Though pop culture often presents surfing awash in sunny skies, in electric blue water, with tanned-to-perfection people riding waves in itty-bitty bathing suits, much of the world’s best surf actually has the audacity to break in cold, grey environs. The west coast of Canada, for example, is loaded with inlets, reefs, and points that shape and bend the dark and freezing Pacific into a wonderland of surf possibilities. The dramatic wilderness backgrounds and often moody skies just heighten the drama. All of which serves as a muse for Tofino-based photographer Marcus Paladino. His work brings the wilderness of surfing into sharp focus and presents a whole different, more rugged, elemental side of the sport. See for yourself, below.
What is it that drew you to shoot surfing?
Surfing is my life. My love of surfing is why I wake up in the morning and it’s the last thing I think about when I fall asleep. I surf every day and it’s only natural to want to photograph what you’re out there seeing. I think the draw for me is that the ocean isn’t something you can control—the conditions and the circumstances are always changing. It’s just a constant chase to seek out the best possible moments. Nothing else in photography excites me the way action does; I’ve always loved shooting things that are in motion, just freezing that little instant of time.
What’s the hardest part about shooting surfing up in the PNW?
First off, it’s not as freezing cold as you may think. But it does rain, a lot. Normally that would be fine with me because I grew up on Vancouver Island and I’m pretty used to that type of weather. The problem is I absolutely love shooting with good light, so it’s very limiting as far as shooting possibilities go when there’s so much darkness in the winter. Of course, that’s when the waves are the best.
When was your first “yeah, I’m a pro photographer!” moment?
There was really never a defining moment that changed anything for me, I just went from losing money, or maybe breaking even, to actually making (some) money. Before that, I used to stare at my bank account and wonder how much longer I could keep being a photographer if I didn’t start earning more of an income. I put all of my attention and energy into photography and refused to get a part-time job to cover rent. Figured a side job would have extinguished some of the motivation I needed to get where I wanted to be, to go from surviving to thriving. My proudest moment early in my career was when I got my first spread published in Surfing Magazine. Coast Mountain Culture picked one of my photos for a cover shot, and that was a surreal experience as well.
Why did you first pick up a camera and what motivates you to keep going?
I signed up for a photography class in high school because my older sister said it would be an easy “A.” Considering the only “A” I ever got in school was in PhysEd, I thought I could use the GPA boost. All my friends were in another photo class so I ended up with the artsy outcasts who actually paid attention to our lectures and assignments—that really helped. Working with 35mm film and creating timeless art slowed everything down and gave me a sense of calm. I’m still looking for that same feeling every time I pick up my camera, a moment when I don’t have to think about anything else except the shot I’m about to take. It’s meditative in its own way.
What’s your process and style?
That’s the question I’m most often asked, and I’ve never come up with a decent answer. My style is actually a mystery to me, it’s not something I plan out. I think that’s how style should be; it’s better when it’s not forced. I’m not trying to have a certain look or feel to my images, I’m just documenting what I see in as creative a way as possible. I love to showcase the surrounding environment of my subject and I try to place action as strategically as possible within the frame.
How did you get your name out there when you were first starting?
When I first moved to Tofino, I broke my leg. To kill time while I healed, my friends and I created this guerilla surf film series called ‘Kooks’. It started as an inside joke but quickly gained steam. By the time I had completed filming and editing the whole trilogy, it seemed like everyone involved in surfing in the Vancouver Island area knew who I was. Ironically people assumed I was a filmmaker, but in reality, I wanted nothing to do with video, I’ve always been 100 percent dedicated to the craft of still photography. But at least it got my name out there.
How does photography inform your life?
It allows me to capture and share these split-second moments that most people don’t even know exist. Or at least don’t get to see. Photography has changed the way I look at the world and allows me to notice beauty on a different level. It’s made me more aware of my surroundings and appreciative of the environment and community I’m so proud to call home.
Surfers, in order of appearance: