Wayward, by Chris Burkard: the epic story of a cold water surf photographer

Snapped in freezing locales from Iceland to the Aleutian Islands, the images captured by Chris Burkard have helped redefine where it’s possible to surf, writes Roger Cox

Josh Mulcoy in the Aleutian Islands PIC: Chris Burkard

Before its untimely, covid-hastened demise in October 2020, California-based Surfer magazine was still considered by many – well, at by least some – to be "the Bible of the sport", and the annual highlight for longtime subscriber-believers was the annual "big issue" – a super-sized, square format leviathan, often running to 250 pages or more, and stacked from front to back with carefully crafted words and and mind-blowing photography.

As the proud owner of a Surfer archive going back to the mid-1990s, I've always had a soft spot for these giant slabs of glossy paper, but the greatest of them all was perhaps the 2012 "distant shores" edition, which brought together a series of lavishly illustrated surf adventures from unlikely locations all around the world.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

One of these saw Brook Phillips and Alex Zawadzki riding ship-killing waves off the coast of Tasmania; another saw Jay Davies and Dylan Longbottom tackling cartoon-perfect barrels off the west coast of Java. However, the story that really stood out concerned a midwinter trip to Norway's Lofoten Islands. Written by Ben Weiland and illustrated with jaw-dropping photography by Chris Burkard, it was titled "The Frozen North" and, right enough, most of the pictures showed perfect-looking waves being ridden against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains. After getting out of the frigid water and wading through the snow on the beach, the pro surfers on the trip would jump into a huge, wood-stove-heated hot tub to thaw out.

Surfing by seaplane in Oregon PIC: Chris Burkard

Unlike most of the surf media industry at the time, which was (understandably perhaps) fixated on sun-kissed, warm or at least warm-ish water locations, Weiland and Burkard shared a passion for hunting for empty waves in cold, inaccessible corners of the globe, and as a writer/photographer team they went on to collaborate on several more classic stories in the pages of Surfer, notably a borderline-bonkers trip to the Aleutian Islands titled "In the Cradle of Storms" in 2014, and a boat-based adventure around the north-western coast of Iceland titled "Northern Trespass" in 2016, in which they managed to coincide with one of the fiercest hoolies in Iceland's history. Weiland's writing was pleasingly widescreen, taking in the local people and landscapes as well as the action in the water, and this meshed with Burkard's photography, which often seemed to be as much about the backdrop as it was about the interaction between surfer and wave.

Although Burkard and Weiland went on to collaborate on film projects together, the death of Surfer seemed to draw a line under their double-act as purveyors of quality long-form journalism. However, it's now possible to get a behind-the-scenes look at what went it took to create some of those classic pieces thanks to Wayward – a new book from Burkard, in which he charts his rise from college drop-out wannabe to one of the best-known surf-snappers in the world.

There's a telling passage early on, in which Burkard is reminiscing about surf trips he used to take along the coast of his native California with his friend Eric Soderquist. "Eric didn't care about the in-your-face action shots that were the trend of the moment in surf magazines and paid advertisements," Burkard writes. "He was just as fired-up about the pulled-back image that made him look like an ant dwarfed by an unruly seascape. Those photos were my favourites to take – photos that add a wide landscape to a surfer or subject, showing off the rugged natural arenas that test and inspire. Even if I couldn't be a traditional landscape photographer, who said I couldn't bring a landscape perspective to surf photography?"

That, more or less, became a sort of mission statement for Burkard – it was a way of working that helped him make his name in the surfing world, and, in time, it also saw him increasingly in demand for lucrative commercial work. At this point in the story, Burkard could easily have drifted away from surf photography altogether, but Wayward is partly about how he came to realise that his coldwater adventures had come to define him.

Surfing under the Northern Lights in Iceland PIC: Chris Burkard

Interestingly, the 2016 Iceland trip came about as a sort of reaction against the big corporate projects he had started working on. At one point, just before Christmas 2014, he found himself in Mexico, working on a shoot for a "billion dollar brand". Two models were sitting on a surfboard, staring out to sea as if waiting for waves – only there weren't any. One member of the 60-strong crew mused "If the client wants a wave, we could just add it to the image in post-production..." at which point Burkard realised that "somehow I had lost sight of what I had worked so hard to become." Shortly after that, he and Weiland spoke on the phone for the first time in months, talking "at the rate of rapidly popping kernels" and cooked up their Iceland plan. As the old saying goes, do what you love, love what you do.

Wayward, by Chris Burkard, Abrams, £25

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

Surfing in Norway's Lofoten Islands PIC: Chris Burkard

If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription at https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions