With the winter storm season approaching and big north swells on the way, it’s time for Clark Little to go to work — in what might be the world’s most unusual job for an artist.
Little, a former botanical gardens supervisor and big-wave surfer from Hawaii, has gained fame as an artist photographing monstrous waves at Oahu’s Waimea Bay — from the inside, looking out.
His specialty is Waimea’s violent shore-pound, but the “Shorebreak Art of Clark Little” reflects the surreal beauty of the waves, not their violent nature. No two waves are alike; each reveals different shapes, colors and patterns, and Little, by placing himself within them — as tumultuous as that can be — is able to capture the essence of the waves’ beauty.
“I’ve always enjoyed getting thrashed around,” he says of his topsy-turvy livelihood.
Little’s unique subject matter and special talent are making him famous. Last year his work was displayed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He was named winner in the “Oceans” category of the prestigious Winland Smith Rice International Awards.
He has opened two galleries, one in Haleiwa near his home on Oahu, and more recently in Laguna Beach, Calif. He has appeared on major network morning shows and his art has graced the pages of numerous nature publications.
More recently, in these hard times, his colorful and inspirational work has been requested for display in churches for Sunday sermons, according to his publicist. Fortune 500 companies have signed licensing agreements with Little and so has legendary big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton, who is using a Little image for packaging his new line of coffee.
“It’s all still a little hard to believe,” said Little, who is known by friends as the “accidental artist” because of the manner by which he became a photographer.
His career began when his wife, Sandy, brought home a store-bought photo of a wave four years ago.
“I said, ‘What are you doing buying photos of waves? I’m a surfer. Stop spending money and I’ll go out and shoot my own,” Little recalled.
As a surfer at fabled Waimea Bay, Little was known for riding giant offshore waves through a deep-water channel, where they flattened out, until they reformed close to the beach. He’d then tuck beneath their heaving lips as they crashed thunderously close to and sometimes even onto the sand.
This shorebreak was where Little produced, with a cheap waterproof camera, a photo for the wall of his home. He discovered he had a knack for photography and has since honed his craft with top-line equipment. That shorebreak is now his primary studio.
“Surfing was pushed aside,” he said. “Once in a blue moon I still go out but I can spend four hours shooting and not even thinking about surfing. It’s still just thinking about getting that perfect wave, but as a photographer.”
Little lives for the north swells that winter storms deliver. He waits for the shorebreak waves to measure 8-15 feet. He either treads water in this zone, wearing swim fins, or he runs along the waterline and tucks beneath the hurtling lips of water, shooting rapid-fire sequences with a trigger-activated hand-held camera.
His images portray the shorebreak’s powerful dynamics — the sucking up of sand and water; a thorough churning that stirs up food for turtles and other critters of the surf zone — but in an artful depiction.
He acknowledges that his is a dangerous profession; many times he has been sucked upward and hurtled onto the beach. But he says he would not trade this career for any other.
“I’m still rambunctious, ambitious and having a blast,” he explained. “I have two kids and a beautiful wife. I’m lucky enough to do this and I’m going to make the most of it and keep enjoying life.”
– Images are courtesy of Clark Little and protected by copyright laws