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The supernatural present of a surf shooting prodigy.
Introduction by Tony John Andrews | Photos and captions by Quinn Matthews
Light / Dark
Three years ago, Quinn Matthews began witnessing people spontaneously combust around him in his dreams. He’d be at a gallery opening near his home in LA, or directing a film on Broadway, or bobbing with his camera in the surf, when his surroundings would morph into a scene straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark: people all around him bursting into flames, their faces melting off in blood.
The nightmares seem the opposite of Matthews’ waking life, which is more like a living fantasy where he—forgive the bad pun—is the one who’s on fire.
“Amazing shit just happens to Quinn,” says Nick Green, 30, Matthews’ best friend and a fellow surf shooter, with whom he runs in a scene of emerging LA artists. “Quinn’s mysterious to a lot of people in the surf world,” he adds.
At just 27, Matthews is already a 10-year veteran of the dream of being paid to fly around the world taking pictures of its best surfers. If you followed surf media in the mid-2010s, when Matthews emerged as a Morgan Maassen–esque teenage surf photog prodigy in the pages of Surfer, What Youth, and Stab, then you doubtless encountered his shots of many of the decade’s most indemand figures—Yadin Nicol, Dane Reynolds, Kolohe Andino, and their familiars, but always refigured, cast anew in ways that held the surf world’s gaze.
That would seem achievement enough, even if Matthews hadn’t recently broken into Broadway as the video director of an ambitious reboot of West Side Story, or assembled a 200-page photo book for Billabong’s much-hyped Trilogy: Volume Two, or begun laying roots as an independent fine artist breaching arcane thematic waters: deep time, ecological flux, elemental life and death.
He’s achieved and is pursuing so relatively much, so young, that, were I disposed to superstition, I might check for Satan’s contact in his phone. Green riffs on these playful suspicions: “Did you know Quinn keeps two phones?” he says and grins through a red beard. “There’s a running joke among our friends that he’s a spy.”
As it turns out, Matthews has dabbled in the occult. We’ll get to that later—and back to those dreams—but it’s one of the things I discovered upon visiting the no-man’s-land outskirts of downtown LA where he keeps his studio, a qua- si-secret lair tucked beneath an I-10 overpass and hidden behind a remote-controlled gate.
It’s early March, and an air of unreality pervades the city. Months of historic rainfall have virtually erased a decades-long California drought. A week earlier, it had snowed near sea level for the first time in more than 30 years. The sky is clear when I arrive, and all the green is neon, except for the San Gabriel range, its ice-crusted peaks looming like jagged crystals over the dingy warehouses and gray apartment blocks.
“Here,” I text him.
“One sec,” he replies. The gate slides open and I park my rental car as Matthews emerges from a steel door and waves. I go to roll my window down but can’t find the button, spastically tapping at the controls until I finally hit the right one.
“Rentals,” Matthews deadpans through the crack.
I laugh, liking him immediately.
Stepping out, I notice his height, a lean 6’4″ that floats his outgrown reddish-blond buzzcut over my head.
“I was a skier and also a pretty serious soccer player growing up,” Matthews says as he guides me into his studio, a windowless cluster of high-ceilinged rooms in spartan decor. He speaks in a soft Midwesternish lilt. “I was on the Olympic development team in Idaho. I had plans of playing D1 in college, but then I dislocated my knee on the pitch.”
It’s true: Matthews had never seen surfing until high school, when his family moved from Idaho to Laguna Beach, which begs how a kid from the Intermountain West became one of the more accomplished surf lensmen of the decade.
The beginning of an explanation hangs in the charcoal drawings pinned to Matthews’ office walls: “My grandfather was a Canadian landscape painter, and my dad went to school for photography,” Matthews tells me. “I spent a year in second grade pretending to take pictures, then my dad gave me his old 35mm Pentax. I’d run around the hills and shoot.”
An elementary-aged Matthews went door to door with binders of prints to sell to his neighbors. “My parents probably gave them the money to shut me up,” he suspects.
This early influence of place extended to the ocean via Matthews’ mother, who grew up in the Bahamas, where every summer his family would sail on a glass-bottomed boat. “My grandma would swim like a mermaid underneath us,” he says. Once relocated to California, the knee injury derailed Matthews from the mainstream jock track at Laguna High, freeing him to wander the sandstone bluffs and emerald coves of his new home, where “the force and action” of surfing drew him in.
“I was attracted to the surf lifestyle, but I realized pretty quickly I wasn’t going to get it through surfing alone,” he says. When he found an issue of Surfer, “the Big Issue, with the Julian Wilson speed blur on the cover,” it was an epiphany. “I realized I could live the life by taking pictures,” he says. “And it was important that these weren’t just action shots. You can interpret surfing.”
From age 15, Matthews’ lens was trained offshore. This was back when Tumblr was a thing, and Matthews’ posts caught the attention of filmer Andrew Schoener, now 36.
“I remember this shorebreak photo in the fog,” says Schoener. “He had good composition and color grading. His shots were just different. It was there.”
