By Gianna Volpe
Before in-water surf photographer James Katsipis had even arrived at the Montauk Beach house for last Friday’s opening of “Mermaids of Montauk,” one of the show’s 18 photographs had already been sold.
“Mermaids” is the babely black-and-white portrait series already barreling through East End’s social media waves this summer, even though its photographer—lifetime local Mr. Katsipis of Montauk—hasn’t yet finished shooting it.
“I made a Facebook artist page, an Instagram and a Twitter and as soon as I put up, ‘For booking and info, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org,’ my phone would not stop buzzing,” said Mr. Katsipis. “I can’t even go through all the messages because it would take too long, it’s crazy… Everywhere I go people are telling me they love the series. In fact, after Mike Williams—a huge fashion photographer—saw it, he personally called me and put it on his site, Imagista, so now you can go there to check out the updated ‘Mermaids’ works.”
The shots are dramatic – many a model immersed in murky waters—but that’s exactly how Mr. Katsipis likes it.
“These aren’t the Tahitian blue underwater shots you see of girls swimming,” he said. “This is real deal Montauk—cold, dark and moody.”
And though these gorgeous “Mermaids”—most of whom are nude or near so—may be splayed across Montauk’s rocks or appear at rest as they look coyly into the camera, they are by no means beach bunnies.
Mr. Katsipis, 31, said the series is an homage to the surfers he grew up surfing alongside, so when it comes to his subjects, these are generally women who know how to lean in.
“Growing up in Montauk all the guys would surf, but the girls were out there, too,” he said. “They were right there with us when the waves got big—taking off charging, getting their ass handed to them and going back for more. They’re not sitting on the beach going, ‘Oh my God the waves are too big.’ They’re watermen just like us—true mermaids—like Ariel Engstrom. She’s gorgeous and she surfs pipeline in Hawaii…. A lot of these girls are great swimmers, so it is really easy to shoot with them.”
Mr. Katsipis said he’s been shooting “Mermaids” nearly every afternoon this summer after his neighbor, hair and make-up artist Chris McCracken of Montauk’s C.M. Hair Studio, works his water-proofed magic on the models.
“We do the dry stuff first so their hair doesn’t get messed up, and then toward the end we’ll put them in some really sexy outfits that’s really just sheer cloth and we’ll get them wet so it’s pretty much see-through,” said Mr. Katsipis. “I like to make sure the girls are comfortable…. I’ll be talking to them because I want to know about my subject and I’m always asking them questions to get their mind off of the camera. Some girls are a little apprehensive at first, but once we start swimming, everyone loosens up.”
He said the awkward nature of aqueous photography makes breaking the ice all the easier.
“We’ll make a joke of it because water is going up our noses,” he said. “It’s not as glamorous as the photos might make it look sometimes. You can ask the girls—it is a lot of work and the water is unseasonably cold, so some of the girls are shivering, blue—you know—hypothermic… We had to start bringing robes to the shoot so we could get them in the robes, stick them in the car with the heat on and start again after they warm up.”
More photos from “Mermaids of Montauk” by James Katsipis: