, Maassen had already doubled down his course loads and taken the tests to ditch school the legal way. He was enrolled in a few classes at near-by Santa Barbara City College, chasing fun in the ocean with his two best friends Trevor Gordon and Brandon Smith, and always toting a video camera. Focusing primarily on the exploits of Smith and Gordon, both gifted surfers with artistic bends, Maassen proved rather prolific behind the lens and the computer almost immediately, filming and edited three homegrown surf films and designing and building his own multi-media website called Bogus Media, which enjoyed more than a million hits a year during its tenure, all right around the age when most of his peers were just getting their drivers license. At the time, though he had barley begun his love affair with still photography, the medium which has been the catalyst for his meteoric rise in the surf world, his goal was clear. "I just want this filming and photography to take me somewhere- literally," he explained to me in the fall of 2007. "I want to travel and surf and have a good time. If a camera can get me there then that would be a dream come true."
Over the decades, Santa Barbara has had no shortage of surf-crazed, camera-wielding mad geniuses. From the innovative water footage of the penultimate surf genius George Greenough (The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun and Crystal Voyager, his films from the late 1960s and early 1970s, not only set the bar for above and below sea-level cinematography but they also connected the dots between surf culture and rock and roll for one of the first times when Pink Floyd used his footage prominently as part of their stage show and in their film Echoes) and the iconic still work of Ron Stoner to the legendary Bruce Brown and one of the surf film industry's reigning heavyweights, Chris Malloy, the SB-area is no stranger to accomplished creative surfers. However, it isn't necessarily this tradition that has molded Maassen. "I can't say I draw much technical or artistic inspiration from the older generations," explained Maassen recently, "but I grew up looking at their photos and watching their movies and dreaming of how big the world is, so they definitely lit my fire in that regard." Instead, this son of a commercial fisherman father and artist mother, reckons it was his childhood experiences in and on the sea, traveling abroad with his family, and being consistently encouraged to use his imagination be it with legos or drawing or on a boat trip to the Channel Islands or playing with a computer, that really laid the foundation for him as an artist and surf photographer. "My parents always instilled curiosity into me and so I grew up doing all these different things. I think, in an abstract way, those activities collectively helped me find my passion of using photography and filmmaking to capture all the different stuff I find interesting."
It was this hyper-curiosity that saw Maassen first pick up a film camera with somewhat serious intent shortly after his 17th birthday. Employing the same DIY attitude that served him so well with movie making and web-development, he gulped his way through the steep learning curve of F-stops, apertures and exposure time with little more than a few basic pointers along the way. With an eye for moody textures and esoteric moments, his results were almost immediately impressive and against the grain of high gloss mainstream surf photography. In fact, just two years removed from his first rolls of film, Maassen won 2010's Follow the Light Foundation Award, an uber competitive international competition to find the best "undiscovered" surf photographer on the planet. And then things really took off.
Citing decidedly un-surfy artists like Ashley Bickerton and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wassily Kandinsky and Darren Aronofsky as his primary influences, Maassen has forged a photography style that is often instantly distinguishable. Images of perhaps otherwise forgotten moments from slightly unexpected vantage points are his bread and butter, the colors often deep and dark and connecting to the more visceral elements of surfing and the people involved. He also works heavily with humor and irony, the former being especially important to him. "[Sense of humor] is everything to me." says Maassen, "It's what keeps a smile on my face and holds together my love of life. There are alot of highs and lows in life and having a sense of humor can be the safest vessel for passage."
