Montauk Photographer at War with the End, to the World’s Delight
James Katsipis is challenged mercilessly by Montauk. His endless struggle for her respect is yielding one of the world’s best photographers.
By Carter Randolph Tyler
James Katsipis, Montauk born and raised, is obsessed with the End. She’s in his blood and he will never leave her. But even as he has learned to see her beauty and appreciate her subtlety as nobody else could ever understand, she only opens up to him when she is ready, on her terms, when it suits. A heartless bitch. He relentlessly chases, obsesses, lurks, cajoles, and sometimes, if she’s in the mood, he gets some love. On those rare occasions, James is a happy man. He goes home, relives what she’s given, unwinds, melts into his music, perhaps cries at the beauty of success, and falls asleep happy. But he knows as he drifts that she’s got him, always. He’ll grovel again tomorrow in his endless struggle for respect in paradise.
Thankfully for all of us, James chases and memorializes his obsession with Montauk with film, digitally speaking. It’s love, pure and raw, for the word to see. If you’ve seen his work, you’ll understand immediately what I’m hinting at. If you haven’t seen it, cast about on these pages and ponder what a person would have to do, in photographic skill and physical exertion, to get these other-worldly shots. I went crazy trying to decide which ones to print here.
James and I had a long chat in the Spring of 2017 about his love of Montauk, surfing, sharks, the End’s natural beauty, and his journey into photography. I spent some time perusing his work online before our meeting but I didn’t know what motivated the man who produced such mesmerizing images of the End. Surfer Magazine, Outdoor World, Page 6, and countless Manhattanites scooping up his work while it is still relatively cheap, I figured, were onto something.
James is a beast who can’t help but go down in history as one of the world’s greatest photographers
I knew within twenty minutes that James is a beast who can’t help but go down in history as one of the world’s greatest photographers. He doesn’t know this himself because he’s on a different cloud than the rest of us. He’s not comparing himself to other great photographers as might be expected; he’s comparing himself and competing against a vaporous, incorporeal perception of how good he can be. He sees Montauk’s beauty everywhere, in the surfers he loves shooting, our light, our history, mystery and lore. These things combine every day all over Montauk in a shifting maelstrom of photographic opportunity that he’ll never, ever be able to completely capture.
He incomprehensibly throws his camera in the trash with some regularity, he tells me, after a day of bone chilling shooting in the frigid sea, or after bloodying himself traipsing through swamps and brambles in pursuit of that perfect sliver of light that he knows is coming at just the right time of day, during the right season, under just the right weather conditions. He’ll never win. But his tireless, brutish, passionate efforts are throwing off some of the most striking images ever captured and have taught him more than any amount of formal photographic tutelage could have done. “I don’t even know Photoshop and I am not classically trained, but I was put on this earth to be a photographer…it saved my life,” he told me without an ounce of arrogance or chutzpah. In fact he said it with humility, like it was a calling. I believe him, and can’t recall ever meeting someone who knows why he’s here. I envy him for knowing.
From Humble Beginnings, Well Placed
In Trading Places, Randolph and Mortimer Duke debate heredity vs. environment as they toy with Billy Ray Valentine, Capricorn. I wonder where the needle falls with James? How much of his photographic genius is Montauk, and how much is born from within? I don’t know, but I think he would say it’s all Montauk.
Who is this man delivering to the world the Montauk that we all want it to see? He’s a young guy, only 34. He is rounded out by a love of sharks, surfing, and his wife Bella, with whom he lives simply here in Montauk. He’s got a fun story and I hope one day he’ll write a book about it. It’s a Montauk story that many will appreciate as it harkens back to an earlier time now tinged with nostalgia, a time of “free range kids”, he says, a time before Montauk became part of the Hamptons and was beset with its latest identity crisis. But no, I’m not going there. That’s another story.
James’ Greek father jumped ship in New York while sailing with the merchant marines out of Santorini in the 60s, worked myriad jobs through a network of friends, gradually moved east and took up work at a Sayville diner where he met the woman who would become James’ mom. She was a waitress there. A friend lured him to check out Montauk and perhaps take a grill job at Salivars. He took one look at Montauk and moved his family there posthaste.
Montauk was beautiful but those days were raw. James called it the “wild east” as he recounts his father’s early days…bikers fighting fisherman and scallopers at Salivars where a deer once jumped through a window and got shot, afterwards. A time replete with larger than life characters like Frank Mundus, who is said to be the inspiration for Quint, from Jaws. James tells these stories with a love of Montauk’s history and nostalgia about his parents’ early life in Montauk. He’s proud of it and I know it’s part of him.
James was born in 1983. Growing up in Montauk left him with a stew of conflicting emotions. He is not ebullient about his school memories but speaks fondly of simpler days when nobody carried house keys and parents knew the numbers to all the public phone booths and would call whenever they needed to find their kids. He recalls days of smoking on the corner where Bliss now sits and sneaking into Camp Hero to explore surreal bunkers and abandoned structures, where he once found thousands of WWII era checks made out to Boeing.
But one thing gave him real structure and routine, helping to shape him into the man he became: surfing at Atlantic Terrace. Summers there with friends and ocean mentors taught him to respect surfing and the codes of safety and etiquette that now, he says, are seriously eroded. “Nobody got hurt, people followed the rules then,” he reminisces.
The Forging of a Master
And so it was at Atlantic Terrace that his photographic genius was forged. High school, however, had put the first cameras in his hands. He wanted to walk the halls during class and not get in trouble for it, like the photography kids got to do. A short-sighted escape from the doldrums of class turned out to be life-altering for James because holding a camera give him a bigger thrill than cutting class and escaping into the school’s darkroom for…whatever, but he learned in there, too.
