Behind the shot: A stormy winter

by Alison Shaw

Eastville 2013

THIS WINTER WAS FANTASTIC for photographing storms on the Vineyard. Anytime there’s a storm in the forecast, everything in my life comes to a screeching halt so I can focus on shooting. Once the storm is close to its peak, I leave my cozy home and happily head out into the elements, telling my family I’ll be back once the storm subsides or the sun goes down. The ones I particularly enjoyed shooting were Hurricane Sandy in late October, which was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached us but nonetheless packed a powerful punch; winter storm Nemo in early February; and a March nor’easter. Sandy, in particular, was quite exciting, because there were really humongous waves and powerful winds, and it actually rearranged some of the shoreline of the Vineyard. I noticed this most dramatically at Lucy Vincent Beach, where the waves literally scoured all the sand off the beach, leaving rugged clay and stone exposed underneath. As it turned out, it wasn’t just the day of Sandy that was exciting – I continued to visit Lucy Vincent a couple times a week for several weeks. Each time it was different, often dramatically so. The big cliff at the end was weakened by the storm, and kept changing with the tides, until it finally collapsed into the sea.

With Nemo, I took a photo of Menemsha Harbor crusted in snow, the fishing boats and shacks covered in snow and ice, and a dramatic sky overhead. Earlier that day my car had gotten stuck in a snowdrift for the first time ever. Even though there wasn’t a lot of snow, the wind was creating significant drifts. I always foolishly plow through them, but this time didn’t work so well. Another car got stuck at the same time. I walked home through the snow to get a shovel, then hiked back to my car near Ocean Park to shovel it out. Total fail. Then, luckily, a guy with a large bucket-loader came to our rescue and pulled the cars out.

The March nor’easter brought high seas, spitting snow and rain, and strong winds. It was during this storm that I photographed the dock (top photo) at Eastville Beach – or what was left of the beach. What makes this shot unusual and compelling is that you’re not grounded by seeing the beach at all. In normal, non-storm conditions, the beach is very much in evidence. Here, the dock is isolated within the water – it’s a dock from nowhere, to nowhere.

To shoot this photo, I parked my car as close to the dock as I could, and planted my heavy tripod on the beach. I positioned my body to block the snow and wind from the lens, and took repeated exposures of 2 to 6 seconds, while the waves crashed over and through the dock and pilings. I chose a slow shutter speed to create the misty effect, caused by the motion of the waves. The bright reflection down the middle of the dock was caused by water sweeping over the dock as the waves broke, the wet wood reflecting the color of the gray sky. I stayed out in the frigid, windy, wet elements as long as my camera and I could bear it, and then took refuge in my car to warm up. Once my camera and glasses were dry (I keep a bunch of old white t-shirts in my car for this purpose), and I had feeling back in my fingers, I headed back out on the beach for another 5-minute stint. I pretty much repeated that process until the wind settled down a bit, making the conditions less ideal. One of the things I love about the resulting photo is the composition – the dock creates a strong line, leading your eye directly to the tip of West Chop in the distance.

We’ve just printed this image on canvas – big – and hung it on the main wall for the new show at Alison Shaw Gallery. Sue picked a deep blue-gray for the wall, to match the tones in the photo. The Arts District Stroll is tomorrow night (Saturday, July 13th), from 4 to 7pm – come by if you’re on the island.

5 Responses

  1. John Shea says:

    Thank you for sharing the story behind this Eastville Beach dock photo. When you posted it earlier this year, it had provoked me to wonder about the circumstances of that day. Hearing the back story is icing on the cake for this particularly dramatic image.

  2. Maureen Topping says:

    These made me gasp with delight and I just love them also! I don’t see the island in the winter and can realize just how beautiful it remains in that season because of you. Despite your travails, it paid off.

  3. This is an amazing photo, and even more amazing that you could tolerate the weather to take it. Great work!

  4. Leigh McQueen says:

    Amazing. A very different look for a familiar sight. You continue to inspire.

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