Archive for the ‘posts by Alison’ Category

SHORELINE: Around the Island of Martha’s Vineyard



by Alison Shaw (and if you must know, Sue Dawson)

HAVING MARTHA’S VINEYARD as my primary subject matter for more than 40 years certainly comes with many rewards, but also with its share of challenges. In the years that I’ve spent photographing these 100 square miles, I’ve constantly had to push myself to see the island anew. And sometimes I struggle to maintain my inspiration, creativity, momentum, and stamina, to keep shooting the same place for so long. If I lived in “America” I could simply go to the next town in search of new subject matter. Actually, I do go off-island to re-energize and shoot in other locations, and it does help. But I still have my one heart- and soul-touching muse – my island home.

So when I need to re-group, I remember one of my favorite quotes, from Marcel Proust: “The true voyage of discovery lies not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” It’s not about finding a new environment, as fun and adventurous as that can be. It’s about finding something within myself.  


Sometimes this means exploring a particular facet of the island more deeply. The search keeps me engaged and motivated. I love pursuing a project, which forces parameters, gives me structure, and organizes my thoughts. Recent projects have included photographing inside the wooden boat building shop at Gannon and Benjamin, in the studios of island artists, or documenting the island’s lighthouses.

In retrospect, seeing the island in new ways is not limited to the subjects I choose to shoot, but how I choose to shoot it. Over the years, my style has evolved dramatically. Going from black & white to color around 1990 was like trading in a box of charcoals for a set of oil paints – it felt like having an entirely new island to photograph. Fifteen years ago, I developed a new technique, where I move my camera as I shoot, creating more painterly images. In my most recent stylistic evolution, I moved from a super-saturated color palette to soft pastels and neutrals. 

My most recent project has been photographing the shoreline of Martha’s Vineyard. This may seem like an obvious subject to choose, since I’m naturally drawn to the shore, and rarely photograph the inland vistas of the Island. But as much as I’m drawn to the Vineyard’s coastline, I get into the rut of returning to the same spots, looking for variations in weather rather than location. In 2014, I was obsessed with the new Fishing Pier in Oak Bluffs, and every time there was thick fog, stormy seas, or blizzard conditions, that’s where I’d go. In 2015, I was obsessed with the stone jetty between Inkwell and Pay Beach. I’d look out my window, see the condition was flat calm, and head for that one spot.


Returning to these same locations over and over, as much as I enjoyed it both personally and artistically, clearly had its limitations. And then it occurred to me: The last time I’d photographed at Makonikey, on the North Shore of the island, was in my “high-impact-color-sunrise-sunset” phase in the early 90’s, using my clunky Pentax medium-format film camera. The same was true of Big Pier on West Chop, which I’d last shot for the Vineyard Gazette in the late 80’s, with my 35mm Nikon and black & white Tri-X film. Ditto Lambert’s Cove, Stonewall Beach, Katama Bay, Tashmoo Beach, and so on. Not to mention the many locations on the Vineyard shoreline that I’d never even laid eyes on before.

At first this idea just sat and percolated – I hate to admit it, but I let it stew for at least a year. There was definitely a good amount of inertia at work here… the urge to turn my alarm clock off, to spend far too much time planted in front of my computer, and to sit at home with a cat on my lap. The “just do it” mantra I had always tried to instill in my kids simply wasn’t working for me. Ok, we did move – that was a big deal, after being in the same house for 29 years. I spent lots of time picking paint colors with Sue (she calls us “color nerds”), going to the thrift shop every day looking for just the right end tables, and coming up with a garden plan.


Eventually, once we got settled in the new place, my inspiration kicked in – and when it did, I became a woman on a mission. The fire was lit. I decided to photograph the entire shoreline of the Vineyard – one rocky shore, one beach, one sunrise, and one sunset at a time. 

My first steps were all about planning. I picked up a couple of excellent Island maps at the Land Bank office in Edgartown, and began figuring out access via conservation areas. Then I went on google maps in satellite view, and began examining the perimeter of the island, step-by-step, picking out large rocks and lone docks. I studied the tide charts – some scenes would be better shot at high tide, while others would be better at low (not to mention the fact that high tide could often present a challenge for navigating my way around rocky points on the North Shore). Sunrise and sunset times, in addition to the phases of the moon, all figured into the equation. 


As to weather conditions, once upon a time I might have been looking for what I considered to be “perfect” conditions for photography. But these days, I’m much more willing to go with the flow, a philosophy I developed during the course of teaching countless week-long workshops on the island. I used to agonize over picking the most promising mornings to meet up early. But these days I schedule a sunrise shoot for every morning of a workshop, and let my students know that unless it’s pouring rain, I will be there at the assigned location, in the pitch dark, waiting for them. The weather is fickle in New England, and that’s a good thing. I’ve grown to love never quite knowing when it’s going to be a good morning for photography. Another of my favorite quotes is from Woody Allen and is tacked to the wall over my desk: “90 percent of success is showing up.” 


Over the past six months of shooting for this project, I’ve often arrived home long after dark, with my sneakers full of sand and my tripod in need of a hose-down. When I set my alarm early, I actually go out and shoot – or even better, I rely on my internal alarm clock, which has served me well when I’m truly engaged in the prospect of my early morning photo expeditions. I’ve discovered both rocks and docks that I never knew existed. And I’ve been out there for magical moments of light and weather I would have otherwise missed. 

We are introducing over 30 new images from Shoreline: Around the Island of Martha’s Vineyard (©2017 Alison Shaw) at Alison Shaw Gallery this summer, with a whole new group I just hung on the walls for our Arts District Stroll tomorrow, 4-7pm. Inspired by my working map, Sue created a snazzy one in Photoshop, so you can see where each photo was taken (there’s a big version at the gallery).


