This Ain't the Hamptons—This is Bonac
In a place known to most New Yorkers for celebrity soirees and sprawling estates, getting up close and personal with the year-rounders who’ve called East Hampton home for generations.
Photos by Tara Israel
Ask anyone from East Hampton where we're from, and we’ll never say "the Hamptons," because we are not from "the Hamptons." We are from the town of East Hampton—the stretch of land on the South Fork of Long Island, running from Montauk to Wainscott. "The Hamptons" is a place populated by second homes and share houses, a different world from where we come from.
Sidney's family has been in East Hampton for generations. The catalyst for this body of work was a professor jokingly exclaiming "This isn't the Hamptons!" upon seeing this image. That's exactly right - this isn't the Hamptons. This is East Hampton. This photograph was taken when Sidney was working as a mechanic at the East Hampton Bowl, a building that was in part built by his grandfather. Sidney, like many other descendants of families that have been in the town for generations, felt that he had been pushed out by newcomers. The cost of living, the unreliability of the limited public transportation system, and the effects of a growing seasonal population have all factored into many people moving away. In the time since this photo was taken, Sidney moved to California with a local friend and is running a handful of websites. The bowling alley closed in June.
Zach P. works as a commercial fisherman, both offshore and inshore, while pursuing a career as a welder. He works with local crews, often with methods of trap fishing that have been used for hundreds of years. His family moved to East Hampton when he was a child and he currently lives with a family of local baymen on a small compound that is referred to as "Poseyville."
Shannon is from a family that has been in East Hampton for generations. She has worked for a variety of local businesses - from the Springs General Store to the movie theater to the bowling alley. After the bowling alley closed in 2013 she found work at Otto Glass, a company that has been owned and operated by three generations of another local family.
Billy is from Springs and was raised by his father, who was a Boy Scout troop leader and a harbor master. He still lives in Springs and works at the local bookstore, BookHampton.
For centuries we have taken care of our own, a fiercely protective community that operates like an extended family, and the only way to be included is by paying your dues. We know the nicknames of all the characters in town. We know how to give driving directions by only referencing landmarks that were torn down 15 years ago. We have experienced the boredom of a Wednesday night in March. We know there’s a difference between having a lot and thinking you have a lot. We learn to love your enemy, because someday they may marry into your family.
Ethan comes from one of the oldest local families in Springs. He recently purchased a house in Southampton and works for the awning company that was founded by his grandfather. Ethan's grandfather would give scraps of canvas from the workshop to then-starving artists like Willem de Kooning so they would have material to paint on.
Erin's family has lived in East Hampton for generations. She teaches 3rd grade at the same elementary school she attended and is starting to get students who are the children of people she grew up with. Erin and her husband are expecting their first child in September 2013. Erin's family spends their days off hunting and fishing; she spent her winter scalloping with her father. At her brother's recent wedding, all of the tables at the reception were named after local fishing spots.
We call this place “Bonac,” taking the name from the Accabonac Creek that runs through the area.
To be a “Bonacker,” a true local, is defined differently by everyone. At one time, it meant that no fewer than three generations of your family had called East Hampton home.
Now, first-generation locals wonder where they belong, as they don’t identify with the city folk, but don’t feel they have any right to claim status as a Bonacker.
Sequoyah grew up on the Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton. Both of her parents have worked to maintain tribal heritage and tradition, encouraging their children to participate in dance competitions and working to make out-of-print books about race and the Shinnecock available. She currently lives in Philadelphia and is working on her MFA in interior design.
If you ask 100 locals to choose one person who embodies the town of East Hampton, you will get 100 different answers. Many call this town home, but few locals have an absolute sense of belonging. Some have been pushed out by the crushing cost of living, despite their families’ hundreds of years of history. I embarked on this body of work because I was tired of feeling that the town I hold so precious has only been defined by outsiders. Over the past four years I sought to demonstrate that the reason no one person could ever speak for the entirety of Bonackers is because there is no singular experience. The peculiar nature of collective memory makes us a community, but it is the rich spectrum of life choices and experiences that makes this East Hampton the biggest small town in the world.
Brittany works as a math tutor and a certified holistic health coach. She is from Montauk, where her father was a commercial fisherman and her mother owns a day spa. For the last few years she has split her time between Puerto Rico and Montauk, homeschooling Quincy Davis, a local professional surfer who graduated from East Hampton High School in 2013.
