Craig “CPL” Levers, award winning photographer and publisher has spent over 20 years chronicling
the phenomena of the coast.
Based in Piha, with the iron sand between his
toes and in the shadow of Lion Rock, we met with Craig to explore what it takes to shoot some of New Zealand’s most iconic surf photography.
How did you get into photography and was there something that inspired you to start?
For my University Entrance Art, I did some black and white studies of my surfboard and wetsuit. The photos were nothing great at all, but it resonated with me. I was fascinated with the ability to control what is in focus and out of focus. I loved being in the darkroom seeing your image appear in the developing tray. I loved learning the processes. My art teacher told me I had a good eye for composition but not a good hand for drawing. She was brutally honest.
Living and working in Piha must be amazing, especially with how changeable the West Coast can be. Do you have a favourite spot to shoot on Auckland's west coast?
Piha has been home for over 20 years now. You are right; it is a constant source of inspiration. When the surf is good I'm still stoking out like a grommie, trying to find the best place to surf or shoot surfing. But when it is wild and stormy we have all these nooks and bends that create different sea-scapes. We have Auckland's highest sea cliffs and little bays hidden past caves. Then there are the expanses of North Piha and Karekare. And then there's the Waitakere bush and the Hillary Trail...it's a never ending palette for a photographer.
Travel and being on the road seems to be a really big part of the inspiration for your work. Where are your favourite locations to shoot in NZ/Overseas?
Did I mention Piha...ahahaha. This is a tough question! I've just returned from a three-week photo trip around the South Island's coasts. It was never going to be long enough, but it reiterated for me how spectacular our coasts are. I'm in love with New Zealand.
That said, in 2012 and 2015 I've gone to the Mojave Desert for photo-shoots. I love American grit; it is the direct opposite and so alien to the Kiwi experience. It amazes me that homes and whole towns are just walked away from. That people live in such a harsh environment, they'd probably say that of communities in the Catlins though right?
You have bought a decommissioned Chevy 4x4 ambulance after owning a 4x4 Hi-ace campervan for a couple of years. How important is being mobile to you and also being self contained when you are in some of the pristine coastal locations in NZ?
It's vital. I bought the Hi-ace in 2013 as a bit of a tester. I've always loved the idea of being able to stay right where the surf is. Being able to wait en situ for changes in the light. That said I hate the smelly, hippy van folk image associated with van-life. I'm not a poncho wearer, nor will I be playing in sunset drum circle. The Chevy is the antithesis of those van folk.
But going bigger was pragmatic too. The Chevy has self-containment certification now and we have big [expensive] plans to further convert it into a motorhome. I strongly believe you should take out what you take in. In fact remove a couple of pieces of extra trash. Leave it better than you found it.
Most of your current imagery is based around landscapes and empty line-ups. Is there a surfer/skater that you have enjoyed working with the most over the years when you were shooting for NZ Surfing and the brands?
What I love about being so immersed in the New Zealand surfing culture is the real feel of Whanau. I wouldn't want to pick out one surfer, because my way of shooting surfing was/is to be as inclusive as possible. I think a surfing magazine needs to reflect the community it's trying to satisfy. It is vital to celebrate elite surfing like shooting with Maz Quinn or Billy Stairmand. It's also imperative that the whole surfing community is reflected. So getting a really good shot of the local hero often had more value to me.
What kind of photography equipment do you use, digital or film?
I use both film cameras and digital cameras for my work. On the digital side I'm dedicated Canon, only because of histrionics. I think people get too tied up in the latest greatest; Canon vs Nikon is kind of like the Ford vs Holden.
I use digital cameras for all my commercial and surfing work. I have lenses that give me a range from 700mm telephoto to 15mm fisheye. I use a digital camera in the water-housing because I can to swim out with 1000 possible frames with a memory card. Back in the day we had to swim out with only 36 frames on a roll of film. I was always cautious on trying something different...now we are free!
I shoot on film because digital can't do what I want for the Beach Books. I've always loved the 1 to 3 ratio of the image panoramic cameras give. I use two new Panoramic film cameras. The PTB 617 in the shots of me setting up was bought brand new in 2010. It is old technology of course, but it gives me to ability to use a lot of different lenses. Most of my award winning images have been made on film.
You have won a couple of photographic awards. Were they pretty well planned or did they come out of being at the right place and the right time?
Yep, 10 international ones for panoramas over the last 3 years. When I was working for the magazine I couldn't see the sense in entering comps. But I get it now, on a personal level it matches you against your peers. It's a healthy challenge that makes you strive to do better.
I reckon it's about planning to be at the right place at the right time. You make your own luck by getting out there. I never use the phrase “you got lucky”, it robs the person's credit for their graft.
You're on to your 6th and 7th books now I think. How did becoming a publisher come about? What are the next two titles about and when do they come out?
It's the evolution of working in print for the last 25 years. Sure, I was the Senior Photographer for NZ Surfing Mag for 15 years. That was the glamorous part of the job and only 50% of my actual job. The other half was being Editor and Editorial Director. I was responsible the direction, content, look, deadlines, scheduling and production. As much as I like sand between my toes, there's something pretty special about the smell of fresh ink on the print shop floor.
I'm just applying the skills learnt during my 15-year apprenticeship.
The next book in production now is beach book. I did the books Beached As Vol 1 and Beached As Then and Nowto get way from being just a surf photographer. They sold out so that's nice. But they also challenged me to be a better photographer. So the next beach book is better photography.
There was a realisation that big books are hard to post and travel with. This next one is a small landscape size 15cm x 21cm so it's user friendly. Easy to post, easy to carry a couple with you overseas to gift. It is still over 200 pages and hard cover... it's a nugget.
Our working title is The Big Little Beach Book- Loved New Zealand Beaches. There are over 50 Kiwi Beaches featured, from Cape Reinga to past Bluff. There are iconic ones in there as well as hidden treasures. It'll be out for Fathers’ Day.
The next project is a biggie and back more to surfing. After doing the two beach books, my co-collaborator Brent Courtney and I did the South Seas book, which was back to surf culture. That has sold through 2 print runs over the last 3 years, but we can't keep pumping out the same book.
We're working on the follow up/ evolution but it is a bigger task than we first thought. We're working on it, but prioritising getting the Big Little Beach Book out on time.
You worked on NZ Surfing magazine in the era before Instagram/Youtube/Vimeo etc. In a world where content is consumed in seconds now do you think the current magazines are doing a good job of staying relevant?
No, they are failing. It's sad to see a lot of them on their death rattle trying to punch out the same formula that we created in the 90's. Dude...move on or get steamrolled! There is room for magazines in our insty world, but they have to move with the times and fill the void that instantaneous fixes miss. Well-written, well-researched, interesting stories about people doing good things. The magazines that have moved to this will survive, but the days of being king of media are gone
You must get huge satisfaction when you sell one of your prints to a new customer. Do you have a favourite image?
Massive satisfaction! I love dealing one to one with clients; I love helping them get a piece tailored to their home. I learn a lot too, clients taste in framing may not be mine. I get to carry on that experience on to the next client, it's fun!
Nah, they are all my favourites! Oh wait you mean do the clients have a favourite; yeah for sure there are some perennials. This one called Lion Walkway is one; Atkinson Coffee have it on their bulk bags. It is in homes in NZ, Australia, England and USA. It's going to be the cover shot of the Big Little Beach Book because of all that.