When you ask Aaron Chang how long he has been a photographer, he answers, "too long to count," brimming with enthusiasm for his craft. A self-declared surfer-before-photographer, he spent myriad years following his "endless summer," charging around the globe and taking the photographs that would make him famous. Chang had to forge new frontiers and unleash a new protocol for surf photographers, but without a doubt, he is one of the lucky ones who found a way to meld his passions for surf and visual arts into a lifelong career of success, globetrotting and community service.
His father introduced him to photography, placing a little bellows camera into his hands at age 9. When Chang walked into his first darkroom at a high school where his father was teaching, he became completely entranced by the lab environment.
"The first pictures I consciously took were of giant ants invading a village of Matchbox cars, in black and white," he says. "It really was a funny, cool start." At age 10, Chang moved to Imperial Beach, where the "ocean became my obsession." Though he was enthralled with photography, surfing dominated his thoughts, along with the thirst to travel to Hawaii.
"My dad, who was born and raised there, agreed that if I made it through high school, I’d get a trip to the islands." After 10 days on Oahu, Chang flew home, sold everything, said goodbye to his friends and got back on a plane. He found a job in Waikiki taking pictures of tourists at luaus and on boat cruises, but North Shore kept calling.
"Eventually I got there by renting a tool shed to live in, which fit my budget at $70 a month," he says with a laugh. "And then I started surfing."
Waimea Bay - Photo by Aaron Chang
The first person to rescue the young surfer from poverty was engineer Brad Wagner, who owns Gabber Pacific and had a passion for photography. Chang explains, "He revolutionized the postcard industry by marrying good images with excellent lithographic printing, thus creating the format today."
An encounter with Larry Moore, the photo editor at Surfing Magazine, changed Chang’s life. "Larry challenged me to replicate some of the water angles from my film camera with a still camera. The next winter, I hit a shot that at the time was unseen — a wide-angle water shot at Pipeline. It was one of those successes that went global. I was 20."
From there, he clawed his way up to the masthead of Surfing Magazine, enjoying his job with carte blanche to travel the world. Often he worked abroad eight or nine months of the year.
One trait separating Chang from his competition was his courage. "When nobody else would go in the ocean, I would do it. Many days when Waimea Bay was out of control and everyone was standing around the bay freaking out, I would go in the water. Sometimes foolishly," he jokes, "but that was my deal."
While Chang shoots a wide spectrum of subjects, from the jungles of Bali to the African savannah, he is famous for his stirring photographs of waves and perfect barrels of sunlit water caught in a single instant of beauty. From Teahupoo to Del Mar, soul-stirring waves fill his gallery walls in a colorful rush, encompassing the power of the sea and its pristine natural beauty.
"Whenever you are making photos and a good situation presents itself," Chang reflects, "you get this sort of chill. And that can come anywhere."
Presently, he shares a new gallery space with painter Wade Koniakowsky, on Cedros in the heart of the Solana Beach Design District. It also stands as a place for community outreach and mentoring kids.
Married for 19 years with two young sons, Chang has shelved his wanderlust a bit. "Having spent so much time abroad doing everything from chasing elephants to diving off cliffs," he says, "what I love most now is being with my family."
With a winsome smile and a light in his eyes, Chang declares, "I’ve seen a lot of places in the world, discovered a few new surf spots and surfed all my dream waves. I’ve had an incredibly blessed surfing life. It was my initial goal to surf around the world. Photography became my vehicle. If I died right now, I’d depart very content with my surfing life."