For several weeks, it seemed to be one of the best-kept secrets in Sag Harbor. A surprise lay in store for photographer Michael Heller, who had been sent to the May meeting of the Sag Harbor Historical Society on Saturday by the editors of The Sag Harbor Express with an assignment: take pictures of the event for the newspaper.
Little did he know, Mr. Heller would find himself in front of the camera instead.
On Saturday, the Sag Harbor Historical Society announced the “Dorothy Ingersoll Zaykowski Award for Contributions to the Appreciation and Preservation of Sag Harbor and Its History.”
“This year’s recipient has demonstrated, through the years, his remarkable talent for being in the right place at the right time to capture history through his lens,” said Jack Youngs, the president of the historical society.
Mr. Heller, whose camera hung on a strap around his neck at the ready, removed his hat, put his hands on his head and smiled widely when he realized Mr. Youngs was talking about him.
He thanked the historical society for the honor. He explained that because his parents split up when he was young, and he spent much time in boarding school and living on both the east coast and the west coast, he did not have “a sense of home” for many years.
“Since I’ve been working for The Express, I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in Sag Harbor, and it’s the first time in my life that I feel like I have a home,” Mr. Heller, 60, said.
The award was presented “in recognition of [his] years of work photographing Sag Harbor’s story.” Mr. Youngs specifically lauded Mr. Heller’s work with The Express, the Sag Harbor Photography Club and his work documenting the historic renovations of the historic John Jermain Memorial Library on Main Street and the re-development of the former Bulova Watchcase Factory building, an industrial brick building in the center of the business district that was transformed from a Superfund site into luxury condominiums.
Mr. Youngs called Mr. Heller “a friend of history.”
“Each year, the trustees, during our March meeting, bring names forward who we would like to give [the award] to for preservation of some type of history of Sag Harbor in one way or another, because everybody does it in different ways. Michael Heller’s name was the first name that came up, and we didn’t have to go any further than that. We know what he’s been doing, preserving history through his lens, and the historical society appreciates everything that he’s done.”
Mr. Heller’s work has appeared in many publications, not just on the East End, but also regionally and nationally. He was named the New York State Press Association’s “Photographer of the Year” in 2017, 2014 and 2011, and also won a first-place award in the Video Fuego international fire photography competition in 2004. He is a volunteer firefighter who serves as East Hampton’s official department photographer. He photographed Ground Zero following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center in New York City, and has photographed the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR races, among other large-scale events. He has served as The Expressstaff photographer for roughly a decade.
“Our newspaper would not be what it is without Michael,”said Kathryn Menu, editor and co-publisher of The Sag Harbor Express. “While his photography at fire scenes is stunning, Michael is also able to catch those small moments that really define Sag Harbor in an intimate way. And for many of us, at the paper and in the village in general, he is family and there is something about that connection that I think translates into his work.”
Mr. Heller received his first camera at age 10 as a gift from his father, but he didn’t study the art until his senior year of college, and it was only a few years later, when he saw a fellow photographer’s picture wind up on the cover of a Steve Perry album, that he was inspired to become a professional. His first love is fire photography, but he also loves taking pictures at concerts and documenting the community in the ways in which the Sag Harbor Historical Society has recognized him.
“You want to feel like your photography is something that’s going to make a difference to people, like it’s going to be remembered,” Mr. Heller said. “I like shooting subjects that have significance to the community, the Watchcase being an example. I didn’t plan it that way but the Sag Harbor Cinema fire was another example. Even when I shoot whaleboat races, I like things that will mean something to somebody years from now.”
According to Mr. Youngs, Mr. Heller is the first photographer to receive the Dorothy Ingersoll Zaykowski award. Past recipients have been Joy Lewis, who was recognized last year for preserving multiple houses; Barbara Schwartz, for creating the historic whaleboat shop; Jean Held, for all of her painstaking research and activities with the historical society; and Ms. Zaykowski herself, for writing the book “Sag Harbor: The Story of an American Beauty,” widely considered to be an authoritative text on the village.
“He’s always around town,” Mr. Youngs said of Mr. Heller. “He’s either taking a picture or he’s coming up the street to go take a picture. He’s one of the best, and I go back to Mel Jackson.”