Matt Agudo’s habitual base of operations is the Starbucks in East Hampton. On a recent Saturday morning, he was flipping through a bale of local publications: Dan’s Papers, Hamptons magazine, the New York Post. “That would’ve been the photo there!” he said, pointing to a Page Six snapshot of that tangerine nightmare, Snooki of Jersey Shore, being arrested. “I’m sure somebody got paid for that.”
There is really only one industry in the Hamptons: the rich and famous. They propel the local economy whether you’re talking about landscaping, real estate, hardwood flooring, waiting tables or taking unauthorized photos of celebrities for profit. Mr. Agudo spent years doing the first-driving a backhoe-before he decided to try the last, full time. In 2008, he started the Web site hamptonsgrind.com. Since then he has made his living running the site (he’s looking for venture capital) and selling photos of celebrities to outlets like In Touch, Life & Style and sundry foreign publications.
The Hamptons have long been an upper-class refuge, a place where they could sun and swim among their own, unharassed by the rest of us. But in recent years, the culture of celebrity spectacle has firmly taken hold here, as much as it has in Manhattan, Los Angeles and London.
“I said, you know, let me make my hobby make me some money,” he explained. “You can’t grow up out here and watch your town be taken over by all the millionaires without, you know, wanting a piece of it.”
Mr. Agudo, 39, is a big man who favors cargo shorts and short-sleeved button-up shirts. His close-shorn hair and sun-tanned complexion give him the air of an ex-military man, but he has lived in East Hampton all his life.
The Starbucks is where he begins each day’s hunt and often where he gets his first photo.
As I was standing outside waiting for him to join me, George Stephanopoulos walked up-looking every bit 35 of his 49 years-wearing khaki shorts, a faded blue polo shirt and dingy white Jack Purcells. He had two dogs in tow, one a solicitous miniature dachshund, the other a barky beast of unapparent breed (possibly a Glen of Imaal terrier). After tying up the dogs, he headed into the Starbucks. I hung back and waited to see how Mr. Agudo would play the situation. Eventually, Mr. Stephanopoulos came back out, retrieved his dogs and went on his way.
Puzzled, I headed back inside to find Mr. Agudo talking to the comedian Michael Showalter in line.
Mr. Agudo came back to the table and excitedly asked, “Did you just see what happened?”
“Stephanopoulos or the guy you were just talking to?”
“Wait, is he somebody?” Mr. Agudo asked me.
“Yeah, he’s a comedian. He’s on TV. His name’s Michael something.”
“See, because I asked him if he was anybody, and he said no. I’m gonna go say, ‘Hey Mike,’ and see what he says.”
After a moment Mr. Agudo returned to his seat, winked and made a chk-chk noise out of the side of his mouth.
I had a landscape camera. I bumped into Paul McCartney, and Heather Mills got out of the car and smacked me with her pocketbook.
“He totally did not like that,” Mr. Agudo informed me, admitting that at first he thought Mr. Showalter might have been the musician Perry Farrell.
He was feeling the day’s possibilities, the notion first thing in the morning that today might be the day when you catch someone really famous-Madonna, say-doing something really boring-grocery shopping, say-and sell the shot for a tidy sum. Rubbing his hands together, he said, “Here we go. Hopefully, get a good one today. A moneymaker.” He darted outside to catch a snapshot of the newscaster before he disappeared. “We’ll throw him on Hamptons Grind. Celebrity dogs,” he added.
It was time to head out. Mr. Agudo made a preliminary round of nearby restaurants and shops. With his camera in his backpack and his hands in his pockets, he didn’t walk as much as skulk. This lurking demeanor would seem even more suspect when we later dropped by a petting zoo in search of stars with their kids.
With no luck in town, it was time to hit the road. Mr. Agudo’s white Ford Escort is conspicuous among the Ferraris, Maseratis, Aston Martins and immaculate classic cars. The first stop was East Hampton Main Beach.
After a brief stroll around the concession stand there, we got into the car, made a U-turn and slid back toward town. A white convertible Beetle approached from the opposite direction.
“Look, is this Russell Simmons? Look, there’s Russell. Where’s he going?” Mr. Agudo said. “See, this is the shit. He’d drive right by you. But to me, I’m in the business. He’s nothing, but if you get him in the shot, on the beach. I hope he’s going in there with his shirt off, yeah, you never know.”
We made a U-turn, and crept up on Mr. Simmons’ car from behind. Then we made another U-turn, exiting the lot. “He’s just at the beach. Leave him be,” Mr. Agudo decided. “I made money on him a little while ago. I’m not even gonna bother the guy,” he continued, easing the car to the side of the road and adjusting his side mirror to better surveil the rap mogul.
“Where’s Rev. Run? That’s who I want to see today,” he continued, referring to Mr. Simmons brother, the Rev. Joseph Simmons, an ordained minister and member of the rap trio Run-DMC.
Little more than 100 yards down the road, I spotted a flashy convertible, a 1970 Chevy Chevelle SS ragtop, whose driver I recognized.
“There’s Bon Jovi,” I pointed out.
“Holy shit!” Mr. Agudo exclaimed as the rock star made a left in front of us. We made a hasty U-turn and passed Mr. Bon Jovi’s gate just as he pulled into the driveway of his redoubtable house and under a well-concealed carport.
