Behind the Lens: Q&A with Morgan Maassen
Photographer Morgan Maassen brings you into focus his work and life
By Valeri Spiwak
Life’s a beach, literally, for photographer Morgan Maassen.
Known for his unique and dreamy surf photos, Maassen has been around the world and back, documenting his travels through whimsical photography and a daring sense of adventure. While Maassen was born and raised in Santa Barbara, Calif., he rarely find himself in one place for long. The 26-year-old Maassen has already accumulated an insanely impressive resume of photo works, from ad campaigns with Nike, Mercedes Benz and Corona to editorial features with National Geographic, Esquire and Condé Naste Traveler – and everything in between.
We caught up with the traveling photographer in between his latest trips to find out more behind his artistic gift of capturing the world through a camera lens, what inspires him, and more.
LAC: Why photography? What about it first hooked you?
Morgan Maassen: As a kid, I was obsessed with art, the ocean and traveling. In my teenage years, I started making short films, so when I got my hands on a still camera around the age of 18, the concept of freezing motion absolutely blew my mind. It was an exhilarating change from telling stories with motion, while also blending so many elements of art that I grew up observing.
LAC: You are most famous for your “dreamlike” surf photos, but what do you personally feel most heavily influences your photography work?
MM: The world of art without question. I grew up painting, drawing, sculpting and building, and around the age of 18 I delved into art history and theory, which circled back to really help expand my take on what could be done with a camera. The abstract nature of creating with art mediums, to express anything from movement and minimalism to philosophy, really laid the building blocks for when I fell into photography.
LAC: What about surfing do you love photographing?
MM: I learned how to surf at the age of 7and really made it my passion several years later. Beyond the beauty of riding a wave, the travel that surfing entails really spoke to me. Surfing is so much more than just the action itself. It is a gateway to the world, adventure and the mysteries of the ocean. I love capturing it all, through both appreciation and curiosity.
LAC: Who are some of your heroes and sources of inspiration?
MM: My parents, brother and dog, Moose. My family inspires me to be a better person, to be who I want to be and to be as prolific as possible. I look up to two of my closest friends, Will Adler, for his sublime fine art photography, and Zio Ziegler, for his surreal paintings. They both meld humor and intelligence into their work effortlessly, which intrigues me to no end. And as far as timeless heroes, Ashley Bickerton, Wassily Kandinsky and Jean-Michel Basquiat, for their art is truly my favorite.
LAC: What is your camera weapon of choice?
MM: I shoot the majority of my work on my Nikon D4s with a 50mm F/1.4. for personal projects. I also love using my dad’s old Nikkormat FTN 35mm SLR. For video. and now some stills as well, I use a Red Weapon and Nikon 14mm f/2.8. My backpack almost never wavers from this setup.
LAC: How did you manage to get both your passion for photography and traveling to coincide with making a living?
MM: Before finding my groove with filmmaking and photography, I was an aspiring graphic and web designer, doing both for Shawn Stussy. After several years of sitting at a desk all day, I yearned to travel more than ever, so I took a leap of faith and hit the road. Once out the door, I knew I could never return to an office while simultaneously I realized the intensity of the real world and the delicate balance of how work, education and money co-exist. So I threw every ounce of energy into making something work and it happened to be photography.
LAC: What has traveling the globe to shoot countless projects taught you about yourself?
MM: It’s too early to say. I’ve grown immensely as a person, through all the broad experiences ranging from cultures and weather to dealing with massive commercial shoots or being by myself in foreign countries. I’ve learned of values that both mean an immense amount to me and/or how much they mean to other people. In that sense, I’ve truly become an adult, or I’d like to think so, but I’ve also flown through this life by the seat of my pants and have no clear definition of when and how to slow down. The mystery of my next adventure keeps me going, but also obfuscates any sort of normalcy.
LAC: You also have gained a stellar social media following. Did you ever guess you’d garner such an impressive fan base?
MM: No, and it still blows my mind! I do the bare minimum with the only two requisites of my social media, being that I post once a day and that all my platforms maintain the same aesthetic and simplicity. To have acquired the following I have feels surreal and undeserved, but I am immensely grateful for the opportunities it has bestowed upon me.
LAC: What do you hope your fans gain from your work?
MM: I make my work to satiate my curiosity and admiration of the world and hope that viewers will perceive that, or some other form of appreciation of what beauty and chaos lies out there.
LAC: What is one of your most memorable shoots?
MM: Without question swimming with whales in Tahiti. I was numb with awe, floating in the middle of the ocean with a mother and its calf as they ascended through the crystalline water. It was a moment more powerful than anything I’ve ever felt, a feeling I’ll never forget.
LAC: You’ve shot for incredible companies and brands from Apple, Mercedes Benz and Delta Airlines to editorial work with Nat Geo, ESPN and Harper’s Bazaar. How did some of these incredible collaborations come to be?
MM: By steadily updating my website, blog, and social media. I’ve had a multitude of clients, magazines and creative agencies reach out to me to work on projects. One project leads to another and from my first ever photography job with Patagonia six years ago to now working with Corona, Mercedes, and Apple, I’m very proud to say my career has reached a level I could have never fathomed. I’ve given every moment of my passion for photography my 110 percent and through all the networking, meetings, conference calls, emails, and planning people noticed. It all started when Patagonia noticed some photos I had taken of my friend Trevor, an ambassador for them at the time, and they asked to buy them. I seized the opportunity to waltz into the office, show them my paltry portfolio and ask them to send me on a trip. My bluntness worked and several months later we were in Mexico shooting board shorts for their catalog.
LAC: What are you personally most proud of thus far in your career?
MM: My proudest achievement is that right now I can scheme up any place in the world to visit and have the means to go there. I’ll never forget the helplessness I felt when I dropped out of high school to take a full-time desk job. Direction and purpose seemed impossible to decipher looking forward in life, which loomed dauntingly. So above and beyond my passions of photography and filmmaking, the apple of my eye is travel, and to be in the position I am in now is my ultimate dream come true.
LAC: What’s next for you? Any new adventures, photo projects, etc.?
MM: I’m leaving in several days for a seven-week, 10 country trip documenting plastic pollution in the ocean, which I’m incredibly excited for. As both a production and a project of purpose, this will be by far my most ambitious undertaking.
LAC: What advice do you have for the young, aspiring photographers/travelers out there?
MM: I’ve had such a untraditional trajectory to get to where I am today that I am often wary of giving advice, but what helped me most to become a better photographer consists of constantly refining your body of work, marketing yourself as far and wide as possible on the internet, networking with any and every potential collaborator or inspiration, and shooting photos everyday of everything possible.
Follow Morgan Maassen and stay up to date on all his recent adventures, above or below sea level, by following him on Instagram @MorganMaassen