SEARCHING FOR THE ENDLESS MONTAUK
I arrived at Michael Dweck’s studio in the West Village to discuss his experience creating The End: Montauk, NY. He had been called an anthropologist, infiltrating cultures with his photographic lens, capturing a community before it changed forever. In his book Michael Dweck: Habana Libre, he photographed a privileged sub-culture of artists in Cuba. In his documentary The Last Race, he filmed a stock car racetrack in Riverhead, Long Island and the tribe of blue-collar drivers that call it home, struggling to protect an American tradition. Most famously in his first book The End: Montauk NY, he followed surfers, from morning wave reports to evening bonfires, capturing youthful hedonism. If he was an anthropologist, I wanted to be an archeologist, excavating the bones and heart of his vision. I wanted to unearth what passion drove him to capture Montauk’s hauntingly beautiful shores.
My own first time in the Hamptons was in 1988, two years before Dweck photographed The End. I was 12 years old and had driven from NYC with my father, a playwright, for a workshop of his script at a house in East Hampton’s Northwest Woods. I had grown up in a family of writers and had witnessed the fascinating and messy work that goes into the creative process. Now as an adult, I was intrigued by the hidden stories behind the story or with Dweck, the stories behind his pictures.
Inside his studio, Dweck and I sat on a couch by a windowsill of potted cacti. I asked about his first time in the Hamptons.
“It was 1975 and I was searching for the Rolling Stones. I heard they were in Montauk,” Dweck said. He and a friend found themselves by the beach where East Deck Motel used to be. “We climbed over dunes and there were five guys surfing perfect waves. And you couldn’t get there. You had to climb over more dunes. That’s when I knew this was a hidden place. It was like finding a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton. I’ve been going back ever since.”
25 years later in 1990, Dweck rented a house nearby at 29 Reuter Place with a shed of surfboards, fishing rods, and kayaks. He realized there was something special about Montauk, and it was changing rapidly.
“East Hampton was spreading further East,” Dweck said. “I heard fishermen and working class families saying, ‘There’s no fishing anymore. We’re selling our house because we can’t afford to be here.’ It’s hard to hear that so I decided to get to know people in town.”
Dweck met Kathy Engstrom who owns a t-shirt shop in Montauk. He told her, “I’m trying to understand this community. Maybe you can help me.”
Engstrom invited Dweck to ride in her ’86 white 7-passenger Defender. She drove them over dunes, down a cliff, and onto the beach. Engstrom surfed in the freezing water. When she came back she said, “Alright, I’ll let everybody know you’re here.”
“Word spread quickly that it was okay. Some groups were accepting, others weren’t,” Dweck said.
He equates selecting surfers for the book with casting a movie. “I looked for people who had a little secret, and tried to bring it out in photographs,” he said. He paired up Kurt, a surfer from Southampton, with a girl named Jessica. “I thought they’d have chemistry,” Dweck said. “Kurt didn’t think she was a good surfer because she was pretty and from the south. Of course, she got on a surf board with no wax and kicked his ass.”
Before each day’s shoot, he sketched storyboards. “The next day I photographed without the drawings on me. Just the story in my head. I wanted to be open to the unexpected, to whatever happened — and usually what happened was beautiful luck.”
He wasn’t interested in capturing Montauk like a traditional documentarian. “I wanted to illustrate how this place made me feel, not the way it looked. My book gives a sense of what it’s like to be young forever and free. And to feel like you belong.”
I liked Dweck’s point about the difference between how a place looks and feels. A landscape can have a personality and become an old friend or for Dweck, a muse.
He photographed for eighteen days, but editing the book took a year. “Each photograph had to work in abstract sequences. I was doing a narrative that would suck you in, give surprise, and have mystery,” he said.
“Lots of these guys are carpenters and fisherman. I think when they saw how they looked in the book, they felt their lives were interesting and they were more heroic figures,” he said.
He told me about a longline fisherman nicknamed Bo-Bo. “He had a finger snapped off from a line. Never talked to me. Didn’t want to be photographed. I photographed him anyway from a distance. People would say, ‘Don’t point. He’ll kick your ass.’ But then he saw the book. Somebody handed it to him at Ditch Plains. He saw his portrait and he looked like he was crying.”
Montauk is a tough town. You’re not considered local unless you’re born there. Dweck said, “It’s very much a paradise lost. I’m concerned about places that have a sense of community that’s fleeting. I like to preserve that in some way.”
“What did you preserve about Montauk with your photographs?” I asked him.
“A sense of place. Salivar’s, East Deck, and Panoramic View are gone. I don’t know any place I photographed that’s still there except the ocean and beaches,” he said. “Also, photographs stay around forever. They have a provenance.”
Released by Abrams in 2003, The End’s first printing of 5,000 copies sold out in less than three weeks. Dweck has since published an expanded 10th Anniversary Limited Edition with Ditch Plains Press. He donates a portion of proceeds to Surfrider and Oceana, non-profits protecting the beaches and waterways of Long Island and the U.S.
He designed the book to endure through time. “We made the paper in Italy’s Riva del Garda with 100 % cotton. The inks were made in Germany. The cover is linen from the 70’s. It’ll never turn yellow. The binding won’t fall apart,” he said.
Dweck recognizes, however, that his images may have contributed to Montauk’s change. The End’s popularity has lured tourists to chase his idealized vision.
“Montauk has become unaffordable for a family. It used to be a place to take them to play miniature golf, surf, and enter a fishing tournament. That I can’t preserve, but the book gives a sense of it,” he said.
“What’s everlasting about Montauk despite commercialization?” I asked. I wanted to explore the intrinsic spirit of the oceanfront enclave.
“You don’t have to tell a first timer they’re going somewhere special because you can get out of the car and feel it. That’s still there. Something intangible. For that matter, ineffable. You can’t explain it. You can’t erase it. That’s Montauk. That’s why developers can’t destroy it and tourists can’t tread over it. It’s a feeling you get in Ditch Plains or talking to a fisherman before a storm or staring out at the sea at sunrise,” he said.
As for me, I’ve been going to the Hamptons for 20 years and have seen the changes that Dweck speaks of. I haven’t visited the house in the North Woods since I was a teenager. I heard it’s been torn down. I couldn’t go back because it would bring over me a wave of sadness as I thought about that summer in the backyard listening to my father’s play. He is no longer alive. But his play still is. Now I spend weekends in Bridgehampton and Montauk with friends and family. Last summer my young nephews visited for the first time.
A week after the interview, I read a follow-up email from Dweck while on a train to Bridgehampton.
He wrote, “I imagine everyone has his or her idea of paradise, or some place that represents originality, maybe purity, and perfection. Maybe it was where they came-of-age or where they grew up, or a place they visited once and have never been able to shake.”
I began to wonder what it was that creates the need to hold a place inside that represents a version of paradise. You can’t search for this place, but once you find it, you carry it wherever you go. You will escape there in your mind whenever you feel trapped under fluorescent lights. You will long for it. In dark moments, the thought of it will give you hope. You will daydream that you are there. You will want to share it with the people you love.
For me, the Hamptons is that place. I keep it inside wherever I go — and I share that feeling with Dweck and countless others who have fallen in love with this land by the sea. It has changed and I have changed. We will keep changing together for the rest of our lives.