"Ike" The Master Photog: Scott Aichner
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
– Isaac Newton, letter to Robert Hooke, 1676
The following articles are about the people who inspired me to press on when I found the world ill-defined. While I admired Hemingway and Kerouac, J.D. Salinger and Keri Hulme, Dylan Thomas and Robert Frost, the people in my Standing on the Shoulders of Giants series were, and are, the tangible, and the most immediate, examples I have of people living lives immersed in, and in pursuit of, their respective passions. I feel very fortunate, and am thankful for, the circumstances which caused our lives to intersect. It is from their shoulders that I could see what might be instead of just what was.
by philip scott wikel
(originally published in the VC Reporter, 2003)
He’s now one of the most sought after surf photographers in the world, but first things first…
When I first met Scott Aichner he was an awkward bodyboard rat just out of high school. We lived next door to each other in a duplex on Bath Lane in the Pierpont section of Ventura. My girlfriend and I would have him over for cups of tea on a regular basis and we’d talk about the ocean and surfing and other things. Scott had a girlfriend named Sandy from East Ventura and, with all that was going on his life at the time, he was trying to figure how to fit it all together.
That winter in 1990 Scott had some time off from his job as a bellman at the Ojai Valley Inn and I was on break from Ventura College. We decided to head down to Mexico to shop for Christmas presents for our friends and family. It was on that trip that I learned that this awkward kid was really a deeply spiritual character. I assumed the role of big brother as we talked of relationships and the logistics of balancing the professional with the personal and the prospect of living together with a woman you care for. I gave him what I could, which at the age of twenty-three, wasn’t a whole lot.
Scott was working full-time, going to school full-time and also competing as a bodyboarder. Something had to give. Within his relationship with Sandy, Scott seemed to gain a focus and clarity and new outlook about his life. The money he made at the Inn was good but he had different ambitions. With what seemed to me a radical shift, Scott quit school and dropped $5,000 on video equipment. I remember thinking he’d gone a bit crazy, but soon after, he invited me over to his place after we’d surfed the Bath Lane jetty together. He showed me raw footage of the local surf talent of the time; guys like Sean Hayes, Keoni Cuccia, the Malloy brothers and Brian Laird.
Scott had this child-like, wide-eyed enthusiasm about the power and potential of his new equipment and I remember getting so caught up in his energy that I just kept asking to see more. Within a couple of months Scott released his first 30 minute film, Ventura: The Movie.
In the winter of 1992, the Santa Clara Lagoon broke open creating rivermouth surf that lit up Ventura as the place to be for good surf. The film opened with Sean Hayes sampling one of the dredging, brown and gnarly tubes at the spot and the crowd went wild. Scott said of that night:
“It was an amazing moment when it opened, the theatre was filled with surfers of all ages and I was standing there with my rented equipment and all the energy in the place seemed to be coming through me.”
The film didn’t make him any money but he says it was never about money. The joy he derived from shooting his friends in the water and displaying this for the local surf crowd was all the payment he needed; it was a pivotal night for Scott and a collectively stellar moment for the Ventura surfing sub-culture with Raging Arb and the Redheads rounding out an evening that would be talked about for months.
A year later Scott released “V2 and beyond” which included footage from Mexico and more phenomenal footage of Ventura County from Oil Piers to the base Point Mugu Naval Base. V2 received critical acclaim from some of the surf magazines and it seemed Scott was on his way to taking his place among the likes of Bruce Browne of Endless Summer fame but when asked about this moment in his life Scott says:
“It was technically a mess, I was trying to do more than I was ready for, the Visa was tapped.”
In V2 and beyond, Scott had incorporated the “helmet cam,” a new development in surf videography, and the response to this new approach was one of collective stoke from his viewers. The surf masses liked what Scott was doing and were expecting more.
He must’ve found a little more room on his card because within a year Scott released “Pacific Rim” which included footage of Tahiti and Hawaii. He bought footage from Tahiti but the footage from Hawaii required a six-week stay in the islands. Again this film was well-received but, having made three surf and several bodyboarding films, and while incorporating the use of 16mm in place of Hi-8 added something of a new direction for his work, Scott was beginning to feel as if he’d accomplished all that he was meant to accomplish with a video camera. In good brotherly form, he had used his films as a means to help promote the careers of his surfing buddies, even giving my own fledgling surf magazine a giant plug in the credits.
