Photographer’s mini images make big impact

"Baby Octopus with Olive Oil."
Photo by Danielle Zerbonne

"Baby Octopus with Olive Oil."

Inspiration and opportunity don’t always coincide for an artist. However, for one local photographer, the current technology — in particular the possibilities presented by the iPhone camera — has allowed her, often on an impulse, to capture those images in nature that tend to spark the imagination of an artist while going unnoticed by those with a less trained eye.

For the month of February, a series of small iPhone photos by Danielle Zerbonne will hang in Mocha Mott’s in Vineyard Haven. It’s well worth the effort to take a closer look at these interesting 5-inch square prints clipped to strings along the walls of the coffee shop. Many are close-up shots featuring exaggeratedly intense colors that require close inspection for identification but that are beautiful even when viewed as abstract images. All are striking, unique little glimpses into nature and environmental elements.

“The pictures give sort of a snapshot of my everyday life,” says Ms. Zerbonne, pointing out shots taken at Malabar Farms where she regularly rides horses. “They’re whatever feature of the day that catches my eye.”

Ms. Zerbonne has been a professional photographer for many years. She began taking pictures for The Martha’s Vineyard Times when she first moved to the Island in 1998. She has since transitioned to ad sales and is part of The Times’s advertising team, but she still contributes photos to the paper on a freelance basis.

In 2003, Ms. Zerbonne acquired her first camera phone and started experimenting with its photo feature. While she still shoots with her digital SLR camera, she has become more and more reliant on her phone, taking advantage of the spontaneity that it affords. “I don’t always want to carry my camera around, I’ve always got my phone on me if I see something that catches my eye.

“I decided to take a more casual route. It can get kind of stressful and I like it to be fun. It’s great if you’re kind of laid-back about it and not obsessed with controlling every detail of light. I’ll just take 20 pictures and see if there are any that I like. It’s sort of serendipity when you get a picture with your phone.”

Serendipity may play some part in Ms. Zerbonne’s ability to capture any image that strikes her fancy, but her skill as a fine art photographer has enabled her to create a series of striking photos with an artistic bent.

Among the photos on display in Mocha Mott’s are a number of vividly colored extreme close-ups. Flowers, fish, horses, and dogs are popular themes. Some of the most intriguing close ups are of food — a glistening section of a mini octopus spotlighting its curled tentacles, a plate of vibrantly colored berries, the purple-and-white squiggles of a slice of red cabbage. In one photo, an almost unrecognizable split tomato reveals, through oversaturation, tiny coiled seeds.

Other colors in nature have been exaggerated until they pop out at the viewer — a fuchsia thistle bursts from one photo. Another features a bright crimson field made up of the foliage of a Japanese red maple in full bloom. In one shot, a misty image of the Gay Head lighthouse in fog is punctuated by a clump of bright orange autumn leaves in the foreground. A scene of the Lagoon has almost the look of a black-and-white photo except for a pop of red provided by a fishing boat.

“Mostly I like color,” Ms. Zerbonne says. “It’s what captures my eye.”

But there are also a number of beautiful black-and-white photos among the selection, including a wonderful close-up of a horse’s eye, a number of shots of Ms. Zerbonne’s miniature poodle, Monty, and other dogs and animals. One great shot taken at Malabar Farm captures a cat strolling leisurely from a barn towards the camera.

It’s this type of spontaneous moment that Ms. Zerbonne looks for. There’s a shot of an old VW bus heading towards Vineyard Haven along Beach Road. Another of multiple ripples on a puddle at Five Corners is an image that caught the photographer’s fancy during a rainstorm. The kind of things that the average person would overlook have become subjects of very interesting works of art.

Ms. Zerbonne uses two iPhone apps, Instagram and Hipstamatic, to apply any of a number of software filters to give digital photos the look of film. With this technology, one can create images using simulated lenses, films, and flashes and achieve effects like oversaturated color.

She likes the square format created by these apps — similar to old Polaroid or Instamatic pictures. A variety of different borders, like a black rim with fictitious print specs and a distressed look that gives the illusion of a crinkled, long-forgotten snapshot, add to the retro feel of the little square prints. Ms. Zerbonne has yet to order larger prints. “I’m big into little things,” she says with intentional irony.

Although most of the photos were taken on the Island, the show also features some images from a trip out west. But they are hardly your average tourist shots. There’s a wonderful image of a plastic rooster sitting on the roof of a gas station in Arizona. The way that the shot is framed, the color and the composition transform this little bit of kitsch that would probably have been nothing but a forgotten footnote to the trip into a lovely work of art.

“There’s a lot of serendipity involved,” Ms. Zerbonne says. “You don’t know what you’re going to get, but I can just take a lot of shots. I don’t take it too too seriously. I like it to be fun and spontaneous and not too expensive.”