Native son of Montauk, well-known and well-respected photographer, James Katsipis, likes to keep it real, and shooting in stormy, snowy, windy, cold and adverse elements is as real as one can be and still avoid complete numbness in fingers (and toes) to capture that one extraordinary shot that reveals just how committed he is to his craft. This 30-something (33) married photographer has been doing that for almost two decades.
Katsipis has photographed the aquatic swells of waves, surf and surfers around the globe from Ireland to Panama, however he has always kept it local with his shots of the beauty of his own hometown – Montauk.
Writers are often advised to write about what they know, well, Katsipis shoots what he knows – and he knows Montauk, surfing, and taking bone-chilling cold water risks that allow him to capture images that reflect Mother Earth in all her natural glory. From blizzards to hurricanes, Katsipis has naturally created a duality that moves you both emotionally as well as physically, prompting one to perhaps unconsciously move out of the way of one of those roaring waves jumping out at you from his fantastic Surfing series.
With a broad background that includes fashion, video and commercial photography, this ‘Man With A Cam’ shoots on land too, as his Portraits and Wedding Album series reveal, but what strikes an observer always is his ability to trap movement even when the subject is still.
His Mermaids of Montauk series puts just the right amount of sexy nakedness, natural elements and mystique in a black and white photograph that again evokes a physical proximity that prompts one to want to reach in and touch one of these lovely ladies.
Somber shots of the effects and destruction of Hurricane Sandy and winter storm Juno leave one physically depleted and saddened at the imagery reflecting the devastating effects this particular storm brought to our shores.
When one clears the salt and sand from their vision, Katsipis’ Blurz series breathtakingly explodes with color that blends land, sea and sky, while prompting the viewer to keep blinking and moving your eyes over each quadrant of the photograph to appreciate its entirety.
Katsipis, who attended East Hampton High School, graduating in 2001, is all about movement, but we were lucky enough to catch up to him so he could answer a few questions for Hamptons.com:
What drew you to photography at such a young age?
JK: Do you want the real answer or the answer I give everyone else? (Note: We want the REAL answer). The real answer is that in high school I wasn’t much of a student. I tried to cut class as much as possible, and I figured out that if you took a photography class you had an infinite hall pass in the shape of a camera. Just wave the camera at the hall monitor and he or she thought you were simply doing a project for class. I failed photography in high school, BUT it did get the camera in my hand, and I learned to develop and print photos in the dark room, along with the basics about the technical side of photography. I knew I liked it, but it wasn’t until later that I actually picked it back up again to start shooting my friends surfing at our local surf spots. Once I got the first rush of seeing one of my photographs in a magazine it was game on from there. I still love seeing photos in print as there is just something magical about picking up a magazine and flipping through it. Digital is great, but the feel and look of the paper is something special.
Who would you consider to be one of your mentors and why?
JK: Well I have been so blessed to be able to talk and work with some of the best photographers around. All the members of the Iooss family have been so great. Walter (famed Sports Illustrated photographer) and his two sons, Christian and Bjorn, have always picked up the phone for me when I have questions. Getting to watch Walter Iooss work and how he conducts a photo shoot was a great learning experience. I learned more in one day with him than I could ever have learned on my own. I’ll never forget that. Bjorn, who is a fashion photographer, and his crash courses in lighting, as well as Christian (who is the photo editor for Golf Digest), have always been there to help me with the back end of the business.
Of the numerous ‘series’ you have shot over the years, any particular favorite?
JK: Oh man, don’t make me choose my favorite kids! I love them all! HA, HA! The #coldwatersurferseries was amazing. It was such a fun time in my career. The opening to that show was a dream come true. There is nothing more satisfying than swimming in some cold, heavy waves and getting your butt kicked for a couple of hours, and walking away with some solid keepers with the boys. But I really fell in love with the Mermaids of Montauk series. For a period of time there I was just getting labeled as a surf photog, but I can shoot so much more than just surfing. With my M.O.M., I combined my love for the ocean and swimming with my camera and passion for shooting portraits. The girls and I really created something unique and fun. It also gave regular women a chance to strut their stuff and let their inner model shine. It was so great to see the transformation at the end of the shoot – all wet and salty big eyes and the biggest smiles on their faces.
