Legends of the Sandbar – Interview with Surf Photographer Chris Bickford
We at The MALESTROM are often captivated by stunning images of ferocious waves with surfers elegantly riding them, all captured in magical light. Not as often do we stop and consider how these pictures came to be, the artistic process involved. One man responsible for capturing some incredible photos is surf photographer Chris Bickford. He’s spent a good chunk of his life in the waters of the Outer Banks of North Carolina using his trusty Canon to snap surfers and locals alike.
His new book Legends of the Sandbar captures the beauty of the area and tells the stories of the people that make it such a special place. We caught up with him to talk about the inspiration for his pictures, how he goes about taking them and why this particular part of the world means so much to him.
The MALESTROM: As a photographer, what’s a typical working day for you?
Chris Bickford: There really is no typical day. If I’m at home and nothing’s going on, the day begins with coffee and a bit of news reading on the porch, then on to the computer to catch up with work, because it’s a given that I’m always behind. If there’s reason to get up and get out early – say, the potential for a really interesting sky, a good swell coming in, or a job that I have to get up early for, I’ll pull myself out of bed at dawn or whenever. Then I’m usually out for most of the day. But if not, I tend to sleep in and work late. I’m a night owl by nature, and a bit of an insomniac, so sometimes the creative juices get going right around the time most people are clocking out. Most days work continues till bedtime, and then because it usually takes me a long time to get to sleep, I get a lot of reading done.
If I’m on an assignment, or traveling for one of my own projects, the schedule is pretty much dictated by whatever I’m covering. That could mean being up at sunrise every day for the length of the assignment, or staying up until much later than I normally would, just shooting until there’s nothing left to shoot. It all depends. Before a big trip, there could be three days of packing involved, or more. After a big trip, there could be a week of sleeping and catching up on emails involved. I might be shooting from dawn to dusk, or not at all. No two days are the same, which, if you like living your life that way, is great.
TM: How important are the stories you capture alongside the pictures?
CB: Oh, I think they’re essential. Photography even at its best is always in service of a concept, story, or feeling, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a work of photography that wasn’t introduced with some kind of contextual statement, anecdote, set of captions, etc. Even when somebody posts a picture online without a caption, you kinda get this “…and?” kind of feeling looking at it.
I do a lot of writing and research with any project I work on, but I’m not generally concerned with literal one-on-one correspondences between photos and stories. I prefer to tell a story in pictures, and then tell a story in words, and then intersperse the two, so that the connections are a bit looser, and it’s more about creating an imaginative space, where you have the tools to envision what’s going on in a particular story because I’ve given you pictures that convey a certain mood, a certain architecture, a stage-set if you will. I think the relationship between images and words is extremely powerful, and especially in today’s media, that relationship is everything. But I try to go for more intuitive pairings of words and pictures, rather than, you know, “an eleven-year-old boy crabbing at the end of a fishing pier.” Well, duh.
With photography, there’s the story about what is happening in the picture, and then there is the story about how the photographer got the shot. They both have the potential to be equally interesting, and I’m often surprised how much people react to “how I got the shot” kinds of stories. I think a lot of that is because now with cell phones and Instagram, everyone’s a photographer these days, so everybody is much more interested in the behind-the-curtain stuff.
TM: Is there one story that particularly stands out?
CB: There are a handful, but one that specifically pertains to this project, along the lines of “how I got the shot”, happened a couple of years ago. There’s a surfer here named Quentin Turko, he’s probably about 19 or 20 years old now, but we’ve spent a lot of time in the water together. So we were out on this beautiful November evening, the sun was going down and the sky was turning into a spectrum of reds and yellows and greens and blues… gorgeous cloud formations, the kind of thing we get here a lot. It was probably a chest-high swell, nothing epic but a lot of fun, pretty clean. The sun eventually dipped down below the rooftops of the houses that line the beach, but there were rays of light still coming through the setbacks between the houses. So there was this one ray of light, say about ten feet wide, that was hitting the whitewater right around where the peak was and making it glow, and the rest was shadowed out. I pointed it out to Quentin, who is really good about working with photographers, and said “Man, it would be cool to get some kind of shot right in that little stream of light.” And less than five minutes later, he caught a wave, and right as he hit that ray of light, he busted this nice little carve, and we got this beautiful shot of him lit up by the sun, with the dark sky behind and the water dark all around him. The shot has a few technical flaws, so it’s not a “perfect” shot, but because there is an intentionally gritty vibe to the project, it fits.
