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Shooting the Waves

Montauk photographer Justin Burkle has been capturing dynamic scenes of the Atlantic Ocean’s magnificent power, as well as surfers’ and sportsmen’s ability to brave its ferocious waters, for seven years. Here, local surfing legend Leif Engstrom sits down with Burkle—who also owns and designs activewear line 41 Degrees North—to see where the tide takes them.

Photographer Justin Burkle shoots many of his subjects while swimming in the water, including this shot of the Montauk Point Lighthouse

A Burkle image of Fourth of July weekend at Ditch Plains beach

Porpoises in the warm Gulf Stream waters that come within range of the East End each summer

An early spring beach break west of Montauk

A modern-day shipwreck in northern Montauk

A self-portrait by the artist

Leif Engstrom: How did you become interested in photography?
Justin Burkle: When I was growing up, my father, who worked for an airline, always had cameras around. My brothers and I would take offshore trips to Atlantis and Block Canyons, and I’d grab a camera and document our adventures; so that became a true passion for me. Eventually, every time we went on a trip and I was going into the water, I found myself taking the camera with me instead of a surfboard or a rod or spear gun. 

What makes surfers such interesting subjects?
No two waves are ever the same, and no two surfers have the same surfing style, and that’s always been interesting to me. The constantly changing ocean forces surfers to adapt to all types of conditions. And I also have to adjust my shooting style, because I’m swimming while taking the photographs. I never get the same shot twice—I’m always progressing and trying new angles.  

You photograph surfers, and you’re a surfer yourself—what do you like so much about it?
I like being immersed in the ocean. You forget about everything else, and just focus on the ocean and the changing conditions.

As a Montauk resident who shoots the Hamptons, what is it about the landscape that inspires you?
The pure beauty of the place, and the amount of open space. The fact that it hasn’t been overdeveloped, that it’s stayed a small fishing and surfing community, which goes hand in hand with my interests. I’m passionate about the ocean because of the activities, opportunities and peace of mind it gives me.

You also design the 41 Degrees North clothing line—how did that come about?
I started the line after noticing that none of the big brands really had anything that fit the local outdoor lifestyle. We do everything from spearfishing to surfing to diving to fishing here, so 41 Degrees North is a locally inspired active lifestyle brand. The name comes from the fact that 41 degrees north is the latitude of the East End of Long Island.

The line is made partially in Montauk—why keep production local?
It says a lot that you can do part or all of your production in Montauk, a place you wouldn’t imagine is a manufacturing town. But it separates 41 Degrees North from everything else you see in stores that’s made in China. The fact that it’s locally made brings pride to the brand.