Off The Grid

Far from the Tropic zone, Chris Burkard’s big-picture outlook leads to images that are a mix of stunning landscapes, dramatic coastlines and out-of-the-ordinary surf action

"A serene Arctic morning on the beach with jagged peaks looming in the background. I exposed a bit longer than normal to smooth out the waves and show off the entire coastline. The beauty of this place keeps me coming time and time again," says Burkard of the landscape at Hofn Beach, Jökulsárlón, Iceland.

"All I ever wanted to do was shoot landscapes. That was the first thing I was ever passionate about. I never really had some desire to be a surf photographer, by any means," explains Southern California native Chris Burkard. Yet the 28-year-old has quickly made a name for himself with his iconic coldwater surf images, serving as Senior Staff Photographer for Surfer Magazine, and shooting for clients like Toyota and Patagonia, while becoming a prolific Instagramer with over 385K followers.

I met up with Burkard in Huntington Beach, Calif., during the U.S. Open of Surfing, where he shot the women's long board event. We sat in the Shorebreak Hotel's upstairs lobby next to Burkard's solo exhibition display.

"It's so ironic that we're talking here at the U.S. Open of Surfing, really," laughs Burkard, "because this is the last place that you'd ever normally see me. My passions lie far away from the equator."

Burkard appears more than comfortable in the busy, almost chaotic, atmosphere of Huntington Beach, tossing off his flip flops, casually nodding as friends pass by and quickly connecting his assistants with each other as they arrive, all without breaking the flow of conversation. But he says he much prefers to be "off the grid." He regularly searches out shooting locations in areas of Alaska, Iceland and Norway for ideal waves, landscapes and climate, but also for the remote and intimate feeling they provide.


The landscape, surf action and light all come together in this dramatic photo in the Lofoten Islands of Norway. Surfer Dane Gudauskas, captured at the decisive moment, makes the whole image gel.

"I feel like they have a sense of desolation and a sense of being by yourself, where you can really just appreciate the place. I've really always sought out places that feel wild," explains Burkard.

He continues to describe the feeling of immersion that first drew him to the field of photography. "I want to be on that peak," he says. "I want to be in the ocean. I want to be a part of the action. I want to be a part of those moments that are—that inspire me."

When Burkard started to seriously consider a career as a photographer at age 19, he began by taming his wild side. Instead of instantly diving into the action-sports world, Burkard moved to Utah and studied large-format photography. He developed a selective, finely composed style, and this big-picture approach can be seen throughout Burkard's work.

"I'm always looking for bold mountains with big contrasts," he notes. "That's what has drawn me to the Arctic. Just that idea of redwoods on the beach and pine trees that meet the ocean, big granite cliffs. That's what makes my heart kind of swoon for photographing things. If you look at my work, I think most of my more iconic surf pictures combine a lot of those elements. They give you a sense of place. And that's all I ever aim to do."

Burkard's favorite photo in his portfolio shows off the essence of a full story within a single shot. Taken at the Aleutian Islands, a surfer rides a wave in front of a volcano.

"To me, that image is the most important photograph I've ever shot in my life. I think that it sums up everything—my personal style of landscapes over people and combining the surf and this element of action sports with these beautiful locations, as well as my constant search and struggle for finding surf in the Arctic. That has been the last five or six years of my life, searching for these places," describes Burkard.


"With no roads to the ocean, we relied on ATV to travel the distance from the village to the coast," says Burkard about his 2013 Aleutian Islands trip."As we crested the final hill, we were treated not only with a view of the distant snow-covered volcano, but a point with waves peeling down its right side. It was a moment I had hoped for, but didn't expect to see—clean waves and a clear day in a place known as the 'cradle of storms.' Surfer Josh Mulcoy carves on this wave, a speck amidst the empty Aleutian coastline."

"Honestly, I do feel like I have a dream job, but sometimes I feel like I have the hardest job in the world. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of suffering. That's not for everyone. I've definitely had some close calls," he says.

Recurring frostbite. A busted nose and broken bones. Shark encounters. Facing the interior of a Russian jail cell due to an expired visa incident. But Burkard says his worst experiences have come simply from the brutally harsh cold.

"I was in Norway, and the water was extremely cold. You only last about 20 to 40 minutes. It was getting to be about 30 minutes in the water and my hands were cold, my feet were cold. It was starting to get freezing, and then you kind of start to make bad decisions. I always need to remember that you have to give yourself not only enough energy to get in, but to get back to your cabin or your car. I got so cold. I couldn't really stand because my feet were total blocks. Imagine walking on wooden pegs through slippery boulders. It was the worst thing ever. Really gnarly. I had to have one of the surfers carry me in. Then when you're warming back up after freezing, it hurts so bad. You have to go slow."


