Ein Wasserflugszeig auf dem Wasser, jemand springt vom Flügel.

Leisure time

An interview with outdoor photographer Chris Burkard

  • #Photography
Julian Rohn
Author, 4-Seasons
© Fotos

No one has been as influential on modern outdoor photography over the last decade as Chris Burkard. The 36-year-old California native started off as a surf photographer, now works for companies such as Apple and the like and has a real weakness for Iceland.

Chris, you are one of the most successful outdoor photographers – what was your childhood like and what were your first forays into the world of photography?
I grew up in California near Pismo Beach, right by Highway 1 on the Pacific Coast. Surfing is part of everyday life there and I took photos of my friends while they were out riding the waves. At that time, I had no great desire to pursue any artistic ambitions with my photography – I simply viewed the camera as an opportunity to get out of Pismo and discover the world.

How did that go?
I put all of my eggs in one basket – surf photography. During the first six or seven years of my career, I didn’t take photos of anything else, but I tried lots of things out, made a lot of mistakes and, first and foremost, I learnt a lot – all of this ultimately paid off. Eventually, I had a network of companies and magazines that sent me away on trips.

What set you apart from other surf photographers?
I actually wanted to be a landscape photographer, but I quickly realised that I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills with just landscape photography, Despite this, I tried to integrate this aspect into my work, as I always view the landscape as the most important part of the image. If I was able to incorporate a surfer in the image, the surfer was just one element amongst many. Traditional surf photos at that time were much more focused on the athlete than the actual action.

You are now known for this style in which you have small people in big landscapes...
This was a natural process: if you want to show more of the landscape, you make the subject smaller. I fell in love with this style and it has become somewhat of a trademark for me. Funnily enough, it has now become a popular visual style in the outdoor photography scene overall.

  • Fotograf Chris Burkard im Wasser.

    You can take exciting images even on rainy days: somewhere in the Pacific Northwest on a commission for Prana.

    Photo © Chris Burkard
  • Grand Prismatic Spring in Montana von oben.

    The Grand Prismatic Spring in Montana on a cold winter’s morning from the window of a small Cessna.

    Photo © Chris Burkard
  • Aufnahme von den Aleuten, man sieht einen eingeschneiten Vulkan, im Vordergrund surft jemand.

    To take this image, Burkard and his crew waited for days in a hut on the Aleutian Islands until the volcano emerged from the clouds for a few minutes.

    Photo © Chris Burkard
  • Shot of the Múlafossur on the Faroe Islands.

    The Múlafossur has become the main attraction on the Faroe Islands thanks to these kinds of photos.

    Photo © Chris Burkard
  • Gletscherfluesse von oben.

    Burkard’s photography book ‘At Glacier’s End’ show glacial rivers from great heights like works of art.

    Photo © Chris Burkard
  • Jemand beim surfen, im Hintergrund grosse Felsen.

    On a commission for Patagonia: Dan Malloy provides a perfect shot under a lip of wave in Japan.

    Photo © Chris Burkard
  • Fotograf Chris Burkard trägt sein Fahrrad durch einen Fluss.

    Back again in Iceland – on a bikepacking trip in the Westfjords in August 2021.

    Photo © Even Ruderman
  • Jemand beim surfen in Chile.

    This shot taken in Chile helped give Chris Burkard his international breakthrough.

    Photo © Chris Burkard

California isn’t a bad spot for surf photographers, but you were more drawn to cold regions?
The classic warm-weather surfing trips always took me back to the same places and waves. I had to have my images convey a sense of excitement that I no longer had. I wasn’t motivated to deliver my best work – I wanted to experience something unvarnished, something real. That’s why I started to explore colder surfing regions – because they promised more adventure and meant that not everything was so predictable.

In 2010, you won the lllume Award, the most prestigious action sport photography competition, with an image you took on a surfing trip in Chile. Did you realise that this photo would be your breakthrough?
I sensed that I had captured a special moment, but didn’t realise how it would impact my career. It’s a special photo, but it’s not a photo that I had planned in my head months in advance and then made a reality. It only really became significant to me long after the competition because it stood the test of time.

You were one of the first to have a lot of success on social media…
I wasn’t quite the first, but Instagram was vitally important for me. My wife told me that I should try it because when I came back from trips, I had all of these images, but always had the feeling that it was ultimately someone else that was using them to tell my stories. I therefore started sharing my experiences with people on this platform.

Now you have 3.8 million followers on Instagram. Has this changed your job?
When it comes to tourism projects, they are often just about advertising on social media – they not only want my images, they also want my reach. It’s sometimes a bit strange, but I enjoy sharing my experiences and I can therefore tell stories which are authentic and present. It almost feels like I run my own magazine. Thank God I don’t have to put on much of an act for it – it must be insanely stressful to have to specially produce your life for Instagram.

Do people recognise you on the street or at the airport?
It depends on where I go. I definitely wouldn’t say that I’m famous, but it’s always a special feeling when I’m somewhere and someone tells me: ‘I went to Iceland because I saw your photos.’ I’m thankful that I’m able to inspire people to create their own experiences.

