As a landscape photographer Chris Burkard is an easy choice as someone to look up to not only in style but in overall success in that field. Living no more than a stones throw from surf culture for the last 13 years made it somewhat inescapable from hearing his name brought up in conversation when I’d talk about loving landscape photography. He was and is very much a part of the surf culture, and is well known from locals and fanatics alike here in southern California.
In the process of finding my style I’ve always appreciated and revered his ability to know his audience and strategically utilize his social presence. I’ve personally struggled with how to push myself forward in this field and always looked forward to the day I would cross paths with Chris just to see if the persona behind his online presence matched in real life, because most of the time the more successful personalities I’ve met have stood up to their online presence. It seems you can’t get that far on a faked personality, as ultimately you will come face to face with companies/brands/other artists and your genuineness will be revealed either way. Chris is no exception. His social presence of vulnerability and overall welcoming presence was confirmed.
It was at the Adobe MAX conference in San Diego that I had my chance to finally meet Chris. I don’t get star struck much and not because of arrogance, but I think because my brain knows there is enough awkwardness to deal with that any amount of added nervousness would be impassable. I wasn’t entirely sure what was being offered at this event, but as an ambassador and Adobe Premium Stock contributor I was there enjoying myself and picking up classes here and there as I found them (even though I spent most of my time playing with the tilt brush VR system in the booth area). I woke up that morning and loaded up the daily conference/workshop list and saw that he was speaking.
I showed up about 30 minutes early and, using a strategy I’ve used in many other areas of my life, walked right past “security” through the front door like I’m supposed to be there. Having spoken at conferences in the past I know that once the speaker is mic’d up and tested their slides that there usually is a buffer time that the speaker just sits there doing nearly nothing. I introduced myself and to his intern and we shot the breeze for a good while. It was not intimidating, and he did not seem put out by a fan wanting to chat ‘Iceland’ or surfing or experience with him. I respected his time and ducked out so he could have some time to chill before speaking and then asked him after if he would do a brief interview. He obliged and this is what followed.
I’m an advocate for not only following and engaging with your inspiration but dissecting it, and how to develop best practices for your own creative endeavors. There are photographers whose color style is challenging and inspirational to me; there are some who have so solidly defined their brand that they seem to breathe it; some of them have a heart that I’d like anything they did no matter the content, I just love who they are. It’s incredibly important to dissect our inspiration and to develop a larger creative vocabulary; this will help us craft the conversations in our own creative journeys.
Now I’ll share the interview with some “fan reflections” in-line (in italics) of how this impacts my creative journey, and how it might inform yours as well.
Me: What’s one question you get asked a lot that you hate?
I am a firm believer in the idea that the best camera is the one you have with you. I get asked all the time what camera I shoot with, which in all reality isn’t a valid question. The camera doesn’t make the photographer, it is just a tool in our hands.
Don’t just look at the technical aspects of how those better than you do what they do, but look at their ethic of creation and see if maybe the thing between where you are and where you want to be is time and amount of creating you do.
Me: Has there been a time while shooting where you really thought you might die?
There was this one time when I was shooting surfing from the water in the Lofoten Islands. I had been shooting for a little while already and my hands and feet were numb from the freezing water. The conditions were epic and to make it even better snow began to fall slowly into the ocean. I could tell my body was beginning to tell me to get out of the water but the shots I was getting were all time. To make a long story short I ended up having to be dragged out of the water because I lost the ability to move and it was hours before I regained feeling in my extremities.
The best take risks, and they take people along to drag them out in case they fail, but staying safe is always going to produce safe results.
3. You can only take one more trip, but it can be to anywhere for 2 weeks. Where, and who do you take, and why?
I have yet to make it to Patagonia in South America but have wanted to go for a very long time. It would be epic to take my wife and two boys there to experience it with them.
As a family man myself I know the battle about wanting to go all over and also wanting to take my family. Don’t isolate those you love from what you love, involve them, share it with them, include them.
4. The smell of the ocean or the sights of the mountains?
The smell of the ocean from the top of a mountain!