Burkard describes this scene in Kamchatka, Russia: "This is one of the most insane sunsets I've ever witnessed. Everyone had to get on top of our truck and watch as the clouds above the distant volcanoes lit up the sky."

 

Chris Burkard's Gear
Sony a7S
Sony a6000
Sony Vario-Tessar T* E 16-70mm ƒ/4 ZA OSS
Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm ƒ/4 ZA OSS
Sony 10-18mm ƒ/4 OSS Wide-Angle Zoom
Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm ƒ/1.8 ZA
Sony FE 70-200mm ƒ/4.0 G OSS
Nikon 1 AW1
1 Nikkor AW 11-27.5mm ƒ/3.5-5.6
1 Nikkor AW 10mm ƒ/2.8
ewa-marine housing
Nauticam NA-A6000 underwater housing
F-stop Loka UL Bag with Shallow ICU
Goal Zero Sherpa Series

Yet, he keeps going back for more. "Yeah, I keep going back," he says. "It's totally worth it. Cause if you're not suffering for your craft, then I don't think you're giving enough to it. It's about how can I be immersed and a part of this landscape, whether that means suffering in some way or not."

But there's not just a physical toll to a full-immersion traveling lifestyle. There's an emotional toll, as well. Burkard is a husband and father. His continued career success means more traveling and time away from his family.

"My wife is one of the most amazing people in my life. She's really the absolute glue that holds us together. There's no way to be a photographer that travels as much as I do—there's no way to do it perfectly. It's a constant struggle to stay in contact. I try to give 110% all the time, so I'm not just coming home and partially being there. Nowadays, there's no excuse to not communicate. So if that means a couple hundred extra dollars for a phone bill, it's worth it to be in touch with them."

Burkard is determined not to let photography take over his life, and instead keeps some activities camera-free and precious for himself.

"I think that if everything becomes a work thing, it can kind of start to lose its savor," says Burkard. "It's funny because there's that old saying that the cobbler's kids have no shoes. And it's the same thing with my family. I'm away from them so much, when I'm home I don't want to pick up a camera. I just want to be with them and stare at them and kind of just want to think about how they're growing and stuff, so I don't typically have all these epic photos of my family, and I feel bad.

"I'm kind of purging here," adds Burkard, but in this moment of vulnerability, it's easy to see his ability to fully immerse himself in anything and everything, as well as his openness to sharing these experiences. Pervasive to all areas of his life, this raw intimacy is what continues to make his images relatable and desirable.

You can see more of Chris Burkard's photography at chrisburkard.com.

Instagram, Social Media And 21st Century Success

Social media has played a huge role in my career. For me, the best form of marketing and advertising has been social media, and I've acquired almost every big commercial and major job assignment I've ever done from that. Almost every one."
—@chrisburkard

With an ever-growing social media following and major commercial clients like Microsoft and North Face that he attracted through Instagram, Burkard must be onto something. As social media took off, he realized this could be the best marketing format for his work. He decided to put aside the stress and worry of image stealing and copyright management, and instead chose to share as much work as possible. Of course, along the way, he has developed some techniques and habits that have helped develop his following:

1 First and foremost, post great work consistently.
"I want to inspire people. That's my mission statement as a photographer. I think that for social media, that's a big part of it. I choose to post during 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. every day, except for the weekends when people go out."
2 Post images that can be easily viewed on a small, mobile screen.
"You're not trying to fool someone by posting some kind of grainy, crazy black-and-white image that you can't really make out on the phone. I think you have to tune in to what really is going to make sense on that square."
3 Curate your feed for your demographic.
"Do I shoot for Instagram? No, I don't. But if this is a network and you're selling your product, then you want to know what that network wants to see. There's a good deal of curation—develop a good blend and mix for your channel."
4 Communicate with your followers.
"People love Instagram because it breaks down those barriers of access. It's about being open and communicating and sharing ideas and concepts and being part of a community."

Burkard follows Instagramers that inspire him, photographers and non-photographers alike. His top-10 Instagramers to follow are:

@moneal
@forestwoodward
@mrsgrubby
@crookedelbow
@timkemple
@coldsplinters
@arborealis
@mypubliclands
@joeriis
@andy_best

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