In any profession or craft, there are a rare few that exceed above and beyond the rest. True masters that push the boundaries of excellence and longevity. A perfect example would be Walter Iooss, a true photographic legend whose iconic, colorful images of athletes and swimsuit beauties have graced the covers and pages of Sports Illustrated for over 50 years.
Walter’s personality shines through his photographs — bright beautiful colors you never knew existed, moments of action only he could capture and a look on a subjects face only he could draw. I have looked up to Walter and his work all my life. To have the opportunity to interview and photograph him for Whalebone was truly an honor. Enjoy.
Grant Monahan: How long have you been living in Montauk?
Walter Iooss: We bought our first house in 1977, across the street from where we had the party last night at The Crow’s Nest. Eva had come out here to work as a model, and I had never really been to Montauk, except once on an assignment in 1965. Sports Illustrated sent me out here to shoot fishing. They put me on a boat and I got horribly sick, so I hadn’t come back in about 10 years. Eva grew up on the North Sea in a beach town called Zandvoort, and Montauk reminded her very much of her life as a kid. For me, all I did was travel all the time, and it is one of those places (where) as soon as you lay your eyes on it, you sort of love because it is very raw. And it is just water… it is so dominated by water, which we all love here. You don’t have to be in the water, you don’t have to see it all the time, but you just feel it here. I love to live in a place where I can feel water. It’s not like I surf anymore, but we are here, we feel it all the time and it dominates our lives.
GM: From something as simple as a change in the wind.
WI: You feel it all day. I always think of Indians. How they sensed life before we came and invaded them because they were closer to animals than we are. Those are the natural senses. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, they had senses we don’t have anymore. They could smell and hear things that we don’t understand. And I love the old Curtis pictures; I have one downstairs. In the badlands of a chief on a horse in an oasis, and his head is up in full gear. He is seeing, hearing, and smelling things I don’t even know exist.
GM: It was a time when people were more in tune with nature. We lost that. Now everything is given to us.
WI: But that is what I think is one of the beauties of Montauk. We have seen a lot of changes, but one of the things we all enjoyed here was complete freedom. There were no fences. You put a fence up, they are going to take it down. You can’t stop a Montauk person from living their life. But as more and more people come, there has to be more and more rules. Too many monkeys in a cage is a problem.
WI: Anywhere that becomes popular is going to have problems. But I am not going anywhere!
GM: Historically there has always been a draw to Montauk from artists and photographers. What do you think it is that draws these creative types, like yourself, out here?
WI: That is a good question because I am not exactly sure how each person could answer that question, but I think we all have the same feelings about this place. There is this animal quality; the coastline, the cliffs. Arguably it is the most beautiful real estate in Long Island. There is no place like the cliffs. Starting from town out to the lighthouse is the greatest spot in Montauk. The cove down here — Cavett’s Cove is my favorite beach in the world! I don’t care where I go, send me to that beach. Every time I go there it is like I am seeing it for the first time. I think that is part of the experience in this town; it is always a little different. Everyday is special. Not necessarily going to the IGA… I don’t know why we all came, but I think it is for the same reasons; there is beauty, there is light, there is freedom. [Eva from the other room, “It is because it is close to New York City”] That does help! Hey people are attracted to beautiful places.
GM: What makes Montauk such a great place to take photographs?
WI: You know what I always think of first? The people of Montauk. As beautiful as it is, when I am away from here that is the one thing I miss the most — the relationships in Montauk. You understand that because you are really part of this community. And I tell you this community can be really tough on people. There are people that would give anything to be accepted by the community. There is a special feeling. I would sell everything to keep this house. I will never leave here.
GM: I am fortunate enough to have been born in this community, and my parents to have been accepted and made lives here so long ago.
WI: All my good photographs have been along these cliffs. I have tried to photograph other places, and some of them have worked out, but I always end up between the cliffs at the edge of town and Warhol’s. To do the cliffs best you have to wait until later in the year, you can’t do it in the summer. You go out here in October the light stays low, it is sort of a sidelight. So when you shoot down the cliffs you get the striations of the cliff. It almost has to be slightly backlit, so you can see these ridges.
GM: I was going to ask what is your favorite place to photograph, but it seems we already got that answer.
WI: Cavett’s Cove.
GM: Is there a character in Montauk that you have shot that is your favorite?
WI: Cheech. I mean you can go to The Dock and have the best characters, as you well know. George, all of them. I think the best characters are all at The Dock. It is sort of the Alamo, the last stand of what Montauk was 30 years ago. It is not that inviting of a place for someone from out of town. The people that go there are good people, but they are not giving any love out. They look at you and you think, “Oh man, this guy is going to kill me.”
GM: The happy hour regulars.
WI: Little Anthony, everyone. These are the fishermen, the backbone of the community. It is why people settled out here.
GM: So you did one Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue out here.
WI: Yeah, one. Sometimes it is better to be away from home because you don’t have any distractions. But it was the greatest time out here. No matter how many times you shoot a place you know, when there is a specific shoot, you always find different places to go within the places you know. Where is going to work best on November 5th because the light and the wind? So you are always scouting. If it was my backyard I would be looking around because it is different when you have to shoot a specific thing. We had this girl Veronica Varekova, the one I shot down at Cavett’s Cove on the rock. Veronica’s Rock. She was one of the great beauties of the world at that time, and we had her for one day. One day only, and it was cold! It was in November. I told everyone, “You can’t be late tomorrow, 6:45am sharp.” We are waiting at the trail to Cavett’s and it’s 7:15, now 7:30, and I’m like, “Fuck these people.” And you start to hear cars coming down the gravel. The crew van pulls up, and then Veronica pulls up in this cool little Mercedes. She gets out of the car in a fur coat, we are all staring at her, and the coat opens up and she is in a bikini. You could hear the knees start to shake on my crew! “Let’s go!” First picture, boom, double page in the magazine, the cover was from that morning, Veronica’s Rock from that afternoon. We just shot all day; the light was great.
GM: Is late fall your favorite time to shoot here?
WI: I think the best light is in November.
GM: Do you think your time in Montauk has influenced your work outside of Montauk?
WI: I think everything influences your work. I guess the people I have met here and how people live out here has influenced me. I have never lived in a place like this. Here is just different. It has had to influence me. I mean I think of it all the time. Look where we are!
For more of Walter’s incredible life and work, check out the links below.