Andreea Waters is a photographer and author who, originally from Romania, is now based just north of New York City along the Hudson River. Her favorite photographic subject is surfing with a focus on its mood, atmosphere, and art. In 2016, she collected her photographic work on the topic into a book, Surf NYC, with visual storytelling emphasis on (among other locales) the oceanside community of Rockaway Beach. The forward was written by New York surf-community activist and SMASH founder, Tyler Breuer.
In her artist statement within, Waters notes that "New York City surfing is mad. There is nothing easy about it. The waves are inconsistent, surf breaks are hard to access, winter brings the best waves, and it is cold. It takes a certain person to surf in the city. While living in New York, surfing stole my eyes and lured my photography to the beach." That photography caught the attention of Ben Pomeroy, who interviewed Waters for his Swell Season podcast, and who recommended she be part of this ongoing Nomadic Press interview series. I invited Waters up to the rooftop of the apartments at 475 Kent Avenue in South Williamsburg (current and former home to several world-class photographers) for an interview, and to be photographed herself by Randall Bellows III. Waters discussed her affection for surfing, her approach to photographing it, and how other subjects compare.
On surfing as a subject
"In Romania, under the communist regime, we learned math and science. That was the future."
I've always had a passion for photography. I'd always picked up cameras, but I'd never really pursued it. In Romania, under the communist regime, we learned math and science. That was the future. So when I moved to the United States, I kind of explored more of the arts. Then I ended up taking a black-and-white photography class where I developed my own film, played with that, and fell in love with it. But I just kept it casual.
Then when I moved to New York, I thought, "Hey, it's time to really see if I have an eye." So I ended up taking a couple of courses at the International Center of Photography. My teacher was Natan Dvir. First I took street photography, and then I decided to do documentary. During that course you had to pick a subject, and you had to figure out your story. My first one was a disaster. So we took a long one-on-one walk to Grand Central, and [Dvir] just kind of looked at me and said, "Find your passion." So then randomly, at that time, I heard that people surf in New York City. I was at Chelsea Piers taking an exercise class, and people were like, "Oh, you know they surf in New York City?" I was like, "Where? Hudson River?" They said, "No, no. 90th Street." That sounded weird, but I'm very curious. So I went home, and I went online, and I Googled, "Surfing in New York City." I came across Rockaway Beach and Saturdays, the lifestyle store in SoHo. So my first thought was, "Well, I'm gonna go to Saturdays, and I'm gonna ask, 'Where are the waves?'"
So I walked in and there were a couple of guys working, and I said, "Where are the waves, and where are the surfers?" They just kind of gave me a look like, "Yeah, sure." So then I decided to take a drive to Rockaway Beach. It was a Friday and it was actually stormy. I'll never forget that drive over the bridge, and you see all the projects and industrial buildings. You look at surfing in movies and you see beaches and blue skies. This was like wind, fog, and concrete. It was kind of like, "What the fuck is this, and who the fuck surfs here?" So I drove onto Shore Drive and I ended up actually seeing a surfer. I said, "Well, this must be it." So I parked my car, went onto the boardwalk and saw 90th Street, and was like, "I found the surfers!" I took a photo with my iPhone, texted it to Natan, and he was like, "You found fucking gold! You have more passion in that one photo than anything you've shown me."
I started shooting in 2012, and I never really knew exactly what the project was going to be or how it was going to end up. I just kept shooting. Then the more I got to know surf photography and the culture, and being involved in it, I thought about a book. Because I also started documenting a period in time. 2012 has a certain meaning to Rockaway and New York because of Hurricane Sandy. So it really just defined a period in surfing where the landscape changed. Also, surf photography has beauty because of the ocean, and it has soul because of the people. It's an amazing mix of beauty and soul. So I thought of a book. I love paper. You can hold a book in your hands, we can have a conversation about it, and you can flip through it. It also becomes part of somebody's house. It engages people in conversation. And with time it's a piece of history. It's a piece of New York City.
On Surf NYC's cover photo
"I do a lot of street photography, so I'm always looking for interesting situations."
This was at Lido Beach, and it was an amazing hurricane swell from Edouard in September of 2014. I was just hanging out and photographing the surfers, and all of a sudden I see this guy in a purple wetsuit. I do a lot of street photography, so I'm always looking for interesting situations. I'm looking at the beach. I'm not just focusing on the surfers. So I see this guy, and I'm just like, "What is that?" So it was very intriguing. He captured my eye. I just started photographing him, and this moment happened. At first, when you take a photo, it's kind of like, "Okay, well, it's a photo." But in time, when you go back and review your photos, they kind of jump out at you in a different way. So then I worked on editing my book and picking the photos, and that process was done with Natan as well. Then at the end of the book-editing process I had a meeting with Derek Hynd, the surf legend, and he looked through my whole entire book and he went, "Promise me one thing: that's the cover." It just totally made sense. Then George Bates is also in the book, and he's an illustrator so I worked with him on the font. This font is actually a very interesting story because it's inspired by the architecture of the buildings. He wrote a whole blog about the font, and we worked through different covers and different designs. This one, it's just "Surf NYC."
On setting up shots
"Are the surfers gonna go right, or are they gonna go left? Are you gonna do backside or frontside? Every angle has a different mood."
I don't have a water housing [for my camera] yet, but I do try to go in the ocean. I love to get as close as I can. When you're in the ocean, you have different angles that you can play with. So I try to go in there unless it's dead-cold winter. But I only go to my thighs because the camera has to stay dry. I do climb up, too. I'm not a photographer who sits in one place with a tripod and photographs at one angle, because the light changes, and the ocean changes constantly. So you have to understand what happens in the water in order to be able to get the shot. Because it's about how the wave breaks. Are the surfers gonna go right, or are they gonna go left? Are you gonna do backside or frontside? Every angle has a different mood. So sometimes I like to be super close, and that's more sports photography — get that energy and the power of the ocean and the surfer. Sometimes I like to stay back and get more of the mood. But I definitely approach it more from a journalistic style, rather than just sports photography.
