Chris Burkard, Californian Senior Staff Photographer at Surfline and 2006 winner of the Follow the Light Foundation grant speaks to Club Of The Waves about his surf photography, travels and his upcoming 'California Surf Project' book featuring his and surf artist/surfer Eric Soderquist's surf trip along the Californian coast.
Chris, tell us about your background, where are you from?
CB: I am 22 years old and live in central California with my wife Breanne. I was born and raised in the simple surf town of Pismo Beach, which is more known for its clam chowder than its pumping surf. I grew up surfing and bodyboarding the fickle reefs and beachbreaks around central California.
When did you first discover an interest in photography?
CB: Shortly after I graduated high school I was really into art and other types of artistic mediums. I always loved being creative but I didn't feel like I had found the way to express myself yet. The first camera I picked up was at a Goodwill auction for 65 bucks. It never worked… not even a single roll of film came out. Soon after I got another and was obsessed with shooting film. It was a Nikon N90s, I took a black and white photography class in junior college and from that point on I was hooked.
What or who inspires you and your work? In your bio you cite the late great Ron Stoner as an influence…
CB: Just thinking about this question gets my head spinning… 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.
I've seen your work described many different ways, and always in the most positive tone! The words "signature style" and "use of light" seem to very popular descriptions… How would you describe your work, or what you try to capture in your work both in a professional/commercial and experimental/personal sense?
CB: It is hard to take a deeper look at my own work because I try not to over analyze it. But if I could boil it all down into one simple theory, it would be that I want to create timeless images that cannot be placed in an era or dated by logos. By shooting silhouettes and trying to use unique lighting situations enables people from all ages/eras to appreciate your photos. That is what I am aiming for… so I guess when you're trying to create that look you can develop a signature style.
Also, when I'm shooting editorially specifically, I think it's so important to paint an entire picture of the whole experience. Magazines, photo editors and especially readers want to escape through the images. Some of the best advice I ever received was from Pete Taras, when he explained to me how important it is to incorporate background and foreground into a photo, even if it means you're one mile down the beach. Magazines nowadays have a photo of every surfer at every wave doing every maneuver. So when you're shooting a place like California, it's always cool to incorporate the native grasses, rolling hills or whatever landscape elements are specific to a certain part of the coast. This idea goes for everywhere I travel.
Early in 2008 you joined Surfline as Senior Staff Photographer at only 21. Quoting from an article on Surfline.com, they describe you as "…the hottest young surf photographer in the industry today" and having "… a fantastic eye for colour, the desire to be current with technology and equipment, a monstrous work ethic, and the understanding of how to tell a story"… Not bad, not bad at all… How do you respond to such praise from top surf industry folk, so early on in your career too?
CB: Hahaha, I wish I could live up to all the hype. I definitely wouldn't say, "…the hottest young surf photographer in the industry today." But I think that I have been blessed to have a great support team behind me. I have been lucky to have some great clients as well that really have helped me along the way. I think that one thing I was able to learn early on is how the editorial process works. There are a lot of photographers that kinda miss that step and never fully develop the understanding of how to tell a story, or pitch a story. Photographers like Brian Nevins are great example of this storytelling. Learning this has helped me really speed things up in my career. I have never been the photographer that collects tons of money off ads, but more so I have done well editorially. Seeing a trip turn into an article that you have spent so much time to plan out and execute is my favorite thing about shooting surf. It really is a totally different way of shooting than posting up with a 600mm on the beach at Pipe. It's about telling a story.
On October 10th 2006, you were the first photographer to receive the prestigious Follow the Light Foundation grant, marking the first anniversary of the death of iconic surf photographer Larry "Flame" Moore, the Photo Editor of Surfing Magazine for 30 years… How did it feel to receive this honour?
CB: INCREDIBLE, I remember that day like it was yesterday. I had just finished a 4-month internship at Transworld Surf and I honestly was feeling like my career shooting surf was on the downhill. I say this because when you live in central California it is easy for people to forget about you. I applied for the grant and I honestly thought it wasn't going to go any farther than that. When they were announcing the winners that night at the dinner I thought they actually skipped my name and didn't mention me… I just looked over at my wife and was like "Well, maybe next year." and then they said "This years grant goes to Chris Burkard"… it was completely surreal. The contacts I have made from that night still help me today.
I imagine that the grant, along with the honour of such an award did wonders for your career, at only 20 years of age? Given that the judges are some of surf photography's greats like Aaron Chang, Jeff Divine and Art Brewer…
CB: It really helped to push me along. Personally? I think that surf photographers in general are an insecure bunch because we're constantly getting our work critiqued and edited and this can make us a little neurotic… Maybe that is just me. But when I had the opportunity to receive this honor it was so rewarding to have all these "giants" of surf photography validate my work. It was a huge confirmation for me to push forward with this as a career.
