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Things Come Apart: The Photography of Todd McLellan

Let’s pick apart Todd McLellan’s evolution as a photographer. At age 7 he borrowed his parents’ camera. “I just remember my parents yelling at me for wasting film,” he said. “They ended up giving me a hand-me-down 110.”

He took that on some school field trips but never really thought of photography as anything more than pictures you took on trips. After high school, he majored in graphic design at the Alberta College of Art and Design. His mother was an electronics technician. His father was a carpenter. They didn’t quite see the point. “They were like, ‘Well, why wouldn’t you just keep doing what you’re doing?’” said McLellan. “Which was just retail work.”

He signed up for a photography course and was hooked. He graduated, interviewed prominent advertising photographers to learn about the industry, looked for a job, and had two supporters. “Once I graduated, my parents could see the potential,” he said. 

He picked up an internship at a large Toronto studio, assisted where and when he could, and concentrated on the technical stuff. Then he hustled until advertisers gave him his own shoots. “I was taking personal photographs, but not a lot that wouldn’t evolve around getting commercial work,” he said.

In any rare off-time, he collected old, interesting objects that other people didn’t want. One of them was a black telephone. In 2009, he thought, “I’ll photograph this, just because it will be cool.” That creative impulse was a departure. “It was one of the first projects where I didn’t do anything in the end for a client,” he said. “I just did what I wanted to do.”

Which is the point at which we ask him to lay out his “Things Come Apart” project for us.

OUTSIDE: How did this project come about?
MCLELLAN: I had a lot of the objects for many years. I wanted to photograph them at some point and just had them sitting around. The phone was the first thing I took apart. I took a picture of it, but it was kind of boring. I’d seen the picture before. I wanted to do something different. I thought, “Gee, it might be cool if you take things apart and lay them out.” I just found out recently that these are called assembly diagrams. Say you’re ordering a part, the diagram shows you what each part is. I wanted to shoot like that. I ended up laying the telephone parts on a glass plate. After I took the picture, I realized that it just required too much follow-up work in Photoshop. I wanted something a little more natural. In commercial work, like in advertising, you have to do a lot of manipulation. I wanted to get a little more grassroots. I wanted to show a product as is, in the best way possible.

So you’ve taken the phone apart and photographed it...
I did the phone on the glass plate and thought it was ridiculous. I thought, I did a simple phone, I’m going to move on to more complex things, like a typewriter. I thought, “Where does it go from here?” I laid out the phone on this white background. I could show how this phone came apart and what’s involved in it. I wasn’t creating a pattern. I just wanted the layout to make sense as to how the object was pulled apart.

How did you pick the products?
I collected most everything on street corners or in second-hand shops. I was looking for products people thought they didn't need anymore. And yes, all the technology was outdated, but it was still very much useful. For example, the typewriter would still type a letter the way it was designed to do so back in the '60s. I just found it interesting that this stuff had become useless in the way we work. 

It worked, but just wasn’t being used?
Yeah, whereas right now, you get a mobile phone and it doesn’t work after two years. I found that, if you did the comparison between phones then and now, it’s kind of shocking.

At what point did you know you had a book?
As I started taking more and more stuff apart. I was doing more and more mechanical things because those are a lot more fun to explore. They’re not being used anymore, and you see people who don’t really care to have them. I was a little reluctant to get into newer technology, but it’s something that I had to explore. I actually was pleasantly surprised at what was involved in them. For mechanical things, you’ll have levers. You press this button to move this thing to move that thing to move that thing. With a mobile phone, you press this button and it sends an electronic signal through who knows where to get to this point here. You can’t really see the mechanics of it, but that’s where the design became very important. It’s pretty amazing how these things are designed to each be contained in one little unit. 

