Follow The Light To Surf Photography Greatness

A foundation that’s launched countless careers, honors the legacy of Larry “Flame” Moore.

On clear and cold days, the sun jumps up over the mountains behind Laguna Beach and something magical happens. The golden light is greeted with brisk offshore winds racing down the narrow canyons. Lines of swell transform into blue green see-through barrels as they hit the shallow sandbars of Salt Creek Beach. The light is otherworldly – a creation of nature that beats any studio.

This phenomenon has a name: Larry Light.  That’s because for decades Salt Creek beach on Laguna’s southern end was the favored stomping ground of legendary Surfing Magazine photographer and photo editor, Larry “Flame” Moore. Pete Taras, one of many aspiring lensmen who worked under Flame, was blown away by Flame’s dedication to his home break. “Every morning he would be down at Salt Creek to see what the patterns would be,” Taras says. “Even if it was one foot and blown out he’d write down the wind, the tides, everything. He was so mathematical about it.”

Southern California and Northern Baja aren’t known for having consistently big surf, but Flame studied weather charts and pioneered missions to shoot Waimea style waves at Todos Santos Island just off the coast of Ensenada. He was also the first person to pursue Cortes Bank, a terrifying seamount one hundred miles from land, as a surf spot. Flame’s mission there with Peter Mel, Mark Parsons, Brad Gerlach and Ken “Skindog” Collins in 2001 was the stuff of legend. The surf was 60 feet and glassy, and, considering this was in the days before drones, Flame shot the session from an airplane.

Throughout his career, Flame was obsessed with figuring out the equation for the perfect surf photo. His cover shots demanded your attention. The colors were so vivid they seemed to glow. When you saw one on a magazine rack, you couldn’t help but pick it up. “Flame wanted everything to be the brightest, the sharpest, the most colorful and just big and bold and beautiful,” says Taras.

The photography Flame shot and curated set the standard during the surf industry boom years. Evan Slater was editor at Surfing during the peak era. “In those days, we had a full roster, like a sports team of photographers that all got a retainer, '' says Slater. “It was such an amazing time in the industry.”

The Surfing Mag office was just down the road from Salt Creek and Flame was a fixture in the lightroom for decades. “He was really well known for mentoring young surf photographers,” says Slater. That was one of his joys in life.” says Slater. Scores of acclaimed shooters like Aaron Chang, Jack English and Jeff Flindt got their start working under him. “A lot of people became icons because of Flame’s tutelage,” says Taras.

Flame was also known for his passion for film in the pre-digital era. “He had this secret formula,” says Taras. "He knew how to push film and the chemistry behind it.”

Flame was obsessed with achieving tack sharp focus. He searched the world for the perfect lenses and water housings. “He would go to any lengths,” says Taras. “He experimented with Crystal Dome ports instead of Plexiglas, just because the photos were going to reproduce just that tiny bit more clearly than the competition. He had to make sure that the stuff was the sharpest and the best in print.”

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A Foundation Created By Tragedy

Evan Slater knew something was wrong when he found Flame asleep on a couch at the Surfing Mag office. He wasn’t the type to take a nap on the job. When Flame went to the doctor to get himself checked out, the diagnosis was devastating. Flame had glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. Despite the tragic news, Flame had no interest in giving up his love for photography or his job at the magazine. “He was still able to come to work every single day,” says Slater. “It was such a routine for him to show up bringing his lunch pail. He stayed with us to the very end.”

Larry “Flame” Moore died in October, 2005 at age 57. Soon after his death, his widow Candace and a group of his friends started the Follow the Light Foundation in his honor. They decided to create an award for aspiring young photographers aged 16-25 from around the world. “It's our way of encouraging them and providing working opportunities for them that are meaningful,” says Don Meek, one of the founders of Follow the Light. “There's also a cash component. Everybody's guaranteed $2,000 just by making the top five and the grand prize winner wins $5,000.”

The first winner of the Follow the Light award was a fairly unknown photographer from the Central Coast of California named Chris Burkard. He used his prize money to create the “California Surf Project,” which was later published by Chronicle Books. He was later hired as a project photographer for Patagonia and went on to direct award-winning films, “The Cradle of Storms'' and “Under an Arctic Sky.” Today he’s established himself as one of the leading outdoor photographers in the world.

The list of subsequent winners of the Follow the Light award reads like a who’s who of the best surf photographers in the world. Todd Glaser, Ray Collins, Morgan Maassen, Duncan MacFarlane, Seth de Roulet and Nick Green are just a handful of the grantees who’ve gone on to work for big companies within the surf industry and beyond.  

Santa Barbara’s Morgan Maassen won Follow the Light as a teenager in 2010, after only picking up a camera a year prior. “I was very fortunate to have won it that year,” says Maassen. “It really put me on the map among the brands and the media and the surf industry.”

In 2011, Maassen scored a contract with Quiksilver and started traveling the world with Kelly Slater, Dane Reynolds and Stephanie Gilmore. Since then he’s worked for Apple, Amazon, Nike, Vanity Fair, National Geographic, The New York Times and dozens of other mainstream brands and publications. “Follow the Light definitely does pluck people out of obscurity and put them on a pedestal, and it gives them the opportunity to move forward and grow as photographers,” says Maassen.

