September workshop on Martha’s Vineyard

by Alison Shaw

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.

DAY 2, Monday:
5:30am – We met at Owen Park Beach in the pitch dark. Most students were unsure how to use their cameras in daylight, much less in total darkness. Among other things they contended with: finding coffee at 5am; shooting on “Manual” for the first time in years; learning what shutter speed “Bulb” represents; realizing that Auto-focus doesn’t work in the dark; and discovering that overcast conditions at dawn produce blue photos.

4:30pm – Headed for Lucy Vincent Beach via the Granary Gallery. When we arrived at the beach I couldn’t believe my eyes – there were the biggest waves I’d seen at that beach since the “No-Name” storm of October 1991.  Normally I don’t shoot much on workshops, since I’m too busy helping my students. In this instance I simply couldn’t resist getting my camera out and I photographed for a couple of hours, trying unsuccessfully to stay clear of fast-moving waves, and periodically stopping to answer questions and offer photo tips. Most of my advice concerned deciding whether to freeze a crashing wave with a fast shutter speed, or to let the water go silky smooth with a slow shutter speed. We departed the beach at nightfall, wet but happy.

Henry Olds at Lucy Vincent Beach

Ben Linsky at Lucy Vincent Beach

DAY 3, Tuesday:
5:30am – Edgartown Lighthouse was our destination on the second morning. The Derby fishermen arriving in their pickup trucks at 6am were miffed to find all of their parking spaces taken by a bunch of out-of-state SUVs. The best view of the lighthouse was from across Eel Pond, the lighthouse silhouetted against the dawn sky, and the shutter timed perfectly to capture the red light in the lighthouse. Harold Green discovered for the first time the intense orange of the dawn sky juxtaposed against the brilliant deep blue of the water – he was grinning from ear to ear as if he’d won the lottery, and didn’t seem to mind the fact that he’d only been getting about five hours of sleep a night.

Mid-day – Each day for the rest of the week, mid-morning to mid-afternoon was spent in the classroom editing and critiquing the day’s images. I love this part of the day, since I am often so amazed by some of the photos my students have created – things that I never saw, or never would have dreamed up myself. It’s incredibly inspiring and definitely jump-starts my own creative juices if I’m in a rut. I believe in the old adage that a teacher learns as much from his/her students as vice versa. My critiquing tools of choice are my cropping angles and my laser pointer. I must have used my cropping tools for one out of three images on Day 1 of critiquing – the lesson students learn is that they’ve often got a picture within their picture, so they need to come in closer to their subject in order to extract the final image.

4:30pm – Sunset at Menemsha. It was the first time I’d seen the devastation caused by the dramatic early summer fire that destroyed the Coast Guard boathouse, dock and several boats. It was lucky the wind wasn’t blowing in the opposite direction at the time, thus sparing all of the fishing shacks and my favorite picturesque fishing boat, the “Little Lady.” Menemsha is a tricky location to photograph since there is so much STUFF everywhere you look. I always encourage my students to leave their gear in the car and spend a lot of time just looking before they even think about taking their first shot. A mini-tailgate party of smoked bluefish and white wine gave them enough sustenance to keep shooting until dark, an impressive feat considering the hours we’ve been keeping.

DAY 4, Wednesday:
5:30am – We returned to Lucy Vincent Beach for sunrise. During a workshop, I love going to this location for both a late afternoon and an early morning shoot – it’s like discovering an entirely new beach. Actually, the more you go back to the same location again and again the more you realize that the conditions are ALWAYS different – that the weather, the wind, the clouds, the humidity, the tide, the night sky, and light never ever repeat themselves exactly. Even if the conditions are close to the same, it’s the fine art photographer’s job to create a new photo out of the same raw material. I’ve been photographing Lucy Vincent Beach since the late 1970s, and each time I try to interpret it differently.

4:30pm – For a change of pace, and in case anyone was feeling “beached out,” we visited the Farm Institute at Katama Farm in Edgartown. This is a working educational farm, with just the right amount of grit, and chock full of a multitude of farm animals who either ran for cover or posed for our cameras. Jim Linsky captured two of the weirdest and yet most successfully creative animal photos I’ve ever seen, by using an interesting vantage point and crop, in conjunction with a fish-eye lens.

Katama Farm Turkeys by Jim Linsky

Katama Sheep by Jim Linsky

DAY 5, Thursday:
5:30am – I tried my best to convince everyone that they really ought to take the morning off, but to no avail – this was one seriously hard-core group. So we met in the dark, as usual. There were a few skunks determined to befriend us, but we finally convinced them to go bother some bird watchers instead. We shot the full moon as it set behind the bandstand in Ocean Park. Funny, you usually hear about the rising of the full moon rather than the setting – maybe it’s because most people are still sound asleep at this hour.

3pm – We visited the Alison Shaw Gallery in the Arts District of Oak Bluffs, where my partner and co-gallery owner Sue Dawson made everyone feel welcome and studio manager Claire Cain introduced them to the mysterious inner workings of the upstairs studio. Then back to the Mansion House to meet individually with students – this is a great time to address specific questions and topics, since I have each student set their own agenda for our meetings. While I was in the classroom, I sent the rest of them out to shoot on their own, but I’m guessing there was a lot of napping and/or shopping (just kidding) going on as well.

DAY 6, Friday:
5:40am (I let them sleep in a little since the sun is rising a few minutes later every day now. . . .) – We met on the beach in front of the Black Dog Tavern, in time to see the 6am ferry Nantucket pull out of its slip. Vineyard Haven Harbor is usually a pretty sheltered early morning location, but we were dealing with an overabundance of wind all week. The same wind that made for dramatic conditions at Lucy Vincent Beach made for more challenging conditions on the harbor – for one thing, wind pretty much kills the dreamy reflections of boats and docks. Once the sun reached the horizon we gravitated towards the Gannon and Benjamin Boat Yard and photographed the boatbuilding shed. Our early morning shoots culminate in an excursion to one of my favorite breakfast spots, in this case the Artcliff Diner. We always manage to eat like truck drivers after our long mornings of shooting.

5pm – Friday evening was time to kick back and enjoy the fruits of our labor, and abandon shorts, t-shirts and sneakers in favor of more fashionable attire. Our social hour and dinner at Zephrus was followed by the Friday Night Show, which celebrates the best of the week’s work. Donna put together a great show, complete with soundtrack, and we even had a few guests to cheer us on. It’s a real high seeing my students’ work on the big screen.

DAY 7, Saturday:
9am (how civilized!) – We met at the Farmers’ Market in West Tisbury, which was as much a morning of socializing and wolfing down eggrolls and popovers, as it was of shooting. Our farmers’ market has to be one of the most picturesque anywhere in the country, and the vendors are incredibly tolerant of my little flock of photographers – as soon as the tripods appear they know I won’t be far behind. The workshop ended back at the Mansion House, with lots of hugs, a few tears, and promises to keep taking photos and to stay in touch.

Terry Wiechman began an email thread that has kept the group connected, and Andy Nixon created a Flickr group for the September workshop. Go team! And I finished the week so jazzed that I was possessed by the desire to blog. It’s a little embarrassing, since my blog has lain dormant since one feeble entry in April 2009. And no, I haven’t been out shooting like I promised. But then again, I do have a book to write and an October workshop to prepare for, so I’ve got a good excuse, right?


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