The first instalment of the Definition series takes a closer look at Californian Photographer Chris Burkard. As we ask, what makes him tick?
“I try to portray the bigger picture," says Chris. "The story behind the wave. Ideally an image could stand as a landscape without the action, drawing people to it as a natural landscape, only to then see the surf component within that.”
I try to portray the bigger picture. The story behind the wave. Ideally an image could stand as a landscape without the action.
Chris Burkard has matured a distinctive style when it comes to creating images. Smudging boundaries between landscape and surf photography, the Californian is viewed by many as one of the surf industry’s most cherished artists. Something which has demanded a lot of persistence whilst remaining free from any sense of complacency.
“The locations I am traveling to often have just as interesting a story around them as the wave itself and I do my best to show that complete story to the viewer,” Chris explains.
Chris’s portfolio provides an opportunity for pure escapism. As much about the environment as it is about the movement of water in the foreground. “The bigger picture” to which he fondly refers.
In August 2012, Chris Burkard joined Keith Malloy, Trevor Gordon, Cyrus Sutton and Dane Gudaskas on an exploratory surf trip to the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East.
“It felt like we were amongst the first people to have ever seen the place,” he says. “It’s off the map and that’s why I went there. Surfing in Russia was one of the more memorable trips of my life. The Kamchatka Peninsula has a landscape that is so raw, and so real. I always want to keep going to places far removed from civilisation. We travelled by military vehicle and military helicopters. It was wild.”
Self-taught, Chris came to photography through a fairly conventional route, a natural progression stemming from a love of creating art. He would however argue, as many do, that as much as he discovered it, photography found him. “In school I was into art and as soon as I picked up a camera it was an epiphany. I could take art and the ability to be creative anywhere. I could be out in the ocean and in nature and still be creating. I was shooting my buddies surfing just for fun and I started to share those images with photo editors. But, it wasn't until I decided to quit my job and give everything to photography that it really took off."
There have been many times when I’ve taken water housings to the face or collided with the athlete. Though it is a danger, it’s just part of the job.
Although his forte may sit in shooting waves set in the foreground of dramatic landscapes, be under no illusion that Chris is anything of a one-trick pony. As comfortable in the water shooting heavy fish-eye barrels as he is stood on a headland with a telephoto lens. His intrinsic understanding of light and angles coupled with his ability behind the lens has garnered cover shots on 35 international magazines, and now, after various photography positions at the mags, the senior staff photographer slot at Surfer magazine.
“The concept of being published was always in the back of my mind as I interned and worked under photo editors at the beginning of my career. I remember a particular shoot in California when I was about 19-years-old,” he recalls. “This guy took me out on a jet-ski and dropped me off in the channel to shoot this big wave. It was early on in my career and my nerves were super high. I snapped this photo of this huge wave breaking right on top of this surfers head. It ended up running in a local magazine and offered me a glimpse into a future in the surf photography world.”
Anyone who has as much as dipped their feet in the world of surf photography, will appreciate the complexities involved with capturing the movements of a breaking wave let alone of a surfer at the apex of any given maneuver.
“One of the biggest challenges is probably just swimming in the water in some precarious situations, while trying to get as close as you can to the surfers. There have been many times when I’ve taken water housings to the face or collided with the athlete. Though it is a danger, it’s just part of the job. The ability to capture those shots happens through good positioning and being a nimble swimmer. Water shots are tough to get because you're literally dealing in inches.”
In October 2006, Burkard was awarded the first ever ‘Follow the Light Foundation’ grant, commemorating long-time photo editor for Surfing Magazine, Larry ‘Flame’ Moore, who had died just one year previously. The grant enabled Chris to fund a 6-month surfing trip along the California coast, later published as The California Surf Project. Both of which Chris labels as his proudest moment to date and when his career solidified.
The art of creating images is a competitive field. An aspect of the industry which has only elevated with the increase in equipment accessibility. But with competition comes the opportunity for inspiration, a chance for someone else’s work to influence your own for the better and a chance to elaborate on the work of others and progress. As with any artistry, determination to keep pushing the boundaries of creativity and to stay relevant is a vital part of photography.
I don’t think that you need to be some 30-plus staff photographer to make a difference. Look at guys like Todd Glaser and Zak Noyle, also Mickey Smith.
The 28-year-old feels heavily influenced by the work of so many others, not just within the confines of photography but throughout his life in general. Giving credit to the older generation of his predecessors, amongst others, he names the talents of Henri-Cartier Bresson, James Nachtwey and of course Larry ‘Flame‘ Moore as his sources of inspiration. But, perhaps in keeping with the nature of photography, Chris looks to the artists of his own generation.
“I’m also really influenced by a lot of younger photographers. I don't think that you need to be some 30-plus staff photographer to make a difference” says Chris. “Look at guys like Todd Glaser and Zak Noyle, also Mickey Smith. I’m constantly reminded of how quickly surf photography is evolving, especially in the underwater world.”
I want to create timeless images that can be appreciated years from now. I'm constantly working towards that.
With more exciting cold water projects on the horizon, namely two trips to Iceland and a children's book inspired by his images, Chris continues to be drawn to the original elements of imagery which initially saw him pick up a camera. Waves and their respective environments. But he remains open to the potential of fresh new themes, ready to adapt his own work within the ever changing landscape of photography.
“I know there will be more opportunities to photograph different subject matter and there’s so much potential to work in new capacities and with new companies. That's where I see the opportunity for growth, through connecting with new people and subject matter. I'm not just looking to the immediate future, even more importantly I want to create timeless images that can be appreciated years from now. I'm constantly working towards that.”