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Raw and Refined

With a singular aesthetic, Nick LaVecchia makes the rugged look nearly enticing.

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To outsiders, the boundaries that separate the states composing coastal New England can seem arbitrary. If driving along the coast from, say, northern Massachusetts to southern Maine, blink and you’ll miss New Hampshire, and its 18 or so miles of coastline, entirely.

If you’re one of the millions of interlopers from nearby metropolises who each summer unload a tenth of their yearly salary on a couple weeks’ vacation in one of the region’s seaside towns, you might as well close your eyes and place your finger on the map. The coast may twist and bend to reveal any number of distinctive setups, but, for many, it’s all a morass of colonial homes overlooking craggy headlands and cedar shake shacks serving plates of beige haddock or lobster rolls. 

It’s surprising, then, that my first introduction to York, a southern Maine resort town of fewer than 20,000 inhabitants, and to Nick LaVecchia, a photographer whose work is inextricably linked to New England, was a kind of courtesy call—an acknowledgement of the idiosyncrasies that define surf communities in this part of the country.

It was the winter of 2016. I was working on a story for Surfer magazine, encamped in Hampton, New Hampshire, with another photographer whose work has become synonymous with the area: Brian Nevins. Meanwhile, a southeast windswell was supposedly set to begin bouncing seductive little wedges off the north end of a corner-pocket cove in LaVecchia’s York. Our contingent of pro surfers had heard rumors of the aforementioned launch site and were keen on crossing the border. Nevins called LaVecchia for clearance. 

Many of the waves in Maine can be difficult to figure out, especially this one. But during his first session, Brett Barley was pulling in from behind the peak and making every barrel.

Almost from the minute he moved to York in the early aughts, LaVecchia’s been a liaison to southern Maine for those curious enough about the diversity of its waves. Aside from Nevins, no other photographer’s work has done more to cultivate that curiosity. 

Armed with his preferred medium-format or point-and-shoot-size Fujis, LaVecchia captures the rawness of coastal New England in a way that’s alluring while stopping just short of inviting. The region’s unique landscapes and harsh elements play feature roles, the images toying with negative space and shadow, and make use of film-stock profiles that give his photos a timeless feel. Through his more abstract work, LaVecchia offers a meditative or even bucolic view of a harsh, unforgiving coast as a kind of subaqueous Walden.  

“He can make a cold, cloudy, shit day in Maine look romantic and sophisticated,” says Nevins, who credits LaVecchia for providing a fine-art lens through which to see surfing in New England. “Surfing didn’t have that look until Nick came along. There’s no shortage of it flooding Instagram’s endless sea of copycats now, but Nick did it first and he made surfers from all over the world want to be a part of it.”

“There are territorial vibes here,” says Lavecchia’s longtime friend and Maine-bred artist Ty Williams, “but Nick has endeared himself to the community, and he’s done so humbly. Nick is notoriously quiet, but the gears are turning. They just turn for the images, not the politics or egos wrapped up in the silliness. He just makes beautiful work, and that speaks louder than anything one might say about him.”

As his commercial work and private sales of his fine-art prints have taken off, LaVecchia’s been scratching other creative itches in recent years outside the surf sphere. Between his meticulously designed abode—a modern, ocean-proximate jewel box built with Scandinavian-type efficiency and a cedar reverse board-and-batten facade that sits on a half-acre farmstead and is powered on passive solar—where he lives with his wife, Molly, and son, Leo, his vintage VW van, and Grain, the wooden-surfboard company he started with his brother Mike, LaVecchia’s become a one-stop shop for nonendemic brands hoping to add some Northeast je ne sais quoi to their fall and winter lines. 

“Molly always jokes with me: ‘Was this your master plan all along—a house on a farmstead across from the beach, with a studio and your brother’s surfboard business all on one property?’” LaVecchia tells me in the early fall, as one of the year’s first of many frigid nor’easters bears down on York. “I’m always like, ‘No…but yes.’” 

Far from a master plan, the road to York-surf-community fixture and New England ambassador was decidedly meandering. The youngest of seven, LaVecchia’s childhood in South Orange, New Jersey, in the late 1970s and early 80s was about as normal as one would expect for a brood that size. 

“Being the youngest was just a much different experience,” he recalls. “My brothers Mike and Vin[cent] and my sisters did a lot of the work of raising me and keeping me occupied.” 

“Catholic?” I ask. 

“Catholic,” LaVecchia responds with a chuckle. 

The family had a vacation home in Manchester, Vermont. And though skateboarding was his first love, it was quickly eclipsed when Mike got one of the first wooden snowboards from Jake Burton Carpenter, who was, at the time, producing the first Burton boards from his garage within spitting distance of the LaVecchias’ house.

I’ve always been fascinated by how people access surf. Skiing down to the beach when there’s proper snow cover is a lot more fun than trudging through it. It’s a very Maine mode of transport. 

