ON DISTANT SHORES
A Conversation with Photographer CHRIS BURKARD
By Matthew Leeb
At age 19, and with a borrowed camera, California native Chris Burkard took his first pictures; and being an avid surfer, he naturally took to surf photography. Flash forward to today (a mere 10 years later) and Chris Burkard has built himself into one of the most renowned photographers within the industry, and with reason. His photojournalistic approach captures not only the surfer, but explores the balance of surfer and nature, turning the exotic locales into as much the subject as the surfer themselves. In his third and latest book, Distant Shores, Chris Burkard traveled the extremes of world, exploring this very relationship between surfer and nature. I spoke with him about his work on distant shores.
Matthew Leeb: What got you interested in surf photography? Did you start out more interested in the surfing aspect or the photography aspect? How did those worlds collide for you?
Chris Burkard: In high school, I was into art, then I picked up a camera and it was an epiphany. I could be out in the ocean and in nature and still be creating. I started around 19 years old and it wasn”t until I decided to quit my job and give everything to photography before it really took off. I was working odd jobs at the time, landscaping and that sort of thing. Those experiences taught me a lot. I originally wanted to be a landscape photographer, but there was no money in it, so surfing was more action-oriented. I was shooting my buddies surfing just for fun and I started to share those images with photo editors. When I received good feedback and some of those images ran in publications I knew I had a future in that world.
ML: Which photographers or artists do you look up to?
CB: There are so many people that have influenced me and continue to influence me, not only as a photographer, but as a person. There are many artists, mostly impressionists that inspire me as well. A few photographers that I would like to give credit to: Henri-Cartier Bresson, James Nauchtwey, Michael Fatali, FLAME, Pete Taras, Nate Lawrence, Patrick Trefz , Joe Curren, Jeremiah Klein, and Ron Stoner. I also feel really influenced by a lot of younger photographers. I don”t think that you need to be some 30-year-plus staff photographer to make a difference. Look at guys like Todd Glaser and Zak Noyle, also Mickey Smith and others, that are constantly reminding me how quickly surf photography is evolving especially in the underwater world.
It”s hard for photographers to stand out in a sea of good work, but there”s a guy based in Brooklyn, Forest Woodward, he shoots a lot of climbing and adventure work. Another favorite is Corey Arnold. He is a commercial fisherman and professional photographer who shoots and works a lot in Alaska. His stuff is really inspirational.
ML: What is your favorite location that you have surfed/photographed?
CB: I have a slight obsession with Iceland. I”ve been to Iceland 11 times and I feel like for a photographer it”s the most beautiful place to shoot because it is so dynamic. The light is unbelievable; the landscapes are extremely rugged and contrasting. The surf there is the most raw in the world. The conditions change super fast, and it keeps you on your toes. Most of my memories are all moments of pain or suffering while in these chilly conditions. These stories make a trip exciting to relive, and the chance of scoring great waves or seeing beauty out in nature is all a bonus.
ML: Anywhere you haven’t gone yet that you are dying to go?
CB: Svalbard Islands, Antarctica. I”m always looking to tap into somewhere remote and extreme.
ML: Who is your favorite surfer to work with and/or watch?
CB: I really respect and work with the Malloys a lot. Keith is a super great human and I”ve always had a great respect for the way Dan Malloy surfs.
ML: Is there one shot you wanted but could never quite capture? Your Moby Dick pic?
CB: That”s a good question. There”s been many times where I”m shooting landscapes and I really wish I had a subject. In Norway shooting all the gorgeous fjords with endless peaks and steep chutes. I remember how amazing I thought it would be to have a skier making a big turn in those mountains. I”ve felt the same in Iceland with some of the gorgeous beaches I”ve been to without surfers. The craziest shot I can think of is to have the northern lights be bright enough that I could capture them and a surfer on a wave in the same shot. That would be wild.
ML: You are known for your beautiful surf and travel photos, but what else do you like to shoot?
CB: I have a big passion for landscapes so I really enjoy shooting anywhere new and with a dramatic landscape. I love camping and hiking because they tend to bring me to those locations. I would say a big hobby of mine is climbing. I”m a member of a rock gym but ideally I”ll go outdoors. In central California you”re kind of close to everything so I am able to take weekend trips to Joshua Tree or Yosemite. It”s super fun for me to shoot something different like climbing or hiking because it presents new challenges and opens a whole new world creatively.
ML: What projects do you have coming up?
CB: I just got back from Iceland. We”re working with those images right now. I”m excited about the film from our surf trip to the Aleutians titled Cradle of the Storms. Always looking forward to the next exciting location.
Chris Burkard is a photographer. He currently serves as Senior Staff Photographer for Surfer Magazine.
Written by Matthew Leeb
Photography by & Courtesy of Chris Burkard
Design by Marie Havens
From Chris Burkard”s Book Distant Shores, Photography by & Courtesy of Chris Burkard