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With a Custom Mercedes-Benz Van, Chris Burkard Seeks to Cover New Ground in Adventure Photography

An inside look at Chris Burkard’s custom, adventure-ready Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van.

Ansel Adams, one of the most celebrated photographers in history, once owned a ’47 Pontiac Streamliner. It was a classic “woody” station wagon, curvy and spacious, with a large camera platform rigged atop its roof. “Many of his best-known images would be made from this perch,” says photography historian Mary Street Alinder in Ansel Adams: A Biography, “which eliminated the clutter of an immediate foreground and enabled his camera to see a greater distance, making possible the expansive vistas for which he became famous.” Indeed, one of Adams’ most beloved photographs, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, was snapped from atop his Streamliner mere seconds after he and his son, Michael, came to a screeching halt on the side of a dusty Sante Fe backroad.

“I always loved that story,” says Chris Burkard. “There were all these old videos from San Francisco of [Adams] loading up his car with, like, hundreds of pounds of camera gear, and setting off with his son in [the Streamliner] he had made into a mobile photography rig. I spent so much time on the road that I realized I was doing myself a disservice by not having something that could take my family, my assistants, or whoever, and just go.”

Burkard, a 31-year-old professional photographer from San Luis Obispo, California, is in many ways Adams’ spiritual successor. Like Adams, Burkard’s creative achievements in landscape photography have garnered global acclaim; like Adams, Burkard’s fame (which includes 2.8 million followers on Instagram) has allowed him to travel the U.S. and the world beyond, documenting Earth’s most stunning natural wonders; like Adams, Burkard now has a custom four-wheeled photography rig — a ’06 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, complete with a large camera platform atop its roof.

2006 Mercedez-Benz Sprinter Custom

Notable Specs


• Goal Zero solar panels and generators
• Polk Audio surround sound
• Rigid Industries LED light bar (50-inch)
• Thule roof box
• All-terrain tires
• Swivel passenger chair
• Custom interior for camera gear storage
• Custom roof rack and ladder
• Portable shower unit
• Convertable sofa bed

“We spent probably two or three months designing before Chris even pulled the trigger,” says Scottie Nelson, founder and CEO of Advanture Company, the Santa Cruz–based shop that customized Burkard’s van. “We met with him three or four times in person, as well as a bunch of FaceTime sessions. Really, what it came down to was what was important to him, for his needs. [The van] is really just a tool to get closer to all of these places that he loves to photograph, in a really stealthy but sustainable way. That was the whole purpose of this van — to get all of his equipment in one place, so he can drive to these places and not be confined to a hotel room.”

The build process was wonderfully collaborative. The three-man team behind Advanture Company, who Burkard describes as “super hungry and creative young scientists,” worked with Burkard to determine his unique needs. “I didn’t want to have a stove in my van,” Burkard said. “I didn’t want to have a shower. I didn’t want to live in my van. I just wanted something that would allow me to get on the road, store camera gear, and sleep a bunch of people.” Above all, Burkard wanted a powerful photography tool, a conduit between his camera and his most frequent subjects — the mountains and rivers and valleys within America’s wildest places. “There’s something really magical about not having to set up a tent, check in to a hotel or, God forbid, drive into a city, away from the places you want to be, to go to sleep. What you want is to end your day and start your day in the place where you want to be. The closer you can be to that, the better. That’s what it’s always been about.”

The last thing on Burkard’s mind was this modern notion of “van life.” Years ago, while traveling the California coast for three months in a cramped van with his best friend, Burkard lost all interest in becoming a rolling nomad. “Dude… that experience sucked,” Burkard says. “I don’t know who or what came up with the idea that living in one of those things is great. It totally blows; especially during a rainy California winter.” Burkard’s vehement rejection of #vanlife is understandable, but also strange, for his tendency to roam and his affection for wild places can be traced all the way back to his teenage years, when he and his grandfather would embark on weeks-long road trips in a “shitbox” General Motors van.

“My first road trip was with my grandpa. I had never left California; I had never gone anywhere in the world,” Burkard says. “It’s actually kind of funny — or not funny — but the first road trip I ever went on was to the Sierras, where [my grandpa] took me to my father’s gravesite. That was when I was maybe eight or nine years old. And then every summer after that, we’d do a road trip. Sometimes it would be two weeks; sometimes it would be a month. The first time I saw the Grand Canyon or Yosemite or all these places — it was all with him.”

Burkard continues: “At the time, I was just this shitty little kid. I didn’t appreciate it at all. I’d sit in the back and eat candy and listen to my Limp Bizkit CD or something like that. But, slowly but surely I gained this appreciation. Looking back now, those trips were the dream. They were such a huge source of inspiration for me. They instilled in me this love for wild places. My grandpa was in the military for a long time — the National Guard. My grandma was a park ranger for a while. My grandpa loved to fish. He’d go to these lakes, never catch anything. It was funny, because we’d always rent this stupid van and go on these trips. But that was a pretty big deal for me. I honestly think that it altered the course of my life.”

The ’06 Sprinter’s maiden voyage was a mission to Oregon, in pursuit of this year’s total solar eclipse. Burkard and his four-man crew piled into the van, drove 15 hours, parked, snapped photos (including one ludicrously epic shot), and left. “In comparison to other trips we’ve done with that many people and that much gear — we’re lugging multiple cameras, huge tripods, all this random crap — it was totally seamless,” Burkard says.

When Ansel Adams first rigged a camera platform to his ’47 Pontiac Streamliner, the golden age of his life’s professional work began in earnest. Perhaps by climbing atop his custom ’06 Sprinter, Burkard is about to do the same. Armed with a new mobile photography rig, he is poised to reach new heights, both literally and figuratively, in the field of adventure photography.

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