Resting at the east end of long island, is a quaint little fishing town with a surfing problem… Montauk – The end of the world. A town of less than 4,000 residents has become a newly popular summer tourist destination with some of the nicest beaches in the world, and raw and authentic small town vibe.
Just beyond Main Street, past good old Herb’s Market, the Sloppy Tuna, and just west of the famous Ditch Plains, lies a hidden local surf hangout known as Atlantic Terrace. Here we found Montauk native and surf photographer, James Katsipis.
From fashion to landscapes, portraits to surfers, under water, on land, or in the middle of a blizzard, James shoots it all.
I met with James at Atlantic Terrace on a surprisingly hot May afternoon, to talk about his adventures in photography, his upcoming projects, and what makes Montauk so special.
“This is where it all began,” said James. “We called ourselves the ATC, or the Atlantic Terrace Crew,” he said, referring to the local Montauk surfers.
“Surfing was my inspiration… I would look at surf magazines, and say ‘wow, these are great images’ but I realized we had no photos of us surfing.” James soon elected himself to the job of getting those photos. In high school, he saw that you could wander the halls without getting in trouble if you waved your camera at the hall monitor, because they assumed you were in photography class, and that’s what put the camera into his hands.
“Photography class taught me the basics, and I just brought it to the beach,” he said. “I sat on the shoreline with about 10 roles of film, and I shot continuously,” said James, adding that he would then drive nearly 20 miles to Bridgehampton to have the film developed.
“All photography was to me was surfing, and fun, and hanging out with friends… it wasn’t serious, I was just capturing moments.”
The first time James got himself published was in Eastern Surf Magazine, when friend, fellow Montauk native, and surfer, Leif Engstrom, called him up and said that ESM needed anyone with a camera to shoot two portraits of Leif’s little sisters, Ariel and Alexis. “The photo editor Jimmy Wilson said, just don’t shoot anything over 400 ISO, because it’s for print and it will get grainy… and those were the first technical photography terms I really heard.” James took photos of the twin surfers racing and in their mom’s range rover with all of their surf trophies proudly sitting on top.
“Getting my first picture published felt amazing. I felt like I really accomplished something,” He said, adding that he wanted to continue chasing that feeling.
After that, 16 year old James got on the phone and started writing photo editors, asking for help and exposure, and explaining why he wanted to be a photographer.
“Anything I do, I obsess over it. Anything I do is 100%, and it has to be something I’m passionate about,” said James. “I just started doing it more, and did a lot more locally.”
“I don’t need to have a camera in my hand to be making photos and composing. My sight used to be 180 degrees, but now it’s like a viewfinder… I’m always looking for the next shot.”
And as if on que, James holds up his hands as a viewfinder, and then pulls out his iPhone. “Do you see that? It’s like a whale’s tale… it’s all about perspective,” He says, as he positions his hands to snap the shot.
“I love surfing, it’s given me my career, but as an artist, I like trying different avenues, and I like trying to shoot different stuff, more than just water and surfboards… I see beauty everywhere.”
When James shoots in water surfing, it’s not your average GoPro surf shot… he’s on the same wave, getting the same rush as they’re getting as they are surfing, “it’s sort of like a dance… we have to watch each other and work together. It’s dangerous.”
As a self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie… James says he knows what he’s getting into, and he accepts the possibility of getting worked in a wave, because he could possibly come out with his best shot.
What’s the most memorable shoot you’ve ever done?
“It was somewhere on the West Coast of Ireland… I couldn’t even tell you where,” James said, adding that the location was cold, wet, dark, and windy.
“We suited up in the morning with our wellies up to our thighs… we were walking through knee high mud for about a quarter mile to get to a wave that could potentially kill you.” He said that they climbed down 600 foot cliffs and scaled down little goat trails to get to the waves.
They were hardcore surfers, and instead of sand under the waves, there were concrete bottoms, and the consequences were serious.
“We swam out and as we got closer the waves got bigger, 15-18 feet… It was intimidating,” he started, “Someone whistled at me, and I turned around and the horizon was gone. My camera is like 15 pounds, and I just grabbed it and swam down and dug into the rock.”
“It pulled me in, and I let go and just shot out. We had a couple broken boards, and a couple humbling experiences, but I’ll never forget that day.”
