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Photographer Profile: Grant Monahan

After taking a break from our journal to actually finish the book (which we did), we’re back with a fresh series of interviews and stories about some of the movers, shakers and creatives we admire from the East Coast and beyond. 

If you surf in New York and especially in Long Island, you might be familiar with a young photographer named Grant Monahan who has steadily been building a strong portfolio of photography from surf travels around the world. His work was most recently on display at in a compelling and energetic solo show, ELSEWHERE, at the Montauk Beach House. We ask Grant to share his story and tell us about the show. 

Can you tell us about yourself?
I was born and raised in Montauk, NY, where I still live today. My father, Tomas, is one of the old-school Montauk surf crew, and introduced me to surfing at a very young age, something I cherish and am very thankful for. In the summertime I work seven days a week at my family's business The Ditch Witch and in winter I fuel my passion for surfing, photography, traveling, and experiencing different cultures. 

How did you get into photography? 
I have always been intrigued by cameras and photographs, but it wasn't until I was at College of Charleston in South Carolina that I began taking photography seriously. I became obsessed with skateboarding - specifically, the very intense backyard skate ramp scene that was flourishing in Charleston. The level of skateboarding was way beyond my ability, so when the sessions got heated I grabbed my camera. While I got my degree in anthropology, at the same time this experience sparked a desire to document the culture I was witnessing. I realized I just loved taking photographs and couldn't stop. I’m very fortunate to have grown up in Montauk, surrounded by exceptionally creative people who’ve constantly influenced me, given me advice, and gone out of their way to help me succeed - too many to name.
 

The Ditch Witch is an institution at this point - how did it get started?
My mother, Lili, started the Ditch Witch in 1994. Before that she was a chef in numerous restaurants around the East End. When I was a baby, my mother used to take me to the beach right by our house, Ditch Plains, and she always wished there was a place there that didn't just sell hotdogs and had decent food. So she and my father went for it and started the Ditch Witch. The first season there was absolutely zero sand at Ditch Plains, the entire beach was rocks. Business was terrible and they almost gave it up, but the next year there was a giant beach with loads of sand and The Ditch Witch did well. This season is the 24th year of the Ditch Witch. My Mother worked twenty seasons and then retired. Now my sister and I are partners in the business. I truly love working in that small trailer at Ditch Plains and interacting with the abundance of interesting people that pass by. I am 27 years old and I’ve now worked there for 19 years... 

Tell us about the exhibition at Montauk Beach House - what's the idea behind this collection of images?
The collection of images at ELSEWHERE was honestly never supposed to be put together as a photography exhibition. They were photographs I had shot traveling over the past five years, simply out of enjoyment and for the memories. When their Creative Director, Walt, asked me to put something together, I decided to go back and explore all that film. I feel this series shows who I am as a person and photographer more than any other collection of images I’ve displayed in the past. These photographs were very personal to me and I couldn't be happier with how they look at the Beach House and how the exhibition has been received. 
 

From Grant's exhibition "Elsewhere" at the Montauk Beach House.

From Grant's exhibition "Elsewhere" at the Montauk Beach House.

Is there a particular point of view you're working towards in your photography? 
I believe growing up in Montauk, surrounded by "salt of the earth" people has definitely influenced my photography. I want to point my lens at those kinds of people and capture snippets of culture that truly exemplify a place. I like to think I have a photojournalistic approach, which was sparked by a love of shooting film. I want people to look at my photographs and see authenticity and know what they are seeing is real, a pure image. 

As fellow book enthusiasts, we love that you've chosen to document your work in book form. What inspired you to do that and what have you learned from the process? 
Books are a special way to display a collection of photographs. As an object it becomes so much more than just the images. It is its own art form; the textures, the size, pagination, the typography, etc. Everything has to come together to create one tangible display. I’ve produced two books and numerous small "zines", each one more rewarding then the next. My first project was a book of portraits I shot through the Ditch Witch service window, called View From the Window. My most recent project was The Dock, a still life project where I photographed all the memorabilia on the walls and selves of The Dock Tavern in Montauk. Both projects were an attempt to capture a small snippet of Montauk culture in an unique way. The Dock book was so rewarding because it was a true collaboration between me shooting the photographs, Javas Lehn designing the book, George and Chris Watson writing the introduction and all the captions, and Bill Duer of Hatteras Press dialing in all the printing details. Books are exceptionally difficult to produce but creating a lasting, tangible product is the most rewarding feeling.

What's the next project you're looking forward to?
I have a dream project that I want to begin. It involves Montauk, portraits, and the backbone of this beautiful community. I can't really go much further than that - I want to take the photographs first and announce the rest later!
 

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Interview by Ed Thompson

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New IndieGoGo Perk: Conatus Surf Club Lesson!

We are very excited indeed to announce a new addition to the IndieGoGo Perks lineup for our campaign. 

We've teamed up with our friend philosophy teacher and surf coach, Dion Mattison of Conatus Surf Club. If you buy the perk, Dion will be offering 3 hours of personal tuition AND you'll get a copy of our book beautiful book! 

We wanted to let you in on Dion's radical, holistic teaching method, so we asked him a few questions to introduce himself. 

Tell us how you came to surfing in the first place?