But it demonstrates something about surf photography – and many other types of photography: that the subject plays as integral a role in the creation of the photograph as the photographer, whether unconsciously or consciously. Obviously you’re going to get better surf photos if you shoot really good surfers all the time… but when you engage in a collaborative relationship with your subject; when you draw them into the creative process, when you give him or her just a little bit of prompting, a little communication about the potential picture that you’re envisioning, if they are good at working with the camera, as Quentin is, you can come up with some magic stuff. I suppose it’s a bit like the relationship between a director and an actor, although much less scripted obviously. It’s not so much directing as it is suggesting, or co-creating. The thing about surfing is that there’s only so much you can control, but if you keep your eyes open and keep adjusting yourself to the conditions and keep thinking about what might make a good shot, and you communicate with the guys you’re shooting, you’re more likely to get something good. I love it when I’m out there and one of the crew says to me, “the light is great right now, isn’t it!” or if they ask me what length of lens I’m using. They’re already thinking like a photographer, already thinking about the shot.
TM: How difficult is it to capture some of your images?
CB: Shooting surf in-water, your fail rate is always going to be high, or at least mine is. Especially here in sandbar country, where the waves break all over the place. You can’t just stand in one place and shoot guys as they come screaming by. You have to have as good a feel for how the waves are breaking as the surfers themselves, and you have to know exactly where you need to be, given the focal length of your lens, to get the shot you want. And then you have to swim your tail off to get there. It’s near impossible, really, especially if you’re trying to get wide-angle shots, because you have to get really close to the rider, but not so close that the frame cuts off their head or their limbs or the end of the board, or whatever else you’re trying to keep in the picture. And the waves around here are fickle, and they don’t always hold up, so you could do everything right, swim your ass off to get into position, and then the wave closes out. So yeah, to get a certain kind of in-water shot, it can be difficult to nail. But in the meantime, and this is what has always jazzed me about shooting in the water, is that because of all the crazy stuff that’s going on, you’ll almost always end the session with some rad-looking dud shot that just has something cool about it. Water droplets, spray, the shape of the whitewater as a wave closes out. And every now and then you get one that’s better than every deep barrel shot you’ve ever spent all day trying to nail.
But I think rating shots by difficulty level can cause photographers and even editors, in my experience, to hold on to shots that really aren’t all that great. “You don’t know how hard it was for me to get that shot!” Yeah, but if it’s not hands-down a hero shot, then it doesn’t matter. If you’re only invested in the shot because it was really difficult to capture, then you’re losing perspective and you have to step back a little.
I think there’s this trend, too, with Instagram especially, that people get “wowed” by shots; which is all well and good, but ultimately, in my opinion, photography should be as invisible a medium as possible. It shouldn’t be about the photographer, the gear, the danger, none of that. It should be about the image, pure and simple. And while certainly there are guys whose stock and trade is getting “extreme” shots, I’m personally more interested in shots that are elegant, enigmatic, meaningful, what have you. I like shots that feel like movie stills, that have things going on in them, or that play with light in really interesting ways. Those shots are difficult to get too, in a different way.
Some of my best pictures come just by seeing something, grabbing a camera and clicking the shutter one time, without even thinking too much about the composition. Others may take days to plan, or hours out in the water waiting for something to happen. I’m very much a trial-and-error kind of photographer. I’m not an extremely technical shooter, and I tend to beat my gear up, so my lenses aren’t always perfectly clean, and they’ve got dents and scratches, and you can feel sand in every moving part. Generally I go in with half a plan – sometimes with no plan at all and just keep working it and trying stuff till something starts to click. So much of photography is just about being in the right place at the right time. I think that’s why cell-phone photography has exploded the way it has. You always have the ability to capture the moment, because of that tiny hi-tech camera you’ve got in your pocket.
But just as difficult as capturing a great image is knowing when you’ve got a great image. I know photographers who can shoot really well, but can’t edit to save their lives. To me there’s always one, maybe two shots, in a session that stand out – if you’re lucky. And knowing which shot you took is the winner, that can be really hard. It’s instinctive on one level, but there’s a learning curve on another.
TM: What kind of kit do you need?
