I connected with photographer M.A. Spagnuolo after seeing his photos of surfer/shaper Charles Mencel. I reached out to him in regards to doing some work together for The Anchor, it just so happened a solid swell hit the next day. The waves were super clean, overhead and the sun was shining. It was an unusually warm fall day, with paradisaical waves banking off one of my favorite jetties. Although MA already shot that morning and had a wedding to be at in a few hours, he rushed down to the break and quickly swam out to shoot a few photos. I was impressed with his devotion to his craft. I think most people would have declined to shoot another session under those conditions. 

I recently caught up with the Belmar, NJ local to get some insight into his past, present and seemingly bright future with surf photography.

ZAPPO: When and where did you start surfing? What initially drew you to the ocean?

SPAGNUOLO: I recently found a home video of me at two years old, I was just getting pummeled by shore break and loving every minute of it. So I’ve had a love for the ocean longer then I can actually remember. Like most, I started off learning how to body surf from my dad. Then when I was four, Santa brought me my first bodyboard. I always wanted to learn to surf, but it wasn’t until I was 17 and I could afford to purchase my own board that I started. It took me a long time to catch my first wave. I still love to body surf and you can usually find me in the lineup (if I’m not shooting) with my hand plane and fins body surfing.

Liam Mahoney

ZAPPO: Was your interest in photography based around wanting to shoot surfers specifically, or were you always interested in photography in general?

SPAGNUOLO: I actually started out being really into video. I was in my high school Television Production class for 4 years, then went to Rowan University and majored in Radio/TV/Film. It wasn’t until my senior year at Rowan that I took a general photography class as an easy elective. We used film cameras and I learned how to develop my own roll of film and worked in the darkroom. After college it was hard to keep up with using that camera, I didn’t have access to a darkroom so I ended up investing in a Canon Rebel. I had a lot of fun playing around with that camera, but the one thing I always wanted for it was a water housing so I could shoot surfing. For my 25th birthday my girlfriend at the time bought me one, which was pretty much a glorified ziplock bag. My buddies and I took it out the very next day and I was hooked. That winter I decided that I was going to invest in upgrading my equipment with a new body, lens and professional housing. The goal was that during swells I would go out and shoot. Then surfers would be able to order photos of themselves online. Well that never happened. At the same time I was working for MSG Varsity as a videographer and they had sent out a companywide email asking if anyone would be interested in taking photos from them. I told them I would give it a shot. I was assigned a track meet to cover and I got a very positive response back about my images. From then on I started to receive more photo work than video work. Now I am their lead photographer. I think that really helped fuel my love of photography, because I was getting paid to develop my skills as a photographer and I had a constant opportunity to shoot sports.

ZAPPO: When shooting surfing there are many things that come into play. The subject or the surfer you are shooting, various weather conditions, the quality of swell, the overall visual aesthetic of the break combined with the conditions and I would imagine many more. What do you think makes for a great surf photo?

SPAGNUOLO: That’s a tough question. Like you said, there are so many variables that go into shooting. I think you really need to have an idea in your head of what kind of shot you want to get that day and try to capture it. If what you are trying to capture isn’t working, you have to try something else and learn to adapt. A “great surf photo” is one that makes you stop and look at it – really analyze the details of the surfer, the wave and the image as a whole. When you find yourself doing that then you have a great photo on your hands.

Charles Mencel

ZAPPO: What equipment are you currently using?

SPAGNUOLO: I shoot with a Canon 7D, I have a 17-40mm lens and 70-200mm lens and I have a custom water housing built for it. But I’m always looking to purchase more equipment, it just costs a lot.

ZAPPO: Do you prefer to shoot from the beach or from the water?

SPAGNUOLO: It depends on the conditions. I find that I’ll shoot a lot in the water and start to get bored, then I want to shoot from land. Recently I’ve been shooting from the land and now I’ve been itching to get into the water. I don’t prefer one over the other, it’s just depends on what kind of shot I want to capture that day.

ZAPPO: You have been mainly shooting locally. Do you plan on traveling anytime soon to shoot in other locations?

SPAGNUOLO: Yes I’d love to travel. I’m in the process right now of trying to set up a trip or two. One of the trips in the works is potentially going to Mavericks to cover a local surfer that’s going to charge it. I’d like to go somewhere warm with crystal clear waters. I just need to make sure these trips have a purpose behind them and are not just unpaid vacations.

Denny Hood

When I was a kid it seemed like there weren’t many surf photographers around. I remember when people like Ray Hallgreen or Bruce Chrisner would come out and shoot it was a big deal. This was the era of “film”. A few days later we would go to their house, look at slides, choose what we wanted, get the prints, etc. There was more of a process to the whole thing it seems.

There are a lot of people shooting surfing now. We are living in the digital age where photos can be processed and weeded through much faster. It’s a whole different game now so to speak. A lot of times a session happens and the photo’s are online before the day is out. If they are on Facebook, kids tag themselves in the photo and call it a day.

ZAPPO: Do you think it’s harder to make it as a surf photographer now?

SPAGNUOLO: Great question. Yes we are in the digital age and Facebook sometimes seems over saturated with surfing photos. But the good shots will always stand out from the rest. I think Facebook is a good way to get your name out and be noticed. Good work will always speak for itself.

ZAPPO: What is inspiring you right now to take photos, be it surfers, other photographers or anything else?

SPAGNUOLO: I recently spoke to photographer Chris Burkard. His advice to me was to find my own style so that when you look at a shot, you know it is mine. That’s what I’ve really been trying to work on right now, finding my own style.

ZAPPO: Tell us about the photo you had in the finals of the Surfing Magazine “Baby Cobras” photo contest?

SPAGNUOLO: Well it wasn’t just a photo, it was a Hometown Break Gallery. But the photo that I used as the cover of the album was of my friend Justin “Tyme” Brahn. It was taken at 10th Ave. in Belmar on May 10th, 2012. That day was a lot of fun, just a bunch of friends out switching off on waves. I had body surfed earlier and then started shooting from land. That wave was definitely the wave of the day. People always ask where that was taken and are shocked to find out its Belmar.

Justin Brahm

ZAPPO: Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

SPAGNUOLO: Hopefully as an established photographer traveling around the world documenting stories, but I would be happy just doing what I love.

ZAPPO: Final words for the readers out there?

SPAGNUOLO: Thank you for all the support that you guys have given me I am very grateful for it.  Please “like” my Facebook page and head over to my website and let me know what you think of my work.

Photo at top by Devin Peppler

Shawn Zappo is a local surfer and skater who rules the stoves at Kaya’s Kitchen in Belmar. He’s also a musician and will be writing about his surf and skate related experiences as well as reviews on bands and whatever the hell else he feels like writing about. 

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