When Phillip Andrew Lehans’ father, Thomas, bought him his first camera, the middle school graduate turned up his nose.It was a Canon AE-1, 35-millimeter film camera. It was from a yard sale. And it was old.
“I was like, ‘I want a new camera. I don’t want somebody’s used camera. How crummy is that?’” Mr. Lehans, now 33, imitated his younger self with a whine last week sitting outside Panera Bread in Bridgehampton. “It was a bratty, 14-year-old attitude. But, I liked it right away.”
Armed without a manual, but with a curious determination, the teen started shooting photos everywhere he went, from summer barbecues at friends’ houses to happenings around his Holden, Massachusetts, hometown for the local newspaper.
Mr. Lehans’ AE-1 followed him to college—first to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, during a semester abroad in Spain, and then to the Hallmark Institute of Photography approximately 15 miles away from his undergraduate college.
In August 2005, Mr. Lehans decided it was time to leave Massachusetts. Following a job lead, he hopped a ferry across the Long Island Sound and found himself in East Hampton—foreign territory in the height of the summer season.
He was a newcomer. The East End was unlike any place he’d ever seen. And so, he began to take photos here too, documenting his new surroundings. For the next six years, Mr. Lehans carried a camera—digital, film, Polaroid, or all three—everywhere he went. He assigned himself a daily shoot from the summer of 2009 to the spring of 2011, whether it was chartering a plane to take aerials of the sandy beaches or simply sticking his lens out of his car’s sunroof to catch the east-bound, stand-still traffic in Water Mill.
He shot misty, deserted Main Streets; fields and bluffs; lively drum circles and energetic sharehouse parties; wine country, boat country, surf country and farm country. He tapped into the pulse of the East End. And what he found was a culture, and a community of people, through his pictures, which he has recently published in a 196-page, 4.7-pound tome, “These Hamptons.”
“What he captures, and what you will find here, are a group of fascinating photographs of the East End—Montauk, the Hamptons, Shelter Island, and the North Fork—as it really is,” wrote Dan’s Papers Founder Dan Rattiner in the book’s forward, “without artifice, pretension or subterfuge, as seen through the eyes of a knowledgeable photographer; now not quite over being a stranger.”
It took four years of casual photography for Mr. Lehans to learn the community and feel comfortable enough to approach his subjects—among them farmers Alex Balsam and Ian Calder-Piedmonte, musician Nancy Atlas, producer Stewart Lane, and winemaker Roman Roth. It was research, he said, and it gave him a reputation around town.
“A lot of my friends were very good sports about it. Because everywhere I went, for that year and a half of steady shooting, it was, ‘Oh, here’s Phil and his camera,’” he said. “Or two cameras. Or whatever. It wasn’t just going to be another book about the seasonal showcase. I didn’t want it to be a postcard book. If you really just like landscapes and beaches, they’re here. But it’s not all you’re gonna get.”
Scratchy, blurry Polaroids are interspersed with digital images—some deliberate, accidental, or a combination of the two, such as Mr. Lehans’ trip to Montauk Point in August 2009. Hurricane Bill was coming and the surfers were out.
The photographer found a spot on the bluffs and set up his tripod and camera, slapping a 300-millimeter lens to the front. As he was waiting, the picture walked right into his frame.
“A surfer plunks himself down on a rock, puts his board down and sits, just relaxing. I was like, ‘Yeah!’” Mr. Lehans said, making a fist and pulling it into his chest enthusiastically. “I took that lens off, put on a wide angle and screwed on an infrared filter, which is why the sky is really dark even though it was a bright sunny day, and did a long exposure.”
Thirty seconds at a time, Mr. Lehans waited, holding his breath. “Don’t move, don’t move, don’t move,” he thought to himself in between each take. “Don’t move, don’t move, don’t move.”
Other than his head turning ever so slightly, the surfer complied.
“I knew I was going to get surfers that day, but I didn’t know I was gonna get a kid sitting there,” Mr. Lehans said. “Or I’d be like, ‘I’m gonna go do the drum circle,’ and then there was an amazing sky coming across and I was just lucky.”
For some assignments, Mr. Lehans got creative. On one summer day, he hopped into a “little 1990 BMW 3 series convertible,” he said, and wedged his tripod-rigged camera between the center console and the back seat. Then, he drove up and down Dune Road in Westhampton, taking a picture with a shutter release cable every few seconds.
“Back and forth, like an idiot. By myself,” he laughed. “You could tell, people driving by were like, ‘What is this idiot doing?’”
Film does not offer the instant gratification that comes with digital and Polaroid, which Mr. Lehans said he prefers. When shooting with his AE-1, he’s not obsessed with looking at the back of the camera. He shoots lighter and cautiously, he said, with a heightened awareness of how the shot is framed and how the nostalgic medium will transform any given scene.
“This boat party in Sag Harbor Cove, there’s something that makes it timeless because it is film,” Mr. Lehans said, flipping to the photo spread. “It’s got something about it. I guess with the exception of the boats, it could have been taken 30 years ago. The film helps give it that timeless feel.”
Shortly after “These Hamptons” hit bookstores on May 28, Mr. Lehans found himself exploring, and photographing, Montreal, Canada with his Canon AE-1. Shooting out the car window, he was clicking away—until he couldn’t.
Something wasn’t right, he said.
The photographer put the camera up to his ear, wound the film and heard the shutter trip at the end. That was it, he said. Dead.
“It almost lasted 20 years,” Mr. Lehans said. “I told my dad a few weeks ago, ‘Remember that camera that I just totally poo-pooed? It’s gone.’ I was sorry that I ever put it down. My mother’s like, ‘You should get it repaired!’ But I don’t think I will. It’s retired.”
“These Hamptons” by Phillip Andrew Lehans is available at BookHampton in Southampton and East Hampton, as well as Black Swan Antiques in Sag Harbor, which will also carry a selection of limited edition prints from the book. For more information, visit lehans.com.