It is the combination of these artistic qualities that saw Morgan essentially take the surf world by storm after his Follow the Light win. Not yet 20, his mid-teens dream of surf travel courtesy of a camera became a reality. Passport stamps from Europe, Australia, South America and the South Pacific started filling his life as his work was sought by companies like Billabong and Quicksilver and Patagonia along with editorial projects for surf publications both domestic and abroad. This led to what is a coveted Holy Grail of sorts in the surf photography universe, official "Staff Photographer" status at Surfer Magazine. Certainly getting the such a gig is a dream come true for any young surf shooter and, well, for Maassen it definitely was when the deal went down in 2011. Case in point, last year alone saw Maassen living a type of life most of us fantasize about at some point about no matter our age; adventuring on the road for nearly 340 days, visiting and working in places like Micronesia, Australia, Panama, New Zealand, Mexico, Tahiti, the Bahamas, France, Spain, Morocco, and Hawaii multiple times, and making a living with little more than your own creativity. "This schedule is my dream come true," stated the young goofy-foot recently and there was no reason to believe otherwise.
It's a funny thing though, the workings of our dreams and ambitions, how these underpinnings of our life ebb and flow and sometimes take us away from the very things they once led us to. Just a few months ago, the curiosity monster that lives in Maassen's head, alongside a rather impressively mature understanding of the need for an ever increasing field of self-expression, joined forces and helped him make the decision to walk away from his job at Surfer. And, while he still walks tall in the surf world (January alone saw his images on the covers of Stab Magazine, Monster Children, Tracks, and Surfer as well as featured in an iPad campaign), this young man, who is only half-joking when he says he wants to be an architect or a feature film director when he "grows up", is following that same instinct that saw him first put down a video camera and pick up a Nikon, out into a new ocean of infinite possibility. "I think surfing has been an incredible place to start my photography and filmmaking but, the more I travel and work on different projects, the more I desire to grow and explore new subjects." opines Maassen before adding with a telling smile, "Plus, this year is already shaping up to be even more incredible."
Maassen and I caught up recently, and the man himself can tell a yarn. Here's our freewheeling conversation:
In once sentence, tell me what the word art means to you?
Art is when something can invoke thought or emotion out of a viewer - essentially anything can be art.
What does the ocean mean to you?
The ocean is my home and is absolutely sacred to me. Having been able to grow up in the ocean, surfing, free-diving and boating has been the greatest privilege I've ever been afforded. Whether it's calm and serene,or stormy and life-threatening, I get more inspiration from it than anything else.
In what ways do you think calling Santa Barbara home influences your art?
Santa Barbara is a truly amazing place and I owe so much to it. The combination of the ocean, mountains, proximity to Los Angeles and surf/art scene have all worked together to inspire, teach, and motivate me and my work. There is really no place like it.
Are artists born or made?
Both. Some artists are born and no matter what happens to them through their life they have no trouble expressing themselves. Others have to have particular or intense conditioning for them to discover what they can create.
If you could have some drinks with anyone alive or dead who would it be and why?
Dead: Steve Jobs. He was an designer of the highest order, and one of the shrewdest businessmen of all time. Alive: Ashley Bickerton..,My absolute favorite artist, a MENSA genius and world-traveled savant.
Best/favorite surfers to work with?
Kelly Slater for his sheer talent, professionalism, intellect, and ability to show you the best waves in the world. Steph Gilmore for her beauty, style, and creativity in and out of the water. Sterling Spencer for his humor and Dane Reynolds because he is the Don Mega.
Who or what fires you up to make radder and radder shit?
Darren Aronofsky. He jumps from idea to idea, effortlessly. He shows me that there is no limit to what subject you can work with.
What makes surf photography different from other types of picture taking?
Surf photography is unlike anything else because of how powerful and abstract the ocean is. I stay up at night dreaming of new ways to capture storms, water, waves, and people in the sea. I don't think you can really do that with basketball photography.
What is the dumbest thing anyone has ever asked you at an opening or related to your work?
I think people struggle to grasp how I take photos in the ocean. I get alot of questions asking how I was able to take the photo with the general assumption being that I was defying physics and being assisted by helicopters or dolphins.
Explain the role of technology in who you are as a creative?
While I shoot a lot of film, digital cameras, computers, and harddrives are my most important and immediate tools. And, even with film, I am able to shoot photos, edit them that night, and send them off to companies and magazines across the world immediately. Communication is so key... I'd say my iPhone is the nucleus of my entire operation.
Top Photo: Morgan Maassen.
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