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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : A Greater Power : His talent may be matched only by his ego. But Aaron Chang still bows to the ocean that made him a star among photographers.

October 16, 1994|MATT WARSHAW | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — Aaron Chang arranges a backdrop at the far end of his studio and moves back to his camera. The oversized room, a warehouse in the '30s, is stripped down to brick walls, hardwood floors and a high, curved wood ceiling. Chamber music plays on a stereo. The atmosphere is practical, understated and elegant, just as Chang would have it.

Today's project is to shoot portraits of local poets for a city lifestyle magazine. The first of six, a superannuated hippie in bare feet, jeans and a baggy vest, sits in three-quarter profile. Chang reaches out to adjust his subject's arm, composing his shot the easy way. The hard way is to do it while floating on an air mattress deep in the maw of a 12-foot wave at Sunset Beach, Hawaii, in hopes of nailing pro surfer Bruce Raymond as he floors it through the tube.

Being the world's top surf photographer, as Chang was throughout the '80s, requires a calculating mind. But on that day in 1983 his calculation failed completely: A Zeppelin-size ball of white water snuffed surfer and photographer, bouncing them off the rock bottom. Raymond was hospitalized with torn tendons in his knee. Chang floated in the channel for two hours as a huge bruise spread across his hip, unsure if he could kick his way to shore but wondering all the time if he had gotten the shot.

Working in far safer conditions, Chang smoothly clicks off three more exposures of the barefoot poet, then says, "That's it." Later that day, he considers his career, pointing out the obvious in a soft, factual voice: "I'm productive. I'm reliable. I'm bankable." Then, reflecting on poets and surfers, bikini models and Nobel scientists, elephants in the Namibian bush and his hundreds of other subjects: "And I'm pretty versatile too."

*

Chang shifted his attention to mainstream commercial and editorial work five years ago, with good, if not earth-shaking, results. He shot a Nike swimwear catalogue. His image of a love-struck couple at Hussong's Cantina became the best-selling poster of 1989 and did well for three years. His work has appeared in Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, GQ, People, US and Elle.

But he has stayed active in surfing, partly for love and money and partly because, after grinding away as a cog in the huge corporate advertising/editorial machine, he can still, at his convenience, walk the beaches of the surf world as a genuine star.

Which is as it should be. More than anyone else in the past 15 years, Chang has shaped the artistic and business boundaries of surf photography. "When American Photographer (magazine) put Chang on the cover," says Jeff Divine, photo editor of Surfer magazine, recalling the July, 1985, issue that also featured a 16-page Chang portfolio, "it was a big thing for all of us. Massively big.

"Finally, the world had a real look at what we do. Here it is, surf photography: It's beautiful, it's difficult, it takes years of training. Maybe somebody else could have stepped in and had their work shown off in a similar way. But Aaron was the one. He deserved it."

Divine then offers an explanation for Chang's success: "You know, it's not so much that Aaron is versatile. . . . It's that he's driven. I don't know where it comes from, but he's really driven--to where it's almost scary."

At least part of that drive comes from the relentless teasing Chang says he got about the shape of his eyes at school in Imperial Beach, in the southwestern corner of San Diego County.

"It was a big part of my growing up. Really destabilizing," he says.

At first, Chang dismisses the idea that the childhood taunts helped fuel his career, then changes his mind. "It made me angry, definitely, and it made me want to be better than these kinds of people. So, yeah, actually, I think it has been an important factor in my success so far."

The ocean, Chang says, was his saving grace. He got his first surfboard at age 11 and soon became a regular at the Imperial Beach break, "where there was no racism, just ability." One of the hottest local surfers, Chang recalls, was Filipino. Another was Mexican American.

Although he competed as a swimmer through high school and did schoolyard athletics, surfing moved him in a different way. It still does.

"There are moments when I enter the water," Chang says, articulating what he'd once found impossible to explain, "that I really do feel the presence of God. And those moments are very important to my psychological stability. Particularly in Hawaii, where you're surrounded by these tremendous currents of energy, to a point where there just is no denying this force greater than your own. You have to resign yourself to this greater power. Or at least I have to, or I can't do what I have to do."

On a temporal level, he loves the physical challenge of surfing, the way it lends itself to travel, and the idea that dedicated surfers can refine their technique well into middle age.

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