The Seaworthy Gallery, on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven across from the ArtCliff Diner, is filled with the photography of Jeffrey Serusa. The gallery has a nautical theme, and most of the large photographs, displayed on canvas or in ink, are of boats.
While not a frequent sailor himself, Mr. Serusa has an affinity for boats, and his photographs have an entrancing vividness. Many of the photographs don’t feel like photos at all, because the way they are printed on canvas gives them the texture and feel of a painting, even as they retain the realism that is only captured by camera.
Mr. Serusa takes these photos with a large, 8×10 field camera like those used by photographers since the 1800s. It sits atop a tall tripod, resembles a tapered accordion, and doesn’t use any electricity. The camera has an interchangeable 500mm lens at one end, and the image is projected, upside down and backwards, on a sheet of glass at the other end.
Film slides into the back, and the camera can be lengthened up to 37 ½; inches by adjusting the bellows. The camera doesn’t snap shots with a “click,” instead capturing images by lifting the shutter and letting light in. The camera’s film is exposed to light for anywhere from 1/30th of a second to closer to 10 seconds, depending on the shot.
These longer exposures lead to great detail and unmatched color saturation, explaining the vividness of the photos that fill the gallery. “People always ask me if I adjust the color levels,” Mr. Serusa said. “I can’t: I’m color blind. I try to keep it as real as I can in this electronic world.”
The electronic parts of the process come in scanning the images and in printing them, both of which are done in-house. No effects are added that couldn’t be done in a dark room (some exposure or contrast settings are fiddled with), though sometimes Mr. Serusa burns away the background of a photo, replacing it with black. This process brings all the attention to the subject of the shot, and one such photo is displayed outside the gallery, drawing people in.
Some of Mr. Serusa’s shots take years for him to set up, such as one that portrays the full moon next to a Steamship Authority vessel. The moon would only be in the correct place once a year, and the first two years that Mr. Serusa tried the shot it was too cloudy or too windy. On the third year, all the conditions came together, but while preparing for the 8-second exposure, the freight boat was still in the shot when a loudspeaker announced that the boat would begin loading.
Because the landing would rock the boat, leading to blurriness, Mr. Serusa opened his shutter. Over the course of the next eight seconds the freight boat moved off the edge of the shot. Practically unnoticeable, a ghostlike blur can be found on the edge of the photo, but the eye is too busy fixating on the immaculately rendered ocean, moon and ship to be bothered.
Many of Mr. Serusa’s photos follow the same pattern of being harder to set up than to take. One such photo, “Gay Head Light at Night,” took Mr. Serusa three months to figure out, after which he got it on his first try. He stood with a stopwatch to see how long the beam from the lighthouse took to complete a revolution, and then, when the light was right where he wanted it, he would open the shutters of the camera for a second. By doing multiple exposures this way, the camera could gather enough light to make the image without capturing any blur. The resulting photo of the Gay Head Lighthouse and moonlit cliffs has in-depth detail of the surrounding scenery.
Mr. Serusa’s Seaworthy Gallery is filled with his photographs, and it makes for wonderful browsing. But one can’t help but think that the photographs would look even better on the walls of a house. “A lot of houses on the Island are large, airy, and have lots of windows,” Mr. Serusa said. “With canvas there is no glare or reflection from outside light.”
The Seaworthy Gallery is open Monday to Thursday, from 12 noon–5 pm and Friday to Sunday, 10 am–5 pm. Mr. Serusa’s work can also be found at the Chilmark Flea Market and at The Granary Gallery. For more information, visit seaworthygallerymv.com or call 508-693-0153.