The Shock of the Blue

Tahitian movement, light, and aesthetics.

Light / Dark

Patience, patience,
Patience dans l’azur!
Chaque atome de silence
Est la chance d’un fruit mûr
(Patience, patience,
Patience in the blue!
Each atom of silence
Is the chance of a ripe fruit)
—Paul Valéry, “Palme”

The Tahitian-born photographer Kirvan Baldassari—whose work reflects the Gauguin maxim that color, like music, is a matter of vibrations—is currently a little more than 15,000 nautical miles from his Papeete home overlooking the island of Moorea. 

In a studio in the Western Australian town of Margaret River, Baldassari, who has just turned 35, lives with his Tahitian girlfriend, Pauline, a sustainability consultant. The pair earns $23 an hour and works seven until three each day, either pulling grapes or pruning vines as part of Australia’s regional work visa. Do an 88-day stint in the bush as a farm worker and it buys you a year in Australia and a pathway to becoming a permanent resident. Australia is the 12th country in the pair’s almost two-year-long voyage since they left Tahiti. Before landing in Perth, they hit Mexico, Colombia, Spain, France, Oman, Turkey, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. 

Kauli Vaast, Teahupoo, Friday the 13th swell, 2021. When this lump popped up on the horizon, it looked like it was going to close out the entire channel—fully maxed out. I was on the back of Tikanui Smith’s ski. He punched the gas to escape, nearly knocking me off. I caught the end of Kauli’s wave as we raced away. Safety first.

The experience has marked Baldassari profoundly. 

Travel—where poetry is found in everything—has narrowed Baldassari’s focus, according to Tahiti’s premier water photo- grapher, Domenic Mosqueira. “His work has improved immensely. It’s become very curated, but in a good way. He knows what he’s looking for. He knows how and where to add colors and saturation to make it pop a certain way, to catch even the mature eye. It’s not that he wants to be an influencer. That’s a bad connotation. But he knows this kind of imagery opens up a lot of doors for him. And they’ve opened in a big way.”

Baldassari was born into the power of natural beauty found in the movement of light across a tropical sky and in the whispered adjustment of a rail inside the hole at surreal Teahupoo. 

He’s the son of an Italian-French hippie named Jean-Luc, who moved to Tahiti in 1983, and a spectacularly beautiful Moroccan-born French woman (a recent DNA test revealed 11 different origins, including North Africa, Vietnam, and Indonesia) named Aline, whose spell his father fell under at a luxury-goods store in Papeete. 

The pair couldn’t have been any more different: a wild-haired, barefoot adventurer, a perpetual traveler who liked to hit the well-worn trails of India and Nepal, a man not happy to find life on an assembly line, and a glamorous, chic woman whom he felt he had no chance in hell with. But they fell in love, Tahiti became their home, and, after running a dive biz at resorts, they moved into the lucrative black-pearl trade. 

Baldassari completed high school on the island before leaving in 2008 at age 19 to study photography at the University of Santa Monica. There, despite digital photography coming on hard at the time, he was instructed in the old arts, learning how to shoot on large-format 4×5 film cameras, processing and printing in both color and black-and-white. 

As an echo of where he saw photography progressing, Baldassari was the first among his friends to buy a smartphone, a Nokia touch screen, a reflection of the old line that the best camera is the one that’s with you. 

After graduation, a year as a photographer’s assistant followed before Baldassari returned to Tahiti to work for five and a half years as the personal photographer of a succession of Tahitian presidents. Boring and repetitive, yeah, but it paid the bills. “I didn’t have to go after jobs,” he says. “I had a contract and traveled all over French Polynesia, following the moves of the president.” Apart from the regular paycheck, the front-row seat to realpolitik gave him an empathy for the often-derided political species. “I realized they’re normal people,” he continues. “They make jokes, they laugh—very normal. At the end of the day, they’re just human.” 

To hammer out the monotony, Baldassari took to shooting surfing from the boat at  Teahupoo, but it was when he got his first water housing that he began to identify photography as art. “I always loved the ocean,” he says. “That started when I was 13. But getting that first water housing was a game-changer for me.” 

Teahupoo, Tahiti, 2015. High noon and not a breath of wind. I’ve never witnessed a session at Teahupoo—or anywhere else, for that matter—that was as glassy and crystal clear. The locals still talk about the conditions that day. That boat was actually way out the back, but the perspective makes it look like it’s riding the lip. 

During this transition period, Mosqueira says, Baldassari had an existential scare  while shooting in the water on an oversized  Teahupoo swell. It was 8 to 10 foot, big enough to keep most mortals inside their homestays on shore, when the pair, treading water side by side, was confronted by a tow-wave-sized bomb. 

