Behind the Lens: Will Adler

We sit down with the acclaimed surf photographer to chat about what drives his work
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Jul 14, 2015 | By Austin Bryant

ooking at California-based photographer Will Adler’s images and films, you can almost taste the salt and feel the glaring sun. Adler’s work is full of light, contrasting moody waterscapes that might populate the portfolios of other artists.

With a bonafide cult following in the surf world coming off work for magazines like Neon, Surfer, WAX and The New Yorker, he’s also shot for brands like Quicksilver, Patagonia and Nike. It’s fitting that we were pointed to Adler’s work by another extremely-talented surf photographer (and one of his best friends) who’s been featured on Huckberry—Morgan Maassen. In the words of Maassen: “It never ceases to amaze me how he can apply his sense of style to anything he touches, be it a short film, photographs, or art.”

When talking to the 30-year old Adler, we asked him to run us through a few significant moments in his career so far, especially when it came to important mentors in his life—whether they’re his uncle Tom or the famous fashion photographer Bruce Weber.

Over the past 10 plus years I’ve been taking photos. While I became serious about it almost instantly, it took quite a while for me to get the direction and idea that this could be my way to support myself and hopefully contribute to other people’s lives.

When I first got a camera after graduating high school, I wanted to document my friends and our adventures. This is still pretty much how I look at photography. However, as it turns into money and a job it can be more of a challenge. While money is a great bonus, the excitement of getting a good photo is still the drive behind my work. It’s what gets me out the door a lot of mornings.

I didn’t study photography in an academic sense, but I have studied non-stop. First I worked in a local photo lab making black and white prints, and then I went on to assisting photographers. The darkroom got me hooked, and assisting made me realize what photography means as a job. I would spend a lot of nights in the darkroom printing my own photos after I got off the night shift, working on my photos till the sun was starting to rise.

I have also busted my ass working 20 hour days and sleeping in my van while assisting (this actually only happened once, but was one of the longest days of my life). Assisting for photographers is an incredible way to get comfortable being on a photoset without the pressure of having to make the photos. You will meet people who you could be working with for years, and in general, it’s a hard but rewarding job. Of all the people I worked for, the one I took the most from is [renowned fashion photographer] Bruce Weber.

When I started working for him, I was hired as a PA (production assistant). I had no idea of the scope of his shoots, or really his work. It totally blew my mind. I worked closely with him and his crew for years. I’m still in total awe of his passion and drive. Through watching him, I learned that that is really what sets people apart in photography, and life in general.

Along with working on other people’s ventures, working with people on your own project can be an incredible experience. It becomes much more personal, but when things mesh well, the outcome can be really rewarding. It won’t always be easy, but as a working photographer, that’s part of the deal. Being able to accept or reject criticism is very important. I have a handful of people I bounce things off of, because I trust their judgment, and also because I value their input. I certainly don’t always agree with it, but it’s nice to get another perspective on my work. A lot of times I’m too personally wrapped up in it to view it from a distance and make a non-biased evaluation.

Some of the most enjoyable projects I have done are with other artists whose work I admire. It really becomes a back and forth of ideas and can totally bring a new light to your work. Making books and zines is a great tool for this. One person in particular I enjoy working with is Pierre Hourquet. He’s a designer by trade, but is also a photographer, a part owner of Temple Gallery, and just an all-around good dude and artist. Seeing what he does with my photos is always exciting.

Another person who gets bombarded often by my questions is my uncle. He’s a graphic designer and publisher, and one of my toughest critics. While I don’t always agree with him, it’s really nice to have someone who will shoot straight and tell you that he doesn’t like something, and why. People patting you on the back and saying “good job” is great, but not always the best thing when you want to push yourself to do better work. [H]

Austin Bryant is a style and culture writer from Boston, MA.
He's passionate about photography, his next favorite beer, and Nicholas Cage's hair.
Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.