Photographer Alison Shaw has been using her camera to reflect her view of the Vineyard for nearly 40 years. Each summer, Islanders and visitors are treated to her latest collection of expertly composed, transcendent reflections of life — from mystical seascapes and traditional boat building to the riotously colorful West Tisbury Farmers Market and boldly graphic abstracts.
From her start in 1975 as a production worker on the Vineyard Gazette, Ms. Shaw has parlayed her artistic eye and ambition into an entrepreneurial success story. She and partner/co-owner Sue Dawson, with the help of studio manager Claire Cain, keep the wheels turning at the Alison Shaw Gallery in the Arts District of Oak Bluffs. Located in a fully restored vintage firehouse, the gallery and in-house studio form a home base for Ms. Shaw’s multi-faceted enterprise.
Today, she reports that she’s busier than ever year-round. Creating new images for her summer shows at her own gallery as well as for The Granary Gallery in West Tisbury, the Old Sculpin Gallery in Edgartown, and several off-Island galleries, Ms. Shaw also maintains a challenging schedule inspiring budding photographers with workshops, a new mentorship program, new VIP Days, and private coaching. Her work can also be found in a growing number of books, some published by Vineyard Stories — Island-produced, photograph-rich books on topics including fine art, cooking, history and artisans, all with local ties.
From an early age, Ms. Shaw found herself attracted to painting and drawing, and she pursued those interests in college. “I never studied photography,” she said. “I just responded to my environment with the camera.” Her father took her to New York at 13 to buy her first serious camera, a Leica. By the time she moved full-time to the Island and began working, her interest in photography had transformed from mild to passionate.
“Because I was self-taught and learned by making mistakes,” she recalled, “my road was longer, but I think my work is more unique. There was no baggage, no ‘shoulds,’ no emulating.”
Her belief in self-discovery drives all of her teaching experiences. She utilizes daily shoots and critiques, eschewing rules in her workshops. “I look for the common thread in my students’ work,” she said. “I get them to pay attention to their own strengths and weaknesses and encourage them to develop their own unique style.”
In addition to the annual week-long September workshops she hosts on the Vineyard, Ms. Shaw has taught her craft in such far-flung locations as New Zealand, Tuscany, Venice, and New Mexico. Now, in response to interest from workshop “graduates,” she and Ms. Dawson have devised two new learning opportunities: a six-month mentorship program for students interested in deepening their focus and spending more one-on-one time with Ms. Shaw; and VIP Days: intensive, customized one-day sessions with Ms. Shaw, Ms. Dawson, and other specialists in related fields. Participants will explore topics including developing portfolios, marketing their work, building a website, deepening their understanding of photography, publishing a book, or just jump-starting their creativity. Announced just weeks ago, the first mentorship program, from November to May, is already filled. VIP Days launch in the spring.
Former Island resident and avid photographer Jen Sayre has taken Ms. Shaw’s workshops 10 times. While she lives in Cleveland, Ga., she returns to the Island in the fall to participate, staying in her camper in the Martha’s Vineyard Campground.
“Alison is such a great teacher,” she began. Asked what she values most about the workshop experience, Ms. Sayre responds without hesitation: “The confidence she instills.” In addition to laying a strong foundation of photography basics, Ms. Sayre credits Ms. Shaw with enhancing her motivation to go out and shoot regularly.
“I get pumped,” she said, her enthusiasm still fresh from the workshop she finished just weeks ago. “She encourages us to live photography, to breathe it, the whole week we’re there. I always do my best work right after I leave.”
Workshop raves are echoed by Michael Skelton of Troy, N.Y., another repeat participant, now signed on for the mentorship program. Like Ms. Sayre, Mr. Skelton enjoys shooting nature and landscape. He plans to volunteer as a photography instructor for children, helped toward his vision by Ms. Shaw. “I have been able to lay out a game plan for my future,” he explained. “Alison continues to motivate and encourage me to stay along the path I’m following.” He credits her with creating “an atmosphere of honesty and trust,” along with the sense that “her students’ success is as important as her own.”
As she approaches her fourth decade on the Island, Ms. Shaw says that she never runs out of photographic possibilities. Armed with a newfound fascination with storms and how they dramatically alter the landscape, Ms. Shaw finds herself out in 50-mile-per-hour winds and driving snowstorms, capturing what she calls the “hardscapes” — a dock, cliff, or gazebo against the backdrop of rough seas.
A later adopter of digital technology, she relies on Adobe Lightroom for minimal alterations of her images. “I did more manipulation by hand of my black and white images in a traditional darkroom than I do now with my color images in a digital darkroom,” she said.
Jennifer Pillsworth of The Granary Gallery, where Ms. Shaw has shown her work for the past 27 years, calls the photographer “an icon herself.” With a room devoted exclusively to Ms. Shaw’s work, The Granary features her latest images as well as her entire portfolio. Her appeal, according to Ms. Pillsworth, is her iconic Vineyard images and ever-evolving body of work. “She has sustained this level of creativity and innovation for so long,” Ms. Pillsworth observed. “I think she still surprises herself – and definitely us.”