INTERVIEW: John Bilderback

John, pre-shoot on Oahu’s North Shore.


I was first introduced to the world of surf photography, years ago, when I worked for Eastman Kodak. I was living in Southern California and was hired by Kodak to be the liaison for photographers in my region. After having moderate success, I convinced Kodak to send me to Oahu for the Pipeline Masters surfing event. Not only did this event attract surfers from around the globe, it also attracted surfing photographers from around the globe. Photographers came from France, Australia, Japan, England, Indonesia, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa and all over the United States mainland. Digital had yet to arrive and film was the name of the game.

Looking back on those first few years I didn’t realize just how good we had it. There was a small town atmosphere to the North Shore and to the gaggle of photographers that lived there during the winter months. I wasn’t a part of this small community, just an interloper that came once a year with the new wares from Kodak. Leaving California, and the corporate bubble, and landing on the North Shore was like leaving this world and arriving in an alien land. Oahu is the most remote landmass on Earth and the surfing culture personified a modern, nomadic tribe filled with energy from competition, territorial attitude, cultural clashes, history and tension derived from those attempting to look deeper into the limits of their skill and courage.

After a successful first trip I was to make many more, and over the years I got to know a few of the photographers fairly well, some of whom I’m still friends with today.

One of those photographers was a lanky New Jersey born photographer named John Bilderback.

A few months ago I had the good fortune of having a shoot on Oahu, and my wife and I decided to stay a few extra days to relax and check in with some old friends. I’d mentioned to John a few months earlier about potentially being on the island and thought it might be a good time to fire up an interview or photo-shoot. Oddly enough he agreed. He also agreed to let me follow him on an afternoon shoot so that I could make a few pictures to go along with this interview.
So much has changed since we first met, but as you will read, John is still making pictures, and films, and has adapted to new technology, new subject matter and new clients.

Before we go any further there is something you should know. In all my years of being around photography I don’t think I’ve encountered a group of photographers more misunderstood than surfing photographers. Their industry, rife with cliche, isn’t viewed in the same way of mainstream sports and we all have bad surfing movies and characters in our mind. Don’t let this nonsense fool you. There are a handful of people in the entire world who can do this work at this level. Standing on the beach is one thing, swimming and shooting in monster waves is a risk each and every time. It’s humbling as a photographer to look at work and realize there is no way you could match it. I feel this way when I see John’s work. Plus, he’s just a cool, humble guy and that is a great combo. This interview and selection of images is just a TINY window into his world.

Trying to predict the oncoming storm.

-A guy from New Jersey shooting surfing? How did that happen?

I grew up in a house on the beach, in a little fishing town called Barnegat Light. We lived within earshot of the lighthouse’s foghorn, and right on the inlet to Barnegat Bay. Everyone was either a fisherman or a tourist. I came from a family of fisherman, but my friends and I preferred to hang out with the tourist girls. I took up surfing around 1972 and I couldn’t even carry my own surfboard. When I was seventeen, my father died, and the only way I could react was to try to fill my life with as much adventure and surfing as I could possibly fit in. I went from an all boys prep school in New Jersey, to the University of California at San Diego, where I could surf Black’s Beach every day and surf and camp in Baja on the weekends. My good friend Rob Gilley, another surfer whom I met at prep school, also went to UCSD and we began taking surfing pictures together. We shared the costs of the equipment and learned from each other, and from our numerous mistakes. Before too long we began getting photos published. Eventually we both went on to become senior photographers for SURFER Magazine.

In front of the monster, shark diving.

-When did you land on the North Shore?

In 1988 while working for the legendary photographer/photo editor Larry ‘Flame’ Moore at SURFING Magazine, I was offered a one way ticket to Hawaii and a raise. It took some consideration, maybe thirty seconds, and I was off to face the biggest surf in the world. I took everything I had and put it in a box.

-You had an assisting career as well correct?

