Clarke Tolton

Photography / New York, NY

Clarke Tolton is a photographer who spends his time between California and New York, shooting photos for cool clients like Nylon and TOMS shoes.

It’s no surprise that his photography career started with taking photos of his friends surfing since he’s still an avid surfer now. We were thrilled to take a peek behind the lens of this laid-back surfer’s growing career. →

Where are you from? What was your childhood like?

I was born in Puerto Rico but spent my childhood in the suburban streets of Huntington Beach, California. My childhood was great! We lived five minutes from the beach so I spent most of my time there surfing and hanging out with friends. Most of my time was spent outside, surfing, destroying curbs and benches skateboarding, or rippin’ through the dirt on our BMX bikes. No complaints there.

My dad made sure we spent
our time outside rather than sitting in front of the TV,
melting our brains.

"Read a book or go outside," he would say—anything but sit in front of the TV.

How did you get started taking photos?

I remember taking some of my first pictures around 7th grade. My dad would drive me and some friends down to Trestles, a popular surf spot in southern Orange County. He has this old knockoff of a Nikon called a Topcon (I think he got it in Singapore or something). But it had a 300mm telephoto lens that I could use to shoot my friends surfing from the beach. I guess that’s how I started. My grandfather was a hobbyist photographer as well, and looking through his old slides also inspired me.

When did your career really kick off?

After getting a BA in Communications from UCSB, I took a year off and went back to taking pictures, put together a portfolio, and applied to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where I graduated with a BFA in Photography. Shortly after graduating, I moved to New York, with hopes of working with photographers like Mario Sorrenti, David Armstrong, Glen Luchford, and Luis Sanchis. These were all guys that I would see in the magazines and be so psyched when I would see their fashion stories or portraits. I ended up working with both David Armstrong and Luis Sanchis for about four years. I respect and admire their work tremendously, and because their work is so different from each other, I was able to learn a great deal about photography, creatively and professionally. All the while, when I wasn't assisting, I spent my time hustling my own work to magazines like Dazed and Confused, Another Magazine, Details, and Nylon. It was a slow process (the transition from assisting to shooting on my own) for me, and after doing a lot of editorial work, I got a few catalog and small advertising jobs. And at that point, I decided to focus on my work and my career.

“The rad thing about photography is that your working
environments/situations are always different. New subjects,
new locations, new clients, new equipment—it’s always
changing. It keeps things interesting, and you are
constantly learning from these new experiences.”

What inspires your work?

Right now, I’ve been really inspired the the quality of light in California. I recently began splitting my time between NYC and LA because my girlfriend got a job in LA.

There are certain characteristics of light in southern California that are hard to find anywhere else.

In the summer, it’s hazy and diffused with a beautiful pastel color palette. And in the winter, it’s hard and crisp with cold shadows. I’m really vibing on it. When I shoot in NYC and other locations on the east coast, I have tried to capture that quality of light that California has.

What has been your favorite project?

Last year I worked on a small book/zine with another photographer and good friend Ben Grieme. I had been sitting on this series of landscape images focusing on the ocean, and he was recently back from a trip through the south. We took my pictures of the ocean and his landscapes that focused on trees, plant life, etc., and put them into a book called "Forest Coast." Another good friend and amazing designer, Mark Aver, art directed and designed it. That was a fun project!

What’s your dream job?

Basically, when I’m not shooting or stuck in front of a computer, I spend the majority of my time surfing, watching surf contests, watching videos, and following anything surf-related. I’d love to spend a year traveling with ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) World Tour, documenting the lives and travels of the top 32 surfers in the world and then turn it into a book or something. Who knows.

How has your experience been with Virb?

Virb is amazing! I think clients, art directors, creative directors, designers, etc., love the ease and functionality of a Virb site. If your site is glitchy and difficult to navigate, then "boom!" your client is gone (that’s just my belief, because that’s how I am). People want to see images quickly and easily without delay. Virb keeps my clients and audience happy.