Todd Glaser is another alumni of the program who’s gone on to do great things. He entered the Follow the Light competition in 2008 after graduating from the Brooks Institute of Photography and was the third winner of the award. “It gave me the confidence to know that what I was doing something right because I held the judges in such high regard,” says Glaser. “To get to show your work in front of them was really special.”

Glaser was hired right away as a staff photographer at Surfer Magazine and went on to personally document Kelly Slater’s career for the past dozen years.  

Both Maassen and Glaser have been on the judging panel for subsequent awards and feel privileged to pass on the benefits they’ve received to the next generation of aspiring surf photographers. “I've become friends with most of the guys that have won it and I keep in touch with them,” says Maassen. “I love communicating with people who enter the contest and answering their questions. Whether they were winners or finalists or not, I always have an open door for them.”

Don Meek credits much of the success of the award to the quality of the judging panel and unique criteria. “It's all based on a point scale,” says Meek. “70 points for photos, 20 points for the words because there is an essay part of the application with eight questions and then it's ten points for an X-Factor.”

The undefined X-Factor is what really makes the award different. According to Glaser, the panel wants to see what the photographers do with the conditions they work with locally. “If someone has Pipeline in their backyard, it gives them a lot more opportunity to make a lot of beautiful images,” says Glaser. “We love seeing people from different places that might not have the best waves but they’re bringing a unique approach.”

The Uncertain Future Of Surf Photography

The death of surf magazines and the economic struggles of the surf brands have made the idea of making a living as a surf photographer a difficult proposition. “Digital media pays next to nothing,” says Slater. Making it work today requires the deft social media, self-promotion and marketing skills that don’t come naturally to everyone. In response, the first place of the Follow the Light award now comes with not only a cash component, but something far more valuable, a guaranteed working opportunity with Billabong.

Despite the illustrious list of winners, the Follow the Light award has had a bumpy run as of late. The contest went on hiatus from 2016 to 2019. It came back in 2019 and was held as a virtual event in 2020, but it fell victim to Covid in 2021.

This year’s event was historic because it reflected the charge of women into a field previously dominated by men.

This month, however, the Follow the Light awards ceremony returned as a gala in-person affair at the Coast Film and Music festival, held in Laguna Beach, a stone’s throw away from Flame’s Salt Creek stomping grounds. This year’s event was historic because it reflected the charge of women into a field previously dominated by men. The photos are all judged without anyone knowing what the photographers look like, and, for the first time, two women earned spots in the top five.

The deserving winner was San Clemente’s Kalani Cummins. He cut his teeth in the back breaking waves of The Wedge in Newport Beach. “Kalani is very capable at swimming in big waves, but he's also able to kind of highlight the quieter moments of surfing,” says Glaser. “I also really liked his approach to how he answered the questions. He showed quite a bit of range in his portfolio.”

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A Connection To The Ocean Environment

Surf photography isn’t an easy job. It requires long hours and dedication with a low probability of financial success. However, it’s an important one because showcasing the beauty and power of the ocean is a step toward protecting it. Clark Little, for example, has amassed 2.1 million fans of his work on Instagram by documenting not just the incredible moments he captures inside of waves in Hawaii, but also by raising awareness to the pollution, overfishing and coastal erosion that are threatening his environment.  

Morgan Maassen travels year-round but tries to offset his impact on the planet by donating his photo and video content of the beautiful places he goes to the Surfrider Foundation and Heal the Bay. “I think seeing a beautiful photo of a whale or a turtle and saying this is what we need to save, makes it tangible to someone that's buying and throwing away plastic,” says Maassen. “That person might not experience whales and turtles in the ocean firsthand like I do. So that's where photography is kind of this interesting intermediary in capturing what we need to save and showing it to people that might not ever see or be exposed to it.”

Showcasing beauty is one aspect of how surf photography can impact sustainability efforts and photojournalism is another. When photographers travel to developing countries, for example, they’re able to document firsthand how human waste negatively impacts ocean environments. Zak Noyle’s tragic photo of Indonesian surfer Dede Suryana surfing inside a barrel filled with trash went viral throughout the world. It was a powerful and heartbreaking way to illustrate how devastating plastic pollution can be.

Zak Noyle’s tragic photo of Indonesian surfer Dede Suryana surfing inside a barrel filled with trash went viral throughout the world. It was a powerful and heartbreaking way to illustrate how devastating plastic pollution can be

In the seventeen years since Larry “Flame” Moore’s tragic death, surf photography has gone through a dizzying array of changes. If Flame were still alive today, it’s hard to say what he’d make of the current landscape. He was an old-school film and magazine guy and likely wouldn’t be happy that the most common way to experience his art is on the small screen of a smartphone. Yet, in spite of these changes, Flame’s legacy still shines bright. You can see his lasting influence in every frame of the work done by the winners of the award given in his memory.

“Everything is in that Follow the Light title,” says Taras. “Being able to keep that burn and that light on for creatives to have homes and get paying work. We are here to give them that confidence and let them know that the surf industry hasn't forgotten about them yet.”

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Key Takeaways
  • The Follow the Light Foundation was launched in 2006 and has launched the careers of dozens of photographers. 
  • The 2022 awards were held at the Coast Film and Music Festival in Laguna Beach, CA on November 12, 2022.  
  • Follow the Light is part of the U.S. Board Riders Clubs, a 501 (c) 3 not-for-profit corporation. 
  • For more information to donate, click here.