CB: Shooting in the water, I started with a Canon 5D inside an Aquatech housing, and eventually moved to a 7D, again inside an Aqua-Tech housing, mainly to get a faster frame rate. I love my Canon gear, but they are losers when it comes to high frame-rates. Don’t ask me why a company that is so invested in sports photography requires you spend five grand to get a box that still shoots fewer frames per second than my iPhone.
Most of my shots are wide-angle, as I try to get as much of an immersive feel as possible, so i’m usually shooting in the water with a 16-35 or something equivalent, but occasionally I go for longer shots to enhance the compression or perspective, or just to get more of a close-up on faraway subjects. Shooting from the land absolutely requires a telephoto; usually I use a Canon 70-200 with a 1.4 adapter. I don’t shoot telephoto enough to invest in big glass, and I’m usually going for shapes and big movements as much as I am capturing the rider up close in the critical moment with the logos showing and whatnot. Surf photography is not my main source of income, so I can afford to experiment and not go for the typical mag shots.
If I’m doing studio work or editorial portraiture, I rely a lot on my Paul C Buff Einstein strobes, which are made in Nashville. They are extremely versatile and a lot of fun to use. Or if I’m doing street photography or photojournalism, I rely a lot on off-camera flash. I just really love the accent that one extra light source can give to an otherwise flat image. Sometimes I shoot with an assistant, and their only job is to move around, say perpendicular to the subject, or even behind them, and hold a flash so that I can get a cool halo or a kind of cinematic look to the image. If I don’t have an assistant I might just place the flash on a table or a wall or whatever’s convenient, just to try and see if I can get something cool.
TM: What’s the hardest thing about being a photographer?
CB: Balance. Most photographers these days have to wear many hats in order to make things work, and I’m no exception. You’ve got to balance the work that pays well – like portraiture, commercial work, weddings – with work that’s cool but doesn’t pay as well, like surf or travel or photojournalism, with your passion projects, which don’t pay much of anything, but which fuel your creativity, define your style, and most importantly act as continual reminders as to why you go to such lengths to be a photographer. And then on top of that there’s the business end of things – talking with clients, contracts, invoices, chasing down money, etc. Not to mention all the back-end work of editing, processing, and delivery, which you can get really bogged down in and really behind on, like I am right now. Add to that the imperative to have a strong social media platform, and there’s really not enough hours in the day to do it all.
I try to keep the signal to noise ratio down to a minimum; I don’t spend much time on social media, I try to keep my work obligations manageable, and I always keep my personal work at the forefront of what I do. The market changes so much these days, and so do digital outlets and platforms. To me it seems the only thing that is sure to last is your work, plain and simple. So what I’ve come to after about 12 years in the profession is that making books – solid, well-conceived, well-made books – is my top priority, and producing work that is unique, insightful, and meaningful, not to mention beautiful, is what I want to focus on as I continue on in my career.
TM: Is luck sometimes a factor for a photographer in getting that perfect shot?
CB: Absolutely. You always have to have a plan, but the plan is just to get you out the door and get started. Ultimately you hope that the plan will be jettisoned once the shooting begins, and then you start following the scent of whatever is leading to the actual shot or story.
I’ve got plenty of surf photos I shot with my old Canon 5D that shot 3 frames per second. That’s really slow in sports shooting. But somehow, given enough patience, some really cool shots came out of that camera. I’ve got one of a guy boosting an air on a dreary afternoon, and his silhouette is framed perfectly between two condos on the beach. The composition is really stark: two dark rectangular shapes with a guy who looks like the Silver Surfer suspended in the air between them. Pure luck. But you make your own luck by putting yourselves into situations where things aren’t completely controlled, and just keep shooting and following your wits. The more you understand the situation and the faster you are able to react to it, the more lucky you get.
Mistakes are a big part of my work too. I always like to cite the oft-repeated quote that jazz musicians make: if you make a mistake, repeat it. Then it becomes a theme. Some of my best shots are purely random mistakes, things I found while going through the files afterwards.
TM: Have you ever got injured in the line of duty?
CB: Nothing that has sent me to the hospital. I’ve gotten lots of cuts and scrapes and bruises, and the occasional illness from working abroad, and I’ve definitely had my share of collisions with fiberglass and graphite and human skulls, but I’ve never been in a war zone or anything where I felt my life was in danger. Other than being out in the ocean on a big day and getting swept towards a concrete pier by a really strong current… there was a certain fear of death there, but that was enough to get my adrenaline pumping and I made it to the shore with a lot of exhausted fin-kicking.
