Buchupero, Chile. Photograph by Chris Burkard.
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The photograph above is by Chris Burkard. If you haven't seen his work, you really should. This photograph in particular has changed my life, but not necessarily in the way you might expect.
But first, a little more about Chris. I've been a long-time admirer of his photography since he started as a staff photographer for Surfer Magazine. To me, what stands out about Chris' work, especially on the crowded pages of a surf magazine is that his photographs tell a story. The usual photos in theses magazines generally serve a purpose of advertising a brand or a particular athlete. As such, they can be tightly cropped around the surfer. Chris' imagery is the exact opposite. It’s often pulled back and shows the surfer (and the wave) amongst the landscape. Often you have no idea who the surfers in his photographs are and that's not commonplace in an athlete centered surf culture. I am no sociological expert, but I have been reading surfing magazines since I was a middle schooler and Chris’ work, I think, has changed the type of imagery these magazine publish. His work has given other photographers permission to pull back, to explore the greater scene around them and not just the surfers on the waves.
Okay, so on to how this photograph changed my life. This story is not necessarily about what this photograph is about, although it does capture an amazing moment. This is a story about the tangential power of a printed photograph to ignite an idea.
In 2011, I received a print of the above photograph as a Christmas gift from my wife's parents (great gift idea by the way). I had been thinking of purchasing one of Chris's prints for a long time and finally settled on this image because it was such a beautiful scene and unique moment. It would be a great image on it's own, but when you realize there is a surfer on the wave, it just adds to the story behind the image. Did the surfer make the wave? What happens next? Those are the questions I keep wondering.
I received the print unframed and I wanted to get it up on my wall as soon as possible. I was also in graduate school at the time so I had to be somewhat cost conscious with my frame purchase. After looking around online I eventually settled on a black frame that was “custom” made through a large online retailer (if you've looked for frames online you've seen them). I thought it would look great. I didn’t spend much more time on it than that.
The frame came in the mail a couple days later and I was immediately disappointed by what I had purchased. The materials were poor and the frame was obviously constructed quickly and without much craftsmanship. The frame looked decent on the wall, but if you took it off the wall, the back looked terrible. Like a (and no offense to 5th graders) 5th grader had made it as a school project.
Back of the original frame. It looks like they cut the backboard with safety scissors!
This is where my life starts to change - the seed of an idea starts to take root. My life didn’t immediately change; there was no eureka moment. I didn’t all of the sudden get this great idea for a framing company make make some grandiose life changes. However, it was the genesis of an idea that took several more years to come to fruition. I’ve heard Tim Ferris call these types of moments inflection points. Moments where the trajectory of your life changes. For Saw & Mitre, framing this photograph was the first of these inflection points. I remember thinking that there had to be a better way to frame a photo. I had framed enough stuff from the big-box stores to know that the quality of workmanship I was receiving didn’t match up with the cost.
As I mentioned, the frame looked okay on the wall and I enjoyed the photograph, but when I looked at it, I knew how crappy the frame was. The photograph in the frame deserved so much better. Here is this amazing print by one of my favorite photographers and it isn’t getting the life it deserves! (that’s a little melodramatic, but I make my point).
Since then I have come to the conclusion that having a printed photograph these days is a special experience. In the film day’s it was commonplace to have prints of your work; that was the only way we experienced our photographs. Since our photography has gone digital, we rarely get to see and feel our photographs in print, let alone on a wall. So what once was so commonplace has now become rare and theres something special about that. These day’s I only print the work I am most proud of and when I do that I want to make sure I display it. That’s how I felt about Chris’ image. It was too special to me to throw into a cheap frame. It needed something that would really bring it to life.
A few years ago I was reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs when I came across this quote that perfectly summed up how I felt about this particular frame. Here Jobs is talking about carrying the quality of craftsmanship all the way through the product, even the parts no one can see:
“I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box. A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody’s going to see it. When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”
So the idea of making high quality frames for photographs took root. What started as a passing thought whenever I would look at Chris’ photograph turned into an idea that I couldn’t let go of. It would eventually keep me up late at night thinking and working until eventually I was ready to quit my job and explore it full-time.
What are your inflection points? What can you look back on and point to to say this is where my life changed for the better (or worse)? It's a fun exercise to think about where seemingly innocuous moments such as receiving a photograph can set you off down a path you didn't expect.
One of my first framing projects was to re-frame this beautiful print as you can see above. In a follow-up journal post I will go into a before and after series of what the original frame I purchased looked like compared to what I am making today.
Also, a special thanks to Chris Burkard for his generous support and permission to use his image in this blog post. You can purchase this same print through his website.
Also check out Chris' work on Instagram or Facebook.