Acclaimed photographer Ben Watts captures the good times in Montauk with an intriguing new exhibition, a legendary party and plenty of his own rosé to go around.
English-born photographer Ben Watts has been covering the worlds of fashion and celebrity for nearly three decades, but don’t expect him to ever call it work.
“If your passion is also your profession, then you don’t work a day in your life,” Watts says. “I’ve definitely been blessed in that respect.” Indeed, most people would agree with him: Assignments have taken him all over the globe to photograph bikini-clad bombshells and some of the world’s most famous faces, including Jay-Z, Julia Roberts and Mary J. Blige.
And though he has been sent to some of the most stunning locations—from the beaches of Rio to the crystal-clear waters of the Bahamas—his favorite location to shoot is just a few hours from Manhattan. “I would be lying if I didn’t say it was Montauk,” says Watts, who often retreats to his house on East Lake Drive to escape the city. A Montauk resident for 20 years, he is also well-known as the host of the annual Shark Attack Sounds party, which, in 2013, drew more than 4,000 revelers to the Montauk Yacht Club (including celebrities such as his own superstar sister, Naomi Watts) and jammed the roads. “I was sort of like public enemy No. 1 for a while,” he says.
This summer, however, he’s sure to keep the peace. The Shark Attack Sounds party is now, as he puts it, “a harmless day party for people who share the same interests as myself to bring their children and have a good time.” His very own California-produced Watts Up Rosé will be on the wine list at the super-hip Surf Lodge. And for the first time, he’s doing his own line of Hamptons-ready neon pink and yellow sweatshirts, T-shirts and socks that read “NYC to MTK” and are emblazoned with his signature diamond motif (available through Good Life Clothing).
And, oh yes, there will be photography as well. In fact, Watts has one of the most intriguing exhibitions in the Hamptons this summer, at the Melet Mercantile outpost in Montauk (meletmercantile.com). In memory of Heath Ledger on the 10th anniversary of his death, Watts will be showing a series of Polaroids of the actor, with whom Watts became friends when Naomi Watts and Ledger were one of Hollywood’s hottest couples. The Polaroids, which include Ledger’s own handwriting, show a rarely seen side of the actor, skateboarding and goofing off on the concrete slabs of the L.A. River.
“He was just a great guy, a creative force and a great subject,” Watts says. “He definitely didn’t like to pose in front of the camera, so the pictures that we took always involved activities that he enjoyed doing—it wasn’t like a conventional photo shoot, where it was a pain in the ass for him. Because, while he was blessed when the good lord was handing out looks, that was not something that he liked to play, you know?”
Unconventional photo shoots are Watts’ specialty. As the legendary writer, editor and art critic Ingrid Sischy said to Watts in a Q&A for his 2009 photo book, Lickshot, “In a way, you flip around what often happens in celebrity portraiture. Instead of putting the subjects on a pedestal, you put them back into the ordinary world, which keeps things alive.” Mark Wahlberg dribbling a basketball, 50 Cent climbing a street sign on his old turf in Queens or Adrien Brody throwing a punch at the camera (Watts himself was a boxer in college) are all classic Watts images.
Of course, things don’t always go according to plan. Watts recalls a time when a celebrity, who was getting his own clothing line with a major department store, walked off the set (after Watts had waited all day for him to arrive) because he didn’t like the clothes. “He was getting paid a fortune, but he just didn’t care,” Watts laughs. “So that was bizarre. And that’s what I love about it—it’s so unpredictable. It’s their way or the highway—and I dig that, because our job has got to have a bad boy factor. Not everybody can be Mr. Yes. I love it when there’s an edge.”
Originality with a bit of rebellion runs in Watts’ family. His father was the road manager and sound engineer for Pink Floyd and his mother a model (Google “Pink Floyd” and “Ben Watts” to see a preschool-age boy on a beach in St-Tropez with his undeniably hip parents, towheaded future celebrity sister and the shaggy psychedelic rockers). After his parents split, he grew up in the U.K. until the age of 16, when his mother moved her two children to her native Australia where she found work doing art direction and costume design for television and film. “Creativity was definitely in the household,” he says about the influence his mother, who had also worked as an antiques dealer, had on Naomi and him. “The magazine selection, the way she put together a household, was definitely stimulating—we were able to source upon that for inspiration.”
Watts attended Sydney College of the Arts to study graphic design with no intention of ever picking up a camera. “Photography was something that scared me because it involved numbers and f-stops and apertures, and I hated math,” he says. But that changed when he was required to take photography as an elective. “I didn’t dig it in the first half of the semester, and then I got taken by it and I bloody loved it. I spent every moment of my free time either taking pictures, processing film or printing photographs in the darkroom.”
Determined to shoot for fashion magazines, Watts found jobs working the door at clubs frequented by the fashion crowd. “I made sure that everybody that counted in that world was immediately escorted inside and had the best night ever,” he says. “Then, upon exiting, I would ask politely if I might come past sometime during the week and show them my portfolio, whereupon they were completely inebriated and happy they had a great night, so they always said yes.” And it worked. By the time he was 23, he was shooting for Australian Vogue.
In 1995, he moved to New York, but even with all his success in Sydney, breaking in was a challenge. “It was starting all over again,” he says. “But I was still young, optimistic and hungry, and I needed to concentrate on what I needed to do here to make things work out for me. And what that didn’t include was sitting at home waiting for American Vogue to call, because I would have been sitting and waiting a lifetime.”
Today, his clients include The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Elle, GQ, Vanity Fair, the Gap, Nike and Louis Vuitton. And Montauk is where he brings his photo crew as often as possible. “The Montauk Lake Club is one of my favorite locations,” he says. “It’s got the water, it’s got the lawn, it’s got the dock, the boats. And you’ve got a great sort of old chateau-esque-style building.” One of his most memorable shoots there was with Alec Baldwin, who boldly climbed over the banister of a spiral staircase and hung off the railing, risking life and limb for an entertaining shot.
Watts also documents his friends and family on Montauk adventures, such as hanging out on Gin Beach, wakeboarding around Navy Beach or even jumping off the old Navy dock at Fort Pond Bay, where submarines used to moor. Those photos have appeared in his 2015 photo book, Montauk Dreaming, as well as in a small print run of annual zines done in a colorful scrapbook style. “They basically capture the spirit of summer and the good times we had,” he says about the zines, which run the gamut from adorable children at play (including his own daughter) to scantily clad partygoers dancing the night away.
“Montauk is a pretty incredible place,” he says. “Unlike some of the other parts of the Hamptons, where it’s just one long beach or a bay, this is a peninsula with hidden coves. And if you want to pack a backpack and go on a hike, you can get yourself to places where you will literally be the only person on the beach or swimming off rocks. And that is pretty special.” @wattsupphoto, benwatts.com
Photography by: Photography by Ben Watts