TM: Can you give us some insight into the ecological issues your area has been facing?
CB: The landscape here is dynamic by nature. It’s just one big string of sand jutting out into the ocean. There’s no real foundation underneath it, so the wind and waves move it around a lot; and the entire land mass is basically migrating in a south-westerly direction, back towards the mainland. People call it erosion, but erosion has a pejorative connotation, and the reality is that it’s just part of the mechanics of barrier island movement. The sand formations themselves are only 5,000 years old, and some of them formed as late as the time of the first European settlements. Without human intervention most of the string of spits we call the Outer Banks would probably be a good five miles west of where they are now. But we’ve gone ahead and developed huge stretches of it, put down turf and grass and roads and power-lines, and built dune systems from the Virginia border to the bottom of Ocracoke, and we’ve basically colonized what was originally a big empty sandbar jutting out of the water. The movement doesn’t stop just because we’re living here, so we have to engage in a constant struggle to keep our foothold, and protect the infrastructure that we’ve laid in the sand.
It can get very political. Right now the beaches out in front of my house are going through a huge “re-nourishment” process, where they are dredging sand from 500 yards out into the shoreface (the layer of sand beneath the ocean) and pumping it back onto the beaches. Obviously a lot of that sand is going to get blown down the shoreline during the next big storm, or washed back out to sea, and the people that oppose the project sport bumper stickers that say “Don’t pour $$ into the ocean.” The general sentiment among that camp is, you can’t fight Mother Nature. But the reality is we’ve been fighting Mother Nature since we started this whole human experiment, so it’s a bit hypocritical to use that line of reasoning. My philosophy is, Do you shave? Do you brush your teeth? Do you cut your hair? Do you mow your lawn? Do you plant and weed in your garden? We’ve already made the commitment to live here, and the beach is our greatest economic asset, so it makes sense to protect it and maintain it any way we can, until it is no longer economically viable – which one day, it will be. My family has a beach cottage in one of the most vulnerable areas along the Outer Banks, but by careful maintenance of our dunes we’ve been able to keep the house safe for going on 20 years now. It won’t be around forever, but neither will any of us; but that’s no reason not to try to extend our lifespans as much as we can, is it?
Offshore drilling is also a big issue here. The local community, led by the Surfrider Foundation, lobbied hard to fight a bill the Obama administration had on the table to begin drilling for oil directly off the North Carolina coast – it was part of his “all of the above” energy policy, basically a political move to placate the fossil fuel industry. We won a huge victory – Obama took it off the table – but now it’s back on, as the Trump administration is basically trying to annihilate every step forward we’ve made ecologically over the past fifty years. It seems crazy to me, that after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, after Chernobyl, after Fukushima, that we still think our fossil-fuel extraction and disposal technologies are safe. That’s one of the footballs that our politicians like to kick around in their game of political brinkmanship, but for us it could really jeopardise the quality of our beaches and our water, which is pretty much 100% of our economy.
Ultimately, sea level rise will inundate this area, and pretty much the entire East Coast, which is kinda scary given the concentration of development and population we have along the coast. Predictions range from 50 years to a thousand years. It’s really the one thing we won’t be able to fight against. Ironically, it was a rising sea that created the Outer Banks those 5,000 years ago, so it’s only fitting that it will eventually swallow the islands back, or just push them all the way back to the mainland. Unfortunately, we can’t move the entire infrastructure of the community along with it…
TM: What inspires you?
CB: Beauty. The play of light on water, formations of clouds in the sky. The human body, the way we use it, the elegance with which we move. I think body language, or “gesture” as it’s often called in photography, is one of the most important elements of a good photograph, at least one that includes human subjects. People say so much with their bodies, and when you capture a moment that really translates a feeling because of the shape of a body or bodies – a slight drop of a shoulder, a tilt of the head, or a facial expression, that’s magic.
I love to see common patterns and shapes emerge when I’m working on a project. I think each subject you approach has its own inherent architecture, or at least one ought to develop in your consciousness as you work on it. And when a project starts to come together like that, that’s really exciting.
