Central California, Belinda Baggs | All photos: Chris Burkard

Pulverize Your Senses: An Interview With Photographer Chris Burkard

by Colby Brown Aug 20, 2012
At just 26 years old, surf photographer Chris Burkard is a rock star.

Photo: Kellen Keen

WITH ONLY A FEW YEARS under his belt, Chris has managed to land the cover of nearly every major surf publication, win the famed Red Bull Ilume photography contest, and work in some of the most rugged and dramatic locations on this planet. This past week the stars aligned and I was able to sit down with him for this impromptu interview.

Colby: It’s great to see you again, Chris. After months of barely missing each other in Iceland, California, and Central America it looks like we finally found time to chat. How have you been?

Chris: Busy man.. life has been a rollercoaster.. but a good one. Since we last talked I have had our first baby boy come into the world, Jeremiah Burkard. I spent about a month in the Arctic and just recently went to Panama. Also sat down with the BBC to do an interview on my Arctic surf trip.. It’s been fun, but always nice to be home for a little bit.

Life of the adventurer on the road…I know this well. Let’s get started…

There is no doubt that you are taking the industry by storm. As a photographer, you have been able to accomplish more then most in an incredibly short period of time and at a relatively young age. You are a stock photographer for Surfline.com, I constantly see you landing covers of various surf magazines, and you were the grand prize winner of the 2010 Red Bull Illume contest. For many in the industry it seems like you came out of nowhere. What is your secret?

Central California, Alex Smith

Yeah, it’s been a crazy couple years Colby, it’s kinda funny looking back because I dont really have a secret, in fact I try to share everything I know with everyone around me; I always want to be known as a photographer that was never too good to respond to someone’s emails; I try to always take the time. I think if you put good things into the world, good things come back. I tried to always focus my work on what inspired me. It’s kinda funny because it results in less advertising jobs, but I get to shoot all these unique editorial pieces, it keeps me fresh and keeps me stoked to work hard. I always spend a lot of time putting effort into making my images timeless, I try to compose in such a way that will allow them to be printed in 20 years and not be dated by landmarks and logos.. for me it is all about making your images last much longer then we will be alive.


I love that approach. There is something to be said about being open and having who you are as a person help you form your brand, but there is no doubt that the photo industry has truly changed in the last 10 years. Have you had a warm reception from photographers of past generations as you and others continue to push surf photography to new heights?

Well, that’s kind of a sensitive subject because surf photography is a unique industry. It tends to suck people in and never let them out… there’s an old joke that are no old smiling surf photographers. I think most of them that are shooting surfing for an entire career are burnt out. It’s fun for maybe 10 years, then you start to outrgrow the surfers you’re traveling with and you realize you’re going on trips with kids and babysitting them. For me, I have always tried to view myself as a photographer who happens to shoot surfing. So I guess, no, the older generations aren’t always opening up with stoke… they can be a little bitter, unless they have found a way to stay inspired and all the best guys are taking their surf skillset and applying it outside the industry and making a killing.

Norway, Dane Guadaskas

A few years back I heard of your involvement with “The California Surf Project”. Can you tell me more about that? Do you find collaborating on projects with other professionals to be a benefit to your career?

Oh man, it was honestly the trip of a lifetime, it was a real game changer for me. I had the opportunity to do a trip that was totally my brainchild and have it published! It was like every photographer’s dream: no photo editor, nobody to tell you this is good or bad. It was just all me, and it was a real affirmation that my work was, I guess, “good” or good enough or something like that because I was starting out. It was actually my first trip ever. For me collaborating is awesome, I feel it brings the best out in everyone’s work. I think most people can be kinda defensive around other photographers or artists but for me its just such a pure way to work ya know. I love it.

Tahiti, Keith Malloy

Photographers are a funny breed. In the past everyone was out for themselves; today it seems that the most successful photographers are the ones that are open and connect with others in the industry. Speaking of which, is it considered collaborating if I hide in your suitcase the next time you shoot arctic surfing?

That would be one cold suitcase… more like a bodybag [laughs]. Oh man, the Arctic is rad. I would love to have you join, but it’s never a picnic. Kinda funny because when you are in those cold places the absolute last thing you think about is going into the ocean. It’s almost like a military march to the beach because you know you’re just going to pulverize your senses.

That sounds like my kind of trip! Two years ago you were awarded the grand prize in the 2010 Red Bull Illume photography contest. I bet that didn’t hurt your career. What has changed? Do you think that other aspiring photographers should enter photography contests? Did you worry about the rights to your image?

Red Bull Illume 2010 – Top 10 Category Winners

The effects were unreal, it kinda just cemented my name in the actions sports world, I think. I got a lot of work for it as well which was pretty awesome. I think contests are definitely something you have to take with a grain of salt; don’t let them become something super important, but more just something fun. It’s all a matter of perspective, you don’t want them to become a focus, because if you’re constantly comparing yourself, it can lead to a sort of bad perspective of your own work. As far as the rights go, you kinda just gotta let some things go. I don’t think there was a licensing deal that was going to benefit as much as winning that award would.

Can you walk me through the shot? Was this pre-visualized? Do you usually take a more structured or organic approach when photographing in the field?

