Life in Salt: How California Surf Photographer Chris Burkard Finds Joy Beating the Crowds on His Frigid, Far-Flug Adventures

by Owen James Burke

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“…if there’s one thing I’ve realized, it’s that any career, even one as seemingly glamorous as surf photography, has the danger of becoming monotonous.” “Hofn Beach”, Iceland. Photo: Chris Burkard.

Chris Burkard is a self-taught award-winning photojournalist and photographer from Central California with a proclivity for harsh, cold climes and wide open landscapes. But it wasn’t always that way. Burkard began his career following the best of the best in surfing to tropical destinations that usually dominate the covers of surfing magazines but endless, palm-fringed reef pass barrels can make even the life of a surf photographer seem routine.

“The more time I spent traveling to these exotic locations,” Burkard mused in a recent TED talk (see below), “the less gratifying it seemed to be.” The trappings of the digital world come along with you when you visit Tahiti, Fiji, or take a yacht to the Maldives, but they’re nowhere to be found in Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, Alaska’s vast coastal outback or even wild, ice-glazed north Atlantic shores.

In the following paragraphs, he shares a few of his mind-blowing images, philosophies on work and life – and few pieces of must-have gear.

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“All this shivering taught me something: in life, there are no shortcuts to joy. Anything worth pursuing requires us to suffer just a tiny bit.” Chris Burkard, Lofoten Islands, Norway, Arctic Circle. Photo: Chris Burkard.

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Why would someone leave this to tussle with hypothermia in bone-chilling arctic surf? Above: A choked Southern California lineup. Photo: Chris Burkard.

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Case in point: on the other end of North America’s Pacific coast, things are different. Alex Gray finds serenity by taking flight beneath a snow-capped volcano in Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain. Photo: Chris Burkard.


On Being a “Surf” Photographer.

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Photo courtesy: Chris Burkard.

Why did you first pick up a camera?

The idea of capturing the moment, and sharing how I see the world. Getting to interact with moments in a more realistic manner instead of being stuck inside a studio or behind an easel. I also just saw all my friends having these moments like being in the waves or in the mountains and I knew I needed something that would bring me close to the experience. 

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“I began craving wild, open spaces, and so I set out to find the places others had written off as too cold, too remote, and too dangerous to surf, and that challenge intrigued me.” Horses on Hofn Beach, Iceland. Photo: Chris Burkard.

What’s the first thing you can remember shooting?

Boogie boarding and landscapes… It was pretty much just being in the ocean, shooting my friends on boogie boards, surfing and bodysurfing. Then I really dove into landscape and spent a lot of sleepless nights trying to shoot the evening sky …and really, anywhere I could drive to. 

What made you want to shoot water? Surf?

I grew up around the ocean, so it was a big part of life, and so naturally that called to me. Being in the water is a really visceral experience… and I just wanted to be more engaged in what I was shooting… I think being in the ocean is also a unique perspective that most people don’t get to experience, so being able to bring these images to people felt really important.

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South Coast, Iceland. Chris Burkard.

You came into photography during not only this massive technological transition within the industry, but the explosion of it. Some veterans talk about how few photographers there used to be. Now, with about $500, anybody can get their hands on a secondhand DSLR and pull off a lucky shot or two. Did you try to set yourself apart at first, or was it something that just sort of evolved?

What I was interested in evolved, and helped me to go about creating my own style. I shot a lot of warm water surfing initially, but I was drawn to the arctic. I also started putting a human element into vast beautiful landscapes to give some perspective and a sense of accessibility. I think it’s easy to say that the “industry is oversaturated with photographers” and it’s totally true…but who cares? That is just a cop out. I decided to use it as an opportunity to work harder and try to be more efficient… I did everything I could to rise above the other people that I was competing with.

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“Waterfall into the Ocean.” Faroe Islands. Photo: Chris Burkard.

What’s the best thing about digital over analog?

Being able to shoot mass amounts of photographs and and not having to get out of the water to change a roll of film. I lost so much film back in the day sending the photos to editors (and never seeing them again because they disappeared into a filing cabinet). That always bummed me out… so this was an opportunity to shoot a ton more than I was used to. 

The worst?

I do love shooting slide film. With slide film it feels like you put a part of yourself into each photograph. The colors are more real and vivid than anything else I have seen – ever.

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“At one point, we got to the beach only to find massive chunks of ice had piled on the shoreline. They created this barrier between us in the surf and we had to weave through this thing like a maze just to get out in the lineup. And once we got there, we were pushing aside these ice chunks trying to get into waves.” Iceland. Photo: Chris Burkard.

What, or who, is your favorite subject on the water?

Arctic Surfing… Anywhere that is a remote and distant beach or location with few humans… Those are the most important places to me.

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Peter Mendia, somewhere in Chile. This photo earned then 24-year-old Burkard the winning prize in an international sports photography exhibition. Photo: Chris Burkard.

What’s your favorite time to shoot over H2O: dawn or dusk?

Hard to say! It really depends. There are incredible sunsets and incredible sunrises. Each one is different, and both are great times to shoot. But sunrise shots are more unique because less people are up to see them… They are kinda like shadows.

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Your new book—your fourth—is a children’s book, “The Boy Who Spoke to the Earth”. What compelled you to write a children’s book, and why did you choose to work with an illustrator, and not use your own portfolio?

Well, I have two young kids. Being a parent is an incredible experience and I wanted to create something for my own children and teach them how to interact with our world. It was actually the publisher’s idea to do a collaboration with an illustrator. I knew that illustrations could reach out to children much better than my own photographs… So this is really about creating something that will reach them.

Watch the story behind “The Boy Who Spoke to the Earth”, illustrated by David McClellan and due for release in late July:

Have you had any great influences or idols in photography? How about on the water?

Ragnar Axelsson is an incredible Icelandic photographer. On top of the water, probably the Malloy Brothers. They are some of the gnarliest surfers. I also have been really drawn to the work of Michael Fatali and a lot of other landscape photographers. Dustin Humphrey for surf work. (Ed’s note: Dustin Humphrey photographed Scuttlefish writer Inilek Wilmot, his family and the Jamaican surf team with artist and designer Steve Gorrow for their “Dopamine”.)


Watch Chris Burkard’s recent TED talk, filmed this spring:


A few of Chris Burkards’ must haves:

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Sony’s full-frame 24.3 megapixel A7ii is tough to beat for the price.

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…and ear plugs. Cold water can do a number on the noggin.

Off the Water:

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A copy of Moby Dick must grace the shelves of any true waterman.


Follow Chris Burkard on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo and his website. -OJB

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