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Words by Biddle Duke | Photographs by Andrew Blauschild
Light / Dark
Andrew Blauschild announces in one of the parking lots at the East Coast surfing Mecca of Ditch Plains in Montauk, eyeing a mansion in progress going up next to the lot. What that emphatic it means can be touchy when it comes to Montauk, especially when paired with an emphatic here. Over the past two decades, an explosion of humanity has hit the hamlet like a hurricane, transforming it from a sleepy fishing village and working-class summer retreat to a bustling hangout for the young, the hip, and the extremely wealthy.
On that same site a few years ago stood an unassuming ’50s-style motel on 5 acres of lawn and dunes that offered reasonably priced rooms on the beach. On this July day, however, dozens of construction workers scramble around the multimillion-dollar project towering over the busy parking lot: surfers and families preparing for the beach, people coming and going in every kind of vehicle—on foot, on bikes, and on skateboards.
The Montauk boom has brought all the usual changes: wildly unaffordable housing, displacement, crowds and traffic, and ecological woes from all the development, including toxic algal blooms and high fecal coliform bacteria counts in local waters that have closed shellfishing grounds. And, of course, there are the changes in the lineup. Waves are crowded like never before, and surfing—the “surfer” self-designation, the apparel, the equipment—is now apparently a brand, a lifestyle, “an accessory,” as longtime Montauk surfer and local business-owner Lee Bieler mused in an interview recently. Some locals have decamped (Bieler relocated to Kauai), and those who stay are often scrambling to make their way.
It’s all too familiar for Blauschild, who long ago decided to adopt Montauk as his home. For 30 years, the photographer has been knocking on proverbial doors in town and in the quieter nearby hamlet of Springs. In that time, he’s made a community of friends and earned local bona fides in part through a lifetime of chronicling the region and its people in photographs that express his deep affection and devotion and his search for answers to life’s most profound questions. Taken as a whole, they also chronicle his evolution as a photographer.
“It has surprised me, and it’s been kind of beautiful to watch his process,” says respected New York photographer and photographic printmaker Charlie Griffin. “He’s followed his heart and he’s done his own thing. He doesn’t track others’ work.”
Blauschild, represented by galleries in Connecticut, Nantucket, Florida, and East Hampton, appeared most recently this past summer in a show devoted to nature and landscapes alongside both contemporary and twentieth-century luminaries, including the painters and photographers Milton Avery, Rockwell Kent, Raymond Pettibon, Richard Estes, Donald Sultan, Caio Fonseca, Mia Fonssagrives-Solow, and Massimo Vitali.
Of the show, its curator, Adrienne Conzelman (who is also Blauschild’s gallerist), remarked, “Whether of the 1920s or the 2020s, these artists find inspiration in the coastlines and landscapes they inhabit. In similar ways, the expansiveness of the Atlantic Ocean and the seemingly infinite desert and big sky of the American West acted as gateways to the divine.”
Making his life here amid eastern Long Island’s extraordinary trans- formation has opened doors to professional success: As the community surged, so did Blauschild’s growing reputation as an artist and as some- thing of an original personality. He was also profoundly transformed by the community and its long reputation as an artists’ haven, the landscape, the significant personal challenges, and, in recent years, a life-threatening illness. But any conversation about his life always seems to circle back to the fact that he’s never found a home of his own here. There’s never been anything suitable that he could afford. Nowadays a starter home on a postage stamp will run you at least $1 million.
The crowds, the traffic, the excess, the high-strung New Yorkers—it all vanishes, or at least falls away, at the shoreline. It’s mid-July and there’s a scattering of surfers paddling around thigh-high rollers, ending their short journeys on the cobblestones at Ditch, where some 100 miles of sandy beach that begins in Brooklyn ends at Montauk’s rocks and cliffy shores.
A line of a dozen people snakes out in front of the Ditch Witch food truck. Porsches, Range Rovers, immaculately restored ’70s-era Broncos, and convertibles alongside work trucks and nondescript SUVs fill the parking lots. Out on the sand, a sea of colorful umbrellas flutter in the breeze, frisbees fly, kids play in the whitewater. In the distance, to the east and west, sandy cliffs tumble to deserted beaches. Earlier in the day, just offshore, a humpback whale, again and again, threw itself up and out of the water chasing schools of menhaden.
“It’s still paradise,” Blauschild observes.
You can glimpse it in some of his summe1r images, dreamy as August can be, the blessed democracy of a beach where everyone is welcome, the vivid colors, the little clustered community of trailer homes in the distance. (Never mind that the trailers, once summer homes to New York City cops and firemen, now sell for seven figures, cash only.)
When Blauschild, a Bronx kid whose earliest ocean experiences were at beaches closer to New York City, first set his eyes on the South Fork of eastern Long Island as a teenager, he said to himself, “I never want to leave.” He set about making sure he never would.
