Chris Burkard likes to go off the beaten path with his photography.
His new photography book about Alberta, Canada, is a beautiful portfolio of his unique style –dramatic, inspiring landscape, with a human or two dwarfed in the foreground. His photographs simultaneously expose the beauty of the places he explores and encourage viewers immerse themselves in the great outdoors and allow nature to overpower the senses. To Burkard, immersing himself in Alberta involved nights spent under the stars, kayaking, polar plunges and a perfectly composed frame of each moment.
A senior staff photographer at Surfer magazine, Burkard has traveled the world documenting outdoor sports and adventure. Last year, Smithsonian magazine interviewed him about his trip with cold-water-surfers in Norway. I checked in with him again this year to ask about his recent trip to Alberta.
Were you mostly in the backcountry in Alberta?
We went through national parks like Jasper and Bamff. It was insane – such a cool project. We drove for two weeks through the region and explored as much as we could.
You and who else?
Just me and a friend. So much of my work is about going to explore a different perspective of a region, and that’s what the two of us were able to do. I try to go places where I can engage and be a part of my surroundings. So that’s what we did, and we were able to spend a lot of time exploring.
Take me through your process from arriving in a location to taking the shots that you are happy with.
That process comes down to what I’m doing beforehand. Sometimes, we’re exploring Google Earth, looking at trail maps, looking at photographs, just trying to examine everything we can, and looking into any place that might be of interest. In Alberta, we planned ahead of time.
We sat down and said, “we want to go to this canyon, this hot springs, see these waterfalls, this mountain range, hike this trail…” so when I get there, I have a better idea of what I want to shoot. But another big part of my process is also leaving myself open to experiences that just happen – the fun, exciting stuff that occurs at the last minute. It’s a mixture between being prepared and being available to experience things.
What was your favorite moment of the trip?
One day, we kayaked to Spirit Island, which is a really amazing island on Maligne Lake that you can take a boat tour to. But the tour only lasts 40 minutes, and you only get to spend about ten minutes on the island, so we really wanted to experience more of this thing. So we ended up kayaking out there and spending the night on the island. We stayed up all night and shot photos. That was what comprised some of our best imagery, that experience of being out there, and so in the moment. Being able to see those stars over Spirit Island was the most epic part of our trip, because it’s something that most people have never seen before. It’s a really unique perspective. Surreal, to say the least.
My favorite photo of this trip is the one of your friend, from behind, jumping into water. Describe what was going on in that moment.
We went to Lake Maligne, and there were hundreds of tourists there, mostly just on buses and snapping photos. But it was the epitome of a place that needs to be experienced more fully. You need to swim in the glacial lakes, and kayak and camp, if you can. So as everyone around us was doing their thing, we hiked down the trail and found a spot where we could safely jump in, and we had a little polar plunge! That was probably another of the best experiences of the trip. And necessary, because we hadn’t showered in a couple of days.
You recently finished a project where you followed cold-weather surfers in Norway. What do you find interesting about these Northern landscapes?
The cold has really started to draw me. I think I started out travelling to the tropics and experiencing that a lot, and I wasn’t quite satisfied. I was travelling to these amazing places, but I found them too routine. I wanted to experience something new and different, to go to a place that hadn’t been well-visited.
Yes, you have said before that you enjoy shooting obscure locations. How do you choose where to go next?
I spend a lot of time scouring maps and looking at Google Earth. Or looking at photos online. And like anyone else, I see places that I’m drawn to – except that I’m usually trying to plan my trip to go! I have a list of places that I want to visit and to experience, and I try to get away from the cookie cutter experience. I don’t want to go there to be on a tour bus, I want to go there to kayak or swim or surf or do something along those lines.
What’s next for you?
I’m in British Columbia right now, and then I’m going back to Iceland, for my 16th time, this summer. Then I’m going back to the Faroe Islands [located between Iceland and Scotland], then to Utah. I try to keep myself open as best I can, though. I feel like the best opportunities come when I keep myself open.