Since starting surfing in Hawaii at the age of 5, Clark Little has been mesmerized by the beauty and power of the waves. He became known for surfing on the Waimea Bay shorebreak, where waves often reach heights of 25 feet.
Little was fascinated by capturing his unique perspective by photographing from the inside, under the lip of a wave as it crashes into the sand. He calls it “photographing from the inside out”. Now a well-known wave photographer, his work has appeared in National Geographic and the Smithsonian Museum and has been the subject of documentaries.
His new book, “Clark Little: The Art of Waves,” includes more than 150 photos of Little, including crashing waves, marine life in Hawaii, and aerial imagery. The collection includes a foreword by world surf 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 daunting moments, and why he thinks blockbuster 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 assigned the task of creating the photography department of the 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, which is where I was first exposed to surfing. Hawaii is great as the beach is our park and playground. Children simply play growing up on the beach and in the waves. You get tossed and learn to swim.
When I was about 5 or 6 that was when I started surfing and could stand on a board. Our family liked the countryside more than Honolulu, the city, so we eventually moved to Oahu’s North Shore. It was at Haleiwa Beach Park on the North Shore where my brother and I really learned to surf with the help of some great teachers. Then, as we grew up, our favorite wave became Waimea Bay, right on the coast. I enjoyed surfing the closing waves of Waimea beach. 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 as our parents loved going to the beach and everyone around us loved too. When I was younger we only went on weekends, but in the end, my brother and I got things right and got good at surfing and went every day the waves were good. When you are addicted to surfing, you hate to miss a wave so we would always be in the water.
When I became the manager of a botanical garden and worked full-time in my 30s, my surfing time and beach time dropped significantly. I had a family to support and many responsibilities to take care of. It was only when I started photographing, and making a new career out of it, that I regularly returned to the ocean. I don’t take it for granted that I can go to the beach most days. I’m only five minutes from the North Shore waves. When it’s good, I’ll be out everyday for weeks at a time. Sometimes I enter twice in a day. On my longest days, I am out for 5 to 6 hours in total and my skin is like a raisin.
How did you start photographing waves “from the inside out”?
It all started when my wife, Sandy, bought a photograph of a wave taken from the beach by another photographer. She wanted to put it in our bedroom. I looked at it and thought, “I can take a better picture and take it from inside the tube.” I made her return the photograph. Then I went to Amazon and bought an inexpensive water case for my point-and-shoot camera. I took that camera and case to the Waimea Bay shore break and played around for a while, trying to take pictures with the tube.
The camera was really slow to react as it had to automatically focus and think. I missed a lot of shots, but I took some good ones. I couldn’t believe how funny it was. And then I showed them to my friends, everyone was excited and encouraged me to keep going. A few months later I spoke to a professional surf photographer and picked his brains on which camera and gear I should buy to get better photographs. I then upgraded to a professional setup and that’s when it all took off.
What were some of your favorite moments in capturing these images?
My favorite moments are when the waves and conditions line up perfectly. The clarity of the water is beautiful, the tide is epic, the waves are pumping and the swell angle is right, the winds are offshore or calm, the weather is great and the sun is out. These are some of the factors that determine a “perfect day”, which all line up only once in a while. And when they do, it’s pure magic.
Sometimes the conditions aren’t perfect, to be honest, sometimes it’s terrible, but I still go out to shoot. These can be some of the most rewarding days as 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 one day may change or when conditions change. Even bad conditions can bring out the drama in one shot. I say to myself: “Just go out”.
And the most daunting?
The discouraging moments are when I get caught in a bad situation. Sometimes the waves are so powerful and I end up in the wrong place, ripping my fins off my feet and ripping the camera out of my hand, including the leash that is tied to my camera and wrist. It is a serious blow. These situations are upsetting and make me pay more attention.
I had a day where 7 to 8 big waves (bigger than a two story house) crashed over my head and threw me deep under the water. I ran out of air and wondered how many more I could physically take. Flashes of my family, my wife and my children went through my head. Only able to rise to the surface and take the next breath of air, before being punched again. And when I got over it and finally got back to shore, I canceled it. That day changed my approach to going out into crazy big waves. I watch the waves a little more carefully before diving in. It is good advice for anyone going to the ocean.
You have enough following on social media. Why do you think people are so fascinated by your wave photos?
I think people are fascinated by nature, its mystery and its beauty. I am lucky that the ocean and the beaches here in Hawaii are so beautiful. I am more than fortunate to be able to work with this quality of the subject.
I also think that people are particularly attached to water. There is a deep human connection with water. I feel it and I think others can do it too. It could come through my photography. Maybe it’s because we are 60% water? Maybe it’s the fact that you can go weeks without food, but just days without water? Maybe it’s 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 infinitely fascinating. Waves can look so different when conditions change. Sometimes they look like a glass sculpture. With a sunrise or sunset behind, the wave can appear to be on fire. Waves can be textured with the wind and silky smooth with dead winds. Having puffs of foam on it like snow. Spray that flies off the top when there is strong wind in the open sea. It is the art of nature.
And then there is the tube. Where else on earth are you in an air pocket and surrounded by water moving on three sides, and able to look at the earth from the opening? I try to frame things in that opening. A dizzying view of the beach. Palm trees at the end of a barrel. The setting sun framed in the bend of the tube. The sand is sucked from the bottom of the sea into the wave. These are things that most people will never see. I try to take them with me to see it. Show them something unique.
Do you have any other favorite subjects besides the waves?
In my book you will see photos of turtles, whales, sharks and other things in the ocean. The book is called “The Art of Waves” but there are photos without waves. When the waves are small in the summer, I go out and photograph marine life. It keeps me active and going to the beach. It is their home and I am the visitor. It’s great to be able to document what happens beyond the waves and beyond the ocean’s edge, where the water meets the reef and the beach. When I step out into the darker water, it’s another world and it’s just as exciting to swim around it. Swimming with a tiger shark is as thrilling as being inside the tube of a great wave.
Is there anything you would really like to photograph that you don’t have?
Nothing comes to mind. I tend to do exactly what I want to do. Maybe you visit other beaches and stay by the sea in other parts of the world? But who knows, there might be a day when I try something different and a new door opens, then another 15-year adventure opens up. In a million years, I never expected to become a photographer. It happened late in my life, unexpectedly. I followed a passion. Make sure it was fun. And he did it 110%. The same thing could happen to me again. I am always open to a new adventure.