Photographer Clark Little’s career broke open all of a sudden, just like one of the thick waves that rises up against the North Shore of Oahu and slams into the sand. After a British web site sent out a newsletter with a link to some of his images, his life turned upside down. He appeared on numerous TV shows, exhibited his photography at the Smithsonian museum, opened two galleries, and published a book, The Shorebreak Art of Clark Little. But it was more than three decades of playing in the ocean that set him up for success. The 43-year-old grew up on the North Shore. While his older brother Brock gained fame paddling into the world’s monsters, Clark surfed the shorebreaks. He learned how to read the waves, how to time his ride, and how to fall when he wiped out—which happened quite a bit. He got a rush from getting tumbled, so it was a bit strange when he took a 9-to-5 job as a keeper at the local botanical garden. He got married, started a family, and then found himself in a situation where his wife needed him to dive back into one of those big waves to take a picture. He jumped right in and got hooked all over again. A few years later he quit his job and decided to shoot full time. He’s been tumbling in the wake of that decision ever since.
View the full photo gallery of Clark Little's shorebreak photography.
OUTSIDE: How did this all start?
CLARK LITTLE: It’s been probably five years or so. The wife brought home a picture of a wave from a place called Pictures Plus. And I said, “Honey, don’t buy that picture.” It was a shorebreak wave that somebody shot from land. I was like, “I’ll go in there and I’ll get a nice big wave. I’ll get a killer shot for the wall of our house.”
I had this small little camera, a point-and-shoot SD 500 Canon. I took my first photos of some shorebreaks using a little housing. Back then it was just one shot at a time, and it would hesitate before you’d shoot. And I’d get beat up. I played around in the shorebreak for a month or two and got some cool looks and shared it with my family and friends. No one was really doing it at that time. After two months I ended up investing $4,000 for a housing, a camera, and a nice fisheye lens.
Sand Monster, by Clark Little
Was there one picture that pushed you forward?
There was never the one picture. Sand Monster is one that stands out. That was one of the originals. I actually got the sand coming up in a kind of cloud on a nice good sized wave, maybe a four- or six-foot wave just sucking up probably knee high. It was cool to get that first shorebeak shot, because that’s what I went out there to do—to just get these looks that nobody wants to put themselves into. I was in my comfort zone. I love getting thrashed, so it worked out. I truly love a clean beautiful day where the waves are just thick and gnarly and where you have some fear. Good fear, if you know what I mean, more of an adrenaline rush with excitement. I kind of strive for that.
Was there a moment when you thought photography could be a career?
There was no intention of being a professional photographer. I had a full-time job, which I resigned about three years ago. I was a botanical garden supervisor in Wahiawa. It was a city job where I had all of the benefits of medical, dental, vacation, sick leave. I could pay the bills. We were going door to door, doing trips to different galleries trying to get our stuff in, and it kept getting better. And so that’s where I saw the light and made this huge decision. I took that leap [to doing photography full-time] and that was the biggest thing. And once I did that, the door just went from a crack to wide open.
How did you really start to gain recognition?
The biggest thing for me was there was this UK site that loved the images and they gave me a shout. This [guy at a] big news agency said, “Clark, we’ve seen your web site. Send me your 20 best images.” I thought, “Okay, whatever.” And maybe a month later, he got back to me and said, “Hey Clark, we’re going to run with this.” And I said, “Okay.” And then I went to sleep and I woke up the next morning and there were 700 e-mails. I’m not even exaggerating. It was chaotic. I had an assistant that was up on the phone with people from all over the world including Good Morning America, The Today Show, and Inside Edition. The morning after this guy put the stuff up, they threw me and a friend on a redeye right to New York. It was 17 degrees and snowing. It was surreal. Before you know it I was sitting in front of four cameras—and Diane Sawyer and Robin. That was one of the weirdest experiences.