Tell us about "The Book Project"…?
CB: In the fall and winter of 2006 (directly after winning the Flame grant) my good friend and professional surfer Eric Soderquist and I hit the road in Eric's 1978 VW Bus and traveled California's highways 1 and 101 and surfed from border to border documenting our journey with photos and video. The project was tentatively called "The book project", which became "The California Surf Project." In 2007 when chronicle books picked up our project and became our publisher. This project would have never happened had it not been for the money that I received from the Flame grant. I put every cent of it into gas and food for the trip. To sum it all up this project was an amazing journey that completely changed my perspective on life and everything about the way I wanted to shoot. This book was made for one purpose, to inspire people to want to get out and discover California for themselves.
COTW: Sounds awesome!
As a well-traveled photographer, what is it about the Californian coast that makes it so special for you to want to embark on this journey and the book project?
CB: I think the simple fact that as "surfers" we are continually looking around the globe for the next epic trip, when most of them have not even driven past San Francisco to surf in California. I was inspired by the fact that I could do a surf trip in my own backyard. I think California has more to offer than most people think. I have always felt inspired by the coastline that has given me so many memories and has hosted hundreds of camping trips. It honestly just felt like it made sense.
What are your favourite (and worst) memories from this Californian surf trip/journey?
CB: Favorite memories would have to be meeting some of the coolest locals in places like Crescent City. Spending many rainy evenings in coffee shops and hearing epic local music. Being my own photo editor on the project and simply shooting like a photojournalist. Also being up at sunrise for 50 straight days was pretty inspiring.
Worst memories would be witnessing an attempted murder in Fort Bragg. Getting the worst Poison Oak of my life during a sauna in the Humboldt forest and gaining about 30 lbs from eating apple fritters every day (…maybe that was a good memory).
…An attempted murder!!??
CB: Fort Bragg is an interesting place… it's kinda like a mix between a run-down fishing town and a military base with a large Hispanic influence. When we were there (to make the long story short) we were sitting inside a coffee shop at the front window, when all of a sudden we see a younger Hispanic kid jumping around like he is on Meth or something… He was yelling stuff and had what appeared to be brass knuckles with spikes in his hand. He started yelling at this white kid who was definitely bigger and probably could have taken him on, but this kid was on serious drugs and he had a friend with him. So basically they get into a scuffle and the Methed-out kid is just punching this white kid in the head repeatedly with brass knuckles. Basically trying to murder the guy. Me and Eric were sitting in the front window like literally a foot away and were tripping… Before I had a chance to run out these older guys from the shop ran outside and apprehended the kid. It was gnarly! It took two of them to hold him and the other kid down. We really didn't want to be witnesses because we were on the road and tried to play it cool, but we were the closest to the accident. There were a lot of other people that saw it go down, so they testified… but it was a really scary thing to witness!.
COTW: Wow, that's awful! But good that you didn't get tangled up in it!
Travel is a large part of any successful surf photographers' life, and you seem to have traveled most places, and shot for various surf magazines and websites… What have been your fondest memories from your travels so far?
CB: Traveling is such a beautiful thing, and to do it well takes some practice. I am still learning every time I hit the road because there is always so much to take in. The culture, the smells, the food and the people. I owe some of the greatest experiences of my life to traveling and the media companies that have sent me.
The best experience I have had to date was in Christmas Island. This island is so remote that you cannot even get there anymore because they stopped running flights. I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with the natives and running around with the kids. I was even able to attend church with them and it was actually a really emotional and beautiful experience, the way that they took me in.
Another great experience was in the deserts of Oman where we had been driving for hours through the desert… I mean the real desert. We were driving in straight sand dunes. I thought we were gonna die or get killed. But we ended up being fine and as we were driving through we stopped upon a little village and all the kids ran up to the car and they looked at us as if they had never seen white people before. They yelled for "biscuits", which is like a cookie… anyway it was just really amazing to see such remote people living so simply and just with no malice, just happy to see you. It was quite contrary to what everyone in the US was saying the Middle East would be like.
What is or has been your favourite location to shoot?
CB: I would say that my favorite location is still at home in central California.
Do you prefer to shoot from land or in the water?
CB: I prefer land. I like working with landscape and incorporating foreground and background into photos. I love shooting super compressed lineups with a 300 or 500. I've also been digging on shooting long lens water lately. It seems like that is a really unique perspective because it is the view that a surfer gets when he is paddling out. I want to perfect my fisheye skills because I feel like that is the area I need to improve the most.
So where can one go to see your work and purchase prints?
Finally, what does the future hold for you and your work?
CB: Aaaahh the future! With this economy I am just glad to be keeping a job! Seriously though I actually am really looking forward to working on some more books and film projects in the future. I have really been trying to work on some 'none-surf stuff', shooting hiking and backpacking, which are my other passions.
Thanks again Chris.