“Magic,” was the answer Jeff Serusa, owner of Seaworthy Gallery, gave me when I asked him, “How do you take what you shoot and make it into your final image, into a work of art?”
It does seem like magic, looking around his gallery full of striking and well-designed photographs. Some are behind glass and framed in typical fashion. Some are printed on canvas rather than paper, and framed more like a painting would be. Some are black and white. Some are in color, usually strong colors with strong value contrasts, not unlike the defined values in a black-and-white photograph. It was all magical.
Not at all the case, however. While all art takes advantage of some element of serendipity, Jeff’s description of his process was definitely very technical, and involved a lot of planning. Some of his images take years of waiting for the perfect weather and light conditions to conform to the image in his mind’s eye. He says, “A lot of editing is done preshooting. I try to crop with the camera rather than on the computer, because you lose too much information.”
His camera stands midfloor in the gallery, a vintage-looking large-format wooden model on a tall tripod that allows for long exposure times for nighttime images or to soften and blur the edges of an object. His first camera was a Nikon, purchased “when I was a kid” at Hollis Engley’s camera store on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs. It was what he learned on, with the help of a series of Time-Life books about cameras, lenses, and film. But now his camera and his working process are all more formal and technical, and his knowledge of his subject comes from long years of work and experimentation.
I was more interested in “the artfulness” of what Jeff does. It hasn’t been written about as much, and being a painter myself, I wanted to ask him about his ideas, what captures his eye and interest. Most of his photographs are of wooden boats. “I love wooden boats. There is nothing prettier than a wooden boat, and a lot of them don’t exist anymore,” he explained. What I was looking at as we sat and talked was shapes, colors, edges all finessed, and many on a dramatically large scale. They make a statement.
To begin, Jeff uses his artist’s eye, evaluates what he comes across in his environment. He says he is most attracted by shapes. Then he spends a lot of time looking and thinking, designing in his head. Early images are shot with a digital camera just for information. “What kind of film am I going to use? What lens? What is the proper time to go out and shoot it? What weather conditions? Will the final image be in black-and-white or color?” Then he comes back to the scene and sets up his tripod and camera, using film. He shoots in both color and black-and-white, to compare the effects. “Film retains its depth. If you saw a digital image, it would look totally different,” he said. The film is processed and transferred to his computer using a fluid scanner. It becomes a file thirty to fifty times the size of a digital image.
Remember that his camera takes images that are “upside down.” The editing process begins. Maybe the image is blown up so big that the actual pixels are visible. Maybe it’s cropped and reformatted. Maybe the background is “burned out,” leaving a flat, open space that surrounds his subject. Or maybe the perfect photograph just happened.
A photograph called “Islander Lifeboat” focuses on a section of the hull’s chipped surface. All background distractions have been burned out, leaving a clean, graphic image with sharpened edges where the boat and background meet, almost like they had been drawn in. Another one is called “Flounder,” and depicts part of one boat in front of another, making an abstract composition of line and color, what I call graduated color patterns, all reflected in the rippling water below. Yet another photograph, “West Chop Dock,” shows its subject broken and partly washed away by Hurricane Sandy. All the edges are softened; water, sky, and wood melting into one another, some of the wrecked dock sharpened into wet darks and lights through the fog and water.
I liked sitting in Jeff’s gallery that interview afternoon. The walls were crisply painted deep red and black to set off the photographs. Everything caught my eye, and the conversation was certainly interesting. Art, looking at art (he does go to galleries, and to the MFA when in Boston), and talking about making art are all totally engaging subjects for any afternoon’s conversation. There is a nice old wooden desk with comfortable chairs, lots to look at, and an artist ready to tell you all about everything.
Readers can visit seaworthygallerymv.com for articles that deal with the technical aspects of Jeff’s work. Or just stop into his gallery, 34 Beach Road, Vineyard Haven, where he will be glad to talk to you and show his photographs to illustrate the discussion.