Local photographer Clark Little jumped in the ocean with a disposable camera 15 years ago
The award-winning, North Shore-based photographer Clark Little first jumped into the ocean with a disposable camera 15 years ago. Since then, images shot from “Clark’s view,” a unique perspective of seeing waves from the inside, have impressed audiences all over the world.
His third book “The Art of Waves” is out now. Little spoke with The Conversation about beginning his career by chance and quitting his day job — the best decision he ever made.
LILLIAN TSANG, HOST: It's really fun to read this quote from you saying, "It's been 15 years since I picked up a camera and took it into the ocean to get a picture of a wave for my bedroom wall — a special request from my wife."
CLARK LITTLE: Yeah, and it's so weird what triggers someone's future, someone's job, something that turns into your full-time passion. Because I always was in the ocean — I surfed the shorebreak, I surfed, swam, body surfed shorebreaks since I was a little kid. So that part, I already knew I loved. But I was at a botanical garden for 17 years, kind of in the middle of my life and career when my wife brought that image home. And I told her, "Hey, what are you buying an image of a wave, don't go buy an image of a wave, I think I have the skills to go out there and do it." And that literally was the start of me getting a disposable camera and then upgrading and upgrading, and then starting to share my work and it struck a nerve. I think a lot of people were shooting a lot of surfers, not many people were getting into big shorebreak waves and going inside and capturing the raw beauty. It was a different look. It did strike a nerve and I was grateful it happened so fast. Because of feedback, I was traveling the world. I did Good Morning America and all the morning shows. Gosh, it's been 15 years. That's a long time. But it's actually a quick time too and there was no real recipe — it kind of evolved. I didn't have a plan. We just, we winged it because it was happening so fast and it just turned into a full-time career that I deeply love. And it gives me the freedom to spend time with my family and I couldn't ask for anything more right now.
TSANG: You're saying you don't have a recipe. But when I look at your pictures, what comes to mind really is the movement, your speed. You capture this wonderful POV, this perspective, with an eye for color, for immediacy. This was your backyard, your playground, you were in the water. And these are the things that you get to see.
LITTLE: For me, I've had to learn the camera. I had the skill to be in the ocean, I kind of know where the spots are, where the water's clean and there's a beautiful backdrop, and the sun is right inside the tube. And I had that kind of advanced section of photography, but I had to learn the camera. I did ask a few professional photographers, "Hey, you know what, what are the basic settings? What do I need to do to go and get in a tube and take the shot?" Because I'm not a guy that goes through the books and reads, and I don't even go on YouTube. Just trial and error and just being in the perfect spot to capture that beauty. I'm more of an artist. I like to get creative. I learn as I go. Not to say reading books is bad. I think that's awesome also, but just the way I did it was kind of winging it, sharing my work, getting it exposed, making decisions on where and how and what. I didn't go to school for photography. But on a side note, my dad was a photography teacher for 30 years. So is it in the blood? Yes. He was at Punahou for eight years and then he went to Leeward Community College and taught there for 22 years. So I was in the darkroom. I learned a little bit of stuff but, I mean, it was more a little kid just visiting dad, but maybe I did pick up on some stuff. And maybe I got that artistic eye from my father, which is an interesting story in itself.
TSANG: They do say that children pick up language the quickest and it sounds like for you, photography was a language that you were exposed to through your father. That's just wonderful. I never realized or heard your dad taught photography.
LITTLE: So I was actually born in Napa, California, and my dad got a job at Punahou teaching. He started the photography program at Punahou when I was 1 or 2 years old, and so we packed up our bags, we moved on to Punahou campus. And that's where my brother and I had, at a young age, went to school. So my parents took us to the beach at an early age, and we were in town a lot back then. And we'd go to Walls in Waikīkī and boogie board. And then we finally ended up moving to the North Shore when I was maybe about eight or so. And then we ended up going to Haleʻiwa, learned how to surf. And I've always loved Hawaiʻi, I've always loved the ocean. It is my second home, there's no question being out in the ocean, I feel so comfortable. And I wouldn't go out in those big waves if I didn't enjoy it. I really do like getting tossed around. And then now just bringing a camera with me, and capturing that shot and sharing those crazy moments. And so it's been a fun journey for me. Like I said, I would not change my career or life at all, just because I'm so blessed and fortunate to be here doing what I love. Trying to put smiles on people's faces these days is not the easiest thing to do. And I'm so stoked that people are — I don't know, I mean, I love the feedback. I love when people are excited and appreciate what they see in my work, and it makes me feel good. And so it keeps me energized and excited to go back out there and get a different wave or a different sunset or rainbow. I mean, it never ends, the journey never ends for me. I'm always out there trying to get something new, artsy and fresh. And I don't think that's going to stop. I think that passion will be there until the day I die. And right now the best thing I have to share is this new book because it has everything. And I'm really excited and very actually proud to be able to share my work worldwide with everybody.
