Ever since he started surfing in Hawaii at the age of 5, Clark Little has been fascinated by the beauty and power of the waves. He became known for surfing the Waimea Bay shorebreak where waves often reach heights of 25 feet.
Little became fascinated with capturing his unique perspective by photographing from within, under the lip of a wave as it is about to crash into the sand. He calls this “photographing from within”. Now a well-known wave photographer, his work has appeared in National Geographic and the Smithsonian Museum and been the subject of documentaries.
Her new book, “Clark Little: The Art of the Waves,” features more than 150 photos of Little, including crashing waves, Hawaiian sea life and aerial imagery. The collection includes a foreword by world surfing champion Kelly Slater and an afterword by Little explaining his techniques.
Little spoke to Treehugger about his relationship with the waves, his most exciting and intimidating moments, and why he thinks the hit images resonate with so many fans. The pictures here are from the new book.
Treehugger: Born in California and raised in Hawaii, how did your relationship with surfing and the ocean begin?
Clark Little: My relationship with the ocean began when my dad moved us all to Hawaii from Napa, California. He was responsible for setting up the photography department at Punahou School, a private school in Honolulu. We lived on the Manoa Valley campus. The school is less than a 15 minute drive from Waikiki – that’s where I first discovered surfing. Hawaii is great because the beach is our park and playground. Kids play growing up on the beach and in the waves. You get pushed around and learn to swim.
When I was around 5 or 6, that’s when I started surfing and could stand on a board. Our family loved the countryside more than Honolulu, the city, so we eventually moved to the North Shore of Oahu. It was at Haleiwa Beach Park on the North Shore where my brother and I really learned to surf with the help of great teachers. Then, as we got older, our favorite wave became Waimea Bay, just up the coast. I loved surfing the fence waves from the shore break in Waimea. My brother Brock loved the big waves outside.
How many times were you in the water?
We were in the water as much as possible. I was lucky because our parents loved going to the beach and everyone around us did too. When I was younger we only went on the weekends but eventually my brother and I managed to connect and got good at surfing and went every day the waves were good. When you’re addicted to surfing, you hate missing a swell, so you’d be in the water all the time.
When I became the director of a botanical garden and worked full time in my thirties, my surfing time and my time at the beach dropped dramatically. I had a family to support and a lot of responsibilities to take on. It wasn’t until I started taking photography and making a new career out of it that I went back to the ocean on a regular basis. I don’t take it for granted that I can go to the beach almost every day. I am only five minutes from the waves on the North Shore. When it’s good, I’ll be out every day for weeks. Sometimes I go there twice in one day. On my longer days, I’m out 5-6 hours in total and my skin feels like a raisin.
How did you start photographing the waves “from the inside out”?
It all started when my wife, Sandy, bought a picture of a wave taken from the beach by another photographer. She wanted to install it in our room. I looked at it and thought, “I can take a better picture and take it from inside the tube.” I had him return the photo. I then went to Amazon and bought a cheap water case for my compact camera. I took this camera and case to Waimea Bay Shore Break and played around, trying to get some tube footage.
The camera was very slow to respond as it had to autofocus and reflect. I missed so many shots but I had a few good ones. I couldn’t believe how much fun it was. And then I showed them to my friends, everyone was delighted and encouraged me to continue. A few months later, I spoke to a professional surf photographer and decided on his brains about what camera and equipment I should buy to get better photos. I then upgraded to a professional setup and that’s where it all took off.
What were some of your favorite moments capturing these images?
My favorite moments are when the waves and conditions line up perfectly. The water clarity is stunning, the tide is epic, the waves are pumping and the swell angle is just right, the winds are offshore or calm, the weather is great and the sun is out. These are some of the factors that go into a “perfect day”, all of which only line up once in a while. And when they do, it’s pure magic.
Sometimes the conditions aren’t perfect, in fact, sometimes it’s awful, but I still go out and shoot. These can be some of the most rewarding days because my expectations are so low. When I find a diamond in the rough or make lemonade with lemons, the reward is even greater. You never know when a day might change or conditions change. Even poor conditions can bring drama out of a shot. I’m like, “Get out.”
What about the most formidable?
The daunting times are when I’m caught in a bad situation. Sometimes the waves are so powerful and I end up in the wrong place causing my fins to be ripped off my feet and the camera ripped from my hand including the leash attached to my camera and wrist. It’s a serious beating. These situations are upsetting and make me pay particular attention.
I had a day where 7-8 big waves (bigger than a two story house) crashed over my head and threw me deep underwater. I ran out of air and wondered how many more I could physically support. Flashes of my family, my wife and my children went through my head. Just able to rise to the surface and take a breath of air, before getting hit again. And when I crossed it and finally came back to land, I stopped it. That day changed my approach to going out in big, crazy waves. I watch the swell a little more carefully before setting off. This is good advice for anyone going into the ocean.
You have quite the social media following. Why do you think people are so fascinated by your photos of waves?
I think people are fascinated by nature, its mystery and its beauty. I’m lucky that the ocean and beaches here in Hawaii are so beautiful. I am beyond lucky to be able to work with this quality of subject.
I also think that people are particularly connected to water. There is a deep human connection with water. I feel it and I think others can too. It could come from my photography. Maybe it’s because we are 60% water? Maybe it’s the fact that you can go weeks without food, but only days without water? Maybe these are our earliest memories of being in the womb, surrounded by water? And what water can do in the ocean, in the form of waves, is endlessly fascinating. The waves can be so different when the conditions change. Sometimes they look like a glass sculpture. With a sunrise or sunset behind it, the wave can feel like it’s on fire. Waves can be textures with the wind and smooth as silk with dead winds. Have foam puffs on it like snow. Spray from above when there is a strong onshore wind. It is the art of nature.
And then there is the pipe. Where else on earth are you in an air pocket and surrounded by moving water on three sides, and able to look down at the earth from the opening? I try to frame things in this opening. A breathtaking view of the beach. Palm trees at the end of a barrel. The setting sun framed in the curve of the tube. The sand is sucked up from the seabed into the wave. These are things that most people will never see. I try to bring them to see it. Show them something unique.
Do you have any other favorite subjects apart from the waves?
In my book you will see pictures of turtles, whales, sharks and other things in the ocean. The book is called “The Art of Waves” but there are pictures without waves. When the waves are small in the summer, I go out and photograph sea life. It allows me to stay active and go to the beach. It’s their house, and I’m the visitor. It’s great to be able to document what’s happening beyond the waves and beyond the edge of the ocean where the water meets the reef and the beach. When I get out into the darker water it’s another world and it’s just as exciting to swim around. Swimming with a tiger shark is as exciting as being in the tube of a big wave.
Is there anything you would really like to photograph that you haven’t done yet?
Nothing comes to mind. I tend to do exactly what I want to do. Maybe visit other beaches and shore breaks in other parts of the world? But who knows, there might be a day when I try something different and a new door opens, and then another 15-year adventure unfolds. Never in a million years did I expect to be a photographer. It happened late in my life, unexpectedly. I followed a passion. I made sure it was fun. And did it 110%. The same thing could happen to me again. I am always open to a new adventure.