Legends of the Sandbar is a photographic tribute to a stormy outpost in the mid-Atlantic and the surfers who make it their home. It is about a tight-knit band of men and women who sacrifice the stability and comfort of life in mainland America purely to indulge their passion for wave-riding. The project is a celebration of nature, community, landscape, the raw beauty of lives lived close to the edge, and the kinetic artistry of surfing in a challenging aquatic environment.
Author and photographer Christopher Bickford has been working on the project since 2008. For a more detailed recounting of the project’s origins, you can read the “Introduction” in the book preview. Chris is a freelance photographer based on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, whose work has taken him to Italy, France, Ireland, Hawaii, the Caribbean, Brazil, New Orleans, and throughout the American South. He is a member of National Geographic Creative and a contributor to National Geographic Traveler and @NatGeoTravel. He has also worked as an assignment photographer for the New York Times, NPR, Milepost Magazine, Surfline, and various other publications. But Legends has been the cord that has kept him coming back to the Outer Banks, to reconnect with old friends, slide into damp wetsuits and secure his camera inside an Aqua-Tech housing, trusting it to keep his Canons dry out into the impact zone.
Aside from being the passion-project of a single photographer, Legends addresses the dearth of books devoted to East Coast surfing. The Outer Banks is one of the top surfing destinations on the continental US; in fact the town of Kill Devil Hills, where many of the photos in the project were taken, was ranked as one of "America's Top 10 Surf Towns" by Surfer Magazine. However, aside from the occasional single in books and magazines, the region gets little coverage in the California-centric surf media, and there has never been a book aimed at capturing the essence of the surfing world here.
Legends of the Sandbar eschews the the glossy, tack-sharp color style of traditional surf photography in favor of a gritty texture and an ethereal mood more appropriate to its subject. Its palette of warm black-and-white enhances the chiaroscuro tones of the stormy coast and gives a nod to the preponderant sepia photographs of mariners, aviators, and first families enshrined in the region’s historical record. Bickford’s images reveal the strange sand formations, dramatic cloudscapes, and rough-and-tumble culture of the Outer Banks, as much as they capture the big airs and deep barrel rides of an insanely talented crew of working-class surf heroes. Viewed as a whole, the project paints a picture of the full experience of the surfing life on the OBX: from the parking lot crew to the early-morning paddle-out, to the constant search for new sandbars, to the ephemeral euphoria of glorious five-second rides, to the reluctant end-of-day exodus from the beach. And rather than focusing on perfect waves that only hit the shores of the Outer Banks a handful of days each year, Bickford explores the endless variety of Outer Banks surf in all its ragged glory. From meat-grinding slabs of whitewater to beautifully imperfect closeouts to glittering glassy barrels, the ever-changing moods of the Atlantic Ocean reveal themselves, image by image, as dark clouds give way to blazing dawns and winter gives way to summer and back again.
The project began as a photo-essay entitled After the Storm, and was first published on David Alan Harvey's Burn Magazine, an online photography showcase for emerging photographic work. It was later selected for inclusion at a number of photography festivals and was featured on the New York Times' Lens Blog, a web periodical dedicated to the best in photojournalism from around the world. After that it went viral, showing up on photography websites, surfing blogs, tourism sites, and culture blogs around the world. Subsequently it was featured in Outside Magazine, Surfing Magazine, Eastern Surf Magazine, and internationally in China's Vision Magazine and South Africa's TheBOMBsurf Magazine. A short run of 250 mini-books, priced at $45 each, sold out in 3 months during the summer of 2009, with zero promotion or advertising. It sold to enthusiasts from New York, Canada, California, Hawaii, France, Israel, Ireland, Portugal, Korea, and up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Pro surfer and filmmaker Chris Malloy brought a copy of it to Indonesia and shared it with Hawaiian surf legend Gerry Lopez. It got passed around at skate parks and coffeeshops, and many fell apart due to constant wear. So it was decided, a better book needed to be made. Better, stronger, and bigger.
Since the project first appeared on Burn, there were talks of publishing a full-sized photo-book of the project under Harvey's burgeoning Burn Books imprint. The idea has been kicked around around many times over the years, but the completion of the venture has been stalled by other work, other projects, the touch-and-go nature of a venture solely in the hands of creatives, with no managers, agents, or press-jockeys to crack the whip and keep things rolling. For all that, the delay has been a boon of its own, as it has allowed the project to grow, mutate, and transform into a more comprehensive work.
Fundraising for the final push has begun, printing costs have been established, design work is nearing completion, and yet there still remain a few photos left to take, a few legends left to uncover. Some of them will appear on this site before they appear anywhere else, and some images and stories that don't fit into the book will be published here.
The first print edition of Legends of the Sandbar will appear in spring 2016. For more information, stay tuned on the site, follow “Legends of the Sandbar” on Facebook, and feel free to email Chris at Chris@Chrisbickford.com.
See you in the water.