TSANG: And this new book, it's a hardcover with 240 pages, 150 images. But for people who want to learn more about you, or want to really kind of get into the backstory of your images, you do have a bit in your book as well to talk about your practice, your technique. With the preview of the book, there's this beautiful shot of a turtle. You've just captured this moment of this turtle. Give me the backstory on this shot. How did you get it?
LITTLE: So the turtle's at — well they call it Turtle Beach — Laniakea, just along that coast, there's a lot of turtles that they go swimming back and forth along the shallow shore. So what I was doing is as they're coming in to feed off the seaweed, and I stay a little bit back where the waves are breaking. And what happens when the sets come, the turtles turn around and they can feel the water coming and they'll come out towards me as the wave is breaking over, it's a little hard to explain. But when they're coming out towards the deeper ocean, I capture the shot of the turtles kind of duck diving or swimming through the back of the wave. And what that kind of does, it just makes it looks like they're almost flying in the water. So yeah, I did that. I got a couple of awards from the Smithsonian. It's called "Flying Honu." It was one of them. And it's so much fun to sit back and first of all, just sit back and be swimming with these things. And the turtles are beautiful, they're elegant, and they kind of have their own little style and to capture it and share it — yeah, people enjoy the turtles, or honu in Hawaiian. And that's one of my favorite subjects to shoot, along, of course with the waves and everything else.
TSANG: And so you've been able to just really read the rhythm of the ocean and then knowing, for your subject matter, the honu, kind of knowing what they will be doing in response to the rhythm of the wave.
LITTLE: Yeah, where they're coming and you kind of feel it. I think you kind of feel it more than — you're attempting to do something — you're almost kind of in the zone, at least for me, especially with waves. You feel a backwash, meaning two waves coming that are gonna hit and make this glass sculpture. It's like the spur of the moment, you turn to the right, turn to the left, boom, and there's the spray or the honu. I mean, I spend hours, five, six hours in the ocean sometimes a day and after a long time, you learn, you start to get experience and know which way the turtle or the dolphin or the shark is going to turn. Get that shot — okay, the sun's right above it, you're gonna get the rays coming down as the shark's coming toward me. You put a lot of time and it's not like you just go out there and shoot an image. I mean, you got to be out there and feel like you are a shark when you're swimming with the sharks, or you are a turtle swimming around with a turtle. I mean, that's literally how I am in there. And it's kind of like, if you can fit in there and belong, kind of be as one, then I think it's easier to get the shot.
TSANG: You recognize that you live in such a blessed place. For you to also be in the right place at the right time. Can we go back? What were you doing at the botanical gardens?
LITTLE: So the botanical gardens, I was actually a supervisor, I oversaw 27 acres of native and tropical plants from all over the world. I started that job when I was 22. I loved it, loved it. We planted trees and collected new species from native stuff, as well as all over the world. And we had different sections. It's a really gorgeous place. So I am a nature freak. I mean I really do like to see and be around, you know, plants and ocean and mammals and different things. So I did that botanical garden thing, and I loved it. And then I had to make a decision. So it was the City & County job —great job. I had the weekends off and a lot of vacation, sick leave, everything. So when I started to see my photography start to blossom, I had to make a decision, you know, like, am I gonna quit this full-time job that I can continue my whole career and retire from? To take a risk and jump into this photography thing that I'm not 100% sure? I shared it with my family, my parents, my wife. It was a little risky and I was a little bit scared, but I'm like, "You know what, I felt good about it. I had a few articles printed, I was in a couple of galleries. I'm like, you know what, I'm gonna put all my time into this, resign from the city and give it a shot." And honestly, it was the best decision I ever made. I got exactly what I wanted from it and more. So here I am 15, 17 years later since I resigned. I got a gallery in Haleʻiwa. I have a website where I can share all my work. I got this new book, 240 pages. The book is awesome. I'm so happy. So everything is just kind of falling into place. And I couldn't be more blessed.
More information on Clark Little’s new book, "The Art of Waves," can be found at clarklittlephotography.com. Little will be at the Honolulu Museum of Art for a book signing event on May 20 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. This interview aired on The Conversation on May 12, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.