So are you taking all of this stuff apart by yourself?
Yes. For me it was a crucial part of the project. The airplane I went to the manufacturer. The good thing about that is airplanes are recycled so you can hardly recognize them. It’s very hard to find a used airplane. They just keep replacing parts, manufacturing new parts, and what not. So that project involved someone out to get the parts of an airplane. I understand now what the parts are. If I wouldn’t have seen someone take it apart, I wouldn’t have understood how to lay it out, which was part of the process. When I’m taking apart a phone or iPad, I know how a part came out of it and I know where I can put it into my layout to make it work.

Describe the process of taking stuff apart and then shooting it. You laid it out neatly, but also captured stuff falling through the air.
For the original seven objects, I created a layout of the all of the pieces. But then I felt like the layout of all of these objects needed a second piece. I just thought, “Screw it, I’m just going to throw these through the air and just use a high speed strobe to capture them flying.” So one portion is somewhat stuffy and the second portion is free flowing.

And why did you want to show both?
Because I think there’s a second part to everything. There’s a nice organized way to doing things and there’s a haphazard way to doing things. I think they work quite well together.

As you’re building up your quiver of products, taking them apart and showing them in two different ways, is there any theme you’re seeing?
No. Overall, it’s just the design of how things are made and how different manufacturers build. For me, it’s just exploring them and seeing how each company does it. I didn’t just pick the high-end companies or the most sought-after objects. I wanted to follow what people are discarding and what’s readily available. When you look at some of the manufacturers on the lower end and some of the manufacturers on the higher end and compare they way they fit things into spaces, it’s interesting. Some polish the insides. Some, when you open they’re products up, you’re like, “Uh.” It just doesn’t look very appealing. But taking apart some of the technologies now, you know that they aren’t meant to be repaired. These things are meant to be replaced.

It seems that a lot of the outdoor gear you photographed hasn’t changed much over time.
No, not at all. I had the Swiss Army knife for over 20 years. It was my own personal knife. After I did it, I thought, OK, I need a new one. And I went and looked, and they look exactly the same as they did 20 years ago. It’s also pretty cool that it lasted that long.

How did you decide to do that knife?
It got really stiff and I had to do a major cleaning. It was a hard decision, but I kind of wanted to see what it looked like. Even as simple as it is, to see how it worked is quite interesting. I thought, OK, I’ll take the hit. I couldn’t put it back together. I ended up not replacing it from the store because I have another one. I don’t plan on taking that one apart. I plan on using that until the end.

Did you see a trend where the older stuff seemed like it would last longer than the newer stuff?
Oh, absolutely. No question. So how can we take a new mobile phone and make it last five or ten years? I mean the shell of it is the shell of it, so if we could change the sock or the internal parts in order to keep down new purchases, in order to keep e-waste as low as possible?

Is taking things apart and putting them back together becoming a lost art?
The TV repair shops are gone now. People doing repairs? It’s hard to find anyone. There’s no reason for it because it’s so expensive. To pay someone to fix your iPhone when you can just buy a new one? If you’re spending $300 to repair your iPhone when you can buy a new one on contract for $150? You’re not going to. The expense is set up for it. And everyone wants new glammy, glitzy things now. And trust me, I’m fighting that all the time. As a photographer, I want the new camera. I try to avoid it. If you have an idea, do whatever you need to do to make that work, but don’t try and live outside of that.

Are there things that you’ve changed in your own life after this project?
Absolutely. I definitely try to make things last as long as I can. Although, a lot of the stuff I took apart, I wouldn’t be able to get back together again. I did take my iPhone completely apart and put it back together, and it works. Although, it’s obsolete now. But I try and do that on a daily basis. If something breaks, how can I fix it myself? Or, What can I do to have someone fix it? I try to not live beyond what I obviously need.