Not being able to narrow down a favorite is ok
5. How does your philosophy on life inform your artistic process?
I have always desired to give back in life, I do not think it is wise or healthy to only take take take. I think as I carry on in my photography career I desire more and more to protect the landscapes I visit and educate the viewers on how they can do their part to give back.
Giving back, with art, and with how you engage with the art community is going to develop you as an artist but also as a human being. Engage in a way that is giving, and develop your view of success to include the ways you reinvest beyond your own success.
6. Do you have a favorite camping hack?
I do not know if I would consider it a hack but I never go anywhere without my back massaging tool. It is basically shaped like a hook and it does wonders for getting knots out of your back. It’s called a Thera-cane.
Brb, going to Amazon right now. But, seriously, glean the wisdom from those that are ahead of you in the game.
7. Is a there a living artist(any medium) that is uniquely or most powerfully inspiring to you?
The environmental and landscape angle of Ansel Adams really inspires me. As well as Michael Fatali another incredible large format landscape photographer.. Interning with Fatali early in my career taught me a deeper understanding of dedication to your craft and how being patient for the right moment is so important nowadays. Due to the nature of some of my shoots, we catch ourselves running around trying to shoot as much as we can in a short amount of time. Fatali really inspired me to have the patience and willingness to take my time to line up my shot and become a part of the photograph. These days I feel equally inspired by art, music and even architecture.
At some point the socially impressive work takes a backseat to the patient and deliberate works of art. Those that create intentionally and don’t confuse ‘likes’ with quality will have become stronger artists with stronger art.
8. You talk about thinking like an editor, can you expand on this a little?
In today’s world it is not enough to just take a good photo. You need to know which photos work well together, how to caption them, and how to deliver them to your audience.
Don’t operate in a vacuum. Know the avenues which your art needs to travel in order to succeed. Think about who will see/will need to see it before it is put in front of larger audiences. Thinking like an editor puts a strategic eye on your creation, and helps you think of not just it’s creation but it’s reception.
9. I heard you say “the best tool you have in your bag is your voice”, are you sure it’s not a lens hood?
Maybe a polarizer? But in all seriousness if we aren’t using our photography to make a difference in the world why are we taking photographs?
Saying something unique through what you create is really one of the only ways to make something unique. You are guaranteed to be one of many who use the same gear, edit similarly, and have similar tastes, but the voice you have will be the one way no one can be the same as you.
Access is often the biggest hurdle in exploring new places. Seeing something online & the reality of getting there and experiencing it can sometimes feel as challenging as getting to another planet. When someone asks “How did you get there.” I usually laugh thinking about how I could cram months of planning & research into a one line answer. You often have to enjoy the research process as much as being there to really get something out of it .
10. Can you share about your heart for conservation and where you hope that goes in the next few years?
When you visit these wild places you cannot help but be inspired to protect these places. I hope those with influences are equally inspired to use their voice to educate and empower others to conserve these amazing locations for many generations to come.
Every. Single. Photographer.
Seriously, every single successful travel or landscape or nature photographer I’ve met eventually moves into a passion for conservation. It seems inevitable that over time investing in and looking at the beauty of this planet leads you to a passion for taking care of it. Allow yourself to be moved by the places you see and people you encounter.
[REWIND: Instagram Better | Grow Your IG Audience With Tips From Chris Burkard Who Has 2 Million Followers]
Don’t wallow in jealousy or confusion by those who have achieved a higher level of success or arrival than you in your field. Look to them, admit when they’ve directly inspired you, turn your audience on to them even if you can’t imagine someone that doesn’t already follow them. And when, in the late hours of the night, you do look at their work and want to draw practical ways of applying their strategies to your work, look beyond the technical aspects. Look at how they engage their audience and their experiences. Look at how they respond to their fans and their critics.
Don’t settle for becoming a good artist at the expense of being a good person. Let one flow from the other. I’m grateful for people like Chris and what he means to the photography community, the art community, and the planet. As a married man with children he is also someone I cheer on and hope for continued success. I will continue to watch his journey and learn from it.