Clark Little is an award-winning photographer based in Hawai’i. His 2022 book, The Art of Waves, was published as a postcard set in 2023.
In 2007, Clark realized his passion for shore break photography when his wife, Sandy, brought home a photograph of a wave to decorate their bedroom wall. Clark immediately bought a waterproof camera and used his experience as a surfer to begin recording his own perspectives of Hawaiian waves. Since then he has gained international recognition for his photography with magazine features in National Geographic and LIFE, and exhibitions throughout the US and internationally in Canada, Europe, Asia, and South America.
A while ago, Clark took time out from the waves to answer a few questions from Clarisse (aka CStar9), our intrepid reporter!
- Your audience for this interview is international, from more than 200 countries. How do you think oceans unite us?
We live on a planet mostly covered by ocean. Water is 70% of earth’s surface, and of that, more than 95% is salt water. The ocean connects us all.
To me, being in the water, especially salt water, feels the most natural of anything to do. I feel alive. I think others can feel that too and have a connection to it on a higher level.
- The Art of Waves was recently released as a postcard set. Why postcards? And what is your relationship to snail mail?
I love postcards.
When I first started photography 15 years ago, one of the first things I did was print a series of postcards. The local stores on the North Shore and Starbucks coffee shops let me leave stacks in there. I’d give them away for free. It exposed all of these people to my photography and got the word out. The postcards drove people to my website where I could then sell prints.
When Penguin Random House published my new book, all of us involved really wanted paper products to go with it. We wanted the photos to live outside the pages of a book: a jigsaw puzzle for those who love games and a challenge and who want to get to know an image intimately. Postcards for people who love to collect and put something on their walls, and to share.
Postcards are a chance to spread the images around the world. It’s an incredible format for sharing my photography. For people who don’t want to buy a larger print, postcards are a great way to have a small piece of my artwork. The printing is beautiful – full color! It can be framed and put up on the wall or on the refrigerator with a magnet, and of course mailed and shared with family and friends.
I don’t send too much mail myself, but receiving mail is great. So much fun to go to the mailbox and see what’s in there.
- In five words or less, what do you hope your photography conveys about the shore break?
Nature’s power, beauty, and magic.
- What does scoping a new photography site look like for you? Do you surf to get a feel for the place, or watch from shore, just dive in with your camera, or something else?
I don’t surf much any longer. Once I got hooked on photography, I stopped surfing. I tried to surf a few times but all I could think about was the great shots I was missing.
So…. no, I don’t surf a new location first. The main thing I do is watch: see how the waves are breaking, how the currents are running. Try to figure out the bottom before I go out.
If there is someone out surfing or doing something in the water, I’ll see how they move around and are affected by the waves. If someone is on the beach, I’ll ask questions.
One thing I have learned, and we are taught from an early age in Hawaii, is to respect nature and its power. Nature always has the last say and makes the big decisions.
And then sometimes you just have to jump in and figure it out as you go. I have been caught in some pretty dicey situations. Like shooting very large waves in hidden valleys with only my assistant around and no cell reception in case I got hurt or sucked out to sea.
Or, shooting directly in front of an active lava flow. The lava was coming onto the beach and I was just a stone throw away shooting waves. I was trying to get a shot of the red hot lava at the end of a tube. I didn’t realize what looked like a sandy beach was actually glass-like shards of fresh lava. After just 15 minutes of getting tossed in the waves I was bleeding everywhere. Just walking on the “beach” to and from the water, I had cuts all over the bottom of my feet. And I didn’t get a good shot, which was just as painful!
- Is there a page in the book (or card in the postcard set) that conjures a story for you that you’d like to share?
This postcard photo of a wave breaking on dry sand titled “Last Blast” is one of the most unique perspectives. “Last Blast” is also in my book. This type of shot really caught people’s attention when I was starting out. The most common questions were, “Is it real? What happened to the photographer?"
The average person, or even someone who surfs a lot, couldn’t be in this position getting a photo like this. It’s dangerous and requires perfect timing. It’s a large wave breaking on the dry sand. In another second, it will crash down and send me and my 10-pound camera flying up the beach. Sometimes I am swept up the beach over a hundred feet. Once in a while, I even lose my $10k camera and rig – which I’ve always been able to find and retrieve. With all of the beatings I take, I only get a few really good shots each year. The ratio is really low, but when I get a great shot, it’s worth it all.
These are called “Run and Gun” shots. You can’t swim around in the water in these type of waves – they break right on dry sand. It’s a technique where I run down the beach and throw myself on the sand at the foot of a wave right before it heaves over. I am in the pocket for a few seconds and snap as many shots as I can during the calm before the explosion. I love seeing the grains of sand, the water throwing over in a perfect arch, and some palm trees outside the tube. I never get sick of these shots.
- When did you first see yourself as a full-time professional photographer? What would you tell the person you were 20 years ago about this move?
14 years ago – the week I appeared on live TV in the US showing my photography on Good Morning America: that was the transition point. The show was seen by something like 4–5 million people. Things just blew up after that. The week started with a UK newspaper featuring a handful of my shots and ended with this television appearance. My website almost crashed with the volume of sales and emails. It was the first time I thought I could be a professional photographer and make a living from it.
And the momentum kept going, so a few months later I quit my job as a supervisor at a botanical garden in Hawaii. It was a job I held for 17 years and thought I’d be doing it until I retired. I had all of the benefits and steady income. It was a safe path with kids, wife, and a mortgage. Once I jumped into photography full time, things went to the next level.
If I was to go back 20 years ago, I would tell myself, quitting my job was the best decision of my life. I’d also remind myself, don’t hesitate to do something if it feels right. If you have a passion for something and an opportunity presents itself, don’t talk yourself out of it. Go for it… full throttle!
To learn more about Clark and his work, check out his website, where you’ll find out more about his photography but also links to interviews he’s done over the years. And we really recommend watching this Nikon short documentary about Clark, to see him in action in the ocean!
And here comes the traditional giveaway! Clarisse is happy to award four postcrossers with a postcard from this lovely set. For your chance to receive one, comment below to let us know how you feel about the sea: do you live or take holidays by the sea? When was the first time you saw the ocean? And did you ever get knocked over by a wave breaking near the shore?