At the end of summer 2016, the Save The Waves Film Festival rolled the dice on hosting an event in the Hamptons during Labor Day weekend. Most people instinctively associate the Hamptons with ostentatious beach mansions, cardigan sweaters, and $40 lobster rolls – a place where most folks can barely afford to even window shop. That’s actually not too far off the mark. But driving east, past all that and at the end of the road, is a quaint, salty fishing village called Montauk. On its day, this is the home of perhaps some of the best surf on the east coast, as well as one of the most eclectic and artistic surf communities in the US. This is where the Save The Waves Film Festival road crew fell in love with Long Island.
During our first magic session, on borrowed boards from our friends at Grain Surfboards, we met a solo surfer who paddled over and began chatting us up. By the end of our surf we had lunch plans, and by the end of that lunch, we had plans to park our Escape Campervan in our new friend’s driveway and enjoy his hospitality for the duration of our stay. Over the course of a week, James Katsipis, who many locals refer to as the unofficial de facto mayor of Montauk, acted as our surf and culture guide, steering us to the best waves that his community has to offer.
This year, James has been on board from the beginning to bring the STW Film Festival back to Long Island. This year, however, it’s coming to his own backyard in Montauk. Along with securing donated oceanfront venue space at Atlantic Terrace and bringing Taylor Steele in to the mix to present his new feature film Proximity, James has become an ambassador for Save The Waves in his community, keeping us abreast of rising threats to local surf resources and actively engaging his peers in the local surfing community in protest efforts when necessary.
As we gear up for our first screening in Montauk (on Thursday, September, 14) I sat down with James to discuss his obsession with photography and what makes Montauk such a magic place. What follows below are excerpts from our conversation:
When did the shift occur with your photography practice from interest to life-consuming passion? Was there a specific shoot or event that changed your perspective, or just a steady incline in your interest that continues today?
My interest started solely out of a desire for cutting class. I knew that if I took photography I could use the camera they gave me as an unlimited hall pass. Just wave the camera at the hall monitor, no questions asked. They all thought I was doing a photo project. That class taught me the basics of photography and developing film, which I’m so grateful for today. Most kids don’t even know what a roll of film looks like nowadays.
Things changed with my first real assignment for Eastern Surf Magazine. Jimmy Wilson was photo editor there at the time. Jimmy is the nicest guy, a great photographer, and has always helped me along, answering technical questions and offering professional critiques of my work. He eventually gave me an assignment to shoot pro surfer Quincy Davis and Leif Engstrom’s two twin sisters Alexis and Ariel. Mind you, Quincy was like 10 back then. They ran the shots, and when I got a copy, opened it up and saw my photos in a surf mag… that feeling brought me a very real sense of accomplishment and I was hooked. I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.
What advice would you give to someone that’s interested in making a career out of creative photography?
Buy yourself a set of horse blinders – that way you won’t get caught up with what other people are doing and you can focus all your attention on your own work and developing your own style. Keep your head down and grind every day. Become obsessed with it and let it consume you. And most importantly, you have to want it more than the next guy. Passion is key.
One of your favorite places to shoot is called “Project Montauk.” Could you explain your fascination with this place?
Good ol’ Montauk Project. Aka Camp Hero. It’s an old military air base in the middle of the woods at the very end of Montauk. And there is a massive old radar dish that sticks up out of the woods like an art installation. Let’s back track about 25 years; Duncan Cameron wrote a book called The Montauk Project. It’s about how he worked at the Camp Hero base and how the military was doing all sorts of crazy experiments. For instance, cloaking devices for ships to go undetected by enemy radar. Which in the book turned out to open a portal to time travel and other dimensions. It’s closely linked to the Philadelphia Experiment. They kidnapped kids and did telepathic mind control tests. Oh yeah and the Montauk beast. So for some of you, this might sound an awful lot like the new show “Stranger Things,” and that’s because the writers of that show based the whole show around our air base and the book The Montauk Project. The show was supposed to be called Montauk and they were going to film here but the town permits are too expensive now. Anyway, when we were young, the airbase wasn’t technically classified as functional and everyone but a couple security guards had left and they tried to cover up all their tracks. But we would sneak in and find the creepiest stuff in these underground bunkers like giant cages with chairs in them, checks from Boeing for fractions of pennies, and massive generators that looked like they powered an Apollo mission. We used to get chased out by guard dogs. Now it’s all boarded up and landscaped. They turned it into a giant picnic area. The irony.
When we met you were an outspoken opponent of the Army Corps idea of beach bagging to “protect” your local beaches. Could you briefly explain what beach bagging is and the impact it’s had on your beaches?
Let me check my blood pressure first before I get into this because I don’t want to stroke out. So, the Army Corps claims these “geo bags” are environmentally safe. They fill them with one ton of “sand.” Unfortunately, we didn’t get the “sand” we all agreed upon. We got orange dirt. And the “geo bags” are literally just hard plastic bags. They tear easily and then get sucked out into the ocean, leaving our once pristine beach looking like a Donald Trump spray tan. Not to mention, there’s a ton of hard, shredded plastic floating around and washing up miles down the beach. They dug out our first line of defense against storm surges – our main natural dunes – and installed 10,000 one-ton bags of orange spray tan dirt and basically threw strands of dune grass on top of it and called it a day. It made our beach look like an orange-faced guy with bad hair plugs.
What are the biggest current threats facing Montauk’s beaches and surf resources today?
Well, they already ruined the Atlantic Terraces break. All that garbage dirt sand they put on top of the bags washed out (as predicted) and made our outer bar even bigger, so swells hit that first now and by the time it hits the inside rock reef it’s just a wonky mess. It used to peeeeeeel. We could surf it year round almost daily. There would always be something to ride if you were absolutely frothing to get wet. Now, not so much.
Do you ever see yourself leaving Montauk? What makes this place so special for you?
Did my wife ask you to ask me that? I have “Montauk” literally tattooed across my back, shoulder to shoulder. So it would be really hard to squeeze another town name in next to it. For a photographer or anyone really, the landscapes of Montauk are unbelievable. I’m in love with the history of this place too. We have the first settled cattle ranch in America. George Washington commissioned our lighthouse. Teddy Roosevelt came out here with the Rough Riders and set up camp. And there’s so much more.
Ever seen the movie Goonies? Sure you have. That was growing up in Montauk, but without the villains and ORVs with bullet holes in them. We were always exploring and with Montauk being such a tight knit town, everyone always had eyes on us so we couldn’t get into too much trouble as kids. It was one massive playground – surfing, fishing, awesome skate spots to explore. No crime back then either. We left our cars running in the winter while we were in the bank or grocery store and no one ever locked their doors. We never even had a key to the house. There just wasn’t a problem with any of that kind of stuff happening here. The two cops that were on duty would sit next to each other and chat, and if we knew where they were sitting, we also then knew where we could have some “privacy” so to say.
This community is my family. Even if we don’t particularly like one another we still all love each other. When someone is in a tight spot, we all pull together as a community to help out. No matter who it is or your relationship with them. That’s all irrelevant when one of us needs help. I’ve traveled all over the world and even have a place in Santorini (where my family is from), but at the end of the day, when I want to be back home, I want to be in Montauk. I have yet to find another place in the world like it.
Editor’s Note: The STWFF is proudly presented by Parley, with support from Patagonia, Clif Bar, Peak Design, Klean Kanteen, Escape Campervans, Poler, The Inertia, Tito’s Vodka, Suerte Tequila, Firewire Surfboards + more. Event tickets and more info can be found here for the Save the Waves Film Festival’s stop in Montauk on Thursday, September 14.