During my college years I worked for most of San Diego’s best commercial photographers. Dean Collins, Jim Coit, Aaron Chang, and many others. It was an awesome education that really added to what they taught me in school and showed what a real photographer’s job was like. Dean is a genius, but from him I learned that technique was not the only thing you needed. Jim is also a genius, he has a way with people, any people, in any situation. He taught me about the things you need to be able to do that had nothing to do with cameras. Aaron took me under his wing when it was time to swim in the big surf, he taught me how to manage hairy situations.

-For me, photography was about the need to record. Why do you think photography became your life, not just a hobby?

The beautiful scenes that you are a part of when you are in the water motivated me most. I’d swim with the waves and the dolphins and surfers at dawn at Black’s Beach before heading off to sell cameras at Point Loma Camera and I’d have this buoyed, indestructible feeling. I could handle any little problem, because I”d already filled my tank with beauty, and awe and stoke. It seemed that I’d found a little secret energy source and I could share it somewhat if I brought back good enough images. It was a perfect blend of my loves, surfing and shooting.

Backlit kiteboarding.

-There is a big difference between enjoying the water and making it your life and career. What is it about this culture, sport, etc, that brought you to it? Can you see yourself ever doing something else?

I’ve always felt as surfers we’re blessed by trying to be in tune with the ocean and nature. You are, by necessity adapting to the conditions around you, and I’ve come to believe that a quest, especially one that takes you out of your comfort zone is a centering experience. When a ten foot set comes out of the horizon, there’s no one to help you; you face it entirely by yourself. Your attitude, your resolve, your fear, are all tightly wound up in who you are. And if you aren’t humble, alert, and thinking ahead, you get beaten. Lessons come from everywhere. When its really big and you’re going to get licked, you need to look inside for the confidence that is essential to staying calm and getting past the next few minutes safely. And when you succeed where your fear said you wouldn’t, nothing is better. After a few years of scaring the crap out of myself, I was hooked.

-I noticed early on there were a lot of folks shooting from the beach, but not nearly as many in the water. And on big days, even less in the water. It seems in the age of the 600mm and autofocus a lot of folks could shoot from the beach. What are your thoughts on this? And how did autofocus change your industry? How about digital?

We’ve seen technology come in waves. In the beginning of my career we were all shooting Kodachrome 64, manually focusing slow Century lenses, and we were lucky to get anything tack sharp. My photo editor used to advocate sitting on the side of the road practicing focusing on cars as they sped by. It wasn’t easy. Then we got auto focus lenses and nearly anyone who bought gear could stand behind a tripod and produce sharp images their first day. Digital photography has further relaxed the qualifications needed for shooting surfing. We used to spend hundreds of dollars a week on film and processing, or have a relationship with a magazine that paid that bill for us. As a result the magazines invested in us, and our future. Now anyone with a CF card, and a thumb is a surf photographer, and the mags get images for free. And that’s fine, there are some incredible shots being taken. But the dream of being able to survive making surf images is gone. The change has been to photography as a whole, not just in our industry. We photographers used to be like wizards. We mixed potions and worked under dark cloaks and in mysterious darkened rooms. Now cameras are literally everywhere. There are 1.3 cameras per person in the United States. There went the wizardry – and now we’re paid accordingly.

A lighting setup unlike any other…….

-When did you get comfortable shooting in big surf? What is your mindset when you go out on big days? Carrying a housing, etc.

I’m never ‘comfortable’ I don’t think. I’m always in a heightened state of awareness. Where’s the good spot? Where’s the wrong spot? When is that next massive closeout coming? Really, its problem solving, like most of photography. It varies from spot to spot and day to day, but you need to have a strategy that will keep you safe, while still allowing you to bring home something that’s worth maybe risking your life for in the first place. The shooting itself is a rush, yet the feeling of successfully getting back to the beach on a big day, potentially holding a box full of gems is so powerful, that it is also a reward unto itself. Its far more motivation than the small money involved. I think I never feel more alive than when I finish a day shooting in big surf.

