Foliage, Snow, Sea Smoke 

From remote Sumatra to his home in New England, Brian Nevins’ photography combines local knowledge and a traveler’s eye with raw character.

Light / Dark

It was late August 2022 when Brian Nevins got the assignment: Bill Burr, the boundary-straddling comedian and native of Canton, Massachusetts, was scheduled to perform a sold-out show at Fenway Park, the hallowed Boston baseball grounds. Nevins, the inveterate New England surf photographer, was asked by Burr’s management to capture the occasion. “They were like, ‘You might only have two minutes or so with him,’” Nevins recalls. “I ended up having the whole day.”

Nevins certainly captured some gems—Burr decked out in full Red Sox regalia, peering out from a hole on the scoreboard adorning the infamous Green Monster, bowing his head and placing his hand on the outfield fence as if it were the Western Wall—but the money shot required a unique set of skills of its shooter. “I asked if they would turn the lights on in the whole stadium during his performance,” Nevins says, laughing at the audacity. “I’m like, ‘I just need two seconds. I won’t blow it.’”

Johnny Meehan, one of our most respected locals in town. He’ll paddle out even if it’s 1-foot and negative 20 degrees with windchill.

Burr’s team made it happen. Nevins did the rest: “I walked out on stage. He put his hand in the air. I went snap-snap and walked off.”

The ability to operate in short windows, often in fleeting circumstances, has helped the Hampton, New Hampshire, native make a career out of celebrity portraiture. It’s also a skill that’s allowed him to do more than anyone to frame up the idiosyncratic beauty and wave quality on offer in his own backyard. For nearly three decades, Nevins has been a steady supplier of cold-water imagery to virtually every surf publication. Over the course of that time, the view of the New England surf scene from Nevins’ lens—expertly framed, mostly pulled-back scenes of 10-out-of-10-quality waves breaking into colonial-home-flanked coves or banking off snow-blanketed headlands—has become the view of surfing in New England for those outside of the region. 

“His work has really cemented this place in the surf world,” says Maine-based lensman Nick LaVecchia, whose friendship and working relationship with Nevins dates back to LaVecchia’s arrival in New England in 2005. “It really starts with his love and appreciation for the beauty of this region. Putting a sense of place and a sense of home into an image has always been important to him.”

Split-peak soup. That’s Meehan going right, like he’s been doing for decades. Fellow local Terence Kirby is on the left. This spot has a nice deepwater channel for dry-hair paddle-outs and calm water to rest in away from the impact zone. Between sessions, I paddled in and took drone shots from the warmth of my car. 

Despite an extensive portfolio that set the standard for juxtaposing harsh, frigid conditions with a recreational pursuit more frequently associated with tropical or temperate climates, Nevins is deferential. “It’s just what we do here,” he says of the surf scene in New England. “There’s nothing fucking gutsy about surfing in the cold. We’re not mountaineering. The tenacity of it doesn’t speak to me. It’s just stunning. So I never really thought you needed an excuse to run images of surfing from New England.” 

“There’s an overall quality to Nevins’ work that was noticeable immediately,” says TSJ photo editor Grant Ellis, who relied on Nevins during his nearly 20-year tenure at the helm of Surfer magazine’s photo department. “A lot of photographers might be great at standing on the beach with a long lens and getting an action shot. But they might not be great storytellers, or might be weak on the portraiture side of the work. Nevins could put it all together. His action shots are great. His portraiture is really great. He’s a true storyteller. I leaned on him a lot.” 

In some ways, Nevins backdoored his way into professional surf shooting. In the early 2000s, after moving to California and enrolling at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, he took a photography course as what he calls “a boner class.” “I tried to pick things out that I figured would be stupid or easy,” he explains. “Like, ‘Oh, I have a camera.’ That’s why I took the class. It was crazy how fast it clicked for me, though. It was two weeks after the class started where I was like, ‘Whoa, this is what I need to do.’” 

Sam Hammer, New England. This spot is as fickle as they come. It needs a very specific swell angle and period to coincide with dead wind—which practically never happens. But when everything aligns, it really magnifies power. Every other spot was only chest-high this day.

Sam Hammer and Balaram Stack, warming up on one of our exploratory missions. It was a 2-mile hike in. We brought firewood so we wouldn’t have to leave good waves when we started to freeze. I’ve had a good run of scouting out new spots in the Northeast over the last five years. That success is the result of many misses and failures, where I learned to prepare for the coldest possible scenario.

At the start, he steered clear of shooting surf. Working under the auspices of the school newspaper, he would acquire press passes to local concerts—Less Than Jake, Bad Religion, AFI, Unwritten Law, all the bands that were part of the California, surf-adjacent cultural milieu of the era. “I tried to take pictures of surfing, but I just had a shitty lens and a shitty camera,” he says. “I actually didn’t think shooting surfing was even viable. I’m from the East Coast. I don’t know what I’m doing. I thought maybe I could shoot bands. That’s what really fueled me when I started out.” 

Despite never getting a photo published in the school paper, within a year Nevins had moved to Santa Barbara and enrolled in the now-defunct Brooks Institute to study photography under the tutelage of famed National Geographic magazine photographer Ernie Brooks. By that winter, he was headed to Hawaii for the first time, as an assistant to David Pu’u, a trip that produced his first published photo: a shot of Rockpile that ran in Surfer.