Was there any one product that when you took it apart you were surprised?
The typewriter was interesting. I didn’t realize how many pieces there were in it. I thought it would be a lot simpler. The iPad was quite interesting because a lot of it was held together with tape. In order to fit that much stuff in a really small package, they ended up using a lot of really, really durable tape. Which is kind of interesting. They screwed stuff they needed to and taped the stuff they could get away with, which is functional. And there’s nothing wrong with it. Because it’s such a functional product, you can replace the screen and stuff. In the book it talks about the replacement parts you can get. I think people are becoming interested in that, because as much as you think you don’t know how much stuff works, you can always explore it.

What do you hope that people take away from looking at this book?
It’s just an appreciation of things. Just look at what you have in your hands. A lot of work goes into that. What’s really cool is that you’re seeing a lot of companies that are helping people out in repairing or building some of these things. I think the longer we can make our stuff last, the better. Patagonia, I think it was on your site, they’re doing that “Don’t Buy New.” Just to get that whole process in there is important.

Do you have a favorite shot?
That one changes all of the time. I enjoyed all of the aspects of doing this. The photography, the disassembly, the exploring of the objects… Each one kind of holds its own... It sounds weird to talk about the mechanics of each object like a fond memory, but I kind of enjoyed the jigsaw. It’s not in the book. A reticulating saw, I think most people call it. It was an old mechanical one. I liked seeing how it worked, just the steel and how strong and useful it was. That saw came from a garage sale a few doors down from my house. The lady had a ton of stuff her husband had for years and years and years.

View Todd McLellan's gallery, Things Come Apart.

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Zak Noyle's Wave Photography

Photographer Zak Noyle spends most of his time chasing a wave’s eye view of the world. He’ll fly halfway around the globe at a moment’s notice to photograph surfers dropping into monster swells. Take, for example, a trip he made last year. He had just returned to Honolulu from Los Angeles when he got word a big swell was going to pass over an offshore reef in Indonesia. He grabbed his packed bag and hopped on a flight back to Los Angeles to meet up with surfers. They flew 13 hours to Taiwan, where they caught a flight to Indonesia. Then they drove for 14 hours. Then they hopped on a boat, which they rode for ten hours. “This was not a luxury yacht,” he said. “This was a fishing boat. It was so tiny.”

When they arrived at the forecasted spot, the wind switched. They sat and waited for three days. There was no electricity. There was no cell phone coverage. In the end, they got two hours of good waves. “Which was very worth it to me,” said Noyle. Then, he made the same trip back home.

Noyle grew up the son of photographer Ric Noyle, but his father didn’t push him towards the craft. In high school, Zak brought home a B+ in photography.My dad wasn’t mad,” said Noyle. “He was just like, ‘Well it’s not for you. Do whatever you want to do.’” The ocean brought Noyle back to his dad's art. A state champion swimmer who spent a lot of time in the breaks, he started taking a disposable camera into the water at Sandy Beach. When he brought home images to show his mom, she couldn’t believe them. He went into bigger and bigger waves with his dad’s borrowed film cameras to see what he could get. Having only 36 exposures each trip out made him a selective shooter. Now Noyle swims into monster waves with a 32 GB card and a digital camera, sometimes shooting for up to eight hours at a time. Each time, he has one thing on his mind. “I mean, 99.9 percent of people won’t go into the water where I do,” he said. “To be able to capture what I see and bring it back and share it is my goal. It pushes me. It drives me.”

That he now has a career as a surf photographer really came down to one moment, which is where we drop into our conversation with Noyle—right before he hopped on a flight to Tahiti.

So you went off to college and left after a year. Can you explain the transition from school to photography? Did you take photography at school?
No, I didn’t. The last thing on my mind was photography as a career. But I went to school and I found I was like, “Oh, the swell is up. I gotta’ go shoot the swell.” Or, “I want to go on this trip with these guys and shoot.” So I started to see college as something where… I had to pick one or the other. Luckily, my parents didn’t force me to stay in college. They said that now could be the time where I would travel and live my life, and that that could be much more valuable than college. They wanted me to learn, and grow, and do what I loved. They saw the value of travel, my dad having done that himself. That was a very lucky thing. Some other parents might have been like, “You gotta stay in college. Maybe after that you can go and play and travel.” They saw the opportunities I had been given and my abilities growing. So, I was very lucky.

