John Bilderback is one of surf photography’s living legends. He is a fixture on the North Shore of Oahu and his iconic images have filled countless surf mags and even more imaginations. Every one of surfing’s modern greats have featured in John’s frames, from Occy to Johnny Boy Gomes (above) to AI and the newest of the new school. John helped pioneer shooting the massive waves of the Oahu’s outer reefs and spends a fair bit of time over deep water wired to a kite, which has been a passion since 2001.
We caught up with John to talk about photography, technology, kitesurfing and turning creativity into a business.
Aloha John! Where are you right now and have you been getting any good waves of late?
Right now I’m home at Sunset Beach on the North Shore of Oahu. I’ve just come back from a month in the Caribbean, and could use a good swell actually.
Your photos really capture the energy of surfing, whether huge waves or high speed action shots. What attracted you to the surf lifestyle?
I started surfing and started shooting photos at about the age of ten. I lived on the beach and nothing could have been more natural. In college I started taking my love for photography into the ocean. That move shaped my life.
Since then I’ve been around the world a bunch of times and seen a lifetime’s worth of beauty and brave feats. The surf lifestyle keeps you healthy, you’re always hunting.
Your portfolio is extremely diverse. What’s your favourite subject and do you have a creative formula or process?
I do like to be versatile. Aaron Chang was one of my mentors and he valued that. He felt you should be able to shoot anything. My favorite thing to shoot is the biggest, best, newest, freakiest, most remote, highest, scariest thing a person can do, whatever that is. My personal respect for the athletes motivates me. And I’m blown away by what people can learn to do while suspending the fear that is hard wired into us all. My process for getting that image involves eliminating anything that doesn’t contribute visually, and being as technically correct as you can. And that can be everything from getting the exposure correct, the angle and perspective that best show whats going on, to keeping water spots off the lens port. Thats half of it, having your technical responsibility down cold. Then you can address the other half of the equation, working with the subject.
If you could be in perfect waves, your absolute dream session, with anyone who would be there and where would you be?
Dream sessions for me can be shooting or riding… I’d really like to surf the North Shore in the 1940’s.
Tell us about the freedom of kitesurfing and what has attracted you to it…
Well the non stop crowds of surfers on the North Shore can take your stoke away sometimes. When I launch my kite, I have fun the whole time. I ride out to the waves, I ride the waves, and then I turn around and ride back out. No sitting, no paddling, no stink-eye, no waiting – just riding.
What do you think of all the modern technologies like POV cams and all the rest. Can anyone really be a photographer?
All the modern technologies are great! People are making the most amazing images. I’m not hung up on nostalgia at all. Film was fine, but so was the telegraph. We don’t need either of them any more, there are much better ways to communicate than using toxic chemicals – or long copper wires for that matter. If you can make a camera fly, or one that does most of the thinking for you, why not? That doesn’t mean there’s no place for the human element, it just moves it up a few floors out of the darkroom.
Do you have any advice for people who dream of making a serious career in a creative business?
Business advice for artists is tricky and often useless. The people I know who are great artists, people internally compelled to produce work, are often incapable of handling their work as a career. I’m one of them. I’ve never let it be about the money. And in spite of being thoroughly warned against it, my career has been unbelievably full and rewarding anyway. My father told me one thing, ‘Do what you love, and get paid for it.’ Simple. Sort of.
Thanks John, how can people connect with you and find out more about your work?
My website portal is johnbilderback.com.