An Auteur of Cold Surf

Mr. Katsipis captures surfers in all types of weather
James Katsipis opts for a “seal’s-eye view” of the winter surfing action in Montauk, taking to the water when he takes still images and video here and in Ireland.

   James Katsipis of Montauk had the idea to join Kickstarter, an online site that raises money for individual creative projects, on a whim and a Hail Mary, he said. He had no idea it would go off the way it did. The photographer wanted to raise enough money to avoid exhibiting his work within traditional borders and frames.
    As of this week, the site has raised more than $10,000, several thousand more than he had asked for, and his video, “Cold Water Surfing Series,” has received over 1,000 hits. It can be viewed on the Kickstarter site through Sunday, and then at an exhibit at Neoteric Fine Art in Amagansett from April 26 through May 22.
    The video was shot this past winter in Montauk and Ireland. With his waterproof camera, Mr. Katsipis captures surfers in all types of weather getting barreled in a wave, on a snowy dock, staying warm near a beach fire, and even underwater.
    He began his project with a slide show but an artist friend told him he should make it into a video with sound and music. It took four months for him to do so — and two days locked in his bedroom talking to his computer, refining the sound of his voice. “I’m no Morgan Freeman,” he said, laughing.
    It wasn’t until he attended East Hampton High School that he first picked up a camera, and even then it wasn’t because of a great interest in photography — it was because he noticed the kids in photography class roaming the halls instead of sitting in a classroom. “I realized a camera would be my hall pass,” he said.
    But he failed photography class because he never went. He said all his friends would be out surfing and he was miserable in school. One day he went down to Atlantic Terrace, a popular surf spot in Montauk, and starting shooting the surfers with an old Canon camera and a handful of film. But that was tough, too, because as he watched them surf he wanted in. “It was a double-edge sword.”
    He took up photographing cold-water surfing to show what surfers in Montauk go through when they have the waves to themselves after the tourists and surfing wannabes leave. He wanted to show the breed of cold-water surfers as they really look, and not stereotypical images of blond-haired surfers wearing board shorts year round.
    “We don’t have the hair. We’re all in flannel shirts and jeans, trying to keep warm,” he said, adding that Montauk has just a select few hard-core surfers.
    Donning his own wetsuit, he freezes as much as they do, he said, noting that he has photographed surfers in water temperatures that range from 20 to 40 degrees. These days, it’s hovering around 34 degrees, he said.
    “If they go, I go. If they’re cold, I’m cold. If they’re suffering, I’m suffering. I have a seal’s-eye view,” he says in the video.
    When a storm some called Nemo was predicted in early February, Mr. Katsipis said he couldn’t wait for daylight to get outside and take pictures of his gang surfing in the snowy weather.
    “The snow was going to look so good in the photos. I couldn’t sleep. It was like Christmas,” he said Friday, tucked into a booth at his family’s restaurant, MTK Cafe, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and wool cap, always trying to get warm.
    For two weeks at the end of February, he traveled with some surfer buddies to the west coast of Ireland, where he saw the biggest swell he has ever seen. It was an uncomfortable trek to get to the water, though. It was often raining and the famous Irish bluffs were muddy, slippery, and dangerous. “They’re the most hard-core surfers in the world.” The footage from Ireland was included in the video, although most of it was filmed in Montauk.
    His work has appeared in several surf publications, including those in Ireland, England, and Brazil. Last month he had a picture published in Rolling Stone magazine. His sponsors include Oakley, Whalebone Creative, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Wampum, Montauk Brewing, Monster Energy Drinks, and NYsea, a collective of surfers, skaters, and artists.
    Once his video appeared on Kickstarter, he started getting messages from people all over the world. A terminally ill man praised him and said his pictures had allowed him to live vicariously through his work. “That made me cry,” Mr. Katsipis said.
    Anyone who contributes to his Kickstarter site receives a piece of the photographer’s work. It can range from a postcard for a $5 donation to a signed, matted, custom-framed image for $1,500. If someone were to donate $5,000, which has not yet happened, that person would receive a photo shoot anywhere on Long Island, either in water or on land, or a modeling session or family portrait.
    His opening at Neoteric on April 26 will start with a party at 6 p.m. There will be music, food, goodies from his sponsors, and a streaming show of his cold-water surf video.
    “My primary force is beauty and style. If something hits me emotionally, I want to convey that emotion, and I think this show will do that,” he said.

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James Katsipis