When did you get your first photo published?
I would say 20 or 21 maybe. It was just a local surf magazine in Hawaii, and, even at that point, I was never really even dreaming that I could get in the big surf magazines. But I just kept at it. I sent some photos off and got a great response from one photo editor. I still remember getting the call from that photo editor and just being completely blown away. Everything at that moment was just like, Whoaa. He wanted to run a bunch of my photos, wanted to help me, wanted to teach me more. He just saw the potential in me. I owe him a lot.

What photo did you send that photo editor, and what happened?
It was Pipeline, and it was fisheye in the water shots. It was just something that they hadn’t seen, I guess. Just the colors I had and my position in the water. I still remember the photos and where I was and everything. It really changed my life.

What was that magazine?
It was Transworld Surf, which sadly went out of business. The photo editor was Peter Taras. He would send me old skate magazines and point out portrait shots and say, “Look at the lighting in these.” He totally brought me in and got me more jobs with them.

How did you get to the point where you started traveling and shooting?
Just working closely with that magazine really opened all those doors to travel. I was invited on work trips by professional surfers. The magazine started paying for trips here and there. I started paying for some out of my pocket, but it all totally came together. Once you get something in a magazine, it gives you credit in the eyes of other photographers and surfers. Surfers know that you’re capable of getting the right shots that they need, for the right exposure.

What are you looking to capture in your shots?
I don’t shoot it very technical. A lot of photographers will shoot the action very tight and get that power look to it. Or they’ll look to get the wave crashing. I like to put the viewer in the photo. I want them to feel like they’re in the place that I shot it I want to give them a sense of the land, of the lighting. Something they can really identify and say, “Oh, that’s Zak’s photo.” That’s my style, I guess. I want to show them something that will make them stop on the page. There are so many photos in a magazine that if I can have even one or two per issue for Surfer, I want something that people will be surfing through the pages and then stop and go, “Whoaa.” That wow factor that puts them in that place and makes them go, “I wish I was there. I wish I felt this one.” I want to give them something they almost don’t comprehend, but the photo is there.

There are two photos that stand out to me: One is that vertical shot of that guy coming down the face of a wave
—those are some angles that aren’t easy at all to get. With the fisheye, you’re inches away from the guy’s rail as he’s coming up. You’re just ducking under. I’m watching his line of where he’s going, where he’s coming from, how the wave’s breaking. It’s a little bit of a calculation in your head to see where you can be without getting hit. Yes, you will have those accident times where he moves or you miscalculate, but luckily nothing like that has happened. You’re getting right underneath the guy’s rail and trying to give a perspective that’s not normally seen. It’s one of those things where, when you look at it, you kind of have to pull back because you think you’re going to get run over by him.

The other one is from Teahupoo, where you can see the reef and how close it is to the wave. You can see the details of the reef. I think Danny Fuller is surfing in that photo.
Oh, yeah, you can see the guy ducking under as well. So there’s this special port that I’ve been using for several years now, and it’s been blowing up. It’s actually a giant film port. You’re shooting above and below the water. It’s beautiful lens for shooting small waves, flat land, and all of that stuff. But what people don’t understand is that shooting in waves like this, it is difficult because the port is so buoyant. You’re having difficulty diving under the waves. You’re getting tossed over the falls. That is one of my all-time favorite shots, because it shows a guy duck diving underneath the water, and the clarity of Tahiti is just so special that you can get that with that lens and camera.

And the reef’s right there?
It is so shallow there. It kind of stays that depth, no matter how big the waves are. They come from such deep water and it’s a shallow reef. It sucks all the water, like a tsunami almost, sucking the water to build the wave—and then it breaks.

