Makonikey I. Photo courtesy of Cousen Rose Gallery
"Makonikey I" is printed on fiber-based archival paper, which allows photographer John Breckenridge to produce large-scale work without compromising print quality. Photo courtesy of Cousen Rose Gallery

Bigger and better in black and white

By Amy Simcik Williams - July 20, 2006

This Saturday, photographer and Island resident John Breckenridge will show his newest and biggest work at Cousen Rose Gallery in Oak Bluffs. His collection, comprising up to 16 images, gives viewers glimpses of Island scenery undisturbed by habitation, uncluttered in black and white. Many of the images have been printed on fiber-based paper, a heavy gauge, slightly-textured archival paper that allows his photographs to be greatly enlarged without compromising richness and resolution.

The large-sized works (20" x 24") have notable presence but remain unobtrusive on the wall. In these compositions the simplest forms such as boulders, sand formations, and even fences become centerpieces, harmoniously co-existing with subtler elements that give context and perspective to each piece. One example is "Makonikey I", a rendering that the iconic Ansel Adams might have made had he been photographing the rugged West Tisbury beach. A series of rocks anchored offshore act as stepping stones that lead the viewer out to sea. All are in shadow, but the largest rock overlaps the horizon and helps offset the lighter values in a sparkling sea and a bright, windswept sky.

In other works where a busy harbor or row of houses might threaten to diminish a subject on which Breckenridge wishes to focus, the photographer employs elements of nature, not PhotoShop to do his bidding. In "Ocean Park," a morning mist obscures a line of houses along the park's border, allowing the gazebo to stand alone in a vast space.

"Black and white forces you to narrow your focus," says Mr. Breckenridge, whose work reflects the essence of place. "The minute you start expanding, which you can get away with in color but not black and white, the photograph loses its objective."

Mr. Breckenridge says he prefers black and white photography because he doesn't "see pictures in color, but in shades and reflection."

Nevertheless, he hasn't always wielded a camera with confidence. When he starting taking pictures of Martha's Vineyard, he didn't expect that his work would one day be displayed on gallery walls. His foray into photography began in the 1980s when he summered in Oak Bluffs, the town where he now resides full-time with his wife, Barbara. At that time he was in the food business and worked off-Island. He, like so many visitors, was captured by the Island's beauty, and in turn, felt compelled to capture it artistically. He also admired the work of other Island photographers, particularly Alison Shaw, whose photographs appeared in the Vineyard Gazette.

It was 12 years ago that Mr. Breckenridge brought his small but growing portfolio to Zita Cousens of Cousen Rose Gallery. She decided to display a few pieces and his work caught on.

Although John Breckenridge advances his art with the newest print technology to preserve his images, he continues to use film to produce the silver gelatin prints that compose his signature photographic work. "The Island provides wonderful subject matter," says Breckenridge. And like his photographs, permanence that time can't change.

Artist's reception, Saturday, July 22, from 7 to 9 pm. The show will be featured through July 28 at Cousen Rose Gallery, 71 Circuit Avenue, Oak Bluffs. For more information, call 508-693-6656.