Originally published 9/9/2009
Outside's photo editor Amy Silverman has kept a book by her computer for a month or so now called The California Surf Project. More than once when I've been down in her office I've thumbed through it. Each time I find a new favorite picture.
This time its the black and white above—a guy biking toward the coast only to find a thicket awaiting him. Even if he didn't find a trail, I'm pretty sure he walked right through the scrum. That's the "I'm doing it" feeling you get from photographer Chris Burkard's book about driving, biking, and hiking the California coast to catch some waves.
Burkard set off on a spur-of-the-moment journey with his friend Eric Soderquist (co-author and painter) to capture the California coast and its surf scene in golden light. The result is a collection of pictures that is anything but quick, thrown together, or spur of the moment. And the pictures are defined by more than crepuscular light and curling water. The duo arranged the book in chapters by place, represented with carefully selected images of the wilderness, roads, industry, wildlife, people, and local breaks. It doesn't leave out the niceties either—camp site raccoons, broken boards, roaming cows, and parking tickets. It's a surf book that defines a place, and in so doing, makes you want to hit the road with a camera, whether or not you can capture the light as finely as Burkard.
We caught up with Burkard to find out what he learned during his two months on the road.
When did you start as a photographer?
I started taking pictures right after high school at about 19 years old. It started as nothing more than a means of self expression, and a way to document my friends, but over the last few years it has totally changed the way I see life and world around me. I am 23 years old now and have been shooting as a professional for the last three. Needless to say, it has been an amazing three years. In my travels I have been able to see some amazing place like Russia, Alaska, Iceland, Indonesia and just about everywhere in between. I owe everything to this craft.
How did the idea for this project/book come about?
For any photographer, a book is sort of like the pot of gold at the end of the road. It usually comes after a long, hard and successful career. I never once imagined that I would be able to make this book a reality. It was something I had always kept in the back of my mind, but never thought possible so early in my career. I think the defining moment was during an early morning road trip with my girlfriend (now wife) and good friend and pro surfer Eric Soderquist. We were going to shoot this beach break—just kind of taking our time driving the coast. The sun was rising and the road lit up with the early morning light. We were talking about how beautiful California was and how lucky we felt to live in such a special part of the world. We were talking about how we could document the coast in some type of a road trip project and then my wife chimed in, "You guys should make a book." And that was the birth of the project. It wasn't formulated with corporate sponsors at a lunch meeting with a review board. It was just a couple of friends being inspired by the beauty around them.
After that trip we started talking more and more about how to make this a reality—what it was going to be about and what the purpose was going to be. We wanted to inspire people to rediscover California for themselves, hoping that they would sorta follow in our footsteps and take a look into their backyard and see what they're missing. We live in the day and age of such far flung surf travel where people will spend thousands to fly across the world just to get barreled, but what about just hitting the 101 and seeing what California has to offer?
What was the most difficult image you captured during this project?
I can't think of one image that was specifically difficult, but I know that shooting in the rain on the North Coast was not easy. It rained on us for two weeks and we kinda started to lose it. Their was a session we had in the San Clemente area at a beachbreak that was pretty heavy. People were calling it "The Day of the Year," and it was massive. We swam out to shoot barrel shots and it was just these huge sucking up barrels that were pitching me over the falls. I remember getting caught in a certain area where they set these lobster traps. The water was sorta in a rip current. I couldn't swim in or out. So I just had to literally get lipped in the head a few times and let the wave wash me to shore. That day sucked.
Which image is your favorite?
My favorite image is the picture of the road in Point Reyes National Seashore. It was an early morning sunrise and the road just seemed to light up. Almost like an invitation for exploration. There were deer running around on the bluffs and we could see the coast on both sides of us. It was a picturesque road trip moment, and I think that all the beauty of the trip is kinda summed up in that photo.
What did you learn during this project that you've now applied to your photography going forward?
Everything. This trip was a full-on learning experience for me and I feel like I can attribute all my knowledge to something I learned along the way. The one thing I learned that really stands out is how to document something in its entirety. This trip took 50 days and I think that being able to see the project through, from start to finish, really gives you a lot of time to develop a look or style. It wasn't just a show up and blow up surf trip. We really took our time and tried to get a feel for the places we were in, we wanted to have the feeling of the place be reflected in the photographs. I hope the book has a timeless quality that can be appreciated for years to come.