While the true world thunders by, Clark Little is happy documenting the moment when waves extinguish. Have you seen the way that sand scoops up through the turquoise face of a shorebreak? Or, the way the sun dances on the wall just before detonation? Scary and pretty, all at once! It’s kinda captivating. That’s Clark’s zone. He’s been capturing condensed slices of violence and beauty in shorebreaks since 2005. Some mainstream recognition (National Geographic, thanks) and a successful gallery and website have since become his full-time game. Ain’t that something special? When Stab called to discuss such things, Clark was “Chewing on some beef jerky, editing some pictures, and just living the life, y’know?”
Stab: Ok, how do you get into photographing shorebreaks for a living?
Clark Little: I used to surf Waimea shorebreak back in the 90s. I used to love it at six to eight feet because, to be honest, there were no crowds, and I could pull into these big tubes and just get an adrenaline rush. People called me nuts or whatever but I loved it. Then I stopped surfing as much because I’d started working for Botanical Garden, I worked for the city and county, which is a great job here. Then, seven years ago, my wife brought home a picture of a Waimea shorebreak. I shit you not, I had no other experience, but I said, “honey, don’t spend any money on that, I’ll go out and get some shots of a big shorebreak.” And that’s what I did. I started shooting with this Instamatic one-shot-at-a-time camera, and I saw the potential. Everyone else was chasing Pipe trying to get the cover of Surfing. I was like, I’m gonna go out of my comfort zone and shoot some big barrels. My life totally changed. Four years ago, I resigned from my job that I’d been doing full time for 17 years. I was able to go on Good Morning America, my work was presented in the Smithsonian Museum, I was run in National geographic… all these cool things happened when I started putting 110 percent into it. I don’t know what’s in store for tomorrow, but right now we have a great business. For me to go out there in my little office and take pictures, I couldn’t be happier. I love getting slammed around and getting these images to share with people.
You’ve gotta take some beatings. There’s moments where it’s scary and I don’t like those times. I’ll admit, I get caught sometimes. Most of the time I’m comfortable, but every once in a while you get sucked over when you didn’t expect it, then there’s ten waves behind it. That’s when you freak out. I’ve thought I was gonna die a couple times. It can be dangerous but it can be super fun – most of the time it’s super fun. I whacked my forehead with the housing just this winter but it wasn’t blown open or anything. I separated my shoulder on a huge wave on dry sand. I’ve tweaked my knees out. But knock on wood, I haven’t had anything severe where I had to go to hospital. I’ll try to get that gnarly wave and sneak out the back, and 85 percent of the time I do. Like most surfers, I know how to time it right. But once in a while when you let your guard down, you’re all of a sudden stuck in a situation where you can’t breathe but need to go under 10 waves in a row. Those are the shit days. Drowning, more than anything, scares me.
Your work appeals to an audience well beyond surfing – you must be making bank? We do well. The galley’s been open for a while now and the website’s been going for five years. It’s about getting the magic of Hawaii. Whether it’s a huge, gnarly wave sucking the sand up, or a perfect, three foot barrel with the sun rising and reflecting inside the tube, there’s so much Hawaii has to offer. The clarity and beauty, the wind, you’ve got everything. Mother Nature is exposing herself to all the North Shore of Oahu and I’ve fortunately been able to capture it and share it with people. A lot of it’s luck, a lot of it’s skill, and I don’t take anything for granted.
You’re certainly not limited to surf publications, either. Yeah, it’s a matter of getting out to the art world. Surfing is awesome but art is mega and if you can get into National Geographic or world photography mags, it’s another level. A lot of my empty waves touch people that aren’t necessarily surfers.
What makes the best shorebreak shot? Obviously sun is key and you’re gonna get a lot more light and colours in the mornings or the evenings. I’m looking for conditions with power, clean water colour, six or eight feet, glassy shorebreaks with a nice backdrop like a sandy beach. I want the perfect wave. It’s knowing where to go, you use your knowledge and experience. You’ve got to put yourself in the perfect spot.
Do surfers ruin your photos? It’s funny, I love being out in the ocean on my own and watching a perfect wave come up. Empties, or whatever you call them, are what I started with and that’s what I’m still doing. They’re the pieces I sell in my gallery. But, when I get a good buddy that’s gonna go out on a decent shorebreak, take off and pull in, I love it. I’m screaming, “You better go it!” It’s exciting to have pals out there with you to enjoy it. There’s more and more people taking it on so I’ve been able to get some guys like Flynn Novak, and some bodyboarders that’ve been going nuts.
So, empties are art and shooting with subjects is a fun rush? Empties, for me, are my occupation. If a guy’s gonna get in the way, he better fricken make it. I can get a shot, make a few bucks and maybe some free flippers, that’s really what it’s about – it’s more fun for me to be with my friends taking off and pulling in. I go to shorebreaks with buddies just to hang out now. If they take off on the first wave, y’know what? I also shoot the two waves after. It’s a mixture. I’ll take it all. I’ll be out there capturing whatever I can. – Elliot Struck