By Annette Hinkle
It’s fair to say that Ed Gifford has always been enamored by two things — boats and photography.
“Growing up in New York City on Riverside Drive, I loved watching the barges and the tugs on the Hudson,” recalls Gifford. “I saw the Macy’s fireworks barge blow up when I was about five.”
“The Hudson was fascinating.”
And boats — especially sailboats — have long been in his blood. In the summer of 1975, Gifford, who spent summers here as a kid, signed up for East Hampton Town’s sailing program.
“I had to bike from Springs to Northwest Harbor,” he says. “It was a tough ride on an old three speed. I took the program with Pat Mundus and Larry Koncelik. It was a treacherous bike ride, but those two made it so much fun and I got the bug.”
After being bitten, Gifford walked into the Sag Harbor office of Bruce Tait to ask for a summer job on a boat. That was 30 years ago and he has since logged 45,000 boating hours, delivered many a sailboat from the East End to the Caribbean and taken part in several races (including the Buenos Aires to Rio race).
But Gifford is not just an avid sailor, he is also a professional photographer and was first inspired by a book of Alfred Eisenstaedt photographs he found in the garbage at the age of 12. He began pursuing photography professionally at 14 when he started shooting for his father, a theatrical publicist.
“I shot The National Lampoon Show with John Belushi and Bill Murray in their New York City debut,” says Gifford. “My first public picture was published in the New York Times when I was 14 — it was Gilda Radner as Patty Hearst.”
Gifford took classes at the International Center of Photography and by 15, was interning at the New York Post. He went on to study photography at Hunter College with Roy DeCarava (and even shot for the Sag Harbor Express at one point).
This weekend, Gifford’s two loves merge in “The Glory of Sail” an exhibition of classic yachts under sail at Bruce Tait Yachts in Sag Harbor. The show will remain on view throughout the summer. An opening reception will be held next Saturday and the exhibition is a retrospective of Gifford’s images of racing boats in their fully glory.
“I photograph mainly famous old racing boats and some old cool yachts,” explains Gifford who notes that one location in particular has a special draw for him — Antiqua in the Caribbean.
It’s a place Gifford has gotten to know well through his work with Bruce Tait.
“I went to Antigua on Id, a boat out of Sag Harbor in 1989. It was my first time in Antigua and I’ve since done may deliveries there and back,” says Gifford. “I’m always passing through Antigua and it’s a place I keep ending up in. Bruce and [his daughter] Danielle are very involved in the sailing scene there and have a lot of clients there. I’m always running into them there.”
Gifford notes the challenges of capturing a racing yacht in full sail is a combination of skill, knowledge and weather conditions, and when it comes to the weather, Gifford loves what Antigua has to offer.
“I’m striving for the painterly effect. The sky and water color — you’re in the Gulf Stream and every place is beautiful,” says Gifford. “You often get these great cumulus clouds and good wind. I think a sky with clouds is more interesting than a blue sky.”
Though Gifford shoots mainly classic old racing boats, he also shoots work boats — an English North Sea trawler is among his images.
“You have to be in the right place at the right time to get the shot,” says Gifford when asked about the challenges of shooting boats under sail. “You also have to have a really good boat driver.”
“You have to figure out what conditions make the boat look great,” he adds. “It’s like fishing. Some days you get a shot and some days you don’t — you have to hit it right.”
Gifford researches and frequently writes about the boats he photographs. Some of them date as far back as the 1870s — which brings up the question of whether such a boat truly still exists if virtually every piece of it has been replaced over the years.
“Every seven years your body renews every cell,” says Gifford. “That’s what happens with these boats. The marine environment is so caustic, they won’t last. It’s very rare to find one that hasn’t had a lot of work put into it.”
Through his work and sailing, over the years, Gifford has made some close connections with people who have helped him pull this show together.
Michael Mella is printing and designing the show and is a corporate photographer,” he says. “[Sailor and photographer] Jonathan Morse helped design the postcard and did a lot of legwork. Another friend and mentor is Jim Mackin. They did all kinds of stuff to help me and I’m really appreciative to all of them.”
“The sea breeds loyalty and a tight knit group,” he adds. You don’t survive if you don’t have that,” he says. “This show is a confluence of different paths coming together and coming full circle. These pictures were incredible to do.”
And for the record? Gifford’s dream boat would be a retired 1980’s aluminum 50 foot IOR (International Offshore Rule) race boat.
“The Glory of Sail” opens Saturday, June 29, 2013 with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m. at Bruce Tait & Associates, 1A Bay Street, Sag Harbor. Entrance is on the dock side of the building. For details call 725-4222.