To say the LaVecchias played a role in Burton’s ascendency from mom-and-pop hardgoods supplier to global corporate behemoth would be a gross understatement. They were, in fact, foundational players in that narrative. Mike was Burton’s—and arguably snowboarding’s—first team manager, eventually its global team manager. Vin, who is just a year older than Nick, succeeded Mike in that role. And after earning a BFA in drawing and painting from nearby Castleton State College, Nick followed Mike and Vin, who both had followed Burton, to Burlington, where he immediately went to work for the design firm Jager. His main client: Burton Snowboards.

“I touched everything. All the catalog pages to ads, hangtags to trade-show booths to boards. There was a lot of collateral back then,” he says of his career as a graphic designer, more than a decade spent mainly creating for Burton. 

He got to flex his photography muscles, too. He’d developed a passion and aptitude for film photography in college, and began jumping on trips with Burton’s team riders to collect images for the Burton catalog, then considered the bible of snowboarding.

As a photographer, LaVecchia’s distinctive aesthetics—his innate interest in landscape as focal point—came hardwired. 

“I never really liked the action shots,” he says of shooting snowboarding. “I was really inspired by the environment and lifestyle work of some of the guys at that time, though: Jeff Curtes, Kevin Zacher, Embry Rucker.”

By the time he left Jager and began shooting photography full-time, LaVecchia’s eye had already turned away from the mountains and toward the coast. A lifelong affinity for the ocean—one certainly whet by a semester sailing from Cape Cod to the Caribbean in college—had been carrying him and his brothers along winding three-hour jaunts from Burlington to surf in Hampton, New Hampshire, or York with increasing frequency. 

“I think, at first, it was one more board sport that I hadn’t really gotten into,” he says of how the surfing hooks were eventually set. “It quickly became this need, like in the back of my mind. From all those years of skating and snowboarding—the amount of time you put into getting good at those things—surfing seemed similar. But maybe a little different.”

He began spending month-long holidays in Central America, surfing every day. It was during one of those vacations that he got a message from brother Mike.

I’ve taken a lot of photos of people totally oblivious to good waves. The series is unofficially titled, Who Cares?

“I was in Costa Rica,” he remembers. “Mike emailed me saying he’d just been surfing in York and had driven by a house near the [Cape Neddick] Nubble [Lighthouse], where a guy was putting up a for-rent sign on this old carriage house with wide pine floors, floor-to-ceiling beadboard, a ton of character. Mike was like, ‘We should move here.’” 

That was early April of 2004. By mid-April, Nick and Mike were unpacking, ditching the snow gear for 4/3 hooded wetsuits, booties, and gloves, getting ready for their first summer in York. 

“We had no money. We didn’t know anybody. Mike had been in Burlington for over 20 years. I had left Jager and was shooting full-time—anything and everything, weddings to whatever,” he says of the impulsive move. “I already had a sense, though, that I could comfortably spend the rest of my life here—just scouring the coast, shooting through the seasons—and always have something new to look at. I knew it would take a lifetime just to figure out this coast, much more so the state. And that was exciting to me.”

It wasn’t long before LaVecchia’s excitement—his willingness and ability to work within and around the moods of a particularly temperamental coastline—got the attention of the surf world.

“I remember [then–Surfing magazine photo editor] Pete [Taras] being like, ‘Whoa, what is this place? Where are these waves?’” LaVecchia recalls. 

Mikey DeTemple, Nova Scotia. Anywhere else, especially anywhere warm, and there’d be hundreds of surfers bobbing around the lineup of a pointbreak like that. 

It’s a reaction he says was fairly universal among the California-centric surf publications he was submitting work to. Pretty soon, they’d come calling every hurricane season. Every winter. What ya got? 

Wade Goodall came to chase a storm. Warren Smith, along with Craig Anderson and Dion Agius, posted up for the better part of a year. His appetite for the frigid and desolate, and his ability to make hay in grayscale-hewed environments, took him to Iceland and Alaska. He got opportunities to shoot in lower latitudes too; his work with Dave Rastovich and Chris Del Moro showed LaVecchia could just as easily subdue blown-out lighting.

But Maine remains the focal point of his work. 

“What keeps me interested is the environment and the landscape,” he says of what moves him these days. “I prefer it nearly unbearable. I prefer to see a storm coming, knowing it’s going to be crazy. Blowing sideways. Raw. Those times are memorable because there’s not a lot of people around and you don’t feel entirely confident that you should be out.”

Planting his boots in a snowpack or wading into a frigid lineup to frame up another singular perspective of waves crashing against the farthest edges of the American coastline, LaVecchia continues to make his adopted home look enticing. But it’s a look-but-don’t-touch kind of appeal.  

“My goal is always to capture the landscape the way I see it,” he says. “If that means Maine doesn’t look all that inviting, then all the better.”

The subject. Portrait by Mikey DeTemple.