Summer People: Felicia Murray

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Photo by Linda Comstock

Felicia Murray, a professional photographer and a summer person, is the subject of the sixth Times series called Summer People. The goal of Summer People is to introduce readers to their summer neighbors, some of them prominent and extraordinarily accomplished, some whose lives are less exalted, all of them Islanders in their own ways. How do they describe their connections to the Vineyard and their seasonal Island neighbors? How do they describe their off-Island lives?

When a reporter asked Felicia Murray if he could visit with her, she warned that she wasn’t great with interviews, but as she sat in a comfy chair on the wraparound porch of her West Chop house, she smiled and began to speak easily about her family, home, and photography.

The first summer Ms. Murray spent on West Chop she was an infant staying at her grandparents’ house. That summer, 1954, Hurricane Carol, one of the most powerful storms to hit New England, tore across the Island, but Ms. Murray slept through it, for which her grandmother was very grateful.

Ms. Murray’s grandparents, Mary and Arthur Bingham, rented summer houses on the Island in the 1930s, but didn’t come during World War II because gasoline was rationed for the war effort. After the war, they bought the house where Ms. Murray now spends her summers – 1830s vintage, Greek Revival style, with additions that were done in the 1880s. The house sits tucked back from the road, now surrounded by wooded thickets and juniper groves and adorned with Tibetan prayer flags.

“It was very different then. Granny put the junipers in when I was very little. You use to be able to walk through them Now they’ve grown up,” recalls Ms. Murray. “I think the new, big houses that have been built are not about privacy … Granny always loved her privacy.”

Ms. Murray lives in New York, where she was born, and comes to the Island every summer. She and her brother, Jonathan Murray, inherited the house from their grandmother when she died. He spends May and June on the Island, and they rent the house in July. Ms. Murray has it in August and September.

She is still a member of the West Chop Club, and remembers attending dances there and learning to swim with Ken Murphy, who for some 30 years taught all of the kids on West Chop how to swim.

“A lot of the people who belong to the West Chop Club are great tennis players. I’m not. I certainly had tennis lessons. In those days the racquets were very heavy. I’d go and practice, but the tennis pro told my mother she wasting her money and his time after three years,” laughed Ms. Murray. “West Chop is a wonderful place if you have young children. You can let them go out and ride their bikes around. It’s very safe and fun for them, in a nice old-fashioned way.”

Ms. Murray spent every summer here during her youth. She would play and swim with her brother and her cousin Quarry Bingham. “I got into photography taking photos as a child, here on the Island. The light at the end of the day used to make me crazy. I love it.”

In the 1970s, Ms. Murray worked in fine art photography in New York, first working for photographers, then representing them as an agent. Her work kept her away from Martha’s Vineyard during the 1970s, but she returned during the ’80s, and has spent a part of the summer here ever since. At the turn of the century, she decided it was time to focus on her own photography and retired from being an agent.

She describes her work as being largely autobiographical. “It’s where I go and what I see, and it’s black and white because it’s about the light and shadow,” Ms. Murray explains.

For the past 30 years, she has attended and shown her work at the “Les Rencontres de la Photographie” (roughly: Encounters of Photography) in Arles, France. She has fallen into an ideal pattern, staying in France from late June to early or mid-July and then staying on the Island though September, spending the rest of the year in the place she owns in the lower East Side of Manhattan, near Gramercy Park.

She also has traveled to India, where she spent two winters in the north of the country doing photography. She plans to return soon. Her brother has worked as a naturalist in Bangkok, Thailand, for the last 23 years.

“I’ve always been interested in India. The culture, history … it’s a place that the West is insulated from. We don’t realize ninety percent of the world’s population doesn’t have a life like we have here, and it’s humbling,” says Ms. Murray.

Ms. Murray captures some of that difference in her photography, but it is not the central focus of her work. “My work is not about showing the gap between the haves and the have nots, really. It’s more about the visual, and the spirit behind things and in things,” Ms. Murray explains. “It’s showing other dimensions that we can’t see in this three-dimensional reality. With a long exposure those other dimensions become visible. You view time passing.

“One body of my work is called ‘Entre Chien et Loup,’ which means ‘Between dog and wolf’ and is a phrase that describes the time of day when day turns into night and things are not what they appear to be. It’s sort of the crack between worlds,” said Ms. Murray.

Ms. Murray remembers looking through her parents’ wedding album, where everything was in black and white. “I prefer black and white, it makes things more mysterious and more dramatic, and makes things more timeless,” said Ms. Murray.

She is thankful and happy as she describes the places she travels to and the work she loves. “I’m very fortunate and I realize how fortunate I am. I thank my grandparents and the ancestors.”

You can see Ms. Murray’s photography at Feliciamurray.com