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Michael Townsend and the photographic benefits of staying in motion, hashtag-free.
Introduction by Devon Howard | Photos and captions by Michael Townsend
Light / Dark
Years before the coronavirus reshaped the way we work and live, and sometime just before #vanlife started clogging our social-media feeds, Michael Townsend and his wife, Lara Wilson, were among a small but growing number of working professionals having a hand at radically downsizing the way they lived.
The impetus for this change didn’t stem from any particular social or environmental stance. Living in a van just sounded fun. With Townsend having been a city surf hound for nearly a decade, spending endless weekend hours in the car going to and from the coast, he was intrigued by the potential uptick in water time and ability to chase surf farther—and for longer—than he’d been able to during all those years working a big-boy job in New York.
The idea first teased Townsend’s fancy after he stumbled across an old magazine article about Miki Dora cruising France’s Basque coast in a van. Although not an avowed Dora fan, it sparked an unexpected bohemian fantasy of getting off the grid a bit and following Atlantic swells around that special part of Europe. He and Lara dug into the details of how to make it work, gave the whole thing serious consideration, and nearly made the jump. But the reality of being that far from family for several years was just too much of a leap.
They salvaged the idea with a more palatable tack of using the van-living strategy to cruise their home state of California. From that familiar launchpad, he’d be able to scour the nooks and crannies of the Golden State’s lengthy coastline, from the Klamath River near the Oregon border to as far down as southern Baja, while being only a day or two away from holiday and birthday gatherings with their parents, siblings, and friends.
The move to the van was a big adjustment from the luxury of stretching out in a New York City apartment. But being confined to that space had a positive net effect on both his life and his work as a photographer. The van’s sliding door became an opening to fresh perspectives on beautiful spaces, and when feeling the need to get out and stretch, he was forced to pick up the camera instead of vegging out on Netflix binges.
“I’d run into friends or find myself in these spontaneous moments of incredible surf that were just these random gifts I’d probably never have documented otherwise,” Townsend says. “You’re almost forced to shoot more; you feel as though you’re wasting this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity if you don’t.”
Townsend was born in Newport Beach, California, growing up bayside on the corner of 14th Street. His father, Ralph Townsend, was a bodysurfer. As loyalists to whomping the closeouts of their beloved 15th Street, Ralph and the local crew earned the moniker “Wall Men” for frequenting that straight-hander stretch of sand notorious for its poorly formed yet booming waves.
Although his dad was a dedicated bodysurfer, Townsend didn’t exactly follow in his footsteps. After trying a few different ways to ride waves, he settled into the standard surfing approach, which would ultimately shape the path of his life.
Townsend lived front row to, and was fully enveloped in, the happening Newport and Laguna surf scenes of the late 1980s and early 90s. It was there that his father’s circle of oddball bodysurf pals overlapped with the area’s most interesting surf characters, including those who photographed the standout riders of the time. Bumping into and talking with photography icons like Ron Romanosky and Woody Woodworth right there on the sand was common, and seeing all that interaction between photographers and surfers inspired Townsend to eventually pick up a camera.
“The photos that guys like Ron and Woody took just seemed larger than life to me,” he says. “I’d see them at the beach shooting, then a few months later those moments I’d witnessed would arrive in my mailbox. There was such a wow factor there for me—the whole magic behind surf photography and then getting printed in the mags. It seemed so powerful then. I could really feel it, and I knew early on I wanted to do it too.”
While Townsend became interested in shooting photos during those early days in Newport, he didn’t fully develop his skills
and point of view until his mid to late twenties: “As I got more into shooting, it honestly created a real dilemma. When the surf was firing, it was a conversation in my head of ‘Do I shoot or surf?’ I slowly worked out a solution that I still run with to this day: If it’s good, and worth shooting, I’ll load the housing, jump in for an hour—two hours, max—then run back in, grab my board, and nab a few before conditions fall apart. Best of both scenarios.”
When asked which subjects inspire him most, Townsend says, “I respect and admire high-profile surfers for their talent, but I’m not so interested in shooting them. Maybe it’s because there’s plenty of guys that have those surfers well covered; maybe it’s because other aspects of my life have typically headed toward the roads less traveled. I’ve never been super into following the herd, which I saw a lot of while growing up. So that probably explains why most of the surfers I capture are pretty much unknown to the greater surf world.”
He finds a bit of humor in the fact that his photos don’t really end up being seen anywhere. His subjects don’t have sponsors. There aren’t many magazines to submit to anymore. At best, his shots might end up on Instagram. Or at least they used to. After his account got hacked and all his posts deleted in early 2021, he decided to just let social media go and not start it back up again. The likes and shares have never been the reason he clicks the shutter anyway.
“I have thousands of images that will probably never see the light of day,” he says, “and that’s all right. I’m not doing it for anything other than the personal satisfaction of doing the work, and I’m doing the work to capture the moments that communicate what surfing looks and feels like to me. I don’t have a pitch or marketing plan behind what I’m doing. [Laughs.] As cheesy as it sounds, I just really, truly love making surf photographs.”
From the technical side of things, Townsend can handle a telephoto from land quite well. But swimming is where the real thrills come from. Strong legs and instincts learned over many years of chasing tubes have earned him a solid reputation for getting the shot up close.
“Michael is a fearless swimmer,” explains longtime friend and filmmaker Jack Coleman. “Not many water photographers have the passion, or balls, to do what Mike does. I know I don’t. I’ve watched over all these years how he’s focused his energy and thoughts into making great photographs.”
“I want to be right there, front row, capturing the same perspectives I see when I am out surfing,” Townsend explains. “I want to share the same perspective I see when I’m popping up from a duck dive or paddling over the shoulder on my way back to the peak. I just love getting barreled, and when I’m not riding inside one myself, hopefully I’m taking photos of someone else doing it.”
“The only challenge I faced during those years was from shooting so much I’d run out of battery,” Townsend says of his days living in the van. “Being out there in the open and not having solid, good plug-ins right at your disposal really impacts how you plan your day and week ahead.”
While that period quadrupled his output, the tiny-home-on-wheels adventure eventually wound down, finding its way toward a natural conclusion. After notching countless runs to the remote deserts of
Baja and on up into the empty woods of Northern California, the Townsends found themselves parallel-parked by their favorite Malibu pointbreak one afternoon, talking with friend and fellow photographer Matt Wessen.
By then, after three and a half years on the road, they were ready to have a living room again, and explained to Wessen their options. On one hand was Townsend’s favorite Caribbean island, to which he’d made many a strike mission when they’d lived in NYC. On the other was the high desert out east of Los Angeles. The key to either destination was finding a place where they could afford to buy a little slice of land.
“Why live six or eight hours of travel to your home breaks and family when you can just be two?” Wessen asked them. “Baja and your favorite spots here in SoCal are all a short drive away.”
Townsend liked Wessen’s encouragement to stay closer to home, and shortly after that conversation he and Lara settled into Yucca Valley, a small town neighboring Joshua Tree National Park a little over two hours from the coast.
“This zone has such a magnetic pull. It’s kinda hard to explain,” says Townsend, who’s since opened a gallery space in Yucca Valley called “Compound YV,” which regularly shows internationally acclaimed artists, including Akari Uragami, Luis Cobelo, Philippine de Richemont, and Stephen Milner. “Out here it’s hot and it’s dry, but we find inspiration all around from the landscape. It reminds me of Baja. Plus, I’m not locked here all the time. I work a lot in San Clemente, so I’m bouncing back and forth a bunch, finding some balance with it all. So, life after the van is pretty good. The best part is I don’t worry about having enough juice in my batteries anymore.”