East Hampton in the summer is very much a walking and biking community (though the traffic is still a special kind of hell), and each cyclist or pedestrian we passed received a once-over from Mr. Agudo. We passed a woman jogging, and Mr. Agudo sang to himself, “Who could it be? Are you anybody famous?” We passed a couple in a pedal car. “I thought it was someone, but …” It turned out it was no one, just a person. This is a chronic pastime out here, even for the nonprofessionals.
EVERYONE HERE IS looking to see who everyone is. More to the point, everyone is looking to see if anyone is someone. Eventually a series of questions emerges. First: Who is that person, and is he or she famous? If not, second: What is he or she doing here? Third: Am I famous? If not, fourth: What am I doing here? Fifth: Who am I? Of course, these questions are null and void if the subject is wealthy.
No doubt Mr. Agudo has felt these pangs of being a nobody in a town full, at least during the summer, of somebodies. As we drove by a particularly large oceanfront property, he pointed out, “This is some really rich guy. He tore up the dune and didn’t even care. It must be nice, man. Just to move somewhere, total disregard for any laws … Maybe I’ll have that problem one day. But living out here, and seeing them, with all the cars, you want that problem. I don’t want to be a snob or anything. I want to go to the next level. That’s why we’re doing this.”
Like all paparazzi, or at least all those quoted in the press, Mr. Agudo makes a distinction between his modus operandi and those of competing photographers. He respects his subjects’ privacy; they disregard it completely. This impulse toward decency-even if often not adhered to-could have its drawbacks. As Peter Howe, author of Paparazzi, once put it, “The real paparazzi are the ones who come up with these amazing creative ways of invading somebody else’s privacy.”
Felix Filho, a photographer with the infamous and wildly successful Los Angeles photo agency X-17, was even more forthright. “To be a pap,” he told The Atlantic, “you
have to be ready to do anything, legal or illegal.” At times, Mr. Agudo seems to lack such resolve.
Though he has paid hot-dog vendors and shopkeepers for tips and once rented a cherry picker to hoist him into the air for an over-the-fence shot, Mr. Agudo favors a noninvasive, cooperative approach. After all, these people are his neighbors. “I honestly think,” he told me, “that if a lot of them knew that I was just a local boy trying to do right by ‘em, you know, do right by myself, they might give me a little opportunity. … You just gotta be forward and ask. If you don’t, you never know.
“I’m just trying to get out of Three Mile, like Eminem,” he continued, referencing both the name of the trailer park where he lived, Three Mile Harbor, and the movie 8 Mile, starring the popular white rapper. One paparazzo told me he wouldn’t work a summer in the Hamptons for less than $100,000. Mr. Agudo has not yet moved into that income bracket. He told me that his best “get,” a shot of Lindsay Lohan, netted him several thousand dollars. Some he sells for as little as $20.
We headed to a local yacht club-the name of which Mr. Agudo requested go unmentioned-to “check out this guy, see if he’s on tour or not.”
“Who?” I inquired
Sir Paul, it turns out, is the ur-quarry, part of the hamptonsgrind.com origin myth. “I was doing photography like 10 years ago,” he recalled. “Just landscape. From there, I bumped into a few people. Paul McCartney, when he was going out with Heather Mills. I had a landscape camera, and Heather Mills got out of the car and smacked me with her pocketbook.” He had shown me the photo earlier, of the couple in a Rolls-Royce. “I’m sure ever since that day, he hasn’t really been driving that around too much. He’s probably got it in storage.” He didn’t use the photo because Ms. Mills had been so upset. “They were on their way to Splitsville, U.S.A., anyway.”
We eased into the club parking lot, did the usual scan for recognizables, saw none and made a U-turn. Back on the Montauk Highway, Mr. Agudo reconsidered an earlier prohibition on stopping at a local church fair. (Earlier, he said, “I’m not gonna bother them with their families.” Now, he said, “They all live here. Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts. For them, they could walk here.”)
As we parked the car, a man in a large white Chevy work truck slowed, rolled down his window and yelled to Mr. Agudo, “I just saw Gwyneth.”
“Oh, shit,” he responded. Back in the car.
After some scouting of the roads near the house where Gwyneth Paltrow summers with husband Chris Martin, we came to a stop at the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Bluff Road. Mr. Agudo looked thoughtfully left then right, then left again, muttering to himself, “If I were Gwyneth …” Right again, then left, he then proceeded straight, through the intersection. Apparently, if he were Ms. Paltrow, Mr. Agudo would head for the beach. Easing down the sand-dusted road, we came up behind a caravan of cyclists, what looked to be a few teenagers and a grown woman. Mr. Agudo craned his neck around as we pass. The woman was blond, but, as it turned out, not a famous movie star. “There’s too many bikers for me today,” Mr. Agudo said.
We arrived once again at the small parking lot of the beach. Two flaxen-haired girls were sitting languidly by a fruit stand. Mr. Agudo, furrowed his brow and scanned the limited horizon for a glimpse of Ms. Paltrow. She was nowhere to be seen, the closest thing being the lanky, towheaded pair behind the crate of plums.
As we look out at the ocean, a tanned teenage boy walked down the steps from the concession shack, spinning a lanyard.
“Hey, is Seinfeld down there?” the boy barked to the girls.
“Oh, shit.” Mr. Agudo’s ears pricked up. “Did you hear that?” He could already envision the big Jerry shot.
The girls slowly turned their sunglasses in the boy’s direction.
“What?” said one.
“What?” echoed the other.
He pointed to the front of their table. “Your sign fell down there,” the boy repeated.
“Oh,” they answered in unison, without moving to fix it.
U-turn. Back up the road. Away from the beach.