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For the sake of privacy, I have intentionally omitted locations from landscapes and the last names of most people photographed. This is a story I want to share with the public, but the boundary intentionally creates a distinction between those who have shared a local experience and those who haven't. For years, outsiders have attempted ownership of an identity that can only be cultivated over a lifetime.
Trip owns Tripoli Contemporary Art, a gallery in Southampton. His parents met through the artist Lisa De Kooning, who lived at a home in Springs that was once the residence of her father, Willem de Kooning. He is a champion surfer, and this surfboard was a gift to him from the artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel. His gallery has shown local and international artists, many with some connection to Eastern Long Island.
Kevin's family moved to Amagansett when he was in 3rd grade, after summering in the area for years. Like many other locals, Kevin moved away after high school, but returned home to help out his mother and be closer to work and friends. He lives in his childhood home and is the shift supervisor at the East Hampton Starbucks.
Limiting captions also forces the viewer to step away from cultural perception of "the Hamptons," and simply see the piece for what it is—a love story about a small American town. The art, the surfing, the architecture, the beauty, is all there. The elements that define local culture are also included, like living off the land; three generations sharing one roof due to the cost of real estate; living on a street named after your family; and knowing there was a time when it was safe to hitchhike as a teenager—because the car that picked you up in the middle of the night was inevitably a friend’s parent driving home from work.
Morgan lives in upstate New York and just returned from active duty in the U.S. Army in February. He grew up in Springs, where his his extended family still lives.
Charlie's family moved to East Hampton to be closer to other family members; they were part of a small community of Vietnamese refugees who came to the area in the 1980s. Charlie currently lives in Brooklyn and is working as an artist. Some of his larger commercial projects have kept him connected to home - he designs for Wampum, a brand founded by two brothers from Montauk, and works for the Amagansett studio that hand-painted the wallpaper used in the 2010 redesign of the Oval Office.
Andrew's mother is from East Hampton and his father moved to Montauk when he was 19 to fish and surf. Andrew grew up in a small development located at Camp Hero, a WWII era military base that officially closed all operations in 1982 and held a lottery in which most of the homes went to local fishermen. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon where he started a freelance editing firm called Stumptown Editorial.
Victor and JC have been friends since childhood. Victor's family moved from Brooklyn to Springs when he was in elementary school because they felt it was a better place to raise a child. He recently graduated from SUNY-Stony Brook with an MFA in creative writing and still lives in Springs, where he works as an artist and writer. JC's parents settled in Springs after coming to Montauk, where they worked at Gurney's Inn for 17 years. JC lives in Brooklyn with his wife, where he works as a graphic designer. The skate ramp is located at JC's parents' house in Springs.
Brothers Danny and Paul are continuing a tradtion of inshore fishing that has been maintained by their family for hundreds of years. Many of the techniques they use have been only slightly modified from what their family learned from the Native Americans when Europeans first settled in the area in the 1600s. This photo was taken on opening day of scallop season in 2010 just off Robin's Island. Most of the fishing is done by hand - the only machine involved is the boat engine. The brothers work with a small crew of other generational fishermen selling to local fish markets and out of their home. Danny is also a volunteer firefighter for the Amagansett Fire Department, a tradition that has been upheld by the oldest families in the area.
Each person and location photographed represents a memory, minuscule points in time over the past thirty years. Implicit or explicit, these are the diverse faces and places that have shaped me into the person I am today—and I am just one example of how this town raises each of its children.
History is like lasagna, repetitive layers of birth and death and all of the layers in between. These photos are intended to trigger memories of those layers for those who have lived it, and those who are living it. This project has already inspired incredible conversations about how East Hampton has changed, and also how we have grown over the generations.
Mason is an embryologist at Baylor College of Medicine. This photo was taken at the UCSD lab on the day he defended his PhD dissertation, which was referenced in the summary of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine. The only photograph in this series that has been taken out of town is this photograph, but Mason is my brother and these were special circumstances. Our family moved to East Hampton in 1982 so our father could open a medical practice.
The most important lesson I've learned from this? Nothing is meaningless. No action, no conversation, no object. You never know how something seemingly insignificant may affect someone, and to change one person’s world is to ultimately change the entire world.
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More on Narratively Shorts: One of this piece's subjects explains why he's not from "The Hamptons."
Tara Israel is Narratively’s photo editor, born and raised among the local fishermen and seasonal Manhattanites of East Hampton and currently residing in New York City. Her photographs of East Hampton fishermen will be published on Narratively later this year. You can read about some of her recent projects and see photos of the questionable company she keeps at thetisraelirepublic.tumblr.com.
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