Photographer Ed Gifford’s show, “The Glory of the Sail: An Exhibition of Classic Yachts Under Sail,” opens Saturday, June 29, at Bruce Tait Yachts in Sag Harbor. The photographs are a culmination of 14 years photographing the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta, from 2001 to 2011.Mr. Gifford is a Master Mariner, which means that he’s earned the required qualification to command a commercial vessel, but he feels that title is a tad pretentious. Whether it is or not, his 100-ton United States Coast Guard Captain’s license certainly plays a significant part in how the photographer has been able to capture the true celebration of sailing.
According to Mr. Gifford, there are no steadfast rules when it comes to photographing sailing. Sometimes backlighting works, sometimes direct light is needed, and no two situations are ever the same. The elements are consistently changing and the balancing of these elements is what makes the photographs work. Of course, there’s also the beauty of classic ocean racers and yachts, many of which are built 100 years ago.
As a photographer, Mr. Gifford said he hopes to put himself in the right place with the right outfit and the right setting. Then he prays the magic happens. The rest is luck and fate.
“You have to not mind getting thrown around in rough seas or having your equipment destroyed by the elements,” he said during an in-person interview last week. “Not being prone to seasickness is a plus.”
The exhibition of his work in Sag Harbor brings him home to the East End, where he has spent a large portion of his life when on land. The photographer has known Bruce Tait since he walked into the yacht broker’s office on Long Wharf decades ago, looking for a job.
Mr. Tait hired him, then introduced him to Jonathan Morse, who became Mr. Gifford’s sailing mentor and even designed the bold graphics for “The Glory of the Sail” exhibit poster. Among the many sailing trips the lifelong friends have taken together, the most memorable was in 1983, the year they met.
The pair sailed to Newport, Rhode Island, to watch what turned out to be one of the biggest upsets in yachting history. They, and the whole world, became transfixed when Dennis Conner, captain of the Liberty, lost the America’s Cup to the John Bertrand’s Australia II.
Even though the trip fanned the flames of Mr. Gifford’s love of sailing and photography, his passions took hold much earlier, he reported. Growing up on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, he was captivated by watching the traffic travel up and down the Hudson River.
His family also had a summer home in East Hampton, he said. His introduction to being on the water was courtesy of the town’s recreation department. Larry Koncelik, and Pat Mundus who now runs East End Charters out of Greenport, New York, were his first sailing instructors.
As a child, he devoured books written about the sea, such as Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” But it was a chance literary discovery that opened up a whole new world to the boy.
“When I was 13 years old, I found a book in the trash, ‘The Eye of Eisenstaedt,’ a retrospective of the work of Alfred Eisenstaedt, a Life magazine photographer and to my mind the greatest photographer,” said Mr. Gifford. “When I saw that book, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I never considered another profession and I’ve never had one.”
He started his career early, photographing shows that his father, Broadway publicist Ed Gifford, handled, such as “National Lampoon’s Lemmings,” which starred John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner and Harold Ramis.
“The actors were young and hungry and were fun to hang out with,” Gifford said. “They would raid our refrigerator all the time.”
He published his first photo at the age of 14. It was in the New York Times and was of Ms. Radner dressed as a character based on newspaper heiress-turned-kidnap victim-turned-bank robber, Patty Hearst. She was wearing combat fatigues and toting an AK-47.
“I guess they didn’t have enough money to pay a real photographer so I got the job,” he joked.
The young boy’s home away from home was the International Center of Photography, the first museum and photography school in New York City. It was there that he took in retrospectives of all the greats, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson. Later, he studied with Harlem’s Roy DeCarava, who taught at Hunter College.
During the summers, Gifford worked at the Devon Yacht Club in Amagansett under founding member Dickson Potter, an eccentric Vanderbilt family heir and owner of The Suzanne, a 44-foot Stonington motorsailer which Gifford polished, scrubbed and painted. It was there that he learned the discipline necessary to take care of a boat. Once a week, Mr. Gifford lunched with Mr. Potter, also known as “The Commodore,” at his house on Further Lane, which is now the home of comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
After graduating from high school, Mr. Gifford drove his car 6,500 miles from New York to Alaska and found work on a fishing dock, unloading vessels by day and camping in a tent on Kachemak Bay by night. He learned the hard way that the extreme 30-foot tides rose very quickly.
Eventually he returned to the East Coast. Back in the Big Apple, the young photographer interned at the New York Post. Seasoned photojournalist Louis Liotta took him under his wing and taught him the basics.
“Never look through the viewfinder,” the veteran photographer told him, he said, adding that he also admonished him to not use his light meter and also showed him how to properly use a flash and how to utilize a bounce card to diffuse the light.
During his years at the Post, Mr. Gifford photographed such notables as Mike Tyson, John Gotti, Yoko Ono, Lou Reed, Luciano Pavarotti and Governor Mario Cuomo. But sailing was always in his blood, he said.
To date, he has 45,000 miles of sailing under his belt. He’s crossed the Atlantic five times in small vessels. Though he’s spent countless hours at sea, Mr. Gifford fondly recalled spending many years delivering professional racing boats from Sag Harbor to Antigua. The conditions on that route were usually ideal for sailing. And even better for photographing, he said.
Ed Gifford’s “The Glory of the Sail: An Exhibition of Classic Yachts Under Sail,” opens Saturday, June 29, at Bruce Tait Yachts in Sag Harbor with an opening reception planned from 5 to 8 p.m.