Photographer and Laguna Beach native, Sean Hunter Brown, has the eye for a good wave.
As a self-proclaimed surf-junkie for more than 27 years, he’s seen his share of them. But unlike most surfers, he prefers to search for the perfect wave in the shallows.
And he likes his hometown waves best.
“There are a lot of little places that people can’t even get to so I’ll take my paddle board and paddle around these little coves and try to get shots,” he said, holding up one of his entries for this year’s Sawdust Festival.
Although he has no formal training in photography, Brown found success with his self-taught, DIY methods, selling his first print over a year ago.
His images are so natural they look artificial. His stills are captivating, eerie, even haunting.
For a matter defined by its perpetual motion to appear frozen sans the freeze is striking indeed. You want it to move, for those tiny droplets of water to keep falling and disappear back into the depths, but they don’t. They are stuck. Arranged almost. Like plastic stars glowing on a pre-teen ceiling.
These waves are fragile. Pulled glass. So smooth that they need to be touched, but would cease to exist in the process. Only for the eyes, it seems. And a surfer’s soul.
“I’ve seen these kind of shots all my life paddling out on my surfboard, ducking down under waves when they’re pitching over me, and I see these glimpses of perfection that no one gets to see,” he said.
But it goes farther than what he sees in the water. Brown’s photography offers him a chance to change the way he sees himself in a professional sense.
By day, Brown is an arborist who specializes in oak trees. Yes, this surf-junkie-wave-whisperer’s real job is landlocked indeed.
“My friend’s father was an arborist and I started working in his office during college. I got excited about environmental stuff– protecting oak trees in California. I loved being outside and I loved trees so I got my college degree in horticulture,” said Brown.
Now, it’s not to say that Brown is looking for a career change. He loves being an arborist, but, if he had the opportunity to photograph the waves full-time, would he?
“I think the amount of time I can do these and make money is limited by technology. Cameras are getting better all the time and anyone can go out and buy a 20-megapixel camera for $800 and take great pictures. It still takes some skill and time to take these images, but I don’t know if I could put everything into that basket,” he said.
But it seems Brown only has eyes for his hometown’s waves. He photographs by Laguna Beach’s shores exclusively. A high school sweetheart’s loyal lover.
“I had a little cheap GoPro camera. I was playing around and happened to get one shot that everyone got excited about so I printed it out and actually sold one right away, but the little camera I had was very limited– you couldn’t change the focus,” he said.
Now, Brown uses a more advanced Nikon D7000 with several lenses to vary the focus, which is both the hardest and most important part of his photography. Trial and error demands every ounce of the patience that Brown radiates. His craft is not for the hasty.
“The biggest step that I’ve had to figure out is the focus, adjusting the focus to the size of the wave that I’m going to shoot. There’s a sweet spot for every wave size,” he said.
To protect his high-resolution camera from the water, Brown uses a water-housing device with a fisheye lens. But even with the best technology, a great picture is never guaranteed.
“I’ve gone out for two or three hours and come back with 900 shots and gotten nothing. I’ll come back with 200 and have five, so you never know. Sometimes you’ll go down there and there will be nothing, but then there’s a five-minute window where it’s just perfect and hopefully you’re in the right spot. If you aren’t in the center of the wave, it can nick your shoulder and splatter on the lens,” he said.
“You kind of just have to keep going and going until you get that shot,” he added.
As cliche as it sounds, photography has indeed given Brown a new angle, a new panorama, a new perspective.
So Brown is testing the waters this summer, no pun intended, at Laguna Beach’s 46th Annual Sawdust Festival. From June 29 to September 2, he will display and sell his prints at the event dedicated to promoting arts and crafts in the area.
“I have a lot of friends who do art for Sawdust– ceramics, ceramic tiles, glass, painters and photographers –so I feel kind of comfortable. It’s going to be really fun and it’s a pretty big deal. In about a month I get to pick my booth location and build my booth from scratch,” he said.
The Sawdust Festival will feature over 200 artists and runs from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Admission prices range from $7.75 a day for adults and $3.25 for children.
Whatever happens come June, fame or failure, Brown will always be drawn to photographing the waves.
“I have as much fun as surfing. Sometimes I’ll bail on surfing and go and do this for two hours. It’s like a treasure hunt every time,” he said.