Given the extreme conditions you shoot in, what has been the most challenging shot you’ve achieved?
JK: Last winter filming the boys surfing during historic winter storm Juno. It was blizzarding so hard it was a total white out. I was up on a bluff trying to film them on massive waves through the snow whipping into my face and eyes and off my lens. It was freezing out and my hands go numb so it was hard to feel the camera and adjust my settings. (I have since bought some better winter photographer gloves!) But that was on land; think about how cold the guys were surfing out there that day. When I’m swimming with them in the winter, the water temps can drop into the low 30’s. My hands and feet are the first things to go numb. It gets to a point that my hands, honestly, are so cold that they feel like they are on fire. I have to try to shake them to get blood to go back into my fingers. I’ll pop up, hit the trigger, and I’ll think I have to let go of the pistol grip on my camera, but I can still hear the camera taking photos, and I’ll look down and my fingers are still wrapped around the pistol grip. I have to unfold them with my other hand manually HA! – but that’s not very often, although it does happen.
What locales, other than Montauk, have you enjoyed the most?
JK: Iceland was a dream. My wife, Bella, and I went there last February to go and chase the northern lights. We scored. It was the most amazing thing my eyes have ever seen, and I can’t wait to go back.
Favorite camera or cameras?
JK: I’m shooting with a Sony Mirrorless A7Rll. It’s a beast! Zeiss has teamed up with Sony to make the glass for it too. So now we have autofocus Zeiss lenses. They made some of the best glass in the world.
How much does Photoshop and/or other photographic programs find their way into your final photographs and why?
JK: Honestly, I have no clue really how to use Photoshop. I could do some light stuff but nothing crazy. I’m not a graphics artist. Dalton Portella is the man when it comes to Photoshop. I use Lightroom to do some minor tweaks to highlights and shadows. If you shoot it right the first time, you really don’t need to spend too much time in post-production. Someone once told me that if you are spending more than 15 minutes editing one photo you should probably just go shoot it again.
Favorite photographer or photographers, other than yourself of course?
JK: There are so many photographers out there. Chris Burkard is killing the game right now. He travels all over the world to some of the craziest and remote locations. His landscapes are just mind blowing. He’s a big pioneer for the cold water surf scene too. I hope to get to travel to some of the spots he has been. He also just happens to be one of the nicest guys on the planet too. He’s helped me out a bunch, and I’ve had the honor of trading prints with him. I have an amazing shot that he featured in the Red Bull Illume of this flaring barrel in Chile for one of my snowy black and white dock shots.
How would you describe the difference between fashion and commercial photography versus what many view as your action photographs?
JK: I would have to say that action photography is actually playing a huge role in commercial work nowadays. It is really big for social media. Big companies are reaching out to us to portray their products in a different, more exciting way. Maybe holding a beverage in a barreling wave surfing or something a bit more subtle, like a quick caption under a photo of a massive wave. But they are understanding the market now for surfing, especially now that it is becoming more and more “accepted.”
Perhaps you have encountered “the perfect wave” but of the many elements you shoot in, what’s the perfect shot, if there is one?
JK: The perfect shot is the one that transports you into that moment. One moment could be the moment when you are flying down the line, watching the lip start to chandelier, the sun again flaring the water, and you tuck (or stand if you are lucky) and get the barrel of your life. Surfers love to mind surf – watching waves and imaging what you would be doing if you were out there on a surfboard. If the photo can transport you there for a few minutes while maybe you are at work at your desk or in a bad spot, then the photo has done its job.
What is upcoming for you?
JK: Isn’t it great that I don’t have to know that and just let God take care of me. He’s done an amazing job so far :))
Savvy to both the waves and ways of social media, Katsipis has justifiably earned his reputation as one of the premier surfing action photographers, so if you spot a wetsuit out in those waves, chances are it is just Katsipis doing what he does, while his old pal, Mother Nature, is doing just what she does.
For more information about James Katsipis, visit www.jameskatsipis.com.