I’m a big reader, and reading a good book that’s full of “a-ha” insights is, to me, just as thrilling as nailing a great shot. These days I’m mostly into history and science, the elegance of the scientific picture of the world – along with its contradictions and uncertainties has really started to mean a lot to me. Literature, especially fiction, is an incredible way to develop empathy and understand human psychology. But you get to a point where you really want to understand the truth as best you can, and for my money, science is where the real action is on that front. Even history has gotten more scientific – all these books have come out in the last ten or fifteen years that use multiple scientific and social-scientific disciplines – archaeology, dendochronology, genetics, linguistics, geology, etc, to piece together a more accurate picture of human prehistory. I just can’t get enough of that sort of thing.
I’m not a science photographer; I don’t shoot people in lab coats, or dinosaur bones, or whatever. So it’s not like science directly affects my work. But being able to get that kind of broad perspective on the world really helps me piece together the smaller stories I work on, and put them in the context of the bigger story.
TM: Is there a piece of wisdom or mantra you’ve picked up during your time as a surf photographer?
CB: My mantra when I’m out there shivering, waiting for a shot, or waiting for a wave for somebody to catch, is generally “Come on now, throw me a bone!” As far as wisdom goes, I think I’ve been fortunate to work mostly in this one community where everybody knows each other, everybody respects each other, and there’s not a whole lot of vibing between surfers or photographers. On big swells in the fall around the various contests that we have here, the Outer Banks can get inundated with big-name surfers and a bunch of semi-pro wannabes, and you can feel the vibe in the water change overnight. You get the stink-eye from say an out-of-town photographer, whose come down as part of some pro’s personal entourage or whatever, and they act like they own whatever wave their guy is on. It’s really silly, and it makes me glad I’m not really deep into that whole scene.
Everybody around here is pretty chill. You see another photographer in the water, it’s all smiles and high-fives. Sure, there’s a little competitiveness, but we’re all out here for the same thing, right? For the love of surfing, right? Even if somebody is being a little annoying, they are generally tolerated up to a point. Maybe it’s just that we live in the South, but good manners and just friendliness in general are kind of important around here. Nobody likes an asshole. So if I had one piece of wisdom to impart to any surf photographer, it’s this: don’t be an asshole. And don’t do it for the money.
TM: If you had to move somewhere else in the world rather than North Carolina to take pictures, where would it be?
CB: I’ll actually be on the move once all the promo and sales work for this project is over, and I’m going to take a break from being a surf photographer. I’m planning on going back to New Orleans first. I was down there one winter a few years back, working on a project about Carnival celebrations around the world, and I really got interested in the African-American traditions that have survived there over the centuries. So I want to go down there and explore that a little more. I’ve got the bones of a book already from previous trips, so I really just need to flesh it out and do more writing and research and dig in a little deeper with the photography.
Then after that, probably London. I want to get into doing more commercial work, so I need to move to a “world city” to get into that, and I’ve always been drawn to Ireland and the UK, so, as expensive as it is there, I’d rather post up there than, say New York or LA. I just think London is a lot more human, a lot more historically interesting, and, dare I say it, a lot more friendly, than its American counterparts.
So I will probably be leaving the Outer Banks sometime soon, at least for a few years. I love living here, it’s a beautiful place, but it is isolated. You really have to get off the beach, take trips up to New York and DC, to stay in the loop in terms of the industry. And these days, with budgets shrinking, you don’t get many calls for work unless you happen to live where they want you to shoot. And it’s not very often that the Outer Banks makes international headlines… it’s a good life here, and in some ways I’m very attached to this place, but I’m ready to change things up, at least for a while.
TM: What is it that makes the Sandbar so special? Is it the natural beauty or the people? Or both?
CB: I think we’re all here for the beauty of the place. This past week we’ve seen some incredible thunderstorms coming in on the heels of white-hot crystal clear mornings. Very much tropical weather. Then in the winter we get weather more like, say Western Ireland, but not nearly as harsh and with a lot more sunshine in between. And then in the fall, we get these perfect days… you just have to live here to get it. I imagine it’s a lot like southwestern Australia. Everybody walks around with these knowing smiles. We just nod our heads at each other, like, yeah, this is why we live here.
Buy your copy of Chris’ brilliant book Legends of the Sandbar, filled with his stunning images and fantastic stories HERE