Galleries : In Plain Sight
Janet Woodcock's art nearly always depicts the commonplace rather than seeks the extraordinary. Her collections have names like "Nests" or "Vegetables," and many of the scenes can be found less than a mile from her home.
Yet once the scene has been framed by the photographer's eye, it comes alive: every twig in the nest or curve of a branch is an integral part of the finished piece.
In Ms. Woodcock's words, "There's one particular moment in time when all the forces come together to create and define the image. It becomes more a matter of waiting and watching and waiting and watching - as opposed to taking a gazillion pictures and hoping that one comes out okay."
And her equipment bears this out: a vintage box camera where everything is manual and the only battery is for the light meter -"Which I hardly ever use anyway," she says. "I've been photographing long enough." She develops every print herself in her basement studio.
Her eyes gleam as she describes the excitement of capturing the feeling of a scene rather than the scene itself.
Photos by Ralph Stewart
"She explains, "I can't add or take anything away from the negative, it's like a blueprint. I'm bound by the information it contains, and I never crop. Everything in that negative is going to be in my print, it's just a question of how I want that print to look. The negative has to be perfect. That makes me more aware and connected to what's going on right in front of me. I don't see anything else, I don't hear anything else. I'm just looking and looking and looking. And I don't know any other way to work."
Everything about her Vineyard Haven home speaks of a passion for the moment, a joy in the ordinary. She once did a series on vegetables, and says, "I love to watch the formation of the fruit, the vegetable, how it goes through metamorphoses and changes. I find the most ordinary things to be the most extraordinary."
Her current show, "Nests," opens Sunday at the Field Gallery. The nests themselves are not particularly noteworthy - an osprey's untidy jumble atop the Brickyard, a robin's small neat cup nestled in a shrub - but in her photographs, they become magical. "Perfect and self-contained," Ms. Woodcock says. And indeed, the very minimalness of the images emphasizes a homey completeness.
Her subjects are selected by such an organic process that it seems almost accidental. "My subjects usually choose me," she says. "They're not something I pick and then go look for."
She describes her only foray into portraiture, which is her series on farm animal: "When I first started making those pictures, it was more as a challenge to get close enough to take a picture of a goat. Then I looked at them and said, my God, these are portraits. I started to ask, what is it about portraiture that makes it so powerful? It's a collaborative effort between the photographer and the subject; both have to be comfortable.
"I only used the normal lens, so I had to be close to the subject. After I took the time, they would cooperate. The pigs would come right up to me. They'd see me coming."
It seems almost anachronistic that Ms. Woodcock uses such simple equipment until she explains, "The power of photography is that it's truth. Photographic proof. A moment in time."
Lacking even a viewfinder, she interacts directly with the subject and the film, without the cushioning so often provided by autofocus and Photoshop. Every image is as tightly controlled and intentional as a brushstroke.
And because her images are so minimally processed, the viewer is forced to realize the everyday beauty of the world. Once a person's eyes are opened to the beauty of a wasp nest, or a zucchini, or a tree swing, he or she might continue seeing it long after leaving the exhibit.
As Ms. Woodcock says, "Once you start looking for something, you see it everywhere."
Maia Smith is a freelance writer who spends summers on the Island.