Widgets Magazine

Photographer Bill Stamatis on North Fork Fishing and Greenport at Twilight

Q: The cover photo is one of the images from your exhibit opening this weekend, and it's of the longstanding party fishing boats out here, the Peconic Star. You were a fisherman before you were a photographer, weren't you?  A: I started fishing when I was quite young. My father and uncle would take us to Bayville and we would rent a skiff and fish in the Sound. I think I was around 10 years-old. As I got older I fished in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, and when I went upstate--Peekskill and Wappinger Falls-- I would fish in lakes and ponds. Those were the days I used elbow macaroni to catch catfish, bullheads and an occasional, mostly accidentally, largemouth bass. I had a steel fishing rod and a Langley Bait Casting reel. The steel rod was like a fencing foil with line guides.

But fishing on the North Fork, specifically in the waters around Mattituck Inlet, turned me into a serious fisherman.  Here you could fish off a beach without seeing another person for hours, unlike fishing from Jones Beach or Little Neck Bay.  I got my first weakfish casting from Bailie Beach, my first fluke from the beach at Cooper’s Rock and my first large striper from Duck Pond Point.

When I purchased a small aluminum skiff, I expanded my knowledge of North Fork waters. The look and feel of being on the water out here--sunrises and sunsets, clear water, giant boulders dropped by receding glaciers, wetlands, rocky beachscapes--all lend to the feeling that at least that part of the experience hasn’t changed.

After I wrote my first piece for the LI Fisherman in the 60’s, I started to become part of the sport fishing community and became known for writing about the waters of the North Fork. I loved it so much that I got involved with selling tackle and bait at Warren’s Tackle in Aquebogue and for a while I had an interest in the business with Ed Kopack. As time went on my connection to the fishing community developed into friendships.

Q: Your first weakfish, fluke & large striper—any other North Fork fishing memories to share?

A: There’s so many. We would fish at night primarily, chasing striped bass. Back in the 70s, early 80s  we would cross farm fields, climb down bluffs, and then come back with a couple 25 lb striped bass—we were dragging fish across people’s property. The problem was restricted access; you had to be willing to walk a mile each way, carrying your gear—and hopefully big fish.

In August 1991, I had a few good nights of catching striped bass in the Sluice Way east of Plum Island. I wanted to share that experience so I convinced  my 21 year-old daughter to come fishing with me on my 21-foot center console Steiger Craft. We were summering in Mattituck at the time. We were going to go for striped bass, which most serious striper fishermen chase at night.  But she wanted to go out with her friends, so we ended up going out at around 11 am.

We had incredible luck on that day, August 11th to be precise. We landed three stripers. One 50 lbs. the second one was 47 lbs., and another one tipped the scale at  21 lbs. The fish weights matched our ages. I was 50 years-old at the time, my then brother-in-law was 47 and my daughter was 21, so the joke was why wasn’t I 80 so I could break the world record?

Normally you don’t catch fish like that at midday in August.  Bobby Haase of Orient by the Sea marina and restaurant had a certified fish scale. We tied up and put the fish on the scale. We drew a crowd from the bar and the restaurant. No one could believe we caught them at midday.

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Q: So did you start coming to the North Fork to fish?

A: I’ve been coming out here since 1958; my high school friend’s parents had a house out here, in Mattituck. I was lucky that he invited me to come out to go to the beach. We did typical summer stuff swimming, fishing, campfires on the beach. For a city kid who grew up in Manhattan and Queens, the area was amazing.

I came out here for summers from the 60s through the 90’s.  We finally purchased a home in East Marion when I retired in 2007 and my wife Susan and I have been full-time residents since 2010.  Fishing was a big part of my connection and reason to live here.

Q: You’ve been fishing since childhood; when did photography become a big part of your life?

A:  I picked up photography in 1969/70, I started to use an old Minolta SRT 101, and that launched me.

LI Fisherman magazine was interested in one of my articles, and asked me for photographs. I found if you wrote an article and included photographs, it was much easier to publish. So I started taking pictures ‘professionally’, as part of my hobby of fishing.  I’ve done photography for fishing magazines, craft magazines, events, parades and small weekly newspapers. That’s when I learned how to use different lenses, tripod and flash.

