Island influence on seascape artists

Jeffrey Serusa. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Three Island photographers who have been shooting seascapes here for more than 100 combined years say they’re not done yet.

Alison Shaw, Craig Dripps, and Jeff Serusa don’t think they ever will be done, given the infinite opportunity provided by constantly changing weather, seasons and seascapes around the Island’s nearly 125 miles of topographically diverse shoreline.

“The Island was formed by two different ice ages. That’s why the east end is like the Cape and the west end is rocky and craggy. The Island is so small yet so diverse. There’s the bucolic up-Island farms and a sand plain in Katama,” Mr. Dripps explains. “Considering the diversity among the towns themselves, the Vineyard is probably as unique as it gets.”

Like his colleagues, Mr. Dripps believes the Island, which he can describe in close detail, has also defined him. “A huge influence. You know, I still don’t think of myself as a professional but I wouldn’t have pursued this work if I didn’t have the Island. It drives me to be out at first light. I’m consumed by the mystique of the place,” says Mr. Dripps, a retired math teacher at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.

For Mr. Serusa, it’s about boats. Photographing wooden boats with large format wooden field cameras is his metier.

“Do you know there are more wooden boats moored in Vineyard Haven than in any harbor in the country?” Mr. Serusa asks. “That’s true, and most of them were built right behind The Martha’s Vineyard Times office [at Gannon and Benjamin boatyard]. I’ve always loved nautical themes so it was a pretty easy decision.”

Ms. Shaw emigrated from Western Massachusetts after college in 1975. “Well, I was just drawn to the water — I still am — and it goes without saying that you couldn’t do seascape photography in Western Massachusetts,” she says. “I never realized that 99-percent of my work was seascapes until we were putting a website together and I didn’t have enough work to make categories for flowers or landscapes.”

She continues, “Also, I think working with the Vineyard Gazette was a strong influence. I developed a strong black and white contrast style because of the paper’s printing needs. The Island is this little microcosm and having to find new ways to see the Island. That’s changed me as an artist, reinventing myself to see the Island and my style has changed as a result.

“I don’t know if I could do this anywhere else,” she says. “The Island is so rich in subject matter and people who appreciate art. There is so much variety, even the towns are distinct. I think that regionalization is good for some services but I hope it doesn’t go too far. The uniqueness needs to be maintained and celebrated.”

For all the variety and unlimited photographic possibilities, the artists have their favorite spots, seasons, even time of day. They prefer uncrowded off-season for the light and access to spots guarded by private property in-season.

But their methodologies could not be more different. Ms. Shaw is fully digital, Mr. Dripps has recently abandoned 35-millimeter film for the digital world, and Mr. Serusa uses wooden field cameras each using a four-by-five inch piece of film. Often he will take only four or five photos a day in his painstaking process.

Mr. Serusa and Mr. Dripps prefer photographing in spring on the Island because spring light creates the richest colors. Ms. Shaw prefers mid-September to mid-October. “The trick then is to match light to the subject matter. Detail is less important,” she says. Mr. Serusa avoids summer photography. “The light is bad,” but he’s not choosy about favorite places to work. “Anywhere there are wooden boats in the water,” he says.

“My favorite is Lucy Vincent beach,” Ms. Shaw says. “It’s south-facing both at sunrise or sunset, good surf and aesthetic rocks and shoreline. Each time it’s different, particularly after a storm. And I like Edgartown lighthouse because the area around it is so interesting. It’s not what I call a single shot as most lighthouses are.”

Mr. Dripps has a list of favorite places, including Lucy Vincent beach, the back of Edgartown Great Pond, East Chop Light. He continues listing places: “Lots of little funny places like Mr. Honey’s barn behind the Granary. Seth’s Pond can be moody. Illumination Night. I guess my most popular shot [a photo of Middle Road]
 I actually first saw in my rear-view mirror. So now I’m always looking.”

All three say early morning is their favorite time of day to work.

“Before sunrise is my favorite time,” Ms. Shaw says. “Generally it’s calm, and there is always moisture of some sort. I mean before dawn when colors and shapes are very subtle. My problem is getting out of bed early enough to make it happen. I don’t pay attention to the weather forecast. I go out every single morning because you’ll never know what you’ll get.”

The artists differ in the Island artistic influences on their work. Mr. Serusa and Mr. Dripps cite Alison Shaw. For her part, Ms. Shaw cites Allan Whiting and David Fokos as early mentors.

And Mr. Dripps says, “You know, I think I’m going to come back as [painter] Steve Mills. His pictures look like photographs.”