Every June since 2016, Breck’s arts district has hosted the WAVE festival, a four-day exhibition of interactive light and sound installations on the banks of the Blue River. Giving that theme a perennial presence downtown, over the summer, Nick Selway, a pioneer of the extremely niche art of lava surf photography, opened his eponymous gallery above the Lost Cajun on the south end of Main Street.
And what, you ask, is lava surf photography? It’s exactly as it sounds: On the Big Island of Hawaii, Selway and fellow daredevil photographer C.J. Kale were among the first in their profession to capture images of Mount Kilauea magma flowing into the Pacific, framed as in a kaleidoscope through the tube of a breaking wave.
“Five years ago, I jumped in the water with the volcano and I saw this amazing shot I could get right down the barrel of the wave,” Kale, a former Navy rescue swimmer, explained to a videographer from the Daily Mail in 2014. “You’re swimming in 110-degree water filled with volcanic glass and lava bombs, so we got kinda burnt up and cut up, but the shots were totally worth it. It’s all about excitement.”
On camera, Selway concurred.
“I love nature,” he added, voicing over footage showing the pair hiking over lava beds, then swimming in surf perilously close to a cascade of bright yellow magma, clicking away with cameras in enormous waterproof cases. “Whenever I go hiking or swimming, it’s just a bonus if I get a good photo. Mother Nature creates everything; I just put myself out there and hope to capture something when it happens.”
And, of course, live to add it to the oeuvre.
After his first serious forays with a camera as an undergraduate at North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene nearly two decades ago, Selway transferred to the Seattle Institute of Art to major in landscape photography. Uninspired by Seattle’s urban sprawl (having been raised in Washington’s Northern Cascades), after a few months at SIA he concluded that immersing himself in nature, rather than shackling himself to the syllabus of a big-city art school, was all the education he really needed. In 2005, in his early twenties, Selway decamped to Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, the most exotic environment he could imagine. Working as a guide on a dive and snorkel boat to fund his photography, he met C.J. Kale, another adventurer with a camera. In their off-time they circumnavigated the island, frequently hiking through darkness shouldering tripods and cameras to capture glowing lava flows at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park at dawn, and shooting the sunset through waves on local beaches, eventually merging the two genres as lava surf photography.
They started selling their almost surrealist images to tourists from a 50-square-foot kiosk next door to the Kailua-Kona Bubba Gump Shrimp Co, which led to brick-and-mortar Lava Light Galleries in town and at the Hilton up the coast at Waikoloa Village. Last spring, after a decade as an artist and gallerist in that Pacific paradise, Selway decided he needed a change.
“You do anything long enough and you master it,” he explains. “The lava and the waves, I couldn’t get any better at it…. I had photographed these amazing things so many times, I felt like I almost maxed out on my creativity. I wanted to challenge myself, and I thought, how cool would it be to open my own gallery someplace where I’ve never lived?”
So when he heard from a North Idaho College friend that local landscape artist Jerry Georgeff had closed his Blue River Fine Art Gallery in La Cima Mall last March, Selway took over the lease, renovated the space, and moved off the island, settling in Breckenridge. His local mountain now may be a ski hill instead of an active volcano, but seen anew through the lens of a landscape photographer, it’s every bit as spectacular.
“The scenery here is just breathtaking,” says Selway. “People in mountain towns are like people in beach towns: everyone is mellow and chill, everyone lives here for a reason. They live here because they like the outdoors, because they want to ski and snowboard.”
Although the large-format images he’s taken of Colorado’s topography—shot with motion and long exposures to make familiar landscapes look more like abstract paintings, especially when rendered as almost billboard-size Lumachrome prints encased in high-definition acrylic panels that create a holographic effect—it’s his work from the Pacific that seems to resonate most with pedestrians shivering on Main Street.
“Everyone says they come in here because they see my images of Hawaii on the easels,” he says, pointing to a photo that hangs over his desk, “The Crossroads,” intersecting lightning bolts of magma glowing red hot through cracks in the depths of Kilauea’s dark crater. “A lot of my stuff looks abstract; you don’t always know what you’re looking at. It’s simple, and powerful. I joke with everyone that this is just a retail store with beautiful stuff on the walls.”
It helps that his particular brand of beautiful stuff—waves and lava—sells like hotcakes in the chill of winter on the streets of Breckenridge.
Dec 1–Feb 25
Old Masonic Hall
136 Main St, Breckenridge; breckcreate.org
The Nick Selway Photography Gallery
411 S Main St Unti 17, Breckenridge