Arguably the most recognized name in surf photography, and the owner of a multimillion-dollar company bearing that name, Aaron Chang`s only goal in life was to surf. "It was always an end to a means," says Chang of his interest in photography. "It was like, `OK, how do I get to J-Bay?` My primary mission was to surf around the world."
Born in Tuscon, Arizona, where he lived until age nine, Aaron Kem Chang was introduced to the ocean during summer vacations to Pacific Beach. Both parents were schoolteachers. Of Scottish descent, his mother Marilyn taught art and instilled in Chang a sense of creativity, while his father Howard, who is Chinese, encouraged surfing. Starting out on an air mat at Crystal Pier, young Chang graduated to a 9`6" at age 10, which he dragged back and forth from his new home in Imperial Beach. A competitive swimmer for Mar Vista High School, he was the California Interscholastic Federation Breast Stroke champion his junior year. As a senior, the swim team pleaded with him to return, which he did under his own rules, meaning he would compete in long hair and surf trunks. Needing to fill out his schedule in 11th grade, Aaron opted for a class in photography, but it was then far from a passion.
Chang first recorded surfing when a broken ankle in high school left him landlocked. He picked up a Super 8 camera and shot footage of his friends surfing off the IB Pier. "I`ll never forget that moment of my friends and I getting the film back," he remembers. "Darkening the room, putting on music and rolling the film; it was all a thrill." At 17, he flew to Hawaii to surf, working odd jobs on Oahu and living in a rented tool shed at the Laniakea mansion, surfing with friends Mark Foo, Bobby Owens and Johnny Mack. A career highlight came when he saw his hero Barry Kanaiaupuni in action at Sunset. "It was one of the first times I surfed there," he recalls, "and I was scratching for my life over this wave. I was afraid I wasn`t gonna make it over, and there was BK, who was paddling next to me, spinning around to take it. Barry defined power surfing for me."
At 19, Chang made a movie of the 75/76 North Shore season, titled Out of the Blue. After a packed showing at the Waialua Rec Center at 50 cents a head, he toured the film along the California coast that summer. While stopping at Surfing magazine for a film review, he met photo editor Larry "Flame" Moore, who encouraged him to take up still photography back in Hawaii, which he did. "It was your wildest dream to be in Hawaii surfing during the late `70s, literally like the Wild West." Chang says. "I was scrounging a living by selling 8"x10" surf photos to guys like Mike Purpus, living below poverty level, but nobody cared. Life was grand." A position with Impact, a postcard company where he was shooting and training to become a distributor, provided economic relief, followed by a brief college stint.
Ultimately, Chang just wanted to surf, and when a staff photographer position opened at Surfing in 1979, he jumped at the chance to travel the world. He still surfed more than he shot, at least until the mid-`80s surf boom turned photography into a competitive business. "I was a briefly retired competitive person," he insists, "but Flame had a special way of firing me up. There wasn`t anything that would stop me from getting in the water. Even if it was crazy big, I`d swim out just to be the only guy that would do it."
The dedication paid off well beyond the relatively tiny surfing subculture, where he rose to legendary status. His work appeared in more than a hundred different publications, from rock and roll to fashion to directing a three-dimensional action sports film to appearances in highly successful books on photojournalism.
In 1993, Chang married Erika Fichter, a University of San Diego graduate with a background in marketing and business. Together, in 1994, the couple launched Aaron Chang Clothing with a line consisting of six T-shirts and later produced bikinis and other swimwear. Today, his enterprises now include a gallery in Solana Beach, where one of the sport`s first proponents of digital photography stays on the forefront of innovation, offering tack-sharp prints of his work up to 14-feet. He also collaborated with and Rusty Preisendorfer to create a `photo-wrapped` a surfboard.
Even with his focus on a growing business and family -- his San Diego home now has two sons -- Chang continues shooting surfing for a number of magazines and website. Most notably, he captured the 2001 XXL winning photo of Mike Parsons at Cortes Bank. And he still surfs a couple of times each week, mostly near his Del Mar home, but occasionally at Black`s for real satisfaction. "Photography, like surfing," he suggests, "is an infinite process, a constantly evolving exploration of life. The more you know, the less you know. Every time you arrive at a level, you`re at the bottom of the next level. It`s endlessly challenging, and I think that`s why I`ve stayed with it."