You know Chris Burkard. He's that award-winning photographer who helped establish the term "adventure photographer," the one who brought expedition-style cold-water surfing to the fore, the one who gave a TED Talk, the one who has produced work for Patagonia, Apple, Toyota, Sony, Outside, and countless others, the one with 3.7 million followers on Instagram.
But you don't know Chris Burkard, not really. You simply know his work—the photos, the films, the books. But Burkard wants to change that. He wants you to know that there was a time in his life when he lived on salami and Ritz crackers, that California surf localism almost made him quit photography (one episode involved a man threatening him with a pocket knife while eating an apple), that he once had to call a trip to Chile short after flooding all his camera gear.
Burkard details all of these moments and so many more in his new book, Wayward, a 300-plus-page tome that reveals the stories behind his photographs, shedding light on the real and unseen foundation of his career.
"It's more of a linear story," he says. "A little less of the pure photo porn and surf, a little more substance."
But don't worry, there are plenty of photos inside too. There are even some from his early days that he shot on film, which, to save a few bucks, Burkard used to purchase in bulk from the expired bin at his local photo store. Yes, it turns out that the prolific photographer learned the ins and outs of cameras the good old-fashioned analog way.
Burkard was kind enough to share some of those film shots with Field Mag, and now we're sharing them here. He also shared some of his time (before heading off to do a 200-mile trail relay, and an epic Iceland bikepacking trip after that) to talk about why learning analog photography was so important to his career, why surf photography isn't a viable job anymore, how beginning photographers should approach the camera, and more.
Wayward's cover says "stories and photographs," not "memoir"—do you consider it one?
It's the beginning of a memoir, which my hope is that within the next five years to release something a little closer to that.
It's often been said that travel makes you a better person, it makes you connect with the world, it makes you all these things but the truth of the matter is that that process starts before you leave your front door. That process of learning and growing and becoming a more global person, a more aware person, somebody who cares about the environment, it starts in the quiet moments you spend reflecting on these things. I've had a lot of experiences in my life that have been life-altering and I guess in some ways to sit back and reflect upon the lessons learned is a huge part of it.
I grew up in a family that didn't travel, I never owned a passport until I started working. The first trip I did internationally was for work, it was with a camera. I realized that this gave me an education, it gave me a life. In the beginning it all started with the desire to share it with those intimate, close family and friends. And nowadays I get to share it with millions and it still comes from the same place, the same intention.
How did experimenting with film lay the technical groundwork for you becoming a professional photographer?
I studied under a large format landscape photographer, all film, his name was Michael Fatali. Film and the emphasis of film were huge aspects of my career, not just film but experimenting with you know, Russian medium format cameras and rangefinders and everything. A lot of my early portfolio was film, a lot of the first images I shot were film. And that level of experimentation was really crucial to my growth. I kind of feel in some ways that that's being lost. As a modern day photographer, I think people have this thought that they get an Instagram account and then they buy a camera as opposed to you fall in love with the process, you learn the technology, it becomes second nature, and then if you feel inspired to share, you get an Instagram account or you look for other forms for sharing that.
It sort of kills the joy a little bit. It's sort of like, what was our intention through all this? What was the purpose? It's a funny thing for me because social media is obviously such a huge part of my life now, it's a part of all our lives. I grew up working with magazines and working in editorial and I still understand and respect that social media has its place. But I think the intention of where it comes from is so important and to want to tell meaningful stories is crucial.
You also seemed to take a highly technical stance toward photography early on—you mention cutting rolls midway through so you could switch to different ISOs. How did you learn techniques like that?
I was a byproduct of the age of the Internet. It gave me the opportunity to research. I couldn't afford to go to college, it wasn't an option to me and school didn't seem like it made a lot of sense for me at the time. I would've loved to do that but it didn't really fit. The Internet and research in general became my chosen tool for trying to learn everything that I possibly could learn. That's where I gained all my insight; yes I studied under some photographers, I had a handful of internships—one at a magazine and one with Michael—and if anything what I gained from that was more of the spirit of how to go about creating as opposed to the technical aspects. The technical aspects I learned online.