In January of 1997 Scott and Sandy moved to Oahu, the Hawaiian island which boasts the legendary landmark of Diamond Head and the some of the world’s best surf. He managed to parlay his good-standing at the Ojai Valley Inn into a position at Turtle Bay, one of the North Shore’s premier resorts. He turned down a few offers to work as a videographer in Honolulu, preferring to stay close to home and experiment with high speed film.
“Shooting high-speed film was much more complicated in terms of production which required sending it to California for processing,” Scott says of this experience.
At this point Scott took a hard look at the business of making films. He saw that he could only produce 2 films per year which meant, as a businessman, he was only creating two products per year. He was finding that he had to devote at least six months of each year to create a sale-able commodity. If he was to shift his focus to shooting stills he might be able to travel lighter and be involved in more projects, adding a diversity in his life that he felt he would enjoy.
Focus and click
In the summer of 1998 Scott released the last of his videos and and started shooting stills. His first camera was a Pentax 6×7, medium format with a fish-eye lens and a water-housing. The camera had a shallow depth of field and he he had to use a higher, 800 speed film. He immersed himself in camera literature to find the best combination of camera and film and says that he paid a lot of attention to the “Business Channel” which he found offered an inexpensive education in the inner-workings of successful entrepreneurship.
During the winter of 1998 and during the Hawaiian Triple Crown of surfing Scott went to the “”Surfer Magazine House” on the North Shore with twenty of his best stills. He stopped in uninvited and showed them the images, medium format slides which, Art Brewer, Evan Slater and Jeff Divine, all legendary names in surfing, held up to the fluorescent lights in the kitchen. They were all very stoked.
The magazine took eight or nine images back to their headquarters in Dana Point, California, used one as a two-page spread right away and another for “Surfer’s” cover in April of 1999. Riptide, a body boarding magazine, also used one of his images for their magazine that same month. One must understand the competitive nature of the business of surf photography to understand the magnitude of Scott’s good fortune. There are literally hundreds of photographers snapping photos on any given day around the world. And it’s important to note that the image used for “Surfer’s” cover was one of an un-sponsored kid wearing a funky puka shell necklace with no logos in his surfboard. This was a very non-commercial move for Surfer but one that launched Scott into the surf photographer’s stratosphere.
There’s an ethereal richness, a depth, texture and an almost otherworldly and religious quality to Scotts photos. To me his photos reflect the way in which God would want us to see his ocean.
Recently, while sitting at the “Full of Beans” coffee shop at Pierpont Beach and viewing Scott’s portfolio on his laptop, I was transported back to that day nearly 15 years previously when Scott first invited me to see his raw footage of surfing. At 32 his portfolio already rivals those who’ve been in and around the industry for decades longer.
I asked Scott, “How does it feel when you see your name listed in the inside cover of SURFER in the photo credit?”
He replied with a deep silence. A silence that speaks to the old surfing ideal that the best experiences in a surfer’s life cannot be communicated verbally.
Scott does say that he finds the magazines good to work with. He’s now on contract with SURFER in the U.S., WAVES in Australia, Surf First in Japan, Surf Europe, and FLUIR in Brazil. All of these magazines were willing to work with Scott based on two things: his track record as a viable and long-time surf videographer and second, his undeniable prowess as a still photographer. He adds that he loves the recent developments in technology which allow him to give his employers immediate access to his work.
“It’s very cool being able to be on the phone with one of the mags and feeding them photos online.”
With all of this, and all being good, I had to ask what the drawbacks might be:
“Well, you’re in harm’s way in the water, I just try to stay calm and go with the flow. It’s like driving, you just have to know what’s going on out there.”
When we met last month Scott was on his way to Australia for three weeks to shoot surf spots in a remote corner of that continent. “I feel super lucky,” he says, “and I couldn’t do all of this if it wasn’t for my wife Sandy and all of the help that she gives.”