It’s become increasingly clear to me that there is so much more to this subject than I originally anticipated. There’s plenty of walking, kayaking and shooting still to come, so be sure to look for more images in the years ahead. 

Join us on Saturday: Book launch, and P A R T Y

I JUST DUSTED OFF some old binders of medium-format transparencies, did a little digging, made a few calculations, and realized I’ve been photographing the work of stonemason Lew French for nearly 25 years. Wow, talk about time flying. In the course of those 25 years Lew and I have spent countless hours together, traveled many thousands of miles to photograph his work, completed two book projects, and he even built a wonderful beach stone fireplace in our old Farm Pond house.

I’m proud to announce the launch of our second book together, Sticks and Stones, at our gallery this Saturday, August 65:00-7:00pm. Lew and I will be there to meet you and sign books.

Our first book together, Stone by Design, was published in 2007. Every single photo was shot on Martha’s Vineyard, where Lew had created all of his master stonework and gardens. Nearly 35,000 copies sold, and the book really put him on the map as not just a craftsman, but as an artist. CBS Sunday Morning did a fabulous segment about Lew, he’s been piling up awards and honors for his work, and he now has fans all over the world.

As a result, Lew’s not just a Martha’s Vineyard stonemason anymore. His well-deserved reputation has far exceeded the shores of the Island. So the stonework that graces the pages of Sticks and Stones took us to places like Brazil, the Adirondacks, Maine, Washington DC, Cape Cod and Boston.

My most memorable trip for this book was, without a doubt, my trip to Brazil in January 2015. I left the Island in near-zero temperatures, and photographed “sea smoke” on the ferry trip across Vineyard Sound  (caused by frigid air meeting slightly warmer water). You might need to “like” my Facebook page to see the video below:

Sue captured Alison’s adventure shooting “sea smoke” in frigid weather, on her way to Brazil in January 2015. There’s even an appearance by Chris Morse, owner of the Granary Gallery, who took some photos of his own.

When I got to Brazil 24 hours later… well… let’s just say that Brazil in January is hotter than anything we can even imagine here on the island. After picking up provisions from a market in a remote small village, we headed many miles up into the mountains on a deeply-rutted, tortuously-bumpy red dirt road. We finally arrived at Lew’s home, nestled in a valley, at the base of thousands of acres of Brazilian rainforest. Lew built the home he shares with wife Claudia, and has created stunning stonework and lush gardens on their property.

Alison shot this video with her iPhone in January 2015, in Brazil, where she took photos of Lew and Claudia’s house for Sticks & Stones

The next four days were spent rising early and pretty much devoting the entire day to photography. I worked hard to capture the wild and dramatic setting of the house, the massive interior stone wall and fireplace, the many unique features of the home (including his own version of the traditional stucco and stone wood-fired cookstove), and even furnishings which Lew crafted of wood and stone.

In whatever down-time we had, it was much too oppressively hot to hike up the mountains and into the rainforest, but it was just the right temperature for an occasional shower beneath the waterfall on Lew’s property. We ate fruit I’ve never even heard of before, from some of the thousands of fruit trees Lew planted on the land. Geckos and other critters skittered through the house in search of a cool place to hang out. Wild horses ran in the distance, and monkeys chattered at dusk, far up in the mountains. At night I was grateful for the mosquito netting that surrounded my bed. “No, Alison, you’re not on Martha’s Vineyard anymore….”

Five days later (far too soon) I did the whole trip in reverse. It was a heck of a lot easier getting down the mountain that it had been going up. That is, it was easier until I got back to the winter temperatures I’d left less than a week before. That transition was a little rough, I must admit.

Please join us this Saturday for our book signing, and to celebrate our 10th anniversary season of Alison Shaw Gallery. Sue and I are very blessed to own this gallery together, and we want to share our celebration with you.

Behind the shot: A stormy winter

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.

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Building a whaleboat

I’M CLOSE TO COMPLETING a new project chronicling the construction of a whaleboat for the Charles W. Morgan, America’s last surviving wooden whaleship, at Gannon and Benjamin Boat Yard in Vineyard Haven. This past December I happened to wander into the boatshed on the harbor, and casually asked what they were working on. When Nat Benjamin said “a whaleboat,” I could hardly believe my ears. A whaleboat?

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September workshop on Martha’s Vineyard

I JUST FINISHED TEACHING my September workshop (otherwise known as “photo boot camp”) on the Vineyard. It was a great and talented group of sixteen students, my trusty assistant Donna Foster, and our “shadow” Jonathan Hart, a Vermont-based photographer who spent the week observing.

DAY 1, Sunday:
7pm: Meet-and-greet session at the Mansion House, fueled by Chilmark Chocolates and red wine. Jen Sayre broke her own record for the most Alison Shaw MV workshops – she’s taken six workshops with me on the island since 2003. She gets re-inspired each time, and we love having her.

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Behind the shot: The “swimmer” series

I’VE BEEN WORKING ON A NEW SERIES of photos of “Swimmers” at our local indoor pool. Truthfully, it started out as something I could do to pass the time while my daughter Sarah swam with the swim team each week, while I, otherwise known as “Mom’s taxi service,” waited until it was time to transport her back home.
It wasn’t long before the snapshots I thought of as entertainment turned into work I really cared about, as I filled up at least one memory card each Thursday afternoon, and headed back to my studio to download the images and tweak them a little in Lightroom.

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An artist residency

My son Jesse, 6, walking up from the shack

IN THE FALL of 2005, I spent two weeks as an “artist in residence” at a primitive shack in the Cape Cod dunes.

Read my account of the experience for Yankee Magazine here.