Photographer Michael Barrus Interview with South Coast
Michael Barrus describes himself as a UCSD nerd who ended up hanging out in La Jolla too much. Michael was born in Boston, raised in the Bay area, and cut his teeth in cold, oversized waves in Northern California. Barrus has spent more time trying to survive in the ocean than most people have, and way too much time with a camera. We at South Coast first got in touch with Michael Barrus through shop rider John Noris; which the two of them have been on quite the adventure lately as far as world travel to surf goes. Read more about why we wanted to share this talented surf photographer with you in this interview.
What’s that? I’ve lived in twelve houses in my twenty-two years. I’m currently shacking up in La Jolla, been here for five years.
Years Shooting Photos:
Going on four years now.
How did you get into photography?
I played with cameras occasionally growing up, but I never properly fell in love until I was eighteen on nineteen. I spent about three months on crutches, and being out of the water was driving me insane. I couldn’t stand being away from the ocean for long, so I started bringing a digital camera down to the beach instead of a board. I eventually got off the crutches but I didn’t put the camera down; at that point, I loved it as much as I did surfing. I’ve been glued to a viewfinder since then, though I’m finally beginning to surf as much as I shoot these days.
Do you enjoy working with film or primarily digital?
Digital. It’s so much easier. Film is beautiful and has depth and tones that you don’t see in digital photos, but every photo costs money and money is not something I have very much of.
Do you have any role model photographers or artists?
Of course. You can’t progress in any activity unless you have examples that you’re working towards. The people that have blown my mind (not necessarily in order of mind-blowingness) are Charles Bergquist, Chris Burkard, Morgan Maassen, Henri Cartier-Bressant, Todd Glaser, Steve Sherman, Patrick O’Dell, Terry Richardson, Robert Capa and Weegee.
Bergquist is a local media genius who lets me tool around his studio whenever I’m in town, which isn’t actually very often. He taught me pretty much everything I know about editing photos. He deserves a lot of recognition, and I owe him for being open and friendly and helpful.
Massen and Burkard are a couple of the best surf photographers there are. They’re both good photographers period, and they’re taking surf photography the direction it needs to go to be considered a legitimate breed of photography rather than just a shoddy documentation of a sport. There’s so much beauty in surfing, but so much surf photography is so bad (from a photographic standpoint). Burkard was really the first person I’ve seen to buck conventions and start treating surf photography from a more detached perspective- as photography and then documentation. I think he’s opened a lot of doors for more artistic approaches to surfing, not just blue water/black wetsuit/white board/midday sun. Google the rest of those names, you won’t regret it.
Waves, drunk girls, people surfing waves, and sober girls, not necessarily in that order.
Nikon D200. Retro, as far as digital cameras go.
Anywhere with Johnny Noris. In the last year, we’ve gone to Canada, Mainland Mexico, Baja, France, Spain, Washington, Oregon, Northern California, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine. I’ve spent a little time in Japan, Central America and Indonesia on my own.
What makes your photography different or unique?
I hope it’s unique. That’s a serious claim to make about your own work. I’d like to think that I spend more time studying photography outside of the surf world than most “surf photographers” do. Like I said earlier, most surf photography is pretty straightforward- someone doing a turn, as seen from eye level through a 600mm lens. It’s just kinda boring after a while, especially if you don’t surf. My goal is to take photos that people find interesting, even if they don’t know a thing about surfing. I don’t want to need people to understand the difference between certain types of airs or whatever to like my shots. I want photos that are visually stunning enough that people stop and stare, even if they’ve never seen the ocean before. I try to incorporate techniques I see in lifestyle photography, landscape photography, candids, fashion photography, whatever, into surfing-related photos. I’d like to think that people can look at my photographs and appreciate them as photographs, as aesthetically pleasing objects regardless of the subject matter, which isn’t something that can be said of most surf photography.
How would you describe your photography style?