This shot was sorta premeditated, as in I had the vision for what it could look like in my head, but didn’t know if it would ever truly line up like this. When everything was coming together it seemed surreal, almost fake. I remember constantly questioning whether I was too far down the beach, or if I was in the right spot. I love to take a pretty organic approach to my work. I love it when things just unravel, but at the same time, it is always good to have some forethought for good images. I think it makes for a more fluid trip when you can picture in your head what you want to see and shoot before you do it. At the same time if you get too premeditated then it’s hard to just let things happen on their own sometimes. It’s all about finding a balance.

You are so right. I like to call it an “organic framework”. When in the field, having a solid starting point to branch out from helps immensely. While I do not want to get wrapped up in too much gear talk, I am curious to know what underwater gear you use when out in the field. Any products you can’t live without? Any epic gear failures you care to share?

India, Warren Smith

So many stories. I lost almost all my gear on a small boat in Chile. The captain was drunk and drove me straight into an 8-foot shorebreak. That was interesting. I was pouring water out of my cameras. I have had some cameras flood in housings, lots of water damage over the years. I think the most reliable gear I have used is my trusty 70-200 f/2.8 I have shot so many covers and spreads with that lens; it’s worth its weight in gold to me. There are a couple other items too: 50mm f/1.4, lightweight rain shell, Gerber multi-tool, and my fstop bags — they’re built for the long haul.

It is kind of funny that our favorite gear turns out to be items that rarely receive much fan fare, such as backpacks or multi-tools. Personally I feel that many aspiring photographers out there are always looking for shortcuts to success. So many photogs focus on owning the latest DLSR or copying the photographs of others. Given your experience, what is the one thing you would want to tell these individuals?

Central California, Eric Soderquist

Dang, I don’t think I could have said it any better; this is such a good point. I look back at my career and some of my best work came when I had the humblest setup. I had a Canon 20d, a 24mm, 70-200mm, and a fisheye. I produced The California Surf Project with that setup and I always look back — especially now that I have so much gear — it makes me sick to think how simple things were. With photography, people get really caught up in fads and equipment and megapixel wars. It’s kinda ridiculous. My thought process is, the more simple — and lean — your setup, the more you are going to rely on creativity to get the best images.

Speaking of creativity and inspiration, as a new father I know my son Jack has drastically changed my outlook on life. How has fatherhood shaped your business? Has it changed the risks you take in getting the shots you are known for?

Central California

Fatherhood is the best thing in the entire world; honestly, it’s such a game changer. It’s made me want to be home a lot more, and really only travel on the trips that are inspiring and motivate me to be bring forth my best work. This is the beauty of kids: They bring out your best and worst, I think. It makes me see how sometimes I travel for me and it’s selfish. It’s been a cool process of introspection. Long-term fatherhood has helped me want to create a lasting business, something that is going to be around, but have me less involved in the day-to-day. A successful business is one that runs itself, so having good assistants is key. More time with my son.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for my son to join me on my adventures around the world. Especially once he can help carry some of my gear! Is there anything wrong with grooming a future Sherpa?

Japan, Dan Malloy

Nothing wrong at all! [Laughs] I actually was just saying today to my wife all the places I want to bring him to. In the beginning of my career it was all about traveling for me, but now it seems like it’s all about traveling for him, so he can savor some of these experiences when he gets older. It really gets me excited to think about it.

While you have obviously made a name for yourself in the surf photography world, you are also passionate about travel writing and photography. How do you balance the two? Do you ever feel like you are getting pigeon-holed as solely the new king of surf photography?

Oh man, surf photography is the ultimate pigeon hole, you have no idea. Most photographers that shoot surf never get a chance to shoot anything else, because it’s so hard to break into and so hard to break out of, you invest thousands into the lenses, housings, and other equipment, the editors are hard to get to know and once you do you don’t want to blow it; you gotta stay on top. I find myself constantly working towards a way out. I love it, but it’s not my ultimate goal. I want to explore everything and every place, and if photography is your vehicle for travel, than “surf” will only take you so far. Travel writing is my weak link. I suck at writing, but I am passionate about it. I’ve always felt my photos have said more, ya know, and up until now I think my travel photography has been more of a personal pleasure type of thing.

Nantucket/Maine, East Coast, Keith Malloy

Finding that balance between business and pleasure is key. At the end of the day, at least we don’t have to wear a suit and tie to work ;)

Nothing could be worse…

I know you always have something cooking on the back burner. What do you have lined up for the rest of 2012?

[Laughs] I got to have something always lined up! I got projects for days… but I’m actually going off to Kamtchaka, Russia to surf this September, it’s gonna be insane — bears, fishing, waves — and pretty much have to helicopter to breaks and take a 6-wheel tank. Pretty stoked. We’re gonna try and do a live feed during the trip, and produce a zine after. Follow us: #russian_surf.

I also got Cuba up the sleeve, and back to Iceland next week! Follow me: @chris_burkard.

Russia, Cuba…. great stuff! It is always great to talk with you Chris. Thanks for the time. I am going to meet you in Iceland. Think I need a dry suit?

For sure! I miss that place so much… cant wait! No dry suit needed, I got a couple wettys you can borrow.

Central California, Nate Tyler

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