A stamp of a rainbow imprinted above a stormy sea, tidy sets of waves rolling toward shore, a surfer on a moonlight mission under a starry firmament —California-based photographer and surfer Jen Buck’s serene images could double as blood-pressure-lowering nostrums. Her photographs transport viewers to watery worlds where lines are fluid, skies are canvases and the surf’s up. Rare is a Jen Buck photo without water, but when they are, they are equally beautiful: twin aspens bent just so, a red-tail hawk in flight; tiny streaks of meteors over the desert.
And yet Buck is no household name, and in the definition of social media success, she would fall behind many a teenage selfie machine. As of this writing, her Instagram feed had less than 800 followers, and you can’t find a website for her.
Here, Buck talks about her relationship to the ocean, being surrounded by unfriendly monkeys and the process of warming up to social media. Follow her feed on Instagram @jenbuckphoto. And look for a website soon.
Where are you from, where do you reside, and what do you do?
I grew up by the ocean on the east coast of Connecticut. As a teenager I knew I wanted to move out west so I decided to attend college in Colorado. Subsequently, I moved to Telluride to pursue more of a mountain life. I loved skiing and all mountain sports so Telluride was a perfect fit. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
After many years of living there I was ready for a change, I really missed the ocean. My husband was from California so we visited his family and surfed out there whenever we could. About 10 years ago we made the move there and we currently live in Santa Barbara.
We both have pretty flexible jobs that give us the time to do what we love most. For my husband Neal, that’s paragliding, surfing, and mountain biking. For me I love to spend all of my free time outdoors, whether it’s hiking, surfing or being creative with my camera.
How did you get into photography, why have you continued to pursue it, and what do you shoot on?
I bought my first camera when I was 18 right before a six-week trip through Nepal. I was awestruck by the scenery and culture, and I was happy to have a camera to document this amazing place to share with my family and friends. When I moved to Telluride I started regularly photographing my adventures in the mountains. I did some freelance work locally and also with a few outdoor adventure magazines. I took a long break from photography when I moved to California and was working on some other projects. During that time I realized how much I missed shooting and expressing my creative vision through the lens. A year ago I picked up my camera again and I’ll never put it back down for that long again.
I shoot with all Canon gear and I’m currently using the Canon 5D Mark III body.
Is photography mainly a hobby, or do you do it for work?
I don’t currently do photography for work. It’s more of a lifestyle than a hobby for me.
You are drawn to the ocean as a muse and subject. What about it appeals to you?
I really feel I’m in my element when I’m in the ocean. The ocean keeps me energized and focused in a way that I’ve never experienced before. The ocean is a giant wilderness area, there’s so much to explore and its beauty, vastness, and ever-changing conditions inspire me to no end.
How long have you been surfing and how did you get into it?
I’ve been surfing for about 15 years. When I was living in Telluride it was a much quieter place than it is now and the town would literally shut down during its off-seasons. There was no work so everyone would go on some type of adventure for a month or two until town re-opened and we had our jobs back. I always wanted to go to the ocean during this time and I bought my first surfboard in Santa Cruz at a used board shop. It was a 6-foot-something Bonzer. I was hooked immediately and every off-season trip from here on was a surf adventure.
Do you consider yourself more photographer or surfer? Do you think one feeds off the other?
I consider myself both. I try to shoot surfing during the nice light of sunrise and sunset, and during my free time I try and surf between those times. There have been quite a few situations where I’ve been torn between the two, mostly in perfect surf conditions. I’d say they definitely feed off of each other. When I’m surfing in nice conditions it will inspire me to get my camera and vise versa.
As an artist you are pretty under the radar. Is that intentional? Would you say you shoot more for yourself than for an audience or the purposes of getting your images out there?
I first shoot for myself. Being creative makes me incredible happy. It’s also an innate physical need. I feel that’s something’s missing in my life if too much time goes by without any creative productivity. I just recently started shooting again and I feel I still have so much to learn to get me closer to where I’d like to be with my work. Right now I am under the radar and I would like to change that. To start, I’m in the process of creating a website as another outlet to share my photography and eventually I’d love to sell prints from the site. In the past I wasn’t sure if social media was for me. I always enjoyed connecting with my friends and people directly. I’m new to Instagram and to my surprise I really enjoy it. I love sharing my work with others and connecting with different photographers with similar interests. There’s so much talent out there and I find it inspiring.
What is your idea of the perfect conditions for shooting?
I guess that really depends on what I’m shooting. Overcast/cloudy days are my favorite for landscapes, the clouds create nice soft lighting which brings out more detail in the landscape. Clouds can also create really moody ocean scenes, which are some of my favorite ocean conditions to shoot in.
When I’m shooting in the water I like calm winds and glassy conditions. Swimming in the ocean during bigger surf can be dangerous and hectic. You have to pay attention to currents, surfers and the larger sets coming through, depending on the situation I generally like to avoid inclement weather while shooting in the water.
Clear skies are nice for astrophotography, which I really enjoy shooting too.
Being an outdoor photographer you really have to adapt to the conditions that are present and make the best of it.
What’s the most uncomfortable situation you’ve been for the sake of a good photo?
One particular situation that stands out was during a surf and paraglide trip to Bali years ago with my husband and a couple of friends. My husband is a paraglider pilot and I asked him to take me tandem over this hard-to-access stretch of coast to photograph some remote surf breaks from the air. On our way to where we thought would be a good launch, we had to hike through a tight group of about 200 monkeys at this abandoned temple. We were surrounded and they were within a couple of inches from us with some being pretty vicious. We walked as slowly as possible through them with only a few that lunged at us showing their teeth.
Once on launch we found that it was a very, very steep slope with only a few steps to run off before it dropped about 1,000 vertical feet into the ocean. It was far from ideal, but Neal thought it would be okay and I was determined to get off the ground and get some shots and not have to walk back through the monkey nightmare. Our actual launch was pretty sketchy, somehow Neal and I were twisted in the wrong position right after leaving the ground, he was in front and I was in back. And when we looked up there was some metal wire objects stuck in the lines. I’ve flown with him many times before but right then my heart was beating out of my chest and at that point there was nowhere to land below but the ocean.
He managed to shake most of the wires out and we flew for a ways down the coast. I was able to spot and shoot a couple of breaks from the air before he decided it was time to land. The most uncomfortable moment was after landing we had to hike through the jungle to find the road where our friends were meeting us. As we were hiking we came across a horrendously smelling chicken farm. The workers there were extremely unfriendly and the vibe started to become a little more serious. We tried to be friendly and just kept walking through the jungle to find the road. They followed us for a ways and I felt something bad could happen at any moment. Luckily they disappeared after a while and we finally found our friends. My shots didn’t turn out that great but we came out unscathed.
The consolation was that the next day we navigated our way back through a different part of the jungle in our 4WD vehicle and found the awesome right-hand reef break that we spotted from the air the previous day. We had it to ourselves and it was perfect.
In a sentence, what is it that you try to capture in an image?
I try to capture surfing and ocean images from unique perspectives and I like to incorporate mood and a dreamlike quality to most of my images.