Chris Burkard is a self-taught photographer and artist based in Central California whose work is layered by surf, outdoor, lifestyle and travel subjects. Currently Burkard serves as senior staff photographer for Surfer Magazine, contributes regularly to various international publications and is a project photographer for Patagonia as well as several other respected brands.
Burkard has completed two book projects, one with friend and co-author Eric Soderquist titled “The California Surf Project” (2006), and the other, “Plight of the Torpedo People,” accompanying the Patagonia bodysurfing film “Come Hell or High Water” (2012). In 2012, Burkard and his wife, Breanne, welcomed their first son, Jeremiah. They live in San Luis Obispo, not far from their hometown of Grover Beach.
Question: Where are some of the most memorable places you have worked? Are there places you have returned to over time?
Answer: The place I’ve traveled to the most is Iceland. I’ve done around 12 trips there. I am always drawn to those colder regions of the world. But, like any human, I can enjoy the warm beaches of places like Mexico. I find that each new place offers a different attraction. India and Japan were so rich in culture, where Russia just had awe-inspiring natural beauty. I would put Russia up there with one of the most memorable places I’ve ever been because it felt like such a complete trip. I was there traveling with a group that bonded and made it such a special experience. It wasn’t just about the surfing. We were fishing, taking helicopter rides and bodysurfing across the volcanic landscape of Kamchatka.
Q: Do you have a particular routine that enables you to find locations and surfers when you arrive in a new place?
A: Finding locations when you arrive in a new place is primarily based on good research, but it also requires a level of adaptation once you’re there. I aim to learn as much as I can about a place I’m traveling before I embark on the trip. The more you know, the less you need, and I think it makes you more prepared as a photographer as well to be educated about the place you’re going to. You have so many factors on a surf trip, and they only intensify when you try going into a harsh environment like Norway or Russia. Usually the company or project behind a surf trip will dictate which surfers can go, but there’s always a chance that we come across local surfers on our trips and it’s fun to meet up with those types and share that common love for the ocean.
Q: You have a body of work that was shot underwater. What are the particular challenges of working underwater and can you share any tips on gear?
A: When you shoot in the water, no two days are the same. In the ocean, you are subjected to the forces of nature. It’s a constant battle of positioning and trying to capture a split-second moment in a rapid-pace environment. It’s a tough assignment because you’re focusing on the surfer, the wave, your camera, and all while trying to capture a moment. Water photography gear can range from a small GoPro to a full housing for a DSLR. People can even shoot on their camera phones with help from cases like Watershot housing. When choosing the right gear, you are dependent on what kind of camera you have. The only other gear that is crucial is a good set of fins, like Dafins. Those and an appropriate wetsuit will get you started.
Q: As you travel around the world and photograph the ocean and people enjoying it, what has changed over the years?
A: People have always been drawn to the ocean and there is this worldwide allure for sunny beaches with surfing, tanning and an array of other activities. I’ve noticed everything seems to be more accessible these days. This is especially true in my field where surf forecasting, pictures of surf breaks and all other aspects of researching a surf trip that were previously a bit of a task are becoming easier. With the advance of social media, I also see the ability of photographers, amateur and professional, to share their photographs from their travels and bring that to the viewer’s living room. This accessibility of information leads to a whole new desire for people to travel and surf. It’s only going to keep growing. My hope is to capture these places that people might not otherwise see and be able to share the visuals and stories from my journeys. When I can instill inspiration in others and share my photography with them, I feel accomplished.
Q: How did you first become interested in photographing surfing?
A: Photography and surfing are both such free forms of expression that it’s no wonder I enjoy both of them. I would surf or bodyboard with my buddies growing up, and we would wake up super early to get out in the water at first light. Photography and surfing intersected for me after I graduated high school. I was always drawn to art in school and it was a natural progression from working with art to picking up a camera, because it felt like I finally had a medium I could take everywhere. I combined my love for the ocean and started taking my camera to the beach and shooting pictures. Being able to shoot in the water was one of my first passions. I got a water housing and it escalated into landscape photography.