Story by Catherine Lo | Photography by Clark Little
In September 2008, Clark Little quit his job at Wahiawa Botanical Garden, where for sixteen years he had managed twenty-seven quiet acres of rare and endangered plants. His new occupation is considerably more extreme. It takes place inside the evanescent pit that forms when a wave folds over itself as it lands on shore. Attired in fins and a wetsuit or a long-sleeved rash guard and board shorts, Clark documents the spectacular behavior of the shore break.
No one has a more intimate relationship with the subject. While he was coming of age on Oahu’s North Shore, Clark gained notoriety by surfing the perilous, neck-snapping shore break at Waimea Bay, a feat that few surfers are crazy enough to attempt. He now applies his surfing experience to his photography, anticipating the shape the wave will take as it approaches, positioning himself in the right place to get the shot he wants, and relying on instinct to get out of the impact zone.
“I was going to the beach after work, taking pictures, wanting to shoot every second I had,” he recalls. But working a “nine-to-five grind” left him little quality time with his wife and two young children, let alone daylight hours to spend in the ocean. With encouragement from friends and family, Clark opted to pursue his new passion full time. He invested $4,000 in a Nikon D200 (replacing the cheap digital camera he’d been using), a professional water housing that safeguards the camera, and a fisheye lens.
Starting with basic tips from fellow water photographers—and a lot of trial and error—Clark spent (and still spends) two to six hours in the water each day, deepened his knowledge of how different conditions alter the view. Sunrise and sunset present fabulous colors; a cloudless sky makes for a clean backdrop; and glassy, clear water offers that silky texture that defines many of his most popular images.
He also recalibrated his lifestyle, restoring balance among family, work and play. Now, on Saturdays, he can watch his kids play soccer and take pictures of them kicking goals. He visits friends, and jogs around the neighborhood, stopping at a local lunch wagon for a spicy ‘ahi-and-rice plate.
“I believe if you never try, you’ll never know,” he says. “When I made the decision to put 110 percent into my passion, the doors totally opened.”
A well-traveled ocean swell can react wildly when it has nowhere left to go.
His career gamble has paid off. In October, the Smithsonian selected his work for an exhibit that will be hosted at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., from April 16 through September 25: “Nature’s Best 2010 Photography Awards: Windland Smith Rice International Awards.” Clark received the Oceans award for his images of waves, and the distinction of Highly Honored Photographer for Endangered Species for his photos of Hawaiian green sea turtles.
It takes fewer than fifteen minutes (even counting his requisite stop at Starbucks) for Clark to get from his home in the hilltop community of Pupukea to his work, usually at one of Oahu’s North Shore beaches. The beaches are open to everyone, but when the surf is up, access for all but the most intrepid of watermen ends where the sea meets the sand.
It’s a hostile rendezvous. A well-traveled ocean swell can react wildly when it has nowhere left to go. Sometimes the displaced volume rushes up the beach, sometimes it heaves onto the sand, and sometimes it shoots straight up in the air, approaching twenty feet in height, as it collides with the backwash of the previous wave.
“It’s a gnarly, dangerous place where most people don’t want to be,” says Clark. “To get that shot, you have to love being thrown around, stretched out, and bounced in the sand—you have to love it. Everyone has that zone where they feel good and at peace. Some people like jumping out of a plane. I like to get tossed in the shore break.”
Clark believes his career took off after he sent his favorite twenty-five photos to a British photo agency in February 2009. Transmitted through cyberspace and onto the Web browsers of gawkers all over the world, his images almost instantly went viral. They piqued the curiosity of producers at Good Morning America, prompting an invitation to appear on the morning show in New York City.
In the two days following that appearance, his website received 1.6 million hits. Stories about Clark showed up in print, on television, and online from Japan to Dubai, Germany to Brazil. His photos became cover shots for outdoor magazines such as National Geographic Extreme, industry publications like Nikon World, local media like Hana Hou! and surf magazines galore. When the gossipy National Examiner made him its media darling, it cemented his place in mainstream pop culture. Most recently, he was interviewed along with wife Sandy, their son Dane, eleven, and daughter Ally, seven, on Inside Edition. Afterward, they all went to Disneyland.
Sandy recently joined her husband to document what his job entails. “She was taking the kids to school, and I called her to come down,” Clark remembers, thinking back to the first big swell of 2010 and how the water was standing up, crashing down, and sweeping across the sand. He handed her one of his two cameras and went about his business of diving into the shore break. “She was shooting these shots on a bank of sand and had to run all the way back up the beach between each wave. Waves were bombing over that mound, but she managed to keep the camera dry!”
Clark bobbed at the ocean’s edge hoisting a camera housing in his right hand while staring down a liquid Godzilla.
What Sandy went home with was a catalog of jaw-dropping shots of Clark bobbing up and down at the ocean’s edge, hoisting a blue camera housing in his right hand while staring down a liquid Godzilla that was about to annihilate him. “Some people thought it fake, Photoshopped,” Clark says. It wasn’t.
The truth is, Clark often finds himself standing, committed, in ankle-deep water, watching the wave suck out before the mass of water unleashes on top of him. On some occasions, the wave hiccups unexpectedly and throws off his timing. “There are times it rings my bell so hard, and there are moments when I’m afraid for my life.” He recalls instances during which he’s had his fins blown off and the leash that straps his camera to his arm ripped in half. “When you lose your fins, it’s like losing your lifeline. . . . You can only stay calm so long when you’re running out of breath. You just go on instinct and do what you’ve got to do to survive.”
In his home office, Clark shuffles through images on a Mac cinema display monitor, shaking his head over the fact that he picked up his first professional camera just a few years ago. That first year, he says, he labeled his photos by numbers instead of names. Today, the irrepressible waterman has terabytes of memory filled with digital images. Besides wall-size prints on canvas, Clark has also published an eye-pleasing coffee-table book, calendars, postcards and greeting cards. His staff has increased to seven, with two employees who manage a newly opened gallery in Laguna Beach, California, with high traffic and visibility right on Pacific Coast Highway.
The charismatic photographer continues to expand his horizons. He’s considering opening a second gallery near his home in Haleiwa, and is eager to take some “classic Maui shots” during this winter’s big swells. At the Maui Photo Festival in 2009 and 2010, Clark had the chance to explore the island’s shorelines, and finds the water clarity exceptional.
“When I was a kid, my family went to Maui often to visit friends, and I used to come over to surf. But it had been a while. Luckily, my web designer owns a home on Maui. He was with me in my two trips to the Photo Festival. We’d show up at the beach at the crack of dawn. Each day I was in the water for three or four hours. With the West Maui Mountains and Haleakala changing up the wind, beaches facing new swell directions, and sand that looks and feels so different, I felt like a kid in the toy store. Everything looked so new, I couldn’t stop shooting. I can’t wait to come back.”
Clark Little can hardly contain his enthusiasm for the endless possibilities the Islands’ myriad shore breaks present—“different sandbars, different beaches. I’m charged every time I go out. I’m going to be the grand pooh-bah out there [someday]—sixty-five years old with a camera!
“Nothing stops me from being in the ocean,” he adds. “Besides with my family, there’s no place I’d rather be.”