Have you ever seen the ocean breathe? Have you watched its massive surface, gleaming in the sun, heave backward taking a deep breath like a great muscular chest expanding – only to exhale in a rush of damp air, foam and spittle, as the water crashes against the shore? Morgan Maassen has seen this because he lives it and breathes it everyday. Morgan began surfing at an early age in his hometown of Santa Barbara, California, and was drawn to the ocean like a water baby. At 13 he was sidelined by an injury that kept him from surfing for several weeks, but it couldn’t stop him from being around the water, so he took a video-camera and began to film his friends for a school project.
That event sparked a special connection, and he continued to experiment with filmmaking throughout his teens. After high school, just as he was leaving to travel solo for an extended period of time, Morgan’s father gave him an old film camera. Morgan fell in love immediately, finding his future profession/obsession – and the rest is history. Early on, he had the typical fascinations of his generation: Lego’s, computers, history, art, politics. He also had the typical dreams of a young American male: becoming President, an astro-physicist, or an industrial designer. It wasn’t until he found filmmaking, and then photography, that he was able to connect all of his inspirations and ambitions by creating arresting images that captured moments of intense power and beauty, telling stories that live well beyond their artistry.
Today Morgan is 23, and he is already an accomplished, widely recognized filmmaker and photographer, He takes risks riding some of the most challenging waves around the world capturing the raw beauty and emotion of nature’s waters while braving dangerous conditions. All the while, he is making you feel as though you are experiencing them with him. He has used surfing as a springboard leading him to fashion, lifestyle, and nature photography as well as filmmaking to capture the ocean’s most serene and intense moments. His portfolio includes photographs of the industry’s most iconic faces, as well as commercial work for an elite clientele that includes Apple, Patagonia, and Lexus, to name a few.
Maassen’s skill and distinct style are driven by nature and practically immersed in water. His surf and travel photography portray impossible moments caught in motion ranging from surfers appearing to walk on waves, to divers ascending from the deep. His work spans the globe from the icy blue ocean that surrounds Fiji to the turquoise green waters of Oaxaca, Mexico. He captures the elemental power and elegance of the environment in addition to the passion and poise of the surfer’s sport.
His black and white photography reveals his unique ability to strip away anything superfluous exposing a hauntingly raw image, bared to the bone bordering on the abstract. They provide a stark contrast to the lush, almost technicolor images that he shoots in oceans around the world.
Often times he journeys below the water’s surface to uncover its vast tranquility and unique stillness. The images appear otherworldly – imitating outer space. But he is also known to capture the views that lie between the water’s surface and the sky, sometimes securing a perfect mirrored image that seems to reflect eternity.
I asked him how many shots it takes until he is satisfied or has achieved what he wants. I also asked if there is much set up involved, and whether he shoots randomly or just shoots what he sees when he discovers something that he likes; “It really depends… by most photographer’s standards, I hardly shoot any photos at all. On photoshoots, assignments, or shooting action, I generally try to take single shots after thinking or composing the image I want to take. On an average day of shooting a particular subject, I will take between 100 to 300 photos, and narrow it down to 10 to 20 selects. If its a bigger, more interesting concept, I will think about it for awhile, and continuously try to capture it over hours, days, weeks, months until I get it right. Sometimes this is picking the best photo out of a total of 20, or 200.”
To achieve these breathtaking and unique images, Maassen employs a blend of old and new gear, including a Nikon D4 for his motion shots and he uses his Red Epic with a Nikon lens mount. For both cameras he shares a series of Nikon Nikkor prime lenses as well as some D4 autofocus lenses. According to Maassen, “I always shoot on the 16mm f/2.8, 24mm f/2.8, 35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.2, and 300mm f/4. I use both cameras in SPL waterhousing, which is how I am able to shoot in, and under the water”. The image below was shot by Maassen but is not Morgan. However it does document a familiar scene that shows the difficulty of photographing in such a challenging environment.
“Otherwise I shoot the majority of my personal work on my Dad’s old Nikon Kikkormat FTN and 500mm f/1.4 – the camera he used for fun when he was my age and travelling frequently. I also have a Hasselblad H4D-40, which I use for miscellaneous commercial and personal projects, a Hasselblad 500cm, Pentax 6×7, and Contax T2″. “I also have a Hasselblad H4D-40 which I use for miscellaneous and personal projects, a Hasselblad 500cm, Pentax 6×7, and Contaxt2.” In the end Maassen has some of the latest in equipment available to him and experiments with it all the time “
“But then, I own and mainly use 20-30 year old lenses. It’s an interesting juxtaposition really – my camera bag is a hodgepodge of new and old. Basically, everything is cherry-picked to find a balance between both usability and achieving a certain visual aesthetic.” It is this variety of cameras and lenses that helps him create the unique quality and intense effects that comprise his photography.
I asked Morgan if he does his own retouching in order to understand how he produces the amazing effects in his photographs and he answered, “I exclusively do my own retouching. I’m very particular about a photo and if it’s black and white, color, over or underexposed, etc. I only do contrast, exposure, and black/white editing anyways, but I like my call to be the final call, and avoid Photoshopped images … that look and feel is not my cup of tea, and I don’t like the way you can surgically alter a photo once its been taken – I find it morally upsetting.”