Winter surfing in New York (and the entire East Coast) is part of the local surf culture, and only the most dedicated participate. It’s a kind of litmus test – if you surf in the winter, then you earn a certain respect. There’s something both peaceful and exhilarating about surfing in the dead of winter. Some may think it’s crazy, but for others it’s a way of life.
This is part artist profile, part interview, and part case study of winter surfing at its coldest. After posting several amazing photographs of recent post-blizzard surf sessions in Montauk, New York on Facebook, I had to ask Dalton Portella for a recap of the events. A New York based artist and musician whose mediums include photography and painting, Dalton does an amazing job conveying the grandeur of the sea and sky.
How Cold is that water?
I looked on online yesterday and it’s between 35 and 37 I think now.
Does it usually get that cold?
In the past I remember it getting down to like 38 in February. This feels a little bit colder. We’ve had some pretty brutally cold stuff here so it feels a little bit colder than usual.
What’s your wetsuit setup like when you go out?
I’m using a 6/5/4, 7 mil boots, gloves…I think the most important thing is keeping the extremities warm. If I can keep my hands and feet comfortable I can last a while.
What do you personally get out of Winter surfing?
Peace of mind. [laughs] My brain doesn’t shut up and the only time it seems to shut up is when I’m on a wave. For a few seconds at a time I just get to wipe the slate clean and I’m not thinking about anything else while I’m on a wave. And it beats going to a gym. [laughs]
That picture with Tin [of Drug Money Art], with the icicles on his hood, how cold was it that day?
Yeah that was the coldest day. It was 7 degrees that day. It was definitely negative something with the winds. It was brutally cold. You can see all the ice on the jetties in the other pictures. For saltwater to freeze on the jetty it’s gotta be pretty f*cking cold.
What’s special to you about Montauk?
Well this time of year it’s the lack of people. I like the solitude, I like the isolation. It’s good to have one or two people out there with you, but [the crowds] make me a little cranky. [laughs]
It seems like you do a little bit of everything–painting, photography. Do you have a main medium or do you just mix everything?
Lately I’ve just been shooting [photos] a lot and capturing this winter experience. And I seem to have been going back to this theme of birds. I find dead birds, live birds…and I think that by shooting that…I think they can be metaphors for everything that’s going on in the world pretty much. The bird is the symbol of peace, freedom, nature, and all these other things. But to find them dead, decaying…that’s a good vehicle for me to illustrate the condition of the world. And I’ve got an ongoing series with my daughter that I’ve been doing over the years. I shoot her in environments that I find interesting or mysterious. And then the Winter surf series, which just captures my experience out here in New York on the East End.
What else would you say inspires you? I know you like to do the Ocean and the Sky, that seems to be a big theme in your work.
Yeah, I’m drawn to shooting the ocean. I can bring my experience in the water, not necessarily just to the surfing world, but to people who’ve never experienced that. And the Winter series…I don’t know, even after all these years I find snow on the beach novel…just bizarre. I like using figurative work…and using themes and imagery of my daughter. I find that can be a good springboard for lots of stories. I’ve got that shot of her walking towards the camera on a beach with a tank behind her with four people going surfing behind her.
What made you put the tank in there?
That’s a tank I pass a lot in Wainscott. I thought putting it there would just make people think. When I first showed that image someone commented that a novel could be written about the picture. And I like someone to be able to come up with their own ideas and stories about what they see. Like putting a picnic table, sinking it in the sand. There’s a lot of stories there.
I noticed you said you work with mixed mediums.
I do for this photographic series. I do have other mixed media pieces where I actually incorporate my paintings with my photography. Printing the photography on watercolor paper and then going into that with pastel – some of those are mixed media like that. When I was studying art at Parsons I got a job doing photo retouching a long time ago, and that turned into computers, so I can incorporate that into my artwork. It’s a new brush, it’s a new tool.
It’s really eye catching I think.
Yeah and I like making it totally believable. People are like, “Wow there’s a tank on the beach.” I’m not necessarily looking to create something surreal, but just something believable…to inspire some thought, you know.
I couldn’t tell the first time I saw “No Picnic”. I didn’t know that was Photoshopped at all. I was like “When did that happen?”
That one….just painting the water around the legs of the table, and putting the shadows in to make it believable. I come at this with a painting background and use photography as my canvas.
Were you a painter originally?
Yeah. I started with painting and drawing before I ever got into photography.
When did you move out to Montauk?
I moved out on 9/11 full time. We had the house out here [in Montauk] already. And that was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had wanted out of the city before that, but my wife liked the city more than I did. We watched the trade center burn from the roof of our loft in Williamsburg…and then I said, “That’s it, let’s go to Montauk.” And we put my daughter in school in Montauk the following Monday.
I know you’re in Bastards of Boom, what’s your involvement with that?
Yeah, I’ve got a cool band that mixes all original music of stuff I’ve been influenced by from living in Brazil, and Middle Eastern music that I like, and rock, and I mix it all up. It’s a cool band. The little story behind the name…a jazz drummer started [another] band called “Samba Boom,” and we played traditional samba in that band. And I took all these drummers from that band and started the Bastards Of Boom so we could mix it all up.
You also play the guitar too right?
Guitar is my first instrument. I wanted to be a drummer before anything, but my mother was never going to buy me a drum set. And my sister won a guitar and I just kinda taught myself how to play.
You said you had a T-Shirt line coming out?
I’ve been working on these designs for a long time. I did a whole series of designs for this company called Haute Hippie and I didn’t like signing away the rights to the work for very little money, so I decided to do my own. I just want to own everything about the piece and it will just mean a lot. I started working on my own designs about ten years or so ago. I did a bunch of my own shirts and was just doing them from my studio with iron on transfers, and sold those right away. I just got away from it, but in the back of my mind I still wanted to do it. And I watched Tin really do what he likes, and he’s been a great help to me, talking about which shirts to use, etc. So I’m doing my own. It’s going to be a line called Dalton Apparel, hopefully we’ll have a website up in a few weeks and get the shirts out there. We’re starting small with like 4 designs. And I’ve got tons on deck. And I’m using all my photography married to my graphics, and it’s kind of surf, it’s kind of rock and roll, and it’s art.
Dalton will also be releasing a coffee table book of his photography titled Close To Home, which should be available soon.
Check out the Bastards Of Boom on ReverbNation