Some places that you made popular with your images are now completely overrun. There is a lot of discussion surrounding whether you should reveal precise photo locations. What is your opinion on this?
I’m convinced that every one of us has been shown a special place or location at some time – by friends, for example. This is also important because we first have to experience places before we want to protect them. Of course, the reach of social media has a completely different impact entirely, but crowds mainly gather in places that are very easy to get to. As soon as you walk for another 20 or 30 minutes, you’re always alone. I believe that the biggest problem with social media is that you take away people’s joy in discovering these types of places themselves.

How did you ultimately switch from surfing to the outdoor scene?
At some point I photographed a couple of surfers for Patagonia and the brand asked whether I would like to photograph other sports such as climbing, trail running or skiing in my style. I was excited and then also learnt how to climb and ski – well, I’m 80 percent of the way there.

What were you able to transfer across from surfing to outdoor photography?
It wasn’t that big of an adjustment, as I had really always been an outdoor photographer. It’s almost like I had hidden behind surf photography to conceal my longing for beautiful landscapes. By being able to climb and ski, I was suddenly able to reach even wilder places than I had ever dreamt of.

«Crowds mainly gather in places which are very easy to get to.»

When did you discover your love for Iceland?
The first time I came was on a commission from ‘Men’s Journal’ to shoot a story about a surfer. The country was a huge contrast to everything that I had known up to that point. The hunt for good waves in combination with this rough nature made the trip a real adventure and solidified my love for this country and this type of travel. Now I just keep coming back.

How many times have you been there?
I think I’ve been to Iceland 50 times now. I normally come back twice a year and have been doing so for the last 15 years.

Your photos of the country have given many people a real fascination with Iceland. Have you ever received a thank-you card from the Icelandic Tourist Board?
I have been lucky enough to be able to work with lots of Icelandic companies and I think that they recognise what I have done for the country and tourism here. Unfortunately, I am not a citizen yet (laugh), but I hope to be able to call Iceland my home one day. I currently have a rental flat, a house, a car and a national insurance number here, so I’m on the right track.

You recently went on several wild cycling tours in Iceland – you even went in winter. How did this come about?
Over the last six years I’ve fallen in love with bikepacking. It’s so exciting to be able to rediscover this country again. I have now crossed Iceland multiple times, including with fat bikes during the winter. I have also cycled around the island once and have travelled around the Westfjords and on the east coast. The legendary National Geographic photographer Galen Rowell always said that photography should force you to be an active participant, not just a spectator.

How do you combine travelling with spending time with your family?
It works better in some years than other ones, but if you don’t have a good work-life balance, then what’s the point? If I were the most talented photographer in the world, but lost sight of my family, then I would have still failed. It takes a lot of communication and clarity about what you want and what you are striving for. I have always been successful when I have openly discussed my hopes and dreams with my wife. We never use the word balance at home, and we don’t really believe in the concept of balance. Life consists of a rhythm and sometimes there are highs and low – this is simply something you have to deal with.

You’re back in Iceland as we speak – but you’re there with your family for the first time…
My wife has been here four or five times, but my dream has always been to bring my children here. Now that they’re old enough to really understand everything, I felt it was the right time. I find it really satisfying being able to share my favourite places. I have a couple of jobs here in the meantime and the boys are also doing homeschooling.

You’re now also making films and appearing in front of the camera? Is this something which is necessary for successful photography career?
I don’t think it’s necessary. I prefer to document other people and really don’t like to be centre stage, but ultimately I want to tell stories and I’m therefore always looking for the best way to tell them. If a story means something to me, then I’m automatically going to be part of the story-telling process. This has led me to making films and writing books – I also now hold talks as well.

How much of your photography is planned and how much happens in the moment?
It depends. If it’s an advertising film with hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake and 70 people on set, then I try to plan everything extremely precisely, but I love it when everything happens in the moment. That’s the great thing about magazine stories, expeditions and documentary films – you simply document things as they happen. For me, this is the most exciting way to work.

How many cameras and drones have you destroyed to date?
A whole bunch. I work according to the motto: ‘Tools, not jewels’. In Chile we once went out onto the sea in a small boat. The skipper was totally drunk and underestimated a wave – we didn’t capsize but everything was completely soaked through. I shook the salt water out of my camera and my lenses but only the memory cards survived. I remember thinking that no one’s going to insure me any more.

Has your perspective on photography changed over the years?
Previously, I was first and foremost interested in camera technology, but the older I get, the less I care about which camera I use. Sometimes I don’t need a camera at all. Since I have been expressing myself through writing and speech, I don’t feel frustrated creatively as often.

In your book you describe how at the beginning you could never enjoy the moment. Is that still true?
Previously, I often wasn’t mentally present even though I physically was. I always planned what was coming next and never took the time to simply enjoy what was going on and to breathe. I find it easier now. For example, by now showing my sons Iceland and simply enjoying discovering the country again as a family.

  • #Photography

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