He then spent a month and a half in the Mentawais for the then-upstart The Surfer’s Path, which netted 76 published photos—a range of surf shots, portraits, and candids that foreshadowed the diverse skill set Nevins would cultivate in the coming years. “It made staying in school really hard,” he says, “because the whole point for me was to get to work in surfing. Within a couple months, I was doing that.”

Nevins soon moved to LA and took a gig as a stage manager at the famed Quixote Studios, where, aside from getting to watch pros like Annie Leibovitz, David LaChapelle, and Michael Thompson in action, he assisted for Rolling Stone photographer Mark Seliger and John Rankin of Dazed & Confused magazine. 

Balaram Stack, Massachusetts. He makes mincemeat out of hollow beachbreak. 

“I was just inhaling it,” he says of his formative period in the world of celebrity portraiture. “For me, a portrait of someone is the most valuable thing—more than an autograph or whatever. I get to sit with that person and they get to be in front of my lens. It’s personal. That’s the pinnacle: telling someone’s story. Also, I’m super introverted. I don’t like to hang out with anybody. Portraiture is the way I can do that. Like, my camera is my safety blanket.” 

He parlayed his experience at Quixote to get his foot back in the door at Surfer. “The portraits in the surf magazines, in my opinion, sucked,” he says. “It was just surf guys trying to do portraits. So my pitch to [Surfer] was to shoot portraiture.” 

When he got an assignment to shoot headshots for Dean Randazzo’s Surfer profile, Nevins came correct. “I went down to the Surfer offices, set up a studio with lighting and everything. I had all the pro shit. I brought my 4-by-5 [film camera]. It was an ooh-and-ahh kinda setup. They were like, ‘What the fuck?’” 

While he emerged from the assignment as a go-to guy for portraiture—shooting Sunny Garcia and Tom Curren, among others, over the next few years—he would also soon establish himself as a scrappy editorial photographer, willing to take on assignments nobody else would and making hay out of otherwise lackluster surf trips. There was an exploratory trip to Sumatra in 2006, for example. The crew, which included surfer Travis Potter and scribe Jake Howard, hired a junk boat and cruised around, nearly starving, for two months. Nevins says he shot only 20 rolls of film. The waves: suss. The accommodations: trying. The feature he was able to shake out: stunning.

“The captain’s seat consisted of a white plastic deck chair with no legs that had been zip-tied to a couple of 2-by-4s,” says Howard. “There were no electronics, clearly, and the engine couldn’t have been bigger than a lawnmower engine. We ate noodles and boiled eggs for most of the trip. After a while, the warm beer got old. We only caught one fish over the two weeks we were at sea. The boat probably should have sunk in a lightning storm. All the while, there he was with camera in hand, firing away.”

“I was taking scraps—trips that nobody else wanted,” Nevins says humbly. “You got $500 and want me to go live in the mud for two months? I’m in. I was confident in my work. I was also curious. And I knew I could tell a story.”  

“On assignments, he has a job to do, but he’s always looking for the humanity in the places he travels,” Howard continues. “He’s quick to make friends with the locals and the kids. We were in a pretty remote part of Sumatra with a bunch of surf pirates, but Brian seemed more in tune and interested in the local communities, which says a lot.”

My home break. This shot took me decades to get right. The combination of snow and points never gets old as both a surfer and a photographer. Days like this are why I live here, not in California.

Balaram Stack, New England. We used to hike 15 miles to get to this slab. Then one of our friends found out that they’re related to the person who lives on the property. Now front-row parking’s just a phone call away. 

After an impromptu trip to see what Hurricane Katrina had wrought on Galveston, Texas, and a few months during which he stayed behind to provide humanitarian aid to the communities affected (something he’s done consistently in locations around the globe), Nevins would return home to New Hampshire for good, spending the next two decades applying his fingerprint to the surf world’s understanding of cold-water lineups. In that time, his focus expanded to include not just his native New England, but frigid coastlines on both sides of the Atlantic—the customs stamps from places like Oslo and Reykjavik filling his passport at a defining moment that helped shape the current run on cold-water surf imagery. 

Over the years, Nevins’ crew—originally consisting of Northeast tubehounds like Sam Hammer and Mike Gleason—has grown to include a new generation of uninhibited chargers like Balaram Stack. “It’s my backyard,” he says of his time spent dialing in the angles on spots from Rhode Island to Maine. “I shovel my driveway and then go shoot. I know every inch of this place. In my surf photos, I just applied what I’d learned to my backyard.”

These days, Nevins subsists on a steady diet of non-surf freelance assignments and a fair amount of portraiture work, a portfolio that now features a range of famous faces, from Erykah Badu to Sting to David “Big Papi” Ortiz. Meanwhile, the surf-media world habitually comes to him when the North Atlantic lights up. “I’m still finding new angles on these spots,” he says. “I’ve shot these places a million times, and I still get so fired up to see the foliage, the snow on the ground, the sea smoke.”

The subject. Photo by Emma Nevins.

[Feature Image Caption: An everyday scene during winter in New England. I shot this photo with a Fuji point-and-shoot that I keep in my pocket. The camera’s focal length and sensor made that little snow squall look like a swarm of locusts]