OLD ORCHARD BEACH, Maine — Gabe Bornstein strode down the sand at dawn on Thursday, dressed in a form-fitting, full-body wetsuit. In his hand Bornstein clutched a digital camera, encased in a watertight housing. The sky beyond the sea was orange but the sun hadn’t peeked over the horizon yet.
A steady breeze made the empty beach feel colder than the 27 degrees indicated on the thermometer. The National Weather Service pegged the water temperature at just above 44 degrees.
“I won’t be out there long,” Bornstein said, treading over a thin skim of ice and out into the waves. “I’ll get cold pretty quick.”
A commercial filmmaker by trade, Bornstein has been seriously photographing the pastel sunrise waters at Old Orchard Beach where he lives for about two years. Sometimes, he takes his surfboard to the other end of the beach, at Pine Point. There, Bornstein paddles among the boats tied up at the lobster co-op in the mouth of the Scarborough River. His unique, water level images are being published and sold as prints. It’s an unexpected turn of events for the 27-year-old.
After emerging from 10 minutes of sea-shooting on Thursday, Bornstein had a warm-up shower and sat down to talk to the BDN about his pictures over a cup of coffee.
Q: How did you start this series of photographs?
A: I think really where it started was with surfing. As I was really getting into surfing, I was simultaneously really getting into photography. So, it’s like where those two things met. That’s when I got interested in shooting water, specifically. It wasn’t a sunrise or a boat or a buoy or anything. It was just water — a lot of water. Buying the water housing for my camera [two years ago] was key to this water world.
Q: You just had your first show of prints?
A: Yeah, the first batch I’ve ever done. I printed six and [showed them at] Goodfire Brewing [in Portland]. They have a little gallery room there. Five out of six of them sold.
Q: Where where can people see more?
A: Everything I do is on Instagram. That’s become the outlet for posting my work. But with the prints, it’s really nice to see them, in person, and watch people’s reactions. I’m not doing the printing myself. I’m working with a small shop.
Q: For these pictures out among the boats, you’re clearly at water level. Are you swimming or on some kind of paddle board?
A: It’s my longboard surfboard. It’s what I’d take out any surf day.
Q: You’re hand paddling it out there?
A: Oh yeah. I put my water camera on the nose of the board. I’m just paddling with the board strapped to my ankle. Out there, at the Pine Point fisherman’s co-op, there’s a ripping current.
Q: Totally. I’ve seen it. You’re not worried you’re going to end up out to sea, by Prout’s Neck somewhere?
A: If you tried to swim out there, you would not be in a good position. It wants to take you out, for sure. If there’s a shot I want, or a specific boat, or a patch of light, I have to compensate. I’ll overshoot beyond the location and know the current is going to take me — hopefully — to where I want to be. Usually it takes a couple tries to actually get that right.
Q: Are you shooting pictures all year round?
A: I tend to do it more in the winter. I don’t do it in the summer because there’s tons of people out there. Things are just more active and I don’t want the attention. And I’ve spent enough time talking to lobstermen and fishermen to know that they can be sensitive about their stuff, their gear. Which I understand. I don’t want them to feel like I’m crossing some kind of boundary. That being said, I’m still out there shooting their boats — but it’s nice to be the only one doing it.
Q: You must have the run of the place in the winter, unlike the summer?
A: Yeah, everyone’s out there running and walking their dogs [in the summer] but at this time of year, I might be the only person on the beach — especially when it’s like, in the teens.
Q: Sometimes you hear photographer’s talk about the “golden hour,” when the light is just right at sunrise or sunset. Is that what you’re gunning for?
A: Yes. It’s a really short sweet spot, like maybe 10 to 15 minutes. In that window, if I can get one keeper, one good shot, that’s a success.
Q: What’s next?
A: I have a seed of an idea to do some kind of multimedia gallery show somewhere around here that would bring together this whole boat series. It would combine the photos as large-scale prints along with talking to some of these fishermen — and women — about the Gulf of Maine and how they’ve witnessed changes as far as climate change goes. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 90 percent of the world’s oceans.
Q: That’s right. It’s 99.9 percent actually. The BDN reported on it in May.
A: You hear about lobster migrating north — if the lobster leave Maine, that’s going to be a devastating hit.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.