On photographing ocean water
"There's always smog in Rockaway. The city thing. Sometimes you surf with trash, so there's a sadness to that."
Waves create spikes, and every time they have a different look. I love spikes. Each hurricane will have its own spike. As a photographer, as you start documenting the ocean you realize that Rockaway Beach has a certain color, a certain feel, a certain look. The Jersey Shore has its own color. So I kind of document a series of ocean spikes and just the mood and the atmosphere from different places. Going to California, it's a different spike. They're everywhere.
Rockaway compared to Montauk, compared to Jersey, they all have their different colors. There's always smog in Rockaway. The city thing. Sometimes you surf with trash, so there's a sadness to that. Montauk is beautiful. The ocean is blue. It's like you're on another planet. Then Jersey always has this intense blue sky. You see in the photos the way that the sun reflects in the back of the waves. It gives Jersey these colors. It almost looks tropical. It's really the positioning of the shore in relationship to the waves and the sun and all of that.
On the boardwalk
The boardwalk is part of the culture. It's where the surfers interact with the beach, so it becomes more the beach life. There's a connection between the people who go to visit Rockaway (and they're on the boardwalk having a good time dancing, partying, or they're there with their families) and the surf life. That's where they engage. Everybody kind of comes together, whether it's on the beach or on the boardwalk. It really just connects the surfer and the ocean with the community. It's kind of the place where everything merges and interesting things happen.
On seeing her work in print vs digital
It's like night and day. You can only feel so far in digital. Everybody's sharing pictures on Instagram, but that little Instagram picture is like 4 X 4. When you see my pictures, and especially when you see the prints big on a wall, you become part of that moment. It really just puts you there. You also discover different things. The book's cover picture — I didn't realize that there's actually a surfer paddling on the right in the real picture. So you start noticing details on the pictures that you'd never be able to see unless you're in Photoshop zooming in and using your magnifying glass on your screen. So it's a completely different experience. It's like going to see a band live. I love music. So it's like being there with them live and listening to them there in your house, or in the car. But I think Instagram has its beauty. We connect. I think Instagram for me is sharing moments, and it's almost a little bit of a photo journal and you're creating a story. So I always end up just cropping a piece of my images. It's very rare that I put the whole thing. Because it's Instagram. It's this little square. But it's engaging, and it's a way to tell a story about the artist, or whoever you are.
On photographers she admires
"I constantly look everywhere to see how photographers present their work and how they photograph. This is how I learned."
Locally, there's a photographer in Long Beach, Mike Nelson, who's been photographing surf. But he's definitely a surf photographer in terms of the sports photography angle. His photos are really beautiful. He's kind of my inspiration because he goes out there in the winter. He's one of the only ones that would go out there in some surf that would probably kill me just to be in up to my knees. It's really cool to see because he captures moments from the water that are really powerful. There's a guy from California, Morgan Maassen, and his photography is beautiful. He is also an in-water photographer, but his work kind of has more of a journalistic feel. He's more artsy.
I constantly look at magazines. I constantly look everywhere to see how photographers present their work and how they photograph. This is how I learned. I'd never surfed or taken surf photography before, so I had to really study it. For example, Surfer magazine will have all the pro surfers, and if you really study it you understand there's a moment that captures the energy. It's the ocean, it's the surfer, and you have to learn that. You can't just show up at the beach and be like, "Oh, well, I'm just gonna take some photos." You have to have ocean knowledge. You have to understand surfing and that there's a moment.
On her own surfing
"...the person who is an actual surfer and you see them out there in the elements because they want to catch that ride, and the passion and the drive that they have, it's really inspirational."
I was sitting there and saw all these people. The summer is crazy. Anybody can surf in the summer. It's like a surf soup. So seeing all the people there, of course I was curious and was like, "I can go in the water and do this." But the reality is, fall, winter, when real waves happen, that's where I think there's a line between playtime surf. I mean, I love to go in the water and catch a wave. It's so fun. But the person who is an actual surfer and you see them out there in the elements because they want to catch that ride, and the passion and the drive that they have, it's really inspirational. For me, surfing is fun, playful. I constantly learn and get better, and I have fun with it.
On the Hudson River
"I could be at the ocean for hours. I sit there with my camera even in the dead of winter. That's my favorite. I'm frozen and I'm still there."
The river is beautiful, but the river to me doesn't speak what the ocean does. It doesn't draw me, it doesn't pull me in, and I don't feel it the way I feel the ocean. So I do take photos, and I enjoy seeing it. I actually happen to live on the river, and I work there so I see it all the time. But it doesn't mesmerize me. I could be at the ocean for hours. I sit there with my camera even in the dead of winter. That's my favorite. I'm frozen and I'm still there. Then I have hand warmers and feet warmers just to be out there a little bit longer. It's cool to see the surfer in the water with the ocean. The river has boats, so there is some kind of movement. It has tides. When there's a storm, you see texture in the water. But the river doesn't have the human aspect to it.
On photographing NYC streets
You have to get on the streets. You have to pull yourself together and get in people's faces and engage with the energy of the streets — the people, the movement, and everything that's happening. That's what I like. It reminds me a lot of the ocean in a way. I always refer to the beach as where the streets have no name. There's a relationship because on the streets there's always something happening. So you walk around, things are happening, and it's those moments. So you just have to put yourself in the elements, whether it's street, ocean, beach — whatever it is.