All Without a Single Cat

By Richard Barons
Phillip Andrew Lehans

“These Hamptons”
Phillip Andrew Lehans
Schiffer, $50

     A number of years ago, a friend from the publishing world was complaining about the sorry state of the book business. It wasn’t really his spring selection that annoyed him, but rather his audience of readers who most disturbed him.

    At first it seemed that the audience for novels was getting dumber with each year. But after several high-octane Rob Roys (it was some time ago), it seemed that his problem was finding mystery book titles that would appeal to his readers. He said that the only books that sell have “cat” in the title, or “Nantucket.” He said “Hamptons” also would sell a cozy murder tale. So I suggested “The Nantucket Cat Solves the Hamptons Murders” or “Death on Nantucket With the Hamptons Cat.” He told me both of these titles had already been taken and wondered if I ever read the best-seller lists.

    In reality, he was right. Add “dog” or “Venice” to a title and the airport news shops can hardly keep these books on their shelves. And I must admit that since I enjoy visiting beautiful places that other people have already discovered, my bookcases have any number of books with “Paris,” “Martha’s Vineyard,” or “Barbados” on their dust jackets. There certainly seems to be no end to Hamptons books as the summer season approaches.

    So with spring in mind (and sometimes in the air), I visited one of our few remaining local booksellers to see what new titles have been added to the Hamptons section. I didn’t see a Hamptons cat book, but there was a Hamptons dog book. There were many quite wonderful books about windmills, lost buildings, gardens, and cooking — all of these had “Hamptons” in their titles.

    But it was the oversized shelf that seemed to call, as it bulged with new picture books. One stood out because it was from a publishing house that has heretofore dealt with books about antiques and Americana — Schiffer Publishing of Pennsylvania. I had known Schiffer’s founder 40 years ago, so I pulled out the five-pound volume titled “These Hamptons” by Phillip Andrew Lehans to see which Hamptons were his. I have found that often representations of the East End (and in particular the South Fork) are not really the communities I know. And it is such an odd feeling reading drivel about your own village.

    There are times when I feel I could become a curmudgeon (there are those who may think I have achieved that goal), as my tastes and opinions seem to be less elastic than the last time I checked them. But the dust jacket on “These Hamptons” is eye-catching, with its dozen small vignettes, including indigo blue grapes, a gaggle of masts, and the blurry movement of a Bridgehampton polo match, so I was ready for someone else’s visual trip through the diverse communities that have been called the Hamptons since the 1870s.

    You open the book to great endpapers depicting two huge, torn, bright yellow-green ticket stubs from the Sag Harbor Cinema. An eye-popping introduction to a beloved local institution — good start. And then on to the dust jacket flap with its wide encompassing definition of what the Hamptons include.

    Now, we know that there are many compromising expansions to the map of the Hamptons. Some purists say it stops at the Shinnecock Canal, but most local puritans now accept villages as far back west as Westhampton Beach. Mr. Lehans goes farther afield by adding East Marion (that may be because so many residents of Peconic Landing once lived in the Hamptons?), Greenport, and Shelter Island (sorry, not an unHamptons anymore). This is not heresy, but since the photographer/author has lived on the East End for the most part since 2005, it seems a misstep. But let’s get beyond the endpapers.

    The book is certainly a collection of Mr. Lehans’s photographs. It is indeed an exhibition with only two text panels. This pictorial essay starts with winter and ends again in snow. The images are not typical tourist-type, but rather sensuous and often impressionistic. They range from narrative to outright poetic. There is a stream of details (fall leaves that could be anywhere in the Northeast) that glides into abstracted heavy rain on an evening amber-lit shop window in Sag Harbor.

    Mr. Lehans eschews older cliches (the Whalers Church, Home, Sweet Home, and the like) for more timely and fleeting shots. It is one calendar year in and out of focus. Things illustrated are here today and gone tomorrow. There is a wonderful picture of the LKL farm stand on Pantigo Road, East Hampton — the building is still there but enlarged and with a new tenant now.

    One section starts with a full-page shot of phragmites off Gin Lane in Southampton, with a facing image of a mass of sailboat masts in Sag Harbor. This is a lovely and evocative pairing. The next page is a frightful polychromed wide-mouthed tiki idol from the Ronjo in Montauk who faces a Marilyn Monroe imitator (equally wide-eyed and mouthed) from some wild party in Sag Harbor.

    The book is filled with contrasts. It is not all pretty. An eroded dune in Montauk is a mass of disordered rocks and dry clumps of weeds. This dirty dune photograph faces that most boring (and treacherous) stretch of highway at Napeague, with its marching utility poles creating a perspective of endlessness.

    A black, white, and gray centerfold of shells leads to colorful scenes of the Artists and Writers Softball Game and a few pages beyond to the Talkhouse and a vivid spread of a defining Nancy Atlas performance. A few ocean waves, and we turn a page to reveal a Sagg Main Beach sunset with people in an almost balletic pose facing a photo of another salmon-and-mauve sunset with Theodore Syrianos and his dog, Rocco, in their boat fishing at Sag Harbor.

    From Sam’s restaurant to Rowdy Hall, Mr. Lehans catches a theme of work and pleasure. There is a very personal privateness about these pictures. It is almost like being on the train on a Sunday night trip back to the city, looking over the shoulder of someone who is going through his smartphone, editing the weekend’s highs and lows. They are his, but you have done all those things too.

    Some of the pictures remind me of my orgies with my iPhone — clicking here, clicking there, with that freedom that the demise of film created. There is an energy, a freshness, and a feeling of speed that comes only from being digital. Mr. Lehans takes full advantage of this sense of the instantaneous. A canon firing at Southampton’s Fourth of July parade spits fire and blue-gray smoke. The orange-and-yellow fireworks over Sag Harbor or an expressionistic whirl of carnival ride lights at Bridgehampton are all about motion.

    Mr. Lehans went everywhere. From a silent-film presentation at Silas Marder’s gallery to a picnic table at the Hampton Classic, the photographer caught the energy, the fun, and the pretense of much of what we love most about living out here.

    This is the book for the guest room nightstand. This is the book for the reception table at the 1770 House, and the perfect tome to lug back to the city so you can enjoy last summer while cold October rain hits your apartment’s window.

    Some books deserve to use “The Hamptons.” Phillip Andrew Lehans can wear it proudly.

    Richard Barons is the executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society. He lives in Springs.

Alex Balsam at the East End Community Organic Farm in East Hampton Phillip Andrew Lehans