Of course, Blauschild’s here boast from earlier is a stretch, and he instantly flashes an ironic grin and offers a qualifier: “Actually, I arrived here at a weird time, between the first generation of surfers out here and their kids,” he says. He showed up in Southampton with his camera, his surfboard, and his hunger to belong in 1990. By then, surfing was well established on eastern Long Island, and people with more money than ever before were flocking in greater numbers to what was becoming “the Hamptons.” That human tide would eventually press eastward to Montauk.
In college at the time, Blauschild was working in the thick of the ’90s club scene. Tapping into family restaurant and nightlife connections, he used his take-no-shit attitude, his weightlifter’s physique, and his karate-black-belt confidence working the door at city nightclubs a few nights a week. The rest of the time he organized Hamptons house shares and made extra cash as a promoter at the many new clubs that were springing up on the South Fork.
He also slipped into the Southampton surf scene, spending his days chasing waves, often all the way out east to Montauk. Like so many before him, and even more since, he fell hard for it, for the growing surf commu- nity and the spectacular beauty of Montauk’s vast state parkland and wild areas: hundreds of acres of woodlands, ponds, cliffs, and an abandoned Air Force radar tracking station. Completed before World War II, Camp Hero is now a wild and somewhat eerie state park. A giant abandoned radar looms over empty hangars and barracks, cannon emplacements, and a warren of trails.
“All this on cliffs overlooking some of the choicest breaks on the East Coast,” Blauschild says. “There’s nothing else like it on the East Coast. So much nature right on the ocean.”
Blauschild is a New Yorker, through and through. You can hear it in the accent, the slight edge and the attitude (though he’s softened with age, friends say), his penchant for black clothing. “I grew up in the Bronx,” he says. “Van Cortlandt Park. Sixth-generation New Yorker.”
His mother, a painter and dancer, was from Brooklyn, his dad, a trainer (he did a stint with the New York Knicks) and a referee, from the Bronx. Blauschild first picked up a camera, his father’s 35mm Nikon SLR, at the age of about 8 or 9 as a middle schooler at PS 95 and began taking pictures of his life. Over time he realized that the camera was not only a way to see a place, but to learn about it and connect to it. He brought it everywhere.
Later, in Southampton, he learned that the camera could spell trou- ble. Locals back then didn’t want images getting out that might bring more outsiders. Now, decades later, as his interest in shooting pure surf photos has waned, surfers ironically are keen for pictures of themselves. To move around Montauk and Springs with Blauschild is a bit like hanging with the pope. Everyone seems to know him, and he seems to know them, too: their names, their stories, their family members, the latest in their lives. Some are surfers he’s photographed, others have his work on their walls. It’s taken a lifetime for him to arrive at this place.
“When I got here, it all made sense to me,” he says. “If you want to surf and take people’s pictures, you’ve got to fit in. You don’t just get accepted and get in. You need to know how to act.”
By the early 2000s, Blauschild had amassed thousands of photographs but hadn’t yet turned the corner into showing and selling. He was splitting his time between Montauk, Springs, and Manhattan, working in music and event production and at the door at various clubs. When a friend introduced him to Joel Tudor at a Chelsea nightclub, Bungalow 8, a fast friendship ensued between the two that would change the course of Blauschild’s life.
Both men are martial artists and “we connected over that, over the club scene in New York, and over art. He liked my photographs,” Blauschild says. As their friendship grew, Tudor turned Blauschild on to the cradle of mainland American surf culture in California, introducing him to some of surfing’s legends—Hank Byzak, Al Merrick, the photographer Michael Halsband, Skip Frye, Wayne Rich, Rusty Preisendorfer, Thomas Campbell, John Peck, and countless pro surfers.
The two spent time together on the North Shore. All the while, Blauschild was shooting, compiling an extensive trove of pictures—por- traits, landscapes, surf. “Joel,” says Blauschild, “is like a museum. He’s a student of the culture, of [Miki] Dora, of everything surfing. He gave that to me.”
Tudor had for some time wanted to start a surf company—boards and gear—and in 2007 the two collaborated, launching Kookbox with help from a partner in Japan. (Tudor drew the company’s name from Tom Blake’s revolutionary innovation in surfboard construction.) Explains Blauschild, “I never in my life thought I’d start a surfboard company. It just happened. Joel could make it happen.”
With Blauschild designing the logos and much of the graphics—plus providing management decisions and the photography for the market- ing—and Tudor as the brand’s ambassador, guiding figure, and final word on everything, Kookbox took off. Blauschild suddenly was at the center of a fast-moving company, with shapers and designers in California and retailers worldwide, designs to dream up, orders to fill, marketing to do. What’s more, overnight, people everywhere were seeing his photography. “Up to that point, all I had gotten was local eyeballs. Now, I had a global audience,” he remembers. “From one moment to the next, people in Japan and everywhere wanted my pictures.”
Then, quite suddenly, everything unraveled amid business disagree- ments. The friendship between Blauschild and Tudor evaporated with the collapse of the business in 2013. Blauschild treads carefully through this history, out of respect for Tudor. “When I think about it, I focus on the creative relationship and the amazing brand we built that people followed like a cult,” he says.
