Chris Burkard is one of the best-known surf photographers in the world. His career blossomed not in warm waves, but in Lofoten, with pictures of ice and snow. The place that taught him everything begs the question: Is it necessary to suffer for the perfect moment?
Chris Burkard throws back his head and gazes upward. So that’s what he has to climb. He actually wants to climb it, but because everything Burkard decides to do becomes a challenge he would never forgive himself for failing at, he now has to climb it. The question is just: Can he? Burkard spent all night shooting in Reine and then in the waves off Ballstad. He’s tired, and he has two backpacks of equipment with him, but no helpers and no climbing gear. He really ought to be taking a rest – finally. But Burkard isn’t interested in resting. This is his penultimate day on the Lofoten Islands and the reason he’s here is to take photos up there, on Fløya Mountain, of the two rocks across from it. They are known as Svolværgeita, Svolvær the Goat, because they look just like two horns standing 590 meters above the waves. From down here, they are barely visible with the naked eye. It’s a pretty tough ascent even for experienced climbers. You can’t just stroll up there, growls the local man who drove him here, it’s no picnic. Burkard grins and stumps off.
It’s a scene that could easily be misconstrued of a man determined to do things his way regardless. A typical Chris Burkard moment. Spend a few days with the photographer, though, and you soon realize how unfair that interpretation would be. Burkard cares nothing for what other people think of him. It’s not about thrills for him. He’s looking for moments that are unique, moments that maybe only ever arise once. Burkard believes you have to suffer for a good photo.
“If someone tells me it’s impossible, says no one has ever done it like that before, then I know I’m on the right track,” he says, taking a breather between some huge rocks, the mountaintop still far off. This is the first summer trip Burkard has made to the Lofoten archipelago, to the roughly 80 islands a benevolent Creator scattered north of the Arctic Circle. The Vestfjord separates them from the mainland. Burkard usually comes in winter, but this time the trip is also intended as a comparison, to help him finally comprehend the torments to which he has generally exposed himself up to now.
Burkard, 31, is regarded as one of the best surf, nature and travel photographers in the world. He works for the big magazines, for Esquire, National Geographic and GQ; he has set foot on six of the seven continents and won every award there is to be won. He has 2.7 million followers on Instagram. In fact, you could say that he is a star in a scene that doesn’t have many stars. And you could also say that this all happened because Burkard came to the Lofoten Islands.
The first trip, the most important, all-changing trip was years ago. A friend had told him about these lonely, wild, rugged islands in Europe’s North Sea. “But I could never have pictured just how wild they really are,” he recalls. Burkard had lived a Californian life up to then. He photographed the surfers of his native paradise and other paradises, beneath palm trees, in the sunshine. Fine hotels. Upgraded flights. He lived on a ranch in Pismo Beach with his wife, Breanne, and their two sons. It was all very comfortable, but also – boring. Wherever he went, the scene was already set. The surfers, the hipsters, the backpackers with their coolness codes, Wi-Fi a must, bronzed selfie smiles on their faces. That, too, is why Burkard turned to the Lofoten Islands. He was looking for risk, for a challenge, for something completely different.
He persuaded five professional surfers to make the trip with him. They were drawn by what drew him: the prospect of surfing waves that had never been surfed before and of shooting photos that had never been shot before. They are good guys, tough guys, but the Lofoten Islands are tougher. When they arrive, in March, in winter, snow is pouring from the sky. They cannot see a single meter ahead of them for the fog. Minus degrees in the two digits. They battle their way as far as Unstad, to Tommy Olsen, who rents out a few cabins here – today they belong to a trendy surf camp, but back then they were very basic, no more than emergency shelters. People have been surfing in Unstad since the 1960s, but only in summertime. Burkard and his crew climbed into their full-body neoprene wetsuits, swam out into the Arctic Ocean and surfed. And shot. And lost all sensation in their limbs.
“That’s when I knew I had found my purpose. I was paddling in this surreal landscape and experienced an absurd moment between amazement and realization. Between incredulity and the simultaneous knowledge that what I was seeing and experiencing right then was real. Such a moment is rare. You never forget it.“ Burkard – halfway to the Svolværgeita – smiles.
To that moment, he has since added a string of others experienced all over the world, some even tougher. With and without surfers in his sights. The common element in all these moments is that they took place in extreme weathers. In ice, gales and rugged landscapes. Burkard has braved storms to camp on the Faroe Islands, flown to unpopulated areas of Siberia on board an ancient military helicopter, climbed the highest mountains in Chile, and on Iceland, he body-boarded between icebergs to photograph his surfing pals riding tubes, the tunnels formed by hollow waves.
He almost drowned once, and that was also in Lofoten, on Unstad beach. He was already delirious when they pulled him from the waves. “Nature showed me that she can be stronger when she wants to be. And I showed her that I am tough. The pictures I brought back to California from Lofoten meant more to me than any others I had ever taken because I knew the limits I had pushed beyond to get them. It wasn’t a question of money. The pictures had a physical value.” Back in the here and now and on the last third of the mountain, Burkard gasps. He sweats. He groans. His tripod alone is anything but light. He sits down on a fallen tree. From here on up, the ascent is pretty much vertical.
You can see right across the bay from here. The Lofoten backdrop is craggy, but its transitions are smooth. Mighty mountains, broad valleys. Small wooden houses beside polished fjords. In summertime, nights that seems like day. And in winter, days when it’s always night. It’s as though you were in an Edvard Munch painting. You recognize the parts and at the same time, see them as a whole. On top of that, there’s the Expressionist light. And a sky that hangs so low you feel you could reach out and scratch it. Does the climb end here? Capitulation? “No, just a breather,” says Burkard.
Either he beats a place, or a place beats him. Those are the two options and the second naturally isn’t an option at all; never has Burkard turned back. Instead, his aesthetics have defined surf photography, expanded the scope for shooting Arctic latitudes. Burkard’s pictures prolong seconds without going into raptures. They are in motion although they freeze movement. We see the waves breaking. Hear the wind roaring. Feel the drops of water. With an almost Buddhist joy in disappearance, the photographer immerses himself in the place where he happens to be, if only for a few days. To become weightier, to become lighter. That’s what it’s all about.
Ask Tommy Olsen, the man who took Burkard in on his first Lofoten trip, and this is what he will say about Burkard: “A hard worker, harder than all the rest. But still he has remained true to himself. Fame doesn’t mean so much to him.” The surfer crowd also says that “Chris just did his thing. And his thing made him famous. Olsen, waxing a board in the yard at the Unstad surf camp, goes on to say how it used to look around here: A small place, lots of old people, not much of a future. Not until Burkard came along, that is. Not until his photos put Unstad on the map. The beach, the panorama, his surf camp. Now they even have younger people moving back there, in search of good waves, of a little bit of hang loose, and of themselves. “The place changed Chris,” says Olsen pensively. “But Chris also changed the place.”
Chris Burkard says: “A place where the unforeseeable can happen is a good place. It makes you grow, whether or not that was your intention. I want to bring people out of their comfort zone. I want them to experience what I experience.” One final leap and he’s standing on the plateau right at the top of Fløya. Drenched in sweat but with a broad “all’s well” grin. Burkard has made it. He empties his rucksack, sets up his tripod. The sun sinks behind the mountains. Across from him, two climbers with ropes are up on the two horns of the “goat” pinnacle Svolværgeita. And then one of them suddenly turns a cartwheel from one horn to the other, across the abyss. It’s a moment you cannot plan. A rare moment, an unreal moment, a moment that can change everything. Here on the Lofoten Islands.