Surf’s up on W52nd Street, where new photography gallery Altowa Image has just opened to give the West Side its “daily dose of ocean.”
Altowa Image is in the middle of a typical cement-laden Hell’s Kitchen block, but its walls are filled with breathtakingly dynamic ocean photos that transport any visitor straight to the Rockaways. Looking closely at the majestic, kinetic quality of each wave photo, it’s easy to wonder how anyone can capture such an ephemeral moment. The answer? Altowa’s founder is Alex Walsh, a new Hell’s Kitchen resident, lifelong surfer and professional photographer who is well attuned to the intricate multitasking required to ride and shoot the wave.
“I’ve been gaining the experience to do this my whole life, and I didn’t even know it,” said Alex, who grew up surfing regularly off the southern shores of Long Island. “I started out just going to the beach all the time to surf — and I think I developed an eye for photography before I even realized that I could take a camera in the water with me.”
After spending his 20s surfing and working a construction job in California, the debilitating effects of autoimmune condition Ulcerative Colitis brought Alex back to the East Coast and out of the water in 2012. “When I started having chronic health issues, I didn’t feel like I could work, and the only thing I felt I could do was go back to school,” he told W42ST. “I took a graphic design program at Farmingdale State College and that’s when I started taking photos.”
Having practiced his photography on land, when Alex discovered mirrorless cameras and a protective, aluminum watertight case, he quickly combined his longtime passion and new hobby. Learning to surf with a large camera in hand “was a process,” he said. “But I realized that I was able to take my ability to be out in the water in these wild conditions and capture waves really close up — I could provide a different view of the ocean.”
Alex began to capture waves across New York as well as Hawaii and California, learning the distinctions between how different bodies of water photograph. “Every place has a different feel,” he said. “New York waves aren’t as idyllic as Hawaii and California — they’re not your typical beach scenes with sand and suits and sun. The water is darker, there are strong winds, and I think that comes across in the images,” added Alex. “I also think my illness has influenced my photography style. This disease can be isolating and I think that comes across in my work. The photos are not for everybody, but I’m trying to lean into them and not just try to appeal to everybody. Which is hard.”
To capture the right shot, Alex can spend hours out on the water, battling unpredictable lighting and weather conditions to take as many as 4,000 frames a session. “Some of my most memorable experiences are coming to the beach in the middle of winter and having to walk through the snow to get to the water,” he said. “Sometimes, I get so into finding the shot that I’ll realize I’ve been in there for four hours and it’s way too cold. All of a sudden it’s like, ‘why is my heartbeat so slow?’”
Over the decade-long course of his surf photography journey, he’s connected with other solitary surf artists like Matt Clark, another New York-based photographer who Alex calls “a total inspiration.” And while he is often the only surfer on the beach, Alex also enjoys the chance to photograph other surfers: “You make a lot of friends if you go out and shoot surfing — because everybody wants a photo of themselves catching a wave.”
After building his business by selling photos at fairs and markets throughout the Hamptons, he moved to Hell’s Kitchen in late 2022 and got the chance to open a gallery through a friend who owned the space. As a new resident, he’s hoping to connect with the West Side community. “I don’t know anyone in the area, so it would be great to meet people and make some new friends that are into the ocean here in Manhattan,” Alex said. “I’m not sure how many there are, but there have got to be some!”
And even if you’re not drawn to the surf in the same way he is, Alex hopes that visiting Altowa Image will help people feel and stay connected to the ocean. “When people come in, I ask them, ‘Are you an ocean person?’ and not everybody is,” he said. “But the ocean can get its hooks in you — and there are some people who have this really strong connection with it.”
For now, he’s enjoying his first season in Hell’s Kitchen by surfing the neighborhood’s sidewalks for new and exciting discoveries as he builds his own art-filled destination. “I really want to make this an appealing place in the neighborhood,” said Alex. “I walk around, and I feel this gratitude — and feel so lucky — to be here.”
Altowa Image gallery is located at 371 W52nd Street (bw 8/9th Ave).