“My dad is a surfer and I grew up on a sailboat. My mom is an avid swimmer, sailor, kayaker and body surfer. My grandparents are underwater photographers. Being an ocean person is in my DNA. I liked the water from the start.”
 

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What got you interested in teaching?

“I believe people have callings in life. If you attune yourself in a certain way you can be in a position to understand what your calling is. Perhaps more than surfing, my calling is to be a teacher. And like surfing, I started to be aware of this from a very young age. I enjoy sharing ideas and ways of seeing and being with people. I love to ask questions about why things are the way they are and finding appropriate ways to describe complex phenomena. I believe that the practice of philosophy in an original sense, as a dialectical process, is an attempt to unlock the highest potential of the human species. I believe that education is the key to unlocking our highest potential in every field of knowledge. Surfing is such a field."
 
"How I feel about the push-in-style surfing schools is no secret: I think they’re an ethical disaster. So I dreamed up a teaching practice where the end goal was to populate the lineup with respectful, graceful, efficient, and proficient surfers. This idea was in its infancy around 2003 in San Francisco. I was finishing up my BA in religious studies at UC Berkeley, already knowing that I planned to become a professor. I worked in a surf shop and just decided to give the idea a go. It took off and I operated through word of mouth for basically the next ten years.”
 

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How do you see your experience of life in New York as connected to surfing? 

“I moved to New York to pursue my PhD in philosophy at the New School for Social Research. I knew there were waves in New York and New Jersey, and I like the cultural upshots of city life, so it was a logical destination for me. I drove across the country in my 1975 BMW 2002 with three surfboards on the roof: a shortboard, a fish, and a log for giving lessons. I went surfing in Long Beach on my first day in New York: July 3, 2009. It was 1-3 feet, offshore, and kind of firing (I rode the fish). I knew from that first session that New York, academia, and surfing were going to be a nice combination for me."
 
"My surf coaching business, which I officially named Conatus Surf Club in 2013, has taken off here. I facilitate many people’s practices, having created something of an intentional surfing community on the way. So for example, I teach a course on ancient philosophy on Mondays and Wednesdays from 8:00am - 9:40am, which gives me plenty of time to surf after class. Tuesdays and Thurs-Sun are all open for surfing and coaching, if the forecast is right. I have found that our waves are great for learning surfing because they’re mostly small and gentle, and then when they’re big they are quite perfect.”
 

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You have quite a unique approach to teaching people to surf. How does it work?

“My approach is holistic - it is both intentional and reflective. I use Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of language games to inform my definition of surfing as a form of life with a specific set of changing grammatical structures. My goal is to guide students in understanding various ways of being in and around the ocean. I teach them how to be surfers — to describe waves, bathymetry, wind and swell forecasts, rip currents, ability levels and riding styles of other surfers, board shapes, etc. This empowers people to assess where to paddle out and position themselves in the lineup. Physiologically speaking, my method is based upon paddling form and breath."

"You know a proficient surfer when you see one paddle, so it makes sense to focus on this first before focusing on standing up and riding down the line. You cannot even work on that if you cannot catch waves on your own. I match this with wave judgment. A lot of this is me being a kind of meditation teacher and enforcing patience, which leads to better judgment. I also start filming students from early on in the practice. It can be hard to watch oneself struggle ungracefully but ultimately going through that honest reflection with yourself catapults you further faster in your practice. It’s like writing rough drafts and having the guts to revise them. You see things differently and you can learn from your mistakes. This component obviously becomes crucial for advanced intermediates looking to enhance their repertoire and style.”
 

What can the person who gets our surf coaching perk on IndieGoGo expect in their sessions with you? 

“It depends on ability level. If you are a complete beginner you will get two basics lessons where you’ll learn how to check the surf, where to paddle out and why, proper paddling form, and lineup etiquette. Every person is different so I don’t promise anything in two beginning sessions other than perhaps the most difficult and rewarding 1.5 hours of your life (3 total). Some people get it right away and are catching waves in the first session, others are wrestling the board like it’s a bucking bronco learning to do the “sit turn”. We tailor it to your pace and comfort level."

"For advanced beginners and intermediates we’ll assess the strengths and weaknesses in your surfing, help you with wave judgment and paddling form, and get some video for you to reflect on your body and wave positioning. We’ll also take a look at your quiver and make suggestions based on our sessions together. If need be, we’ll put you on 1 or 2 different boards from our quiver so you can try out shapes that might be ideal for you. For beginners we provide all equipment.”
 

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Our IngieGoGo supporters can buy a lesson for NY or CA. Who teaches out in California? 

"Conatus Surf Club also offers our brand of holistic and intentional surf coaching in southern California. Our point man out there is Mike Siordia. Mike is a genuinely awesome guy with tons of knowledge about all southern CA surf spots, surfing culture and board design history. He is a longboard ace but also a well rounded surfer proficient on any chunk of foam. Mike has worked with young aspiring professionals, adult beginners and intermediates. He can get you paddling through any lineup with ease, increase your ability to glide and trim, and help you understand lineup dynamics and etiquette."

What do you love about surfing in NY?

“When it’s perfect here it’s really perfect. Plenty of space to spread out and find your own peak. Plenty of locations to explore. If you’re respectful the locals notice it and don’t hassle you. The flat spells make time to get other stuff done.”
 

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