For most water-goers, the thought of getting caught in a furious wave as it’s crashing onto the beach and being pummeled by thousands of pounds of water is terrifying. For photographer Clark Little, it’s exhilarating. “Anytime I see a good shorebreak, I just have to get out there in the middle of it,” Little writes in the introduction of his aptly titled book Shorebreak. “I love tapping into that energy and getting tossed around. But the best part is the view: seeing a big, thick, dangerous wave from the inside.”
Though he’s been playing in the ocean for more than 40 years, Little’s fascination with this insider experience began two decades ago, when he caught a monstrous wave breaking on the shores of Waimea Bay on O‘ahu’s North Shore with his surfboard. This zone is normally reserved for bodyboarders who ride small foam boards, which are better for quick rides and can more easily take the pounding that comes with catching dangerous waves so close to shore. But despite the warnings of Waimea lifeguards, Little paddled into a massive wave just a few feet from the shore, stood for a short ride, and then turned at the wave’s bottom, straight into the pummeling of a lifetime. “But it felt so good just to get through the drop and end up in a huge pit,” he writes, detailing what could have been a harrowing experience. “I didn’t care that I had no hope of making it out.” Since then, in spite of countless broken boards and bruised body parts, Little has found his home within the shorebreak.
It wasn’t until 2007 that Little turned his lens inward on the barrels that had thus captivated him. He had been working as a landscaper for 17 years when his wife brought home a photo she had bought of a wave breaking on the outer reef at Waimea Bay, the same surf spot he had frequented his entire life. The image was taken from the sand with a telephoto lens. Unsatisfied with his wife’s purchase, Little instructed her to return it, promptly bought his own camera, and began shooting waves from the perspective of a seasoned surfer—in the water, from inside the barrel. Since then, Little has pioneered the technique of diving into the impact zone in order to capture waves at their most revealing moments. His inclination to photograph the ocean has paid off with much more than just a pretty picture to mount on his bedroom wall. His efforts, which have resulted in a full-time career, have also granted him the opportunity to feature work at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., where his image, “Mohawk,” is on display as part of Nature’s Best Photography exhibition. The 20-year retrospective, which is on display through August 2016, has been culled from more than 500,000 images submitted by photographers from around the globe.
Little’s award-winning photography is also showcased in Shorebreak, his second coffee table book, and his technique is depicted in an upcoming documentary, which will be released this summer, of the same name. His photographs have surprising depth and variance, considering that they all feature the same subject: the ocean in its most mesmerizing, energetic moments. Backlit, smoothly arching waves on O‘ahu’s North Shore; long, cobalt barrels captured in Malibu, California; the indigo curl of Teahupo’o, a famous surf break in Tahiti—all captured by Little at the crest of their harmonious interplays between beauty and power.
To purchase Shorebreak or other prints by Little, visit The Clark Little Gallery, located in the Hale‘iwa Store Lots, 66-111 Kamehameha Hwy. For more information, visit clarklittle.com.