Editor’s Note: California is a magical place. Especially if you’re a photographer…right? Well it’s trickier than you think. Even with trains of NW swell stacking up in the Pacific. To get gold it takes a lot of homework and a good amount of luck to get the classic imagery you’re after — or maybe you should document it as you like, which is why we love Quinn. Quinn Matthews is a young photographer who has picked up the skills necessary to nail it, and make it look easy, but with just enough cynicism to keep it fresh. Below, Quinn takes us through the many nuances of chasing waves in California and how to keep it fresh. And in his gallery, proves why he’s become of the best in the land. —Travis
WHAT YOUTH: Tell us about chasing swell in California this year.
QUINN MATTHEWS: Chasing swells in California is nearly always frustrating. Everyone gets excited a few days before the swell. Reasonably though — Surfline convinces everyone it will be the best day of surfing in a decade, pressuring everyone and their extended family into the lineups. It’s stupid; there are only so many sets a day. The top 10 surfers in the lineup get most of the best waves, besides a few rare exceptions.
The “surfers” who come out of the woodwork are better to wait until next week when its 2- to 3 foot and paddle out then. That’s not the way it works though. On the big days they sit on the inside, battle a crowd of surfers for all the ones that sneak through, get a couple chest high waves, and hibernate until the next purple blob hits the radar. Come on guys! Paddle out on a 3- to 4 foot day on a random Tuesday at 10:30 am you’ll catch more waves. Efficiency! I’m sharing a trade secret here. Don’t expect me to pick up the phone Tuesday morning, it’s the only time I can catch a wave. But I’m just saying.
What are you doing a few days before the swell hits?
I’m buying film, checking batteries, and trying to clean equipment. Everyone texts each other trying to figure out where the waves are going to be best. Then the whole industry shows up and the waves are really good for California. This swell I tried a place I’ve never been to… Sandpit. I’ve seen it, and now I think I’m done with it. The morning session was sweet, just Yadin, Dane, and a few other local pros. I was the only photographer I know of (besides a couple shooting over my shoulder with a 800mm from the pier). Then word got out. Photos and videos were posted within the hour of perfect waves. The evening session had more than 50 cameras on the beach documenting, and twice as many people in the lineup. That might be an exaggeration, but I don’t think so, it was really that crowded.
In a world gone mad on social media, exploitation, crowds and chaos, how do you keep it fresh?
So most the time I try and avoid the crowds and spots everyone will be. The waves might not be as good where we shoot, but at least there is control over what is shared from the session and when. There is a sensory overload anytime there is swell in California. Everyone’s surfing and everyone’s shooting and it’s easy to get numb to it all. Imagery overload is a serious issue. I try and keep it from getting stale by curating the photos well and not racing to get imagery from the session up that afternoon the same time as everyone else. And don’t shoot the same angle as everyone. As a photographer that gets really boring, and as an audience for imagery it gets really boring.
What’s the funniest thing you saw during this most recent run of swell?
The funniest thing I saw happen was somebody yelling at Yadin. We were walking back to the parking lot and had stopped to talk to Kolohe as he was driving by, when this guy flew by on a bike and angrily shouted,“Go back to where you moved from!” The guy looked like the worst surfer ever, if he even surfed. And we were just walking away from Sandspit, the most known wave in California after this swell. It was funny since Yadin’s lived here in California with his family for like 8 years or something like that. He even just moved from Santa Barbara to Orange County. So if Yadin did move back to where he lived it would be a couple short miles from Sandspit. Localism is kind of understandable in some situations, but localism is just weird out at Sandspit. It’s no secret.
Who did you have the most fun hanging out with?
I always have fun when I’m shooting.
I try and avoid the people that make surfing and documenting it not fun. The most fun thing I did this swell though was photograph Ian Crane and Luke Davis shooting the pier in San Clemente from under the pier.
It was just us and Jacob Vanderwork filming from the water. It was great vibes, everyone was smiling and we were mixing it up. I don’t think anyone else was shooting photos of shooting the pier this swell. So I think I won.
Did you get sick from the water quality at all?
At the start of this run of swell there was so much rain. I didn’t shoot at all the first week because it was pouring. Then on the first day with decent weather (the day Sandspit was going crazy) I swam at that entrance to the harbor for over four hours straight. I should’ve known I was bound to get sick. I felt fine for a while then started to feel pretty bad. I thought it was food poisoning or something. Then the next night when I got home it hit me like a train. I felt so bad and didn’t leave bed for almost three days. I had to cancel my third trip in a row because of sickness (I was sick the last two months of 2015). I was meant to be on a dreamy island in the Caribbean discovering waves, but instead spent it alone, dying in my bed. It sucked. Better now though.
Are you still excited to shoot California?
I was pretty jaded by shooting in California for a long time. I’ve been shooting a lot recently while I’m home and I’m pretty psyched on it. Sure, a lot of the mornings aren’t as good as you hope and the light is pretty bad most the time. I think you just have to approach it differently. Most people try and get crazy lineup shots or make the waves look like Indo. Now I think that’s all wrong. I’m psyched to shoot the sessions where there’s a good crew and everyone’s having a great time. Don’t take the waves in California seriously.
Focus on the fun sessions and the real California, don’t shoot it like you would the Mentawais.
What’s your favorite photo of the year so far?
My favorite photo this winter is probably Luke Davis shooting the pier. I haven’t shot any waves that are really good yet, mostly just because that’s how California is. When comparing a surf shot from here to some crazy reef-break in some other corner of the world 99 percent of the time California will look terrible. Shooting the pier is different though, less performance, more novelty. It’s Luke’s hometown, the framing is a bit abstract, and I like the composition.