-Any close calls over the years?

Yes, sure, tons. I’ve been run over by surfers, and landed on. I’ve literally been reduced to tears at Sunset Beach. “Mommy, I don’t want to be a surf photographer anymore!” Once, I barely squeaked over the back of a closeout wave at Waimea Bay and pretty much saw my life flashing before my eyes. There were a few seconds where I swore if I got to the beach I”d never do this shit again. I’ve seen broken backs, broken pelvises, broken femurs. I’ve seen huge sharks. I’ve seen boats go over the falls and sink, and I’ve watched bravery beyond anything I’ve ever seen on land. My inspiration I draw from the athletes; and it always keeps me at the waters edge wanting to swim out.

-Can you feel when you are about to get something great? When the ingredients are there for something beyond the normal? What does that feel like? (This goes back to something I have said about feeling a picture before you actually see it.)

I”m not sure I can. I can feel when the conditions are coming together, but I have so little control over anything, and the moment often goes by so fast, its impossible to be one hundred percent confident that I got it.
However, when someone takes off on a giant wave, and time slows down, and you are fighting your heart rate, you feel the potential energy right through you. Back in the film days when we’d leave the beach with just thirty six precious frames to shoot, we’d agonize over every shot we’d fire, and we’d have to be very picky. Now we blast through four hundred or more shots, covering everything that moves, and its different. We almost expect to bring home flawless images.

-When we first met you were, I think, only shooting surfing. Now you branched out into kite boarding. Was this serendipity or planned?

Living on the North Shore for over twenty years, I’ve seen the number of surfers in the water go off the charts. Even our ‘fringe’ spots are packed with surfers now. Getting stink-eye while surfing at the spot in front of your house gets old after a while. So one summer Darrick Doerner, a proper big wave legend, told me I should learn to windsurf. ‘If it’s good enough for Darrick and good enough for Laird Hamilton, it’s good enough for me’, I thought. And blam, my eyes were opened! I rode bigger waves faster, and further, without any of the crowds, or small-mindedness of the surf scene. I’ve had some of the best experiences of my since that moment, and I promised myself I’d always be open minded to other ideas. So when Dan Moore and a few of the early pioneers put big kites in the sky and got dragged downwind, it looked funny, but I couldn’t write it off. Now kitesurfers are matching, and in some ways even surpassing, what a surfer can do on a wave. And with the situation we’re in globally, wind power is something we should all be paying attention to. It has to be part of the solution.

Modern kiteboarding, a long way from where it began.

-How does your job changed from shooting surfing to shooting kite boarding?

Largely it hasn’t. I use basically the same equipment and skill set. I work closely with the athletes, and swim cameras into waves. The main challenge is that now I have to keep my port clear in twenty knots of wind.

-I see you not only incorporated motion, or video, into your work, but you also launched a real feature film project. Tell us about that.

Fundamentally, I find motion and sound to be so much fun to work with. In a photo you have to have anything two things you want to talk about in relative proximity. In a film, you can cut from one to another, and they can be separate in time as well as in space. Artistically the possibilities are incredible. I’m still in diapers in that field, but I’ve just finished my second film called Big Windy, which chronicles some of the frontiers of kitesurfing. Wind and alternative energies have to be part of saving the planet, and as people who get flung around by it we’re very familiar with its power. Over eighteen months of filming in Polynesia, Micronesia and Indonesia, we met a family on an atoll with a pet shark, we taught kids who’d never seen white people to fly, and enjoyed ourselves like we were surfers in the 1940’s, when everyone was still nice to each other, the frontiers were still expanding, and the sport was brand new.

-I would assume being a Canon guy you are using the 5D to make your films?

5D’s and 7D’s. Having a huge sensor, all my great lenses available, and the small form factor of these cameras, I can live with or work around all of their drawbacks. (Can I please get some lower ISO speeds though please?) We’ve just worked out a loupe-viewfinder solution for the Essex housings and I’m super excited about starting the next project with them.