After school he was always at Atlantic Terrace anyway, so he started shooting surfers while not riding waves himself. After a while his hobby matured and became good enough to get him a paid gig with Eastern Surf Magazine. He thought they had forgotten about his submissions but when the issue came out, his shots were in it. He was a f*** up at the time, as he explains, but the rush of seeing his shots in print made him start to see a calling. It was a real drug. His mom was freaked out that he wanted to be a photographer, he says, and shakes his head, as he hadn’t finished college. I ask him what she thinks of him now, today. He pauses and I’m anticipating negativity, but he says, “my parents are so proud of me.” I was happy to hear him say that. I was cheering for him.
Surfing, Sharks, the Giants
Surfing is a huge part of James’ love of Montauk and his photographic work, much of which takes place in the waves, particularly in the cold, bleak winter months, which he loves. Shooting and surfing demand everything from him so he chooses one or the other on a given day. “I feel like I always choose wrong,” he laments. Some of his most recognizable shots are from his cold-water surf photography. “Juno,” his shot of three surfers lumbering toward the surf in knee-deep snow during winter storm Juno, helped put him on the map. The pic went viral and both CNN and the Weather Channel interviewed him as a result. Indeed, James is wrapping up a book titled “Montauk, The Cold Bitter End,” that will showcase his work capturing the beauty of the End during the bleak, isolated months of winter, when few outsiders visit.
Montauk also means sharks, for James. He met his shark-wrangling wife Bella in front of John’s Drive-In after noticing the gold-dipped megalodon shark tooth around her neck (check out finmontauk.com) and the two shark-lovers were hooked. On their second date aboard a Sea Turtle shark dive tour where she was working, out of Montauk, she cajoled James, already a supporter of shark conservation, into the water with his camera. With several small blue sharks nipping at him curiously from below as he pushed away bigger ones with his camera, prudence landed him back on the deck. But he got back in and learned to swim with them. “They don’t care about me, I realized. I play chicken with them and they always turn away first,” he told me. Some of his shark photos are insane.
Some notable Montauk people loom large in shaping James’ photography. One is the famed Walter Iooss, who he calls his mentor, and the master of light. “I learned more in one day assisting him than I did in three semesters in college. Just shooting stuff and listening to him talk about light,” he recalls. James is obsessed with light. Indeed, many of his wave shots are stunningly vibrant, almost unreal. He’s quick to remind that he does not use photoshop or doctor his shots in any way, which seems beyond comprehension for many people, he explains. “It’s all about lighting, lighting, lighting, and a little bit of luck,” he says. James goes on to talk to me about lighting for a long while. It’s an obsession. He watches the light all day, every day, and knows where and how the sun is hitting any object around Montauk at any time. He’s got his favorite spots where he’s discovered a near perfect storm of scenery, light and mood. He won’t divulge the spots, he admonishes.
Peter Beard is another Montauk legend and giant of photography who influenced and inspired James. “My family used to own the MTK Café and Peter would pop in from time to time,” James recalls. I realize James is in awe of these men and their skill as he tells me about growing up in their frequent proximity. I wonder now, as I start thinking about his Mermaids, if James is aware of how much influencing he’s doing.
The Mermaids was a masterstroke that blended James’ talents with Montauk’s water, light, scenery, and beautiful women to yield a mesmerizing and powerful B&W series that is brilliantly provocative. Yes, the Montauk women are enrapturing and magical, but only metaphorical to Montauk itself, which is the true allure of the series. Every shot is Montauk. Beautiful, ethereal, mysterious, and seductive. James picked the women for the series because he recognized something in them that many, he explains, did not see in themselves. On long, sometimes treacherous, frigid or bloody shoots (“Everybody bleeds on my shoots,” he warned them) in unpredictable weather over the course of a full year…meaning winter as well, he made the women see what he saw in them. He pulled the siren to the surface. “Whatever reservations the Mermaids had melted by the end of the shoots,” he explained. James says the Mermaids series gets more accolades from women than men. They love the artistry and beauty of the forms and they see the Montauk in the series more readily than men.
Everybody bleeds on my sets
I asked him where the stunning shot of Candace Ceslow, who adorns the cover of this edition of On Montauk, was taken. He didn’t bite. But true to form the locations were isolated and treacherous, for all involved. They had to be for his recipe to work and produce such stunning images. Sharp rocks, lots of cut hands and toes, police queries, and black fly assaults were recorded in producing the series. In one incident, a loud crash alerted him to an assistant tangled in lights on the ground. He has fainted from cold and crashed to the floor in the middle of a winter shoot near a frozen pond. “We bagged it in that day,” he said dryly.
This is Montauk
The Montauk Chamber commissioned James to make a video promoting the End back in 2015, called “This is Montauk”. It has aired in too many places to mention and I suspect you’ve seen it. If not, google it and enjoy. James is proud of it and loves promoting Montauk. For another taste of his videography, check out his winter surf video “Juno”, one of his best. His video work is wicked and deserves another piece, as I can’t do it justice here. Consider the man that cries in front of his computer when the music and the visuals come together just right. To me that means that, as with James’ photography, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
It’s time to part, the interview over with so much not covered. It’s been a journey for me, leaning about James. I asked him why, of all the places he has traveled and shot…a man who could live anywhere and has seen so many beautiful places, why does he choose to stay in Montauk. He said a few things, all of which make perfect sense. “There’s no place like Montauk in the world. My house in Santorini doesn’t hold a candle to her,” he says. Great sunsets, crazy history, and unrivaled light are all things he mentions. I just think that no other place makes him cry.