Chris Burkard is a world-renowned photographer, filmmaker and storyteller. In his images, he captures nature and its many wonders in a spectacular and truly authentic way, which could be due to the fact that he approaches his subjects with caution and humility. Chris is very committed to his work and it seems like nothing can stop him from getting that perfect shot.
Chris Burkard: Timeless landscapes and untamed nature
The Californian photographer, Chris Burkard, was the overall winner of the second ever Red Bull Illume Image Quest back in 2010. Since then, Chris has become one of the most famous photographers in the adventure and action sports scene. We (virtually) sat down with him and talked about stand out moments of his career and how the current situation has affected it.
Thanks for taking the time Chris! How are you and what’s been going on lately?
I am good! Most of all I am thankful to be healthy and busy through these crazy times we are living in. COVID-19 and the travel restrictions it caused changed my life greatly over the past year, but in some ways it was actually really nice for me to have some time away from traveling to spend quality time at home with my family. Right now I am back in Iceland, I just finished up a surf trip and happened to get extremely lucky and be here for a volcanic eruption. I documented this both personally and for Nat Geo which was a huge honor. And right now I am prepping for another bike trip, this is a fat bike expedition in which I will traverse Iceland from North to South. Long story short, there’s a lot going on but life is good!
How has it affected your work?
The past year certainly brought its challenges and changed the way I work and run my business. Most of all it was a challenge to continue running my studio and making sure I could employ my team, but I am grateful to have adapted and been able to keep everything running as usual. The projects and work I took on certainly changed but I believe that is all part of being a photographer these days.
How would you describe your style of photography?
I would say overall, I have distinguished myself by shooting untamed, powerful landscapes that are layered with outdoor, travel, adventure, surf, and lifestyle subjects. One of the defining elements of my style of photography is instilling a sense of scale and timelessness within a landscape. That is done many times by including a person within the image but I’ve also used planes, boats, etc. By adding this human element it immediately gives a viewer a context to latch onto of how large a landscape or scene is while making it much more relatable. By seeing a human form within a scene it makes it much easier to imagine that person is you. I also utilize a lot of silhouette lighting in order to make my images more timeless. I try and avoid including details like a big branded shirt or anything that will allow you to tell when an image was taken.
How do you get your final images to look so consistent?
I think in some ways this happens naturally, by following the stylistic elements I mentioned above. I tend to stick to these because they’re what I instinctively like and have always gravitated towards which helps keep my portfolio cohesive. I also try not to rely heavily on editing which helps keep things consistent as well.
How did your relationship with action and adventure sports photography develop?
I started shooting photos when I was 19 years old after experimenting with drawing and art in high school. I realized that it enabled me to do art in a mobile state, to explore and adventure, and show people the beauty in the world around me. As a kid growing up on the Central Coast, I was always really into surfing and bodyboarding. As I began shooting photos, I gravitated towards these and was always out shooting photos with my friends doing these things. I would go and shoot surfers at the local beach and try to sell them pictures on DVDs. I shot weddings and senior pictures and interiors store photos. That obviously wasn't my end goal, but I had to start somewhere. I wanted to learn more about action sports and landscapes photography which is what I was excited about but didn't know where to turn so I started applying for internships. I finally got an opportunity to intern with Michael Fatali, a large format landscape photographer, and I got an internship at Transworld Surf magazine which was an incredibly valuable experience and pushed me further into the action sports world.
Where do you find inspiration for your work?
It’s pretty simple, I guess. I find my inspiration in nature. Heading out and spending days off the grid and away from the civilization is where I feel most relaxed and can really see things in a different light. I used to draw a ton of inspiration from magazines and photo books but now it’s more in music, architecture, paintings, poetry, and really anything that opens up my senses in new and interesting ways. I have always tried to approach subjects with caution and humility. I never want to be running around taking photos without a clear purpose. So, I try to really take in the places I go and make sure that I am feeling some connection with them before I get to work. It’s an important part of my photographic process.
You often work under difficult and extraordinary conditions. What motivates you to go the extra mile for your work?
I always like to say the best image is the image people haven’t seen before. To be honest, it’s really hard to take a picture of a place or activity people have seen a bunch of times before. But, if you go the extra mile and take a photo of something people have never seen before, all the sudden that image stands out. I think about this a lot and it always pushes me to go further and work harder than most, because the result is always worth it.
Can you share stand out moments/memories of your career (positive and negative) with us?
There have definitely been lots of ups and downs over the years. Getting my first internship at Transworld Surf was a stand out moment for real because it was something I wanted so bad. Scoring waves under the Northern Lights was definitely an all-time positive moment for me, sitting in a jail cell in Russia was definitely an all-time negative stand out for me! There are almost too many ups and downs to list them, I’m just grateful for all the moments I’ve gotten to experience whether good or bad. Winning the Red Bull Illume Contest in 2010 was definitely a stand out moment for my career as well.
You’ve travelled to a lot of awesome spots all over the world. Do you have favorite places/locations to shoot in and why?
By far my favorite place in the world is Iceland. It holds so much opportunity for adventure and surf. Everytime I shoot here it is like walking on another planet. The geography along with the people of Iceland keep you coming back. Breanne (my wife) and I joke about living in Iceland when our boys get a little older for six-months at a time. I’ve been 40+ times and have no intentions of stopping.
What are the three most important things aspiring photographers should keep in mind?
The best thing that you can do as an aspiring photographer is to identify a style that represents you well, develop within that style, and keep shooting to perfect it. It’s super important to have your images be recognizable by editors and others who are looking at your work. With the large number of photographers that are out there now you must find ways to stand out. The best compliment I can ever receive is when people know my photography work instantly when they see it. I would also say persistence and willingness to learn.
What’s important when taking images for Red Bull Illume? Any tips?
I think similar to what I answered before, it’s really important and helpful to develop your own style and take images that are unique. There are so many amazing photographers out there today it’s absolutely mind-blowing, you need to do something that makes your photos stand out in a consistent way.
What’s the most valuable thing you learnt from taking part in Red Bull Illume?
Mostly the value of community within the creative industry and the opportunities there are to connect with people. Illume really fostered some amazing relationships with other photographers that I still value and hold dearly today. That is honestly the most important part of the whole thing.
What do you try to capture for the Image Quest 2021? Have you already shot something?
To be honest I have been really enjoying mentoring photographers and focusing on my own expeditions as an athlete. It’s been challenging to give as much focus as it takes to create an image for Illume so if something happens I’ll be excited to share it.. but it’s not as much of a focus for me now as it was years ago.
Where can we find more of your work?