“Know Your Rights” is a semi-regular column featuring profiles of and conversations with local surfers whose love for the ocean fuels their passion, in turn inspiring a deeper connection to the Northeast Florida community and making the RIGHT coast the BEST coast on which to live.
A few years ago, Surfer Magazine put me in touch with photographer Brian Nevins. I was to write a broad ranging feature on the state of surfing in New England and Nevins, a New Hampshire native, was to be my liaison to the area.
Now, from Art Brewer to Chris Klopf surf photographers have earned their reputations as curmudgeons—the saltiest in an industry full of salty dogs. As such, I made a point to arrive at Nevins’s Hampton, NH home bearing a gift—a bag of freshly ground coffee from North Florida’s own Bold Bean.
Over the course of a week, after starting each morning with a cup of Jacksonville-crafted Joe, Nevins and I traced the jagged coast from Rhode Island to Maine, where he dropped me into the lineups of one frigid pointbreak after another, each one flanked by a unique backdrop, from colonial mansions to craggy headlands. He couldn’t have been more accommodating. Safe to say: He liked the coffee.
Now that’s not to say Nevins doesn’t fit the stereotype of a coarse surf photog. Though he’s only 39, he can seem a grizzled vet. After years shooting surfing around the globe for Surfer and other pubs with a peer group that consisted of East Coast heavies like Sam Hammer, Mike Gleason, and Billy Hume, Nevins now loves to lament that he returned to Northeast to find his isolated surf enclave overrun by interlopers that he says reek of “lumberjack fashion with a JC Penny vibe, screaming the blandest ‘you can do anything if you dream’ attitude.”
Though he now mostly shoots portraits of various big names from the worlds of art, fashion, music, action sports and more, it’s clear Nevins remains unyieldingly protective of his 13 miles of New Hampshire coastline. And he’s certainly retained his saltiness
We recently caught up with the multi-talented East Coast lensman and asked for his thoughts on a broad range of topics from surfing in New England to shooting portraiture to his advice for aspiring photogs.
How’d you get into photography?
It was a bit of an accident, honestly. I was enrolled at Cuesta Community College in San Luis Obispo, basically to travel cheap by maintaining class credit. I had moved to California to surf and follow that life. Photography seemed like an easy class to skate through. I had a great professor who changed my life and turned an excuse class into a lifetime career.
Can you talk about the first photo you ever had published?
My first photo published was a shot of the band Less Than Jake in the Cuesta College news rag. They were my favorite band—still have a huge soft spot for them—and I weaseled my way onto their tour bus to interview and shoot them. I realized the enjoyment of photography was getting away with as much as possible to get the shot so it certainly started the passion. Then my first shot in Surfer Magazine was my first published surf photo. It was a terribly basic and not that technically well-executed portrait of my friend Mikey [Moran] holding a longboard. They used it as a full page to open an article about longboards making a come back. It was a big moment at the time seeing my name in print.
New England has a really distinctive surf culture and it’s definitely a unique place to shoot surfing. What role do you think that area played in your development as photographer?
Yeah New England has its own little thing going on. It certainly has gained fashionable traction these days. I’m assuming the younger generation’s obsession of lumberjack fashion with a JC Penny vibe screaming the blandest ‘you can do anything if you dream’ attitude lends itself to the lighthouse, LL Bean, ‘I bought a journal that says journal that I don’t write in but take photos of for Instagram posts’ kinda place Maine is. At this point Maine really is what people mean by New England. New England is a place with rich history and amazing core stories, but right now it’s big because, well… flannels and well-manicured beards.
As for me, my career started out west. I was a regular at Surfer Magazine based out of SoCal before I moved back home. Coming back certainly helped define what I wanted to tell as my story. We can shoot what we think people want to see or shoot what we want to say. This place was what I wanted to say in surfing.
When you started taking photos, you were shooting film, right? What was the transition from film to digital like for you? Did you drag your feet? Are you one to sh** talk the ease or immediacy of digital photography?
I dragged my feet for sure. When things swapped to digital the technology just wasn’t there. I didn’t fight it because I was afraid of change—I couldn’t wait to stop spending money on film. It just wasn’t up to the quality film was and it took a while. I waited until digital was making something film couldn’t do. It has always been about making the most out of my craft. Hard to imagine going backward now.
You made a name for yourself (at least in the surf world) shooting with a crew of EC surfers. Can you talk about those years and what you gained from dedicating yourself to traveling and shooting surfing?
Best years of my career. Made no money and travelled the world with what are now lifelong friends. We still find time to discover new waves up here and keep the passion alive. There’s solace in surrounding yourself with likeminded, passionate people. It helped me not care if it was cool or not what we were doing and just do it for the right reasons.
You lived away from the East Coast for some time. Do you think that was an essential or formative move for you?
I moved to California when I was 17. I went to surf, eat and repeat. I stayed for a decade. California shaped my entire 20s, which in turn shaped my photography eventually and of course my outlook on life. Wouldn’t trade those years for anything. I was fortunate to start shooting surf at the peak of industry money and competition out there. While the money never came my way I was able to fight through a pack of cutthroat West Coast photographers to reach a senior level of respect in a sport that couldn’t be any less welcoming to someone from New Hampshire.
In recent years I know you’ve become an in-demand portrait photographer, most notably shooting some big name artists/musicians/athletes. Why did you move away from shooting surfing? And do you think there is longevity in surf photography?
I just wanted to shoot other things and live more of this life, honestly. The more I travelled for surf the more I saw what the world had to offer and wanted to experience that. I can’t imagine not branching out and being other things. Change is the spice of life. There’s also a paycheck in other parts of photography where there really is a limited ceiling for that in surf alone. Portraits have been my calling as a photographer and I’ve embraced that the best I can. Some days it’s with someone amazing telling a crazy story in a single frame. And some days it’s just a job. Either way it’s a blessing to pull the lens out.
What’s your favorite photograph you’ve ever taken?
A selfie on my iPhone with my daughter holding my face when she was really tiny. I wish I could have that moment on repeat until I die and it’s the only photo I would keep if told I could only have one.
What advice do you have for budding/aspiring surf photogs?
Learn tenacity. Don’t quit. Embrace failure. Learn from, accept, and embrace criticism and get tough skin because you’ll have more people try to knock you down than lift you up. Also, change. Never stop learning and do it because you love it, not because you want the world to love you.
To see more of Nevins work, visit the photographers website, here.