Surf Photographer’s Feature | Maggie Higgins

California Excursion with Maggie Higgins. Photo shot on Tatsuo’s 650mm Century lens.

As surfing’s popularity, accessibility, and respect-factor grows in my home state of New Jersey; it’s interesting to watch it’s transformation from when I started riding over three decades ago.

When I was a teenager surfing, the classic phrase “are there even waves in New Jersey”, seemed to be on everyone’s lips who didn’t live and surf in this small state situated a bit north on the Atlantic coastline of the United States. But all these years later, living in the age of the advent of social media, as instantaneous photo and film features from each swell, now the world knows that New Jersey actually has waves. In fact, we get pretty amazing and hollow ones when all the elements align.

As surfing and the lifestyle continually grow here in New Jersey, so does the crop of young up-and-coming photographers with a deep passion for documenting the art of surfing.

I was first turned-on to the photographs by Maggie Higgins through here Instagram feed and later connected with her for a few sessions. Her photo work is simple and clean, capturing the feeling of flowing on a wave in a somewhat timeless manner.

She’s young, stoked, dedicated, and a sweet soul. I’m sure we’ll see as her photography path and career flourish in the upcoming years.

Maggie just returned from a California photographic excursion and quickly reached-out to catch up and get some insight into her work.

 

What initially attracted you to surfing? Do you remember what your first wave felt like?

As cliche as it sounds, I always felt very connected to the ocean. Since I was very young I’ve been interested in ocean conservation and just wanted to be in the ocean all the time, so surfing seemed to be another way to get in tune with the ocean.

I still remember my first wave, it was in Spring Lake, small but clean, it just felt real natural. That changed my life and I’m very grateful for that. 

Which came first, your love for surfing, or your love of photography?

Photography came first. That was another thing that I started at a very young age. My dad gave me a little point-and-shoot, but I would literally shoot anything. and never really focused on a subject. A few years later I started surfing and eventually merged the two together.

Your work tends to be aesthetically simple and clean. You capture the pure spirit of surfing in your photos. 

What are you looking for in a good photo? What inspires you? 

A good surfer, good lighting, and hopefully a good story.

So many things inspire me, but one thing I always seem to go back to is people doing what they love, no matter what it is. My friend Johnny Borbone is a good example, a talented shaper and just a great person. He works a 9-5 job in New York, then comes home and shapes these beautiful and unique boards until midnight. So I have to give him a lot of credit. He definitely inspires me to work hard and to keep doing what I love.

You shoot a variety of conditions, but you have a strong focus on small waves. Much of the best conditions for shooting take place on those smaller, yet overlooked days. 

What draws you to the subject of smaller waves and bigger boards? 

My dreams consist of perfect California waist-to-chest high waves, so I seem to be drawn to smaller waves because of that. Don’t get me wrong, I love chasing big swells, but I feel like surfers can get pretty creative on small days and big boards. I’ve always been attracted to longboards, watching people walk the board, and standing on the nose has always been such an art to me and that’s exactly why I got into surf photography. I like to show the artsy side of surfing in my photos.

I dig that you care about surf photo history and culture. What excites you most about surf photo history and what would you like to add to the “big picture” so to speak? 

I really admire the people who came before me, like Leroy Grannis and Ron Stoner. They learned and shot on all manual film cameras which takes years to master. Back in the day you couldn’t switch your camera to auto and call yourself a photographer, you had to figure that out yourself and hope the photo was exposed and focused correctly. It took real skill that I feel like more photographers should appreciate.
I’d like to keep on shooting more film and hopefully more people do too. I hope to see people appreciate grain, light leaks, and all the happy accidents that seem to come with it.

You recently made a trip out west and linked up with a few different surfers and photographers out there. 

How was your first California experience?

It was exactly what I dreamed it would be like! I pull up to the break I’ve always wanted to shoot and see Joel Tudor surfing clean little lefts and Tatsuo Takei sitting in his van which he is lucky enough to call home. I remember thinking ‘wow my dream finally came true.’ Tatsuo is a surf photographer that I found out about flipping through The Surfers Journal maybe a little over a year ago. I loved his story and immediately felt connected to him, so one day I messaged him and we’ve been talking since then. Before I left I received a message from him saying that he’d love to show me around his beautiful California home and how he would like to teach me how to shoot with his all manual Century 650mm lens (which is 60’s and 70’s Surfer Magazine material) before his trip back home to Japan to finish his book project, so of course, I said yes. He taught me a lot on that trip and we talked about our love for keeping the 60’s surf culture alive as we drove around in his van showing me his favorite places to shoot. After we shot a roll of black and white film with his camera we went to the camera shop to get it developed, it was pretty cool to see how that lens made everything look like it did back in the day. I’m grateful for everything California and Tatsuo taught me, whether it was about photography, surfing, or just life, I feel so lucky to call him my mentor and California my second home.

What do you feel the differences may be between shooting in Southern California, in contrast to shooting in New Jersey?

Immediately the first thing that comes to mind is how laid back everyone is and how you’re always greeted with a smile. Definitely a little less aggressive than New Jersey haha! Another thing I noticed is that surfers really seem to appreciate the surf history, whether young or old, it really shows.

Tell us a bit about swimming and shooting in the cold winter waters of New Jersey?

This will be my first winter shooting in the water, and so far I’m now realizing it’s not for the faint of heart. I feel like you need to be a good swimmer and a little insane! Not everybody can float in the water for a few hours with a 10lb camera in freezing temperatures waiting for everything to line up perfectly. It takes a lot of dedication and training since it not only messes with you physically, but mentally. Luckily I love a challenge. So I’m pretty excited for the next few months.

You’re a totally self taught photographer. What are the do it yourself ways you continue to grow with your craft?

Read. Read always. I’ve learned everything I know by picking up a book. I feel like it’s really important to understand how my camera works, so I always find myself flipping through my camera manual. Another thing I like to do is reach out to other photographers, especially locals. Someone who I have to thank is Tim Torchia. When I started in-water surf photography he gave me few tips that I really needed and still use today. So reading and reaching out has definitely helped me grow the most.

Why do you feel documenting the surfing experience is important?

I always joke that I can’t wait to show my future kids my photos and see how much the surf culture has changed, because it seems to be changing quickly. I think it’s important so that the new generation can look back at our photos and hopefully be inspired to continue the art and respect for the culture.

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Growing up in New Jersey, Shawn discovered and quickly immersed himself in the sub-culture of surfing and skateboarding in the mid 80’s. With a diverse and eclectic background, Shawn has walked the path of a competitive surfer, Hare Krsna monk, action sports industry player in NYC, DIY theology and religions major, and a touring punk rock musician. Now a father and self-proclaimed seeker of the “soul” of surfing, Shawn enjoys sessions with friends at uncrowded peaks along his home state’s shoreline and writing about his surf related experiences.

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