Explore / Legends / Brian Bielmann

Interview with
Brian Bielmann

Iconic surf photographer Brian Bielmann is known for his can’t-believe-your-eyes shots of surfers braving some of the world’s biggest waves. Now in his fifth decade of photography, he is excited to be partnering with Marram to showcase his famed shots as well as some lesser-seen underwater photography (his works hang in all guest rooms). Brian almost can’t believe his good fortune—he gets to travel the world and capture stunning experiences both on and off the water. He says, “because surfing is more of lifestyle than a sport, I get to be around nature and beauty.” Here, Brian talks to us about his work and travel. 

Marram: When did you take up photography? Were you drawn to photography or surfing first? 

Surfing came first. I started surfing when I was a kid in Virginia and North Carolina’s Outer Banks. I moved to Hawaii when I was 17 because I was a surfer and it was a no brainer. I didn’t think twice. When I graduated high school I drove cross-country with $200 and made my way to Hawaii. I started doing any kind of odd jobs I could to keep surfing. In 1978, I was 21 and I went through a period for about a month wondering “what am I going to do with my life?” I realized that if I became a surf photographer, I could keep surfing. It was as simple as that. It was all I cared about.

I still surf, but I find myself surfing a lot less because I’m always shooting when the waves are good. In the beginning, the hardest part was deciding whether to take out my surfboard or my camera. I would tell myself that I’d surf for the first hour in the morning “until the light gets good.” But then the waves would be great and there was no way I could stop surfing. Months would go by and I’d have shot nothing. But one day I had a really bad wipe out and was thrown head-first onto the reef, and it put a big hole in my head—literally. It got infected and I almost died and had to stay out the water for a month. During that month I started learning how to use all my camera equipment and how to be a surf photographer. The accident was the only reason I prioritized photography over surfing.

Surfing is absolutely an addiction, and surfers are adrenaline junkies. If I wasn’t surfing I wanted to be out on the water shooting, just to still be part of the action. There’s no greater feeling in the world than getting a beautiful barrel, being inside of the wave and coming out—it changes your whole outlook. But I tell ya, these days I prefer the feeling of being on the water and getting an incredible photograph.

Marram: How has surf photography changed in the four decades that you’ve been doing it?

The biggest change was moving from film to digital. When the first digital cameras came out, I talked it over with my art director and decided to try one out. It turns out, I was the first surf photographer to shoot on digital. I went on a trip with a tiny hard drive and two memory cards in my pocket—which of course is ridiculous. These days you want to have at three different forms of backup. It’s kind of a miracle that everything came out. Some of the photos that I took on that trip are the best I’ve ever taken. One of the photos I took was of Andy Irons, and it was used all over the place including on a huge billboard… I kid you not, when those photographs came out, everything changed overnight. My magazine, Transworld, went out and bought digital cameras for all of its photographers and everyone in the industry started switching to digital. That was the beginning of the end for film and photo labs. I’m not saying I changed the industry, I was just the first one to do it. 

Marram: You have traveled and continue to travel around the world. What destinations do you love most? 

For sure, my favorite spot is Tahiti. We were one of the first to start shooting Teahupo’o, which is now a super famous destination. The water is beautiful and clear and the barrels are incredible. I was just there about three weeks ago and I still think it’s my favorite place. I also absolutely love Indonesia, especially the Mentawai islands in the west, off the coast of Sumatra. I love being in remote places where you feel like you’re living in a different time.

Marram: How has your photography style changed over the years? What has remained the same?

When I first started, there were probably 200 other photographers and for the most part, they were either land photographers or water photographers. I had to do things outside the box to get noticed, so I started taking different kinds of photos, like from underwater and of empty waves. That helped me get in the door to a lot of places. As time went on, I started shooting bigger and bigger waves and we using jet-skis and boats to get closer to the waves. I figured out how to get myself to the top breaks with the top surfers, but when more photographers started heading to the big-name spots in Tahiti, Fiji, Indonesia and Australia, I started to sneak away to places that weren’t as well covered, like Chile, Peru, Puerto Rico and places in Europe. 

Marram: What do you shoot with these days?

The standard lenses used to be 600 or 800mm for most surf photographers, but the trend has swayed towards more pulled-back images with more foreground, and photographers are using 70 or 200mm lenses. I still love the tele-photo look so use a 600mm lens to shoot from the beach. When I’m underwater I use a 16-35mm lens and when I’m on the water I use a 7-200 or 24-105mm. I’ve only ever used Canon equipment, and I have these state-of-the-art carbon fiber water housings from CMT.

Marram: What was your experience like working with Marram? What are you excited about with the property?

Surfers have been some of the first people to so many incredible places, so it doesn’t surprise me that Montauk is the amazing destination that it is. I’m really stoked that a lot of my work hanging in Marram are underwater shots that I love and aren’t as well-known as my typical surf photography. I think of them as both soothing and at the same time, very energetic.

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