Rich colors, pulled-back framing, high-contrast, grainy. I think there is this theme of alienation that kind of runs through my work. I don’t really show a lot of faces; you don’t see the front of people very often in my photographs. I think photos are kind of invasive, that taking a photo of someone’s face is kind of voyeuristic. I like photographing people, but it’s more their presence in a photo than the details about them that I enjoy.
Where has your photography been seen?
Wherever there’s an internet connection? I don’t really print very much. I’ve shown some photos in bars and little student galleries. I really only contribute to Surfline, as I have a pretty good relationship with those guys. I’m not really much of a hustler; I’m not good at selling myself. I’d love to spread my photos around though. People are always welcome to get in touch with me if they want to use me or my photos for any purpose.
You just returned from France? How was it shooting there?
France was fucking mental. France is literally the best place I’ve ever been- the culture, the historical artifacts, the architecture, the waves, the Nutella, the girls, the social scene, the beaches, the cities, the roads, the natural environment. The country is incredible. Johnny Noris and I went without knowing where we were going to stay, who we were going to stay with or what we were going to do for the two weeks we were there. We met some French surfers the first day we were there and ended up rallying around southern France with them for a week before heading inland and north where I knew some people. We literally spent three days surfing and two weeks exploring the country, and I don’t think either of us missed the ocean at all. It was the most interesting place I’ve ever been.
The waves were incredible, but the currents were devastating. I had to get out of the water and run up the sand every three minutes. It was such a tease to see these perfect waves barreling down the beach with no one out and know that the currents were going to keep me from getting near them. I’d go back in a second. We got great shots in almost no time. I can’t imagine what we would get if we went in season and had a couple weeks to shoot.
What makes surf photography challenging compared to other subject matter?
The medium, for sure. Being in the ocean. It’s so hard to shoot a good photograph while you’re trying to swim with a camera in one hand and negotiate all the elements at the same time. It’s stressful. It’s distracting. It’s much harder to predict where the wave are going to be, where your subject is going to be. It think it has held surfing photography back in a lot of ways. Surf photography isn’t like skate photography or snowboarding photography where everything is static and you can set up and then have the athlete hit the same kicker or section over and over again. It’s hard. You don’t get that many chances.
In-water or on Beach?
In the water. Always. Surfing just looks better when you’re right there, floating with the surfers.. The only time I really enjoy shooting from the beach is when the waves are empty and perfect and the surrounding environment is beautiful. A good line-up shot is classic.
When the waves are really pushing would you rather score barrels or photos of your buddies deep inside barrels?
Such a hard call. I love to surf, and I love to get barreled, but I’ve chosen shooting instead of surfing. It’s hard to watch waves roll through and know that you have to be the photographer, but it’s worth it to me to go home and know that you’ve nailed the shot. I love having something I can look at and play with after our session is over.
Have you ever broken equipment while shooting or traveling?
Yeah. I had to cut my first trip to Canada short because I dropped my camera while changing lenses on a boat. My housing stopped working a month into a two month trip to Puerto Escondido. I’ve smashed lenses, scratched ports, broken sensors, killed memory cards and ruined film. I’ve done it all. It’s part of the game.
What plans and/or projects are you looking forward to?
Going to Baja at the end of this week for abut a month. I’m excited to spend some time in the dirt. It gets my life back in order- I go to bed early, wake up early, and spend the whole day in the water. I love it.
What drives you to continue shooting photography?
I get tired of the photos I have in my archives and I want to improve them. I want to fill out my portfolio. I want to be better than I was last month. I just want to be better than I am.
We at South Coast Surf Shops would like to thank Michael Barrus for answering these question and providing us with some of his amazing and inspiring photography. We are way thrilled to have such an accomplished in-water and lifestyle photographer to continue to build a relationship with. We are sure there will be more to come (Michael just left for Baja for a month) so check back here and expect to see more of his beautiful work. Until then make sure you check out his website and flickr listed below.