I never wanted to waste my time when I was around my heroes or I was around these internships to fuss over what f-stop, what ISO. Why ask them a question when you can learn that online? People don't want to research these days and I think that was a huge part of my process. So that when I do ask a question it's thoughtful, it's interesting, it's well thought out. And I think that really paid dividends long-term.
If the camera is a tool, what's the difference between making a photograph and taking a photograph?
Throughout the process you learn so many other ways to translate experience but it all does come back to that storytelling aspect. And it took time, it's not something that I'll say I figured out right away. I didn't. It took me a long time. In telling stories we have to be open to every way in which we do that. We open ourselves up to sharing vocally, telling stories, sitting around a campfire, whether it's a podcast, authoring a book, making films; photography is just one of those mediums. It's one of those ways in which I can translate something beautiful.
"Being a surf photographer isn't even a career anymore, it's really not even an option."
You write, "There was still a lot of doubt among surf photographers about whether digital photography could ever compete with film." And it seems like you were more open to that than others were at the time.
Yeah! That was a scary time. Everything we talk about nowadays is in past tense. Being a surf photographer isn't even a career anymore, it's really not even an option. How crazy that that was at one time an actual career path, to work for a magazine and travel the world and take photos. Now you can do that for brands but it's a more complicated thing.
At the time, film was still being used a lot and digital was just kind of coming out and only the people who could afford the nicest of digital cameras were shooting digital. So I started my career in film and then it transitioned to digital within the first two years. I don't know how else to put it, but it was kind of a mindfuck a little bit, to be like holy cow what do I do? Do I invest in this? Which way do I go? I didn't know. I did a lot of research, asked a lot of editors, everybody had different opinions. It was right at the advent of digital taking over.
Was it difficult to switch to digital?
Price was a barrier when you're broke... I had a tiny bit of scholarship money because I was Hispanic, Mexican, and the first person in my family to go to junior college, which I quit, but I had a little bit of money from financial aid and so I used that money to buy a camera. I mean, this isn't the ideal path, but ultimately yeah it was a pretty gnarly thing that every cent that I was spending, every dollar, was a thoughtful dollar, an investment. I think that's kind of why in the beginning of my career I was living below poverty line even though I had a decent camera.
It was funny to read about you buying expired film to get it cheap.
Oh yeah, I mean that was a traditional thing. Going to the store and asking what just expired and looking through that bin and trying to find something good. Again, those weren't the great images, I shot slide film at the time and I shot transparent film and everything, but the truth of the matter is that I just wanted to be shooting every day. I would shoot film and I wouldn't even really get it processed because I didn't have the money to get it processed but I would still be shooting.
Do you think something is lost to aspiring photographers when an iPhone is their first camera?
No, not at all. Let's take it a step further—to be a good storyteller do you need a high-end camera? Not at all. A phone works. Your voice works. But typically what we think is I need this equipment and that equipment's going to make me effective and then you feel more confident. Nowadays I'm looking for the most vulnerable stripped-down version; if I can just sit with somebody over coffee and tell them a story that makes them feel what I felt, that's good storytelling to me. The camera just becomes a way to feel confidence, to protect yourself, to protect myself.
I wish I would've learned that earlier in my career. Oftentimes people are driving a Ferrari but they're only running it on four cylinders, right? They have these cameras that can do incredible stuff, even an iPhone, but if you don't know how to work with it and process it and find its sweet spots then you're going to miss out. You don't need that powerful of a camera to shoot a cover of Nat Geo or work for a magazine, an iPhone can work. It's just a matter of how do you translate that story through all of the tools you have, and not just technology
What was your favorite memory to revisit in writing the book?
My experience being tossed in a Russian jail cell was critical to my growth as a human being. I don't want to give away that story because it's in the book, but it was something that I revisited pretty deeply for that and it brought up a lot of emotions. I learned to respect the places that I was going to and if I was on a crusade against the mundane with my own career, which was at the time the dreamiest job I could've envisioned, I still had to be respectful of these harsh, wild environments. They're called wild for a reason.