Photographer Aaron Ingrao lives on the road full-time, spending the summer months in Colorado or the Pacific Northwest and winters in the Southwest and California with his 1979 travel trailer and his dog Luke. Aaron’s travels through the Southern California coast led to his latest project, Birth to Surf, a photo essay that chronicles Tim Bessell’s process of creating and shaping custom surfboards.
The project name comes from the idea of telling the story of the surfboard from a block of foam all the way to being surfed. My passion is telling stories of makers and their crafts by way of creating detailed imagery through the craft process.
Aaron’s collection of images were shot in La Jolla, CA, a popular surfing area in San Diego where Tim’s shop is located. The entire process of creating, shaping, and sealing the surfboard and then surfing with it was photographed over two months from start to finish.
The project was produced in four phases. First was the shaping and painting process at Tim’s shop, then the glassing phase, then product shots with the fully original 1959 VW Westfalia SO 23.
Aaron began by photographing Tim’s work of shaping a custom surfboard to size at his shop. Here, Tim donned his protective gear and got to work measuring and carefully hand shaping the board by sanding it to the desired shape while Aaron photographed the details of the process.
The images showcase Tim’s skill, dedication to his craft, and all the hard work that goes into creating a custom surfboard before it can even touch the water. The end goal? An ergonomically shaped board that allows surfers to glide through incoming waves.
I always wanted to do a story on surfboard shapers. While I’m not a surfer, I have been fascinated with the sport since I was a kid.
When the board was finished and ready for its first day out on the water, Aaron headed to the beach to photograph it in action. While he specializes in outdoor, action, and lifestyle portraiture, he had never attempted to surf himself prior to this adventure. However, Aaron was determined to get out there and capture images up close out on the water. He was in for a rude awakening.
I wanted to get surf shots from inside the barrel, so I purchased a wetsuit and borrowed underwater camera housing from a friend. I didn’t want to just create images with a long lens, shooting from the beach. Well, I don’t surf, and I knew NOTHING about the anatomy of a wave.
Aaron’s first foray into the waves of Southern California was an eye-opening experience. He barely got out past the break before he got pummeled by an incoming tide and thought he would drown.
I thought I would be fine. I have shot from airplanes, hanging from skids of helicopters, hanging from cliffs, laying under ramps as pro mountain bikers flew right over me and had bikes drop right on me. None of that was anywhere near as scary as getting my ass handed to me by a wave.
Surfing is a physically demanding sport that requires lots of practice to get comfortable predicting the movements of an incoming wave, let alone getting up on the surfboard inside a barrel. That coupled with adding a camera to the mix, a beginner is not likely to fare well out in the water.
I realized I was WAY out of my depth. I crawled my way out of the water, walked back to my truck dejected, and wondered how I was ever going to complete this project.
The experience shook him, but he didn’t give up and took it as a learning opportunity. He picked himself up, rented a 600mm lens, and shot from the shore at Windansea beach. Photographing a surfer at sunset using the same board that Tim had previously shaped resulted in some stunning photos. In one image, the sky is glowing bright orange, creating a moody backdrop to the surfer navigating the rapid movement of the waves below.
The final images for the project were product shots of the board with an original 1959 VW Westfalia van at La Jolla Shores Beach. Aaron found the van by chance while driving around San Diego, and its owner Dan Epperly was happy to oblige when Aaron explained the project.
I randomly drove by a house with multiple early model busses in the driveway, so I stopped, knocked on the door, and left a business card. Dan got back to me, and I told him about the project. He didn’t hesitate for a second. It never ceases to amaze me how willing people are to help and be kind!
Aaron photographed Tim’s fully finished board resting on the back of the van with the beach as a backdrop. The orange van with the surfboard and a subtle gradient from the sunset created a vignette that pays homage to Tim’s craftsmanship and perfectly encapsulates that So-Cal feeling.
Photographer: Aaron Ingrao
Subject: Tim Bessell
1959 VW SO23 Westfalia Camper: Dan Epperly
Accommodations: Mike and Melinda Rose