Blauschild emerged from the affair the clearest he’d been about who and what he is: “The whole thing with Joel was a conduit to making art my life. Kookbox, to me, was always an art project. What’s important to me about all that now is that I owe Joel a lot.”
One of the ideas that sprang from the period was his Ghost Boards series. It came about as a marketing image for Kookbox surfboards, when Blauschild figured out a way to set boards against an all-black background to make them appear suspended in space. The composition that emerges is an imagining of surfboards as almost futuristic, glowing spaceships.
It was also around that time that he began working with Charlie Griffin, who owns and runs one of the city’s premier photographic print- ing companies, with clients such as Clifford Ross and Cindy Sherman. A lifelong Rockaway surfer, Griffin is something of a Yoda in the photo and New York surf world.
“Charlie gave me my first medium-format camera, a Pentax 6×7,” says Blauschild. “I’d been shooting with everything, an SLR and digital, but looking through that Pentax is like looking at a movie scene. That became my favorite.”
Blauschild’s photography, predictably, has evolved since then. He tried being a purist—“I got onto the film-only trail for a while”—before he began combining film and digital, manipulating photos, and running images through artificial intelligence applications. “Just messing around, making things,” he says. “I’m not that good technically, but a lot of what is good is trying stuff and teaching myself.”
It would be incomplete to tell Blauschild’s story without the cancer, but he hates the idea of even mentioning it. It’s undignified, personal. “I don’t want everyone knowing about it,” he says. “It’s my business. And I don’t want to use my cancer to earn sympathy, to sell art—for anything.”
But he can’t deny how much it changed him and his life.
The diagnosis came in the summer of 2019. It was stage 1, and his doctor assured him that with treatment and medication he would be okay. Today, he’s in remission. But the disease is always lurking, and the medicine has weakened his immune system, rendering him susceptible to infections and other illnesses. The cancer now informs how he moves around the world, how he sees it, the way he lives. And it brought Tudor back into his life. “When he heard, he got in touch,” he says. “It had been years. That meant a lot.”
The cancer has made Blauschild more elusive and less social. “Catlike in terms of he’s only around when he wants to be,” says a Montauk friend, Greg Wachsteter. “He shows up, takes some pics, catches a wave or two, says hi to one person, then dips. He’s not the guy we all know from the past 20 years.”
The self-enforced solitude due to the COVID-19 outbreak and his weakened immune system suits him, Blauschild says. He lives in a Sprinter van. “It’s perfect….I can be where I want to be and keep my distance if I need to. I like the simplicity,” he says. Sometimes, out of the blue, one of the area’s better surfers will get a text. It’s Blauschild. “Where you surfing? I’ll shoot.” But, he says, “I’m not a surf photographer. Not really. I’ve retreated into nature. I’ll go out and shoot a few shots of surfing, then I’ll just start seeing other stuff.”
This introspection—his photography almost a daily spiritual prac- tice—began when the cancer struck and the pandemic sent him into hiding. “A big driving force in my life has been trying to answer the question, ‘Why are we here and how did we get here?’ The answers are in nature,” Blauschild says. “If anything, I see surfing as nature. That’s what’s beautiful about it. You’re connecting with some sort of cosmic energy, a pulse of energy that if you pull back far enough you can trace it back millions of years.”
“Yeah, sure, there’s the dance,” he adds, referring to what surfers do on waves, “and all the tribal stuff, but people get lost in that. They get stuck there.”
Between swells, Blauschild often retreats to his other favorite haunt, the woods, bays, and marshland around Springs, and the Springs General Store, where he’s known to sit on the porch with a coffee and eavesdrop. “I’m heartbroken,” he says at the news that the beloved community gathering place, built almost two centuries ago, had been sold. The excellent cook, who ran the folksy grocery and deli for two decades and knew everyone’s name (Blauschild’s included—he had a tab), and their favorite menu items are gone. The new owners, predictably, plan something more upscale.
Blauschild’s dreamlike, often tender photographs of the old store are, like so many others, expressions of a deep, personal affection. “You can see he’s paying tribute. That’s in a lot of his pictures,” Griffin observes.
Over the years, that feeling of paying homage to his Long Island realm has gotten subtler, more abstract, lighter. Much has changed in the place he found some 30 years ago. He has, too. “The dream is kind of older now,” Blauschild says.
But then he talks about coming around on a winter day, the cold having driven the crowds away, the roads empty, frost on the windshield. The surf will be up, the sun low on the horizon, “the beautiful winter light,” a few friends catching waves, “and I’ll see something new to shoot. It’s still all here,” he says. “You just have to look.”
[Feature Image Caption: Mikey DeTemple and Lee Meirowitz, between sets in Long Beach, New York, 2014. “The snow deadens everything, even in an urban setting. It makes it completely quiet. And the visuals are, of course, incredible. I shot this with a flash and the snowflakes just lit up.”]