What has been your toughest shot?
Pipeline. Pipeline is definitely my toughest. It’s just a dangerous wave. I have one shot in my mind and it’s very similar to the vertical one you mentioned earlier. I haven’t put it on my Web site, yet. It’s a vertical shot of Jamie O’Brien, and he’s standing up backside, which is already difficult. It’s when your back is to the wave and you’re facing land. I’m underneath him, and we’re looking out of the barrel together. It’s the greenest glow. Just the positioning of him, the way the other guys are all down the line, it’s one of the other tougher shots I’ve gotten.

What shape do you have to be in physically to do this?
I treat fitness and working out as my job, because if I’m unable to swim and stay out in the surf, I’m unable to do my job. I work out everyday. I do three days of swimming in a pool, lap swimming. I’ll swim with fins so my feet are conditioned to that. Sometimes I stay out in the water for six to eight hours when it’s good, because you never know when it’s going to be good. It could be junk the next day, or three hours later. You don’t want to be exhausted, because that could increase your chances of getting hurt. I also do power yoga. It helps me to calm myself and stretch. I’ll do that once or twice a week. I’ll do the exercise bike every day for about 30 minutes, just for my cardio. I also eat healthy. My body is what helps me get my shot. If I didn’t take care of it, I wouldn’t be taking care of my equipment. It’s like taking care of my camera or my housing. It’s a tool that I rely on heavily

Describe what you are doing as an athlete when a wave is coming in.
This isn’t any shore break. You’re not standing on the sand. The majority of the waves I’m shooting are over a hard reef. It’s definitely not something I take lightly. That reef break has killed people before. You can get injured in a multitude of ways. You’re constantly treading water. You’re heading out into these waves with a ten-pound camera and just fins on. There’s no board. You’re just in the water, constantly treading water, watching what the other surfers are doing, and watching the horizon to see what the next wave is doing.

And, there’s almost a pecking order for surf photography. You’re not just going to paddle to a place and go in front of the guys you don’t know, guys who have been out there before or are locals. It’s kind of just like surfing, where you wait your turn. You have to prove yourself. Having your stuff published, or being known, is really helpful. For the first few years that I shot Pipeline, I sat behind guys and never really got any good shots. I put in my dues. I don’t know if it’s still like that today, but I sat behind the other guys. I looked up to them. I knew their photography, and, little by little, they started to see my stuff. But I always respected them, and that really went a long way, and they gave me my spot to show what I could do.

Have you been injured or had any close calls?
I’ve had some close calls. I wear a helmet, which is a smart thing, because the camera’s very dangerous. The reef? Photographers have passed away from hitting the reef. I’ve bounced off the reef. I wear a wetsuit, which definitely helps. I’ve had cuts in my wetsuit and ended up with a bruise, but it could have been much worse. I’ve cut up my knees and legs pretty bad from bouncing off the reef, but luckily, nothing really bad.

What usually happens that an injury occurs?
It’s getting caught inside. You’ll be shooting and a bigger wave will come and you’ll be a little bit in too much. Being that we’re just swimming with fins, we can only swim so fast to get out of that area. It’s very shallow and very dangerous, to the point where, when the wave breaks, you can’t even go underneath because it’s so shallow. It’s like a truck flying into you. It can push you back maybe thirty, forty, fifty yards underwater. Once you get in it, things calm down. But if you’re in the zone where it’s breaking, it’s very dangerous. There are sharp rocks. It’s definitely not a place where you want to be on the inside, but you do get pushed and you have to swim right back out.

Do you have a favorite shot?
I really love a rainbow shot, The Perfect Day. That’s not a traditional shot of mine. I used a fisheye lens, and normally I would be a lot closer. But I just saw that moment and kind of moved back to capture it. It all kind of came together. It’s one of my favorite images. It’s really calming. You see the mountains and the perfect wave and the rainbow and it’s more about the scene there, and the beauty, rather than the power of surfing. Some people would have probably shot it tight with the barrel, but it’s more about just putting the viewer there to see the beauty of being there.

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