Surf photographer Chris Burkard on his new book, The Oceans
Surfing in cold locations is nothing new – here in Scotland people have been riding waves since the 1960s, when wetsuits were still hard to come by and you knew it was time to come in when you lost the feeling in your feet. Over the last couple of decades, however, the idea of cold water surfing has been thoroughly integrated into the mainstream. What was once considered niche is now widely accepted, fetishised even. How many wetsuits have major surf brands sold since the turn of the millennium by using images of rugged-looking young people with thousand-yard stares searching for waves in chilly, far-flung places?
To some extent, this shift of perception is an inevitable consequence of warm water surf zones becoming increasingly crowded, as the global surfing population mushrooms. However, it has also been driven by the proliferation of photographs of perfect, cold, empty waves, both in traditional surf magazines and, increasingly, on social media; and of all the photographers who have helped sell the surfing world on the cold water dream, none could be said to have had more of an impact than Californian Chris Burkard. As a staff photographer for Surfer Magazine for many years, he filed breathtaking images from frigid surfing outposts including Iceland, Norway, Japan and Russia, often working in partnership with the writer Ben Weiland; and now, with an Instagram following of 3.9 million, he is able to reach a far wider audience than the "Bible of the Sport" ever did.
Far from jumping on the cold water bandwagon, however, Burkard grew slowly and organically into his love affair with high-latitude wave-riding – a process he details in his 2022 book Wayward. And, as he explains on the phone from New York, part of the appeal of surfing in these places is the effort involved. "I think that's the thing that gets me most excited," he says, "knowing how much people have to put into it – the effort they have to put in to be able to surf. How hard is somebody having to work? How far away is a hot shower?"
Although Burkard has visited Scotland before – a trip to the Isle of Skye to shoot climbing and trail running for North Face – he hasn't yet come here hunting for waves. "It was an amazing experience," he says of the Skye trip, "but it left me feeling a bit dissatisfied, as in: I'd like to go back, I'd like to give it another go. I like to be the person that isn't just going to places to take pictures – I want to have a more immersive experience. Wherever I go, I tend to seek out those kinds of trips where I can really set down roots. I feel that's what Iceland became for me – it became that place – it was immersive and it kept me coming back, and so that's sort of what I'd hope for Scotland."
Burkard has just released a new book, The Oceans, subtitled "The Maritime Photography of Chris Burkard." Whereas Wayward was a sort-of autobiography, in which he charted his photography career via a series of defining surf trips, this latest tome is much lighter on text, relying on the images to speak for themselves. Also, as the subtitle suggests, the focus in the new book is broader. While the majority of images are still concerned with surfing, there are many more which have nothing to do with the act of wave-riding at all. There are pictures of orcas and sea lions; of lighthouses and piers; and of people doing things other than surfing, too – diving, hiking, climbing – although always with the sea as part of the story.
"Wayward was more of an exploration into the self," Burkard explains, "whereas this new book is more of a love letter to the ocean."
Another aspect of Burkard's work that features prominently in The Oceans is his aerial photography. Like a water-obsessed version of Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Burkard now uses light aircraft to give him a unique perspective on the coastline, in particular drawing attention to shapes and patterns that might not be immediately obvious from the ground: the crazy-paving of fracturing pack ice, for example, or the way braided river systems start to resemble fronds of seaweed as they get close to the sea.
"I would say it expanded my perspective," says Burkard, of taking to the skies with his camera. "It opened my heart and it gave me a broader sense of the world. I think that has been the biggest thing for me: you bear witness to so much beauty but at a certain point you realise you can't do much to protect it – it becomes complicated."
In the introduction to his new book, Burkard writes of how his sense of “comfort and belonging in the ocean” has been one of his “greatest joys,” and of the great emotional connection he feels with the ocean. “I really hope that anyone looking at my pictures can have a similarly visceral experience,” he concludes, “and be inspired and awed by the beauty that can be found on earth.”
The Oceans: The Maritime Photography of Chris Burkard, gestalten, £55, see www.gestalten.com