Schoener invited Matthews to join him at Trestles at 6 a.m. the next day to shoot Yadin Nicol, then on the world tour. “I had no idea he was, like, 16,” Schoener laughs. “He was so awkward and funny, but also so full-throttle for any opportunity.”
It was 2-foot and overcast, but Matthews somehow got the shot: a low angle of a tweaked air that amplified Nicol’s style despite the weak conditions. The image earned Matthews a month-long invite to Europe to shoot Nicol and Hurley’s team at the time.
“I don’t want to use the words ‘dorky’ or ‘weird,’” Nicol muses via phone from his home in San Clemente. “He was a really sweet kid.”
At just 17, Matthews received a life crash-course from the world’s most talented surfers. Nicol and Schoener recount his growing pains around the globe:
“He’d go out to the pub with the boys until the early hours of the night,” Nicol recalls, “and in the morning I’d go out to my car and find him asleep in the backseat.”
“His diet was bizarre,” Schoener adds. “He once drank Coca-Cola out of one of those giant hollow chocolate Easter bunnies.”
“We saw Cristiano Ronaldo in our hotel lobby and Quinn was fanboy-ing,” says Nicol. “Quinn went to get a picture with Ronaldo and Ronaldo just shooed him away.”
“Ronaldo told Quinn to fuck off,” Schoener puts it bluntly. “But he handled it like a champ,” Nicol says.
“He was very green, but also very comfortable in himself at the same time,” says Schoener.
It was that quiet confidence that kept Matthews swimming out with his camera.
Along the way, he became Quinn Matthews, the guy who always swims and always gets the shot—even when a fin was spotted at a deepwater feeding ground in West Oz, or when he hung from the chandelier of a Mentawai deathtrap that peeled Kolohe Andino’s chin into a flap, or when he got trapped out at maxing Supertubos at nightfall and had to catch a ride to shore on the back of a kindly bodyboarder.
Matthews had just returned from Haiti in 2020 when he got a call from Adam Rodner, a high school classmate who had gone on to produce stage shows and feature films. “He asked me if I wanted to direct the video for the new West Side Story on Broadway,” Matthews says. “I flew to London and signed the contract the next day.”
Perhaps counterintuitively, Matthews’ surf background made him the perfect candidate for the job. “We needed someone who could create scenic elements and was accustomed to long shoots in distant locales,” explains Rodner, 27.
What followed was the most intense six months of Matthews’ career. “I’d wake up each morning like, ‘Can I do this again?’” he says. “They put me up in Hudson Yards [in New York City]. The hotel had its own bowling alley, but I barely had time to enjoy it, so I invited my friends to come—a bunch of surfers with salty hair.”
It was amid this bleary New York grind that the nightmares began—of the people on fire. Back on the walls of his LA studio, I locate their source: a series of framed 5-by-5-foot portraits of Haitian Vodou practitioners, most strikingly a shirtless man holding aloft, like a crown, the freshly decapitated head of a bull, its blood drenching his torso.
“I went to Haiti to learn about color,” Matthews muses. There, he fell in with a hip-hop gang who introduced him to a fixer named Reggie François, who showed him one of Haiti’s true subjects of interest: Vodou, the island’s embattled national religion of blood sacrifice and spiritual possession, rumored to entangle its adherents with the devil.
François drove Matthews out to the countryside, where he met a group of Vodouisants and gave them $20. A bull was prepared. Its head was cut off. The skull was carved hollow and used as a chalice, poured full of blood from empty Coke bottles. Matthews drank. Then he filmed and took pictures. What resulted were the portraits, as well as Beyond Conscious, Beneath Blood, Matthews’ visually arresting, if sensational, experimental film that seeks to convey the experience of the ceremony.
When I ask Matthews how he’d address a postcolonial critique of the project, he points out that the film was co-produced and narrated by the US ambassador to Haiti, that the Vodouisants welcomed him warmly, and that the film claims no authority over their experience.
“Do you think that the nightmares were some kind of warning?” I ask.
“No,” he says and shrugs. “The dreams weren’t directed at me. I was just there.”
As it turns out, rumors aside, Vodou isn’t associated with the devil. That’s just Western stigma. And, jokes aside, Matthews’ eclectic, ascendant career appears to be the product of a signature brand of relaxed ambition that propels him into risk even when he may seem unprepared—not some paranormal contract.
He plans to continue pursuing his vision through subjects no less difficult than Vodou: He’s currently working on a film about suicide and imagining ways to chart a post-climate LA. The dreams have stopped.
Matthews takes me on a drive in his black 2013 Audi A4, with its duct-taped side-view mirror, through Frogtown, a neighborhood named for the amphibians that once dwelled in its mud, their croaks having long fallen silent. He envisions airing a recording of the frogs’ ghostly cries for an installation about LA’s changing ecology.
“What’s next?” he says, echoing the question I’ve just asked, then rephrases it: “What’s now?” Then he pauses, lingering on the riddle. “Sometimes nothing. Sometimes, I just go surfing.”
[Feature Image Caption: Kolohe Andino, Mentawais, 2014. I had just started shooting surfing and felt like I needed to prove myself as a photographer on this trip. This was the first wave of the morning, the swell was building, and I spent the rest of the session worried about somehow losing this image.]