“We almost got caught,” says Mosqueira. “We had to swim. Not for our lives—it wasn’t quite that dramatic—but it was a panic situation. When he got back on the ski, he said, ‘I’m over it.’ I told him to jump back in, wash it off. He just said, ‘Nah, nah, I’m done here.’ He’s come back to swim, but not in those situations. Unlike others, he’s not looking for the danger aspect. He’s looking for the beauty. The aesthetic.” 

Baldassari eventually saved up $2,500 for a housing custom-made for his full-frame DSLR Nikon D600, the unusual choice of a non-Canon system a legacy of his first camera, a D80 he’d used for taking photos of black-pearl jewelry he’d inherited from his parents’ business. When he moved up to the Nikon D810, a housing from the famed Australian Aqua Tech company was ordered. Shortly after, as Baldassari tells it, his life changed.

On a wildly perfect, oversaturated south swell groomed by light north winds in the northern-hemisphere summer of 2016,  Baldassari photographed a wave that would win Surfline’s annual Photo Challenge. Matehau Tetopata was 19, had been surfing for only four years, was unsponsored, and was riding a yellowed board when the two connected. 

Sumbawa, Indonesia. I dropped everything to chase this swell. I surfed for hours, but didn’t get many waves due to the crowd, so I ended up shooting. Turns out it’s much easier to get good shots than good waves. However, this local Indonesian kid was making the latter seem effortless. 

“The crystal clear water with the entire Teahupoo reef in view, the slight offshore winds, and Matehau’s composure made this one my favorite of the year,” wrote Surfline’s photo editor, Billy Watts. “The only thing out of place is the water photographer in the foreground, diving for his life—which actually adds to the seriousness of the wave, which is almost lost by the beauty of it.” 

Photographer Pat Nolan was struck by “the contrast between calmness and chaos. Matehau’s stance and composure is perfectly contrasted by the water photographer scrambling on the inside to get underneath the wave. The tone, color, and clarity of the water not only display the overall beauty of the moment, but the potential shallow danger, which lies directly beneath the water. The reflection of the lip in the face of the wave directs the viewer’s eyes down the line to explore the rest of the photograph. Kirvan’s image brings the viewer to the front lines of the moment.” 

Phang Nga Bay, Thailand. This landscape looks straight out  of a movie set, especially with how those limestone formations jut  out of the mangrove. The local fishermen built a floating city in the bay. They allowed me to spend the night with them so I could get  this shot at sunrise the next morning. 

Sure, the compensation and accolades were appreciated—a thousand bucks, a solar light setup, and a print from his great influence, Chris Burkard—but it was the sudden respect Baldassari was afforded, by the best photographers in the business, that gave him a foot in the door of a notoriously closed shop. 

“We had this massive swell a couple of weeks afterward and I got invited by two Hawaiians who were shooting for Surfer mag—Brent Bielmann and Eric Sterman—to get on their boat,” he says. “I ended up getting a barrel shot of Keala Kennelly that would be nominated for a Big Wave Award. And then I was contacted by Bill Sharp from the WSL. That’s how I got invited to the Big Wave Awards.” 

And now, another significant shift in both life and career: Miles from home and years since his nostrils have inhaled the sharp perfume of the jasmine-scented tiare flower, he works his eight-hour rotations in the vineyards and shoots when he can. He says he misses Tahiti like nothing else—his parents, his sister, his friends, the mechanical and aesthetic perfection of his local surf spot, Taapuna. 

Desert Point, Indonesia. Desert’s is one of the most stunning lefts in the world, and I really wanted to capture a unique angle of it. This was the first set of the morning on an off-season day, which is why it’s empty. After getting a few shots, I landed the drone and was able to surf with fewer than 10 people out. I was grateful to get some waves without the crowd—especially when there can be more than 100 people in the water during peak season.

“It’s intense—to completely switch places, to leave family behind, trying new adventures in a different country,” he explains. “It’s not easy trying to make a career, but I  feel like I’m at the beginning of it, of a completely different life.” 

How long does he plan on being on the road? 

“We’re still trying to figure it out,” he says. “We’re too busy just living right now.” 

The subject. Photo by Boris Martinet.

[Feature Image Caption: The Cyclops, Western Australia. It’s been a dream of mine to shoot this slab, so I leapt at the opportunity when cinematographer Chris Bryan invited me to go with him. I repeatedly tried to capture that split second before the lip detonated on the granite, but the drone’s delay made me mistime so many shots. This one worked out.]