by Alison Shaw (and 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.