Keeping the gear dry as rain invades our shoot.

-Is filmmaking going to be a significant part of your future?

(Isn’t it going to be part of everyone’s? Now some phones shoot and edit HD video, and can post it right away to the internet. Everyone is going to be an imager to some degree.)
I’ll be compelled to express myself always. What form it takes is fluid. Tomorrow, my wife Alexis and I are off to shoot a Kite Camp for twelve year old kids in Cape Hatteras, then a pro kite competition in the Gorge, and then its a month of filming wave riding in Indonesia for Oxbow. I guess that is a significant part of my future!

-There is much talk of the print world going away and the future being almost entirely online content. Do you agree? How do you feel about this? And how does being based in Hawaii have any effect on your feeling?

As a resident of an isolated island, the internet is the greatest thing in the world. It removes the thousands of miles of ocean, and makes things possible that required living in metropolitan hub before today. We can live detached, and still be as connected as we need to be. That said, I think there will always be a separate place for beautiful printed photography and art. There’s nothing like a great print on good stock, in good light. Many things though, are better delivered on the internet. News, especially today, changes far too rapidly for print media to keep up. And a magazine is no way to show video. And I believe trees don’t need to be cut down so I can check the stock market. But a glossy high quality image is something made to savor, not be dosed with, as if it were information. And there’s a permanence and robustness that also have value, so I don’t think the only things we’ll appreciate will be on a monitor. It defines what we believe is art, by the place we give it to occupy. And the internet is just another place.

-Where do you get your inspiration? What photographers do you look up to? Admire?

For my work, I get my inspiration mostly from the athletes. The things they do, their ability, and the endless variety of conditions you have to handle. A tennis player knows what the court will look like when he or she wakes up in the morning. A surfer has to be ready to face anything. Every day at the office is different. As for photographers, I look up to people outside my field, doing things I find difficult. Lori Adamski-Peek is a great example. She was a sports shooter turned people shooter and her work is amazing. I really admire her style.

-What is your dream shoot you haven’t yet been able to do? If you can share it?¶..

I’ve been working with a helicopter pilot friend for about three years getting ready for the next truly giant day of days. I was in a rented helicopter on January 28th 1998, the biggest day I’ve ever seen, and tow surfing was in its infancy. I could only afford to pay for about two hours in the air, and when the swell is that big, the sets only come every half an hour or so, so I only got to shoot a few sets. The jet-skis were under-powered back then and only a few people really had the skills to challenge it. It was an awesome sight that I couldn’t make the most of. Now there are super-charged skis, highly trained and motivated professional hell-men, and I have a friend who is gonna put me above the action till my arms give out. I want another day like that.

-How many times have you been told by a tourist that you have “The best job in the world?”

It does happen.

To see more of John’s work including his film “Big Windy” have a look at his site.

9 responses to “INTERVIEW: John Bilderback”

  1. Tom Kunhardt says:

    Love this piece Dan!

  2. DJ says:

    Great interview !
    I love where he talks about the wizardry and potions.
    Long live the silver – gel fiber print and secret potions to develop my film in.

  3. AmyK says:

    Great interview Danno!

  4. valerie says:

    I have to agree with you… surf photographers are misunderstood and often not given the credit they deserve for such amazing photography – especially in the water. my husband is a surf photographer… check his site and enjoy the ride!

    • Smogranch says:

      Hey Valerie,

      Yes, those guys are pretty special. Autofocus changed the beach scene and suddenly there were A LOT of folks hammering with 600’s. Then came digital and compounded the situation. I think it’ a lot harder today to make it. I’ve seen kids on the beach with their Canon and 600, motoring every single ride and then just burning discs and giving them away. But, the real people doing this…are as good as anyone out there.

  5. Jude says:

    Great interview!

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