A Focus on the Edge

Alison Shaw has photographed the Vineyard for more than four decades, but lately she’s found a new way to look at the Island she loves.

Alison Shaw has been shooting Island seascapes for forty years, but her new work currently on display at both the Granary Gallery in West Tisbury and at the Alison Shaw Gallery in Oak Bluffs is something of a departure for the iconic photographer. Entitled “Shoreline: Around the Island of Martha’s Vineyard,” the series represents a precise effort to capture the Vineyard’s full perimeter through her lens.

Consider the photo above of Long Point, looking west just as one enters the beach. It was taken at 7:59 a.m. on October 19, 2016 with the shutter open for a sixtieth of a second. That’s the kind of metadata her Nikon D810 spills out. It’s also a gigantic upgrade from the
Nikkormat that Shaw used in her early days in the production shop of the
Vineyard Gazette, when the paper paid her $7 for a photograph. We’re talking mid-seventies, people.

Stonewall Beach, 4:43 p.m.
Alison Shaw

“As I recollect, it was a kind of  bright yet very hazy morning. There’s still a crispness to it, but I’m moving my camera like crazy so there’s a softness to it too. By shooting with the shutter open even for a sixtieth of a second and moving, I can create almost brush strokes with my camera.

“I’m using a technique I’ve used since 2003 and I was possibly the first photographer to use it on seascapes. I’m using the camera like a paintbrush where I’m really trying to capture the feeling of the scene, not the facts of a scene. Often, when the prints are on canvas, people can mistake them for a painting rather than a photograph.”

The many collectors and admirers of Shaw’s prodigious body of work – ten thousand photographs in public or private collections and twenty books – have followed her journey from photojournalist and documentarian to abstract artist. What still motivates her is the art and skill required in the moment. There is little to no color correction back at the shop, just the unaltered image of an early morning.

Tisbury Great Pond, 7:23 a.m.
Alison Shaw

“I feel really strongly that I want to do my work in the camera while I take the picture,” she says. “I actually don’t even know how to use Photoshop. First, I have no interest in it coming from the days of transparency film when you had to do it correctly in camera. And second, I don’t want to spend most of my life in front of a computer. I’d much rather be out on a beach than manipulating my images.”

The “Shoreline” series, she says, was a vehicle to capture something fresh in the nearly one hundred square miles she has photographed for decades.

“I haven’t been as active behind the camera in the last couple of years. I’ve been thriving in this mentoring program we started in 2013–2014 and I’ve been lighting fires in others and spending too much time on my computer. Landing on a project is one way of getting inspired and taking a fresh look. It takes something I’m already doing, like seascapes, and it lights a fire and gives me a goal, not to mention a summer deadline. And it gets me to places I can get too lazy to go to, like the Aquinnah shoreline.”

To that end, Shaw and her team have created an “inspiration map” of the Island’s perimeter, making notes on a Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank map where her successful images have been shot. “I’m partly looking for new subject matter. In Tashmoo, for instance, I found a dock and a rock that I had never paid attention to. And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s exciting – a new rock!’”

If you go to the exhibit, which you should do, expect cloudy skies. “I love putting colors now against a neutral background. Back in the nineties, I was all about filling the whole picture with color. Now, I love gray days, hazy days where the background is neutral with just a touch of color.

“One great thing about this technique is I’m no longer looking for the perfect sunrise or sunset or perfect blue sky. I’m not looking for perfect weather and a particular time of day. I can go out at noon on a cloudy day and come back with something really special.”

Right Fork, 4:30 p.m.
Alison Shaw


Comments (2)

Robert Schellhammer
Beverly, KY
It's a good thing to make familiar things new by whatever means, except by manipulation. I applaud your disdain for fauxtoshop. The eyes/brain/heart workflow is all you need. Well done!
August 25, 2017 - 5:20pm
Meg Harris Stanton
Akron, Ohio
These are stunning photos Alison! We've come a long way from our days in Firenze!
August 29, 2017 - 12:59am