Because the photographs were for illustrating the articles, I had to photograph with the intention of what I was going to write about. I started with photos that showed a fisherman holding a fish and then I got more specialized with images of gear, how to tie knots and rigs, even photo series that depicted how to fillet fish or tie flies. It was very different than family photography. That was before YouTube and Vimeo.

I was an English teacher for 33 years so writing was never an issue. The challenge was always how to photograph a fishing trip to depict the fun and excitement of catching fish.

Q: You’ve been a photographer for so long, you must have learned the craft using film. Do you miss film?

A: No, I don’t miss film at all. I love digital cameras and the images they produce. I wish I could have a camera as a body part so it would always be with me. I use my iPhone but not as much as I should, because I prefer the heft and feel of a camera.

But I took my time getting to digital. In 1994, I was working for the teachers union—the United Federation of Teachers—and urged them to adapt to modern technology. Later, I started running a website for them, and that involved a lot of digitization of film images for the web. Sometimes it would take two days to get an image web ready. That drove me nuts because by the time we posted the image the story was a couple of days old. In 2000, the professional photographers started submitting digital images.  I loved the convenience and the quality of what I was getting. But, still,  I didn’t go all digital until 2004.

Q: You have a photography exhibit opening this weekend—Twilight: Greenport Under Sapphire Skies. What’s the backstory?

A: What motivated me to do the show is how rapidly Greenport, and the North Fork, is changing, how landmark shops are disappearing. As a fisherman, there was a bait shop in Greenport called AP White’s. Now it’s the Little Creek Oyster Farm & Market.  Claudio’s is up for sale, the Coronet went up for sale—now it’s Crazy Beans. White’s hardware was gone, all these things were gone.

I thought I’d better start taking photographs before hedge fund guys come in and turn everything into a resort.  Then it became artistic, not just documentary; taking pictures after dark. there’s beauty here. IGA looks beautiful at night. Peconic Star looks like a yacht in a romantic harbor. Things transform at twilight. The railroad station in Greenport… One of the themes of the photography exhibit is lights and shadows.

I have a bias for twilight. I took one photography class in my life. It was about learning to photograph at twilight and at night. It was taught by Lynn Saville at ICP-International Center of Photography in Manhattan.  I’ve been inspired by her work ever since and taught me how to see an image at night. When you go to my website you can see my twilight work.

My wife saw the Greenport pictures and says, ‘these are good’—normally she’s like, ‘oh, that’s nice’, so when she said these are good I knew I was on to so something.

Q: Is it your first show? And has photography gone from a hobby to a career

A: It’s my first solo show. I’ve been in juried group shows with several exhibitors. I also belong to two photography groups--Light Painters Learning Center in Southold led by Judy McCleery and a meetup group called Long Island Photography Workshops back in Centereach.  As to a photography career, no. I do other photography—political stuff, media, special projects—but no, I’m not generally for hire. But, I’m always interested in talking about interesting projects. Illustrating a book about fishing might be interesting.

Q: Besides fishing and Greenport at night, do you particularly enjoy taking any other kind of photograph?

A: My other major photography passion is travel. I’ve documented and sold many of my travel pictures. One of minarets in Istanbul was used as a book cover. I always look for exotic scenes.  We went to Russia not long ago. Most of my Red Square photographs in Moscow are at night—the twilight ones are usually the more dramatic. The sky is so much more interesting.

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I’m the pain in the ass when we travel in groups. When everyone wants to go to dinner, I’m looking around for a spot to set up a tripod to catch the last glimmer of daylight or the blue hour after the sun sets. On the tour group, I’m the one who’s 50 feet behind, while everyone’s waiting on the bus.

If you put a camera in my hand I’ll always find something to photograph. I love to take pictures. Many times it’s just the serendipity of what you see in the image after you take the photo. The play of lights, incandescent, fluorescent, sodium and mercury vapor street lighting emit different colors, so there’s an element of surprise when you view the image on your computer screen. I love that.

Check out the new show:

Twilight: Greenport Under Sapphire Skies Floyd Memorial Library, Greenport.

Opening reception: October 15th, 3-5 pm, music by Bob Blank featuring the Platters' 1958 hit Twilight Time. Through November 20.