She describes herself as patient. Perseverate. Perfectionist. She’s also a fine art photographer whose work is synonymous with the unique beauty of Martha’s Vineyard. Alison Shaw, 56, has made a career out of capturing both the expansive beauty of the Island as well as the smallest of details — the peeling hull of an aged wooden boat, the freshly fallen snow clinging to a delicate branch.
And while Ms. Shaw was long known for her iconic Vineyard landscapes, often featuring acute sharpness, intensely saturated color, and strong graphic composition, her work is always in motion. “I’m never satisfied with repeating myself,” she explains.
This summer, the crisp white walls at the Alison Shaw Gallery, located at 88 Dukes County Avenue in the Oak Bluffs Arts District, are adorned with her latest body of work. Characterizing it as “painterly,” Ms. Shaw describes how she achieves the soft, muted effect and tranquil palette of many of the photographs.
“I move the camera like a paintbrush,” she explains. Now utilizing what she characterizes as a “more creative approach” to capture her subject matter, Ms. Shaw moves the camera in order to, as she puts it, “elicit the essence of a scene.” By panning as she shoots, she minimizes the details of the image that are extraneous and, in doing so, ends up with a photograph that instead evokes the subject’s sensual nature.
Although she’s not sure why, turning 50 proved to be a turning point in her work. “It became more about the feeling of the subject and less about the literal fact of the subject,” she explains, looking slightly bemused as she searches for the precise words to describe her evolution.
The work that has emerged is often more abstract and softer than that of the past, an era which she laughingly refers to her “Farmer’s Market primary-colors, blue-skies, perfect-postcard” period.
Her present collection, now displayed in “Dawn,” the first of four shows of the season at her gallery, is also the debut of this softer, less razor-sharp work, in a new palette.
“I’ve always told students in my workshops that I like working in contrasts,” she explains. “I say that I like softer or stronger colors than reality. But this is the first time I’ve ever really shown work in soft colors.”
The results are no less dramatic than her signature intensely color-saturated photographs. The sea and sand are still there, but they appear almost as if painted with watercolors in their gentler shades of blues and neutrals.
“I feel like these photographs have more breathing space, that the pace has slowed down,” Ms. Shaw says. Using what she calls “brush strokes, from little to long,” she may shoot hundreds of images in a setting, each one different. “It’s not about trying to get that one perfect picture anymore,” she adds.
Her new approach is supported by her shift to digital technology, a move she resisted until the last couple of years. Admittedly a late adopter, she is now an enthusiastic proponent.
And, while she acknowledges that the new digital cameras with 10 megapixels are comparable to her old 5×7-inch or 8×10-inch film cameras, she says she still misses the dimensionality of film. “But it’s just not worth sticking to tradition with the quality of the digital cameras available now,” she concludes.
Her choice: the Nikon D700 Digital, a far cry from the Brownie she got at age 10 or the Leica Rangefinder at 13. The only filter she uses on occasion is a polarizing one and she says she spends a minute or less “tweaking” or fine-tuning her photographs with Adobe Lightroom.
“I never pushed things too much,” says Ms. Shaw. “Just up to the limits of plausibility. The tools today are so much easier.”
The last several years have brought other important changes to her life as a fine art photographer. She and her partner in both business and life, Sue Dawson, purchased the historic firehouse that now serves as her gallery. Ms. Dawson helps manage the business, along with Claire Cain, studio manager for the past nine years. The three, Ms. Shaw says, are like family, a collaborative team that works extremely well together. “No one sucks up to me. They tell me exactly how they feel,” she says with a chuckle.
And, while she relishes the satisfaction of having her name on the building, a reflection of her many years of hard work, she says she feels the pressure of supporting herself, the two children she shares with Ms. Dawson, her employees, and the increased overhead. “As a small business owner there’s never any clear down-time. I work every day, even in the dead of winter. But I love what I do and I love the building. I feel good that my work brings joy to others.”
That joy now comes in far less expensive forms than the large format prints on the gallery walls. Ms. Shaw is juggling no fewer than three new book projects. Her time is increasingly consumed by editorial assignments —works she says she finds wholly satisfying. In late July, “Soups and Sides,” will be published, a joint venture with Catherine Walthers, creator of “Raising the Salad Bar, their previous collaboration. Fall 2011 will bring publication of “Gourmet Gifting,” a cooking and craft-related book, and “A Photographer’s Guide to Martha’s Vineyard,” written and photographed by Ms. Shaw, will appear in spring 2011. Just last month “Schooner” was released by Vineyard Stories, an Island publishing firm. The book, written by Tom Dunlop and photographed by Ms. Shaw, depicts the construction of a 60-foot wooden boat by Gannon and Benjamin of Vineyard Haven.
When she’s not busy in her gallery or upstairs in the studio, Ms. Shaw travels across the country and to far-flung destinations to teach photography workshops. She gets excited, she says, at the prospect of her two fall classes on the Vineyard. “It’s ironic that I see myself as a Vineyard photographer, but feel that I have less and less time to shoot here at home,” she says. “So when I have the workshops, I get psyched to take the students around the Island. And I’m thinking of scheduling a week of my own devoted to shooting new work.”
In addition to showing her work at the Alison Shaw Gallery in Oak Buffs, Ms. Shaw’s photographs are also on display in the Granary Gallery at the Red Barn on Old County Road in West Tisbury. Ms. Shaw’s receptions at the Alison Shaw Gallery are scheduled for July 10, August 14 and September 11. Her new works at the Granary will be exhibited from July 25 to August 7.