In a seasonal tourist destination, James spoke about what makes Montauk so special to him, and how his work portrays the real Montauk that most out-of-towners seem to miss.
With new faces popping up each day, he is asked more frequently to shoot promotions, parties, and events. “I pick and choose where I want to go…I won’t sell out. I’ll always be true to myself,” James said. Everything he shoots is his personal experiences… it’s his day-to-day life in Montauk.
“Someone told me if I wanted to be a photographer, I’d have to leave Montauk, and I didn’t believe that. I do what I do because I love it. I love my life, I love living in Montauk… and that is what makes my photos what they are; that’s what people like about them. It comes off as true authentic passion for something that can’t be created in a studio in New York City.”
James began to reminisce about the town that Montauk used to be before the hype… “We would surf all day, throw on clean board shorts and a t-shirt and go out at night… now it’s like red ropes and bottle service.”
James says that he and most others who grew up in the small town knew what they had, they knew how special it was.
By trying to turn Montauk into the city, they’re missing the point, he says. “You’re missing what Montauk is all about… embracing the landscape and the beaches and the little nooks and crannies you can’t remake in Manhattan inside one of these chic bars, it doesn’t matter how much sand you throw on the ground, it’s never gonna be Montauk.”
Mermaids of Montauk:
On the other end of the surfing and landscape spectrum, is one of James’ most prominent projects, Mermaids of Montauk. The black and white photo series features models submerged in and around the waters of Montauk.
“Mermaids is such a great pause from surfing… I can sort of flex the other side of my brain,” said James, “I wanted to combine my love of shooting fashion, and my love of swimming and surfing.”
The first mermaid James ever shot was a local model he had shot for a Montauk based clothing company. He asked her if she would be up for trying something different, not exactly knowing what he had in mind. With no specific guidelines, but plenty to work with in Montauk, James shot her near a local beach and dock, and then they decided to just dive in, all out.
“The result was beautiful,” James said, “it wasn’t something you’re pinning in your locker… It’s art, It’s a statement piece.”
James posted one of the shots on his social media accounts to see what sort of response he would get. “My notifications and inboxes went crazy,” he said, “It blew up, was a huge success.”
Within hours of posting the photo, it was reported and take off of instagram, “You know you’ve made it when you get your first hater,” he said with a laugh.
Following the success of the photo, James put the project to sleep for a while, not knowing where to take it from there. When summer came around, he decided to expand the shoot into a series, so he posted a message on facebook saying “calling all mermaids,” and was flooded with emails and messages of girls wanting to take part.
James shot nearly 30 ‘mermaids’ last summer from all over, he had the cops called on his shoot, and heard one too many bad jokes about the ‘mermen of Montauk,’ but following a long summer of shooting, he was contacted by a website looking to showcase his work as a new artist of Montauk.
In order to strike while the iron was hot, so to speak, James put together a showcase in only one week, while the project had a large following and buzz. After a successful show, he ran out of warmth for the mermaids. “We shot a winter mermaid during the blizzard,” James said, adding that it was a slightly dangerous production.
This will be the last summer he will shoot the series before work begins on the photo book, book tours, and more shows.
On Social Media:
With over 10,000 followers on @letstaukgrams, and over 9,000 on @mermaidsofmontauk, James states how social media plays a large part in the marketing of photography with the changes in the accessibility and the mediums used.
As a photographer it’s very competitive, James says, adding that these days, an absolutely incredible photo only gets 10 seconds of your attention, and all it gets is a like. We are flooded with great photos, but photographers must find a unique way to brand themselves and their work.
“No one does a better PR job for me, than me,” said James. “I created a brand for myself with letstaukgrams…” he continued, speaking of his instagram username. “People come up to me and say, oh, are you letstaukgrams?” adding that social media has helped launch his career.
“People don’t see the business end of what I post on facebook,” he says, “they see the post but they don’t see my inbox flood with messages after I post it.”
He says that people don’t often understand that there is more to what he does than likes and comments, there’s a back end to everything, a business end. “Companies pay me to give them shoutouts on instagram…” He says.
Staying on top of all of his social media accounts all the time is a full time job for James… “I obsess. Day and night, I wake up and look at my phone first thing, and that’s work for me.”
“I eat, sleep, breathe, dream about photography… It’s not my job, it’s my life.”