The Majesty of Sea, Surf and Montauk in the Photos of James Katsipis
by Ellen Tashie Frisina*
Photographer James Katsipis, 31, lives in Montauk – the very eastern tip of Long Island’s south shore, a small beach community whose population swells in the summer when tourists come for the sand, the surf, the fresh fish, and the sunshine.
He spent summers with his dad Costa’s family in Perissa Beach, Santorini – where the beach, the sunshine and the culture make him feel “alive.”
It is no wonder then that the sea is what brought James Katsipis to his passion and his profession. His photography is artistic and combines the people and the landscapes of Montauk, Long Island – an Eden-like spot surrounded by the magnificent Atlantic Ocean and people who care about each other and are drawn to the water.
He started taking photos of the Montauk landscape, which of course meant the ocean. “Growing up in Montauk, you are of course drawn to the water, “ Katsipis said. “Basically in Montauk everyone either surfs or fishes.” A photography class in high school taught him rudimentary skills and darkroom work, and even though “school was not my thing” his parents insisted he attend community college where he again took a photography class, and this time got instantly hooked. “I was going for a degree in business, but then I took photography as an elective, and came home and told my mother I was not going to finish my business degree because I was going to be a photographer. “ His mother, Diane, he said with a smile, “was not exactly thrilled.”
Taking his camera “and tons of rolls of film” with him to the beach every day, “I would just hold the trigger and take lots of photos of my friends surfing. I didn’t know about lighting or composition, and when you shoot with film, you had to wait to see if your pictures were any good.” He would show his college classmates and his photography professor the photos – mostly Montauk landscapes, ocean scenes and the surfers “and they couldn’t believe where I lived,” he said. “No one knew Montauk then, it was like stepping into the unknown, the jungle.”
Encouraged by the praise he was receiving and “the almost meditative state of working in a darkroom developing film,” Katsipis began to submit his photos to local newspapers, earning maybe $10 a shot. But that made him a professional photographer and brought him notice from Eastern Surf Magazine, published in Florida. Because he was friends with many pro and semi-pro surfers in Montauk, one connected him to the magazine which was looking for someone local to shoot a feature. “My friend the surfer Leif Engstrom told the magazine, ‘I have a friend with a camera’ and they hired me to take his picture.”
Making some money from his craft, Katsipis knew the next step was to “go digital. It was really difficult to wait for film to be developed, and I was working for places that had deadlines and I need to get pictures out on the fly.” So he purchased a digital SLR Canon – and his career took off. “I had amazing subjects, and phenomenal backdrops, and a great group of surfers in Montauk. I just kept taking photos, sending them out” and before long was offered a position as staff photographer at Eastern Surf. He now proudly holds the position of Senior Photographer there.
But still, he wanted to advance his craft. “I saw other surf photographers swimming with their cameras and getting great shots,” so with his photography money, he purchased a waterproof housing for his camera. “I took it to Ditch Plains (one of Montauk’s most famous surf spots) and the photos were fantastic,” he said. “I knew I could no longer be stuck on the beach but had to be ‘submerged’ with my subjects.”
Katsipis tells of an opportunity – again through the connection with surfing — that helped him hone his craft immensely. Katsipis ‘ surfing buddy Bjorn Iooss is the son of Walter Iooss, often called one of the world’s greatest sports photographers. Iooss is best known for his award-winning images of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Scottie Pippen and Muhammad Ali; for the past 40 years, he has photographed the magazine’s swimsuit issue. “One day Bjorn said his father was shorthanded and looking for an assistant for a shoot in Montauk, and he gave him my name,” Katsipis remembers. It was a shoot for Women’s Health magazine “and my job was to hold the reflector so the light would shine” on the models in the right places. “Well, that opened my eyes,” Katsipis recalls. “I watched how Iooss used available light, I listened to how he talked to the models, and I realized he sees stuff that nobody else sees. He actually ‘feels the light.’ I worked with him four times and learned more from him than in a hundred photography classes.”
He also credits another famous Montauk connection with helping him master his craft. Peter Beard, famous American photographer, has a home and studio in Montauk, where for years he photographed famous models and rock stars who summered in this east end town. He often came into the Katsipis’ restaurant, MTK Café, where a young Katsipis would engage him in “shop talk. I admit that not a lot of people get to do what I get to do, and meet the people I get to meet,” he says.
It may have been Beard’s influence that directed Katsipis to see his photography as art, and he began showing at several local galleries. “I was just starting to enter this world, and I didn’t sell anything at first,” he admits, “but I wasn’t discouraged. I just kept shooting and learning.” The gallery showings brought him some commission work, “and people kept telling me I had an eye, but I wasn’t yet where I wanted to be.” People were also telling him that where he wanted to be was New York City. No, he said. “Montauk is where I live, it’s who I am,” Katsipis said. “I have no intention of getting out of here.” But he did travel, to Santorini, to Costa Rica, to Peru, to Ireland – each time taking all of his camera equipment and posting his photos on social media sites — first MySpace, then Facebook, Instagram (#letstaukgrams) and his own website (www.jameskatsipis.com). Social media is where he began to get attention, and sales. “I took a photo of a lightning strike over the Montauk Point Lighthouse” and sold several dozen copies of that to private buyers via social media, he said. Several magazines also saw that shot of the iconic Long Island landmark and he got even more attention for his work.
All his photos, he said, are natural. “I don’t even know how to use Photoshop,” he laughs. “Photography is a feeling. I can go to a location and just not ‘feel’ it, so will pack it up and move on, “ he said. “I always try to find the right light. I spend hours driving around, exploring different settings, to see how the light ‘feels.’”
Last year, he put together a series of photographs called “The Cold Water Surfer Series” explaining that “the ocean waves are best in the winter when it’s snowing and cold and the water is 36-degrees.” He photographed his friend and fellow Montauk resident Jesse Joeckel surfing in February, right near the Montauk Point Lighthouse. “It was cold and dark and the waves were big,” he said, “and I took some portraits of him shivering by the Lighthouse. The portraits were beautiful, and really encompassed the life of coldwater surfers in Montauk.” He needed, he said, “a new project” and got into the water and photographed the surfers all winter. “The storms made the waves perfect, it was cold, they were tumbled, and as they came out of the surf with their wetsuits the photos were amazing.” He chose to print these photos on large pieces of Plexiglas – some as large as 6’ x 4’ – and financed the printing with a Kickstarter campaign that raised $11,000 in two weeks. He exhibited at a fine art gallery in Amagansett, got lots of media coverage and sold many of the pieces.
But Katsipis is nothing if not motivated to keep moving forward. His latest project is a series called Mermaids of Montauk, where he photographs women in and near the ocean in ethereal poses. These photos are most definitely artistic, and he hopes that they will bring him recognition as a portraitist and fashion photographer. “This project now combines my love of water with my love of working with people,” he said. “I’ve never been shy, and I love talking to people. I think that’s really a part of being Greek.”
Recently engaged to be married, Katsipis took his fiancée Bella to meet his family in Santorini right before they got engaged. Bella is a “shark wrangler” on a dive charter boat in Montauk, and shares his love for the ocean. In Santorini, they went diving and snorkeling “and she met my family, and everyone loves her,” he said. “She fit right in with the Greek culture of fun.”
Admitting that he is “as Greek as you can be in Montauk” where there are very few year-round residents of Greek descent, Katsipis says nevertheless he is certain that being Greek-American has fostered his love of the sea. And his love of the sea has fostered his passion and his career.
Ellen Tashie Frisina is an Associate Professor in the Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University (Hempstead, NY) where she teaches Public Relations.