Beautiful beacons come to life with Vineyard Stories

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“To The Harbor Light,” photographs by Alison Shaw, text by Brenda L. Horrigan, Vineyard Stories, Edgartown, 2012. $20.95, 96 pp., softcover, available at Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven and Edgartown Books in Edgartown.

Remember how your Aunt Maude and Uncle Derek from Omaha gushed about the beauty of the Cape and Islands when they visited a few years back?

Send them a copy of “To The Harbor Light.” It may even get you into the will. It’s that kind of experience.

Thinking about the finished product, three heroes emerge from our tale: photographer Alison Shaw, writer/researcher Brenda Horrigan, and Vineyard Stories publisher Jan Pogue.

Ms. Shaw has the ability to transform a beautiful and familiar subject into a new experience for the viewer. Why is that special? Well, it is possible to make even the Bayonne docks look good, but to offer the Cape Poge lighthouse as she does in “Harbor Light” is extraordinary.

I was expecting a beautiful picture. I had a job several years ago that sent me into that lighthouse constantly, in all hours of day and night. Sunrise, sunset, night, and day, sun and rain. Never saw it like that. That’s her magic.

Having said that, Ms. Shaw has always done the legwork over the decades and has a better record at finding her quarry than the FBI does. Publisher Jan Pogue notes that Ms. Shaw logged 1,800 miles over land, sand, and water over eight months, The more than 100 published photos were the best of 5,000 pictures she took of the 20 lighthouses featured in the book, including all five Island beacons.

The lighthouses are presented in three sections, each with its own introductory page and photos and text for each lighthouse, including Martha’s Vineyard (five), Nantucket (three), and Cape Cod (12).

Ms. Shaw has taken some chances here, integrating the environment in ways that set the lighthouses as part of the scene rather than its dominant image. The result is terrific and enlivens the lighthouse motif.

Paradoxically, this book was challenging convention. Truth is, it’s fairly easy to get a pretty good picture or painting of a lighthouse. People make a living at it. A lot of the successfully published work is formulaic, predictable. Or we’re jaded. Maybe both.

Overleaf notes remind us that “Lighthouses constantly fascinate us…links to the past…sentinels of our shores.” Marketing folks would tell us that means that lighthouses have a brand with a built-in predisposition to purchase. That also means you can cut corners and still make money.

This troika, however, did not mail the project in. “Harbor Light” is a well-balanced, hard-working book. Words matter a lot in books predicated on visual presentation, particularly if your goal is to combine aesthetics with practicability, as is the case in this book.

Ms. Horrigan’s task, for example, was to research 20 lighthouses, consult records, documents and published reports to check out an assortment of events including shipwrecks, and from the resulting encyclopedia, to produce engaging vignettes that inform and engage the reader. She has done that gracefully. Nuggets like the lighthouse keeper who not only rescued a stranded tycoon but also rescued a horse in danger of drowning. No record, alas, of which rescue pleased him more.

We also get a synopsis of each site with a description of each light, how to access the site, best viewpoints provided by Ms. Shaw, as well as phone number and website information.

Ms. Pogue consistently matches complementary writers and visual artists who are compatible to the project at hand. Not always the easiest job in the business — egos, you know. But when the team works well, the book reflects it in the seamless way of “Harbor Light.” Ms. Shaw must be easy to work with. She’s had five (of her nearly 20 photography books) commissioned in the past few years by Vineyard Stories.

Ms. Pogue took some risks as well. She committed to a high-end presentation with an arresting cover design by Jill Dible that is replicated inside on heavy coated stock that carries the images and design well. Ms. Pogue also enlisted lighthouse guru Jeremy D’Entremont to provide the introduction.

There’s an art to publishing and Ms. Pogue and her late husband John Walter have navigated well. For Ms. Pogue’s viewpoint on the art of publishing, see the interview with her in Arts, an MV Times publication to be published on June 28.

My guess is that “Harbor Light” will show up on a lot of Cape and Islands coffee tables and will have legs further afield as well. Look, you can refer annoying house guests to it. You don’t have to tell ‘em Cape Poge Light is a seven-mile walk start to finish.