Camera quartet captures natural wonders

Benjamin McCormick
Benjamin McCormick captures the drama of an undersea feeding frenzy in his photograph "Return of the Weakfish." Photos courtesy of Old Sculpin Gallery

By Pat Waring - July 26, 2007

Resplendent and airy thanks to a face-lift by the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust, the Old Sculpin Gallery in Edgartown is showcasing diverse work by four well-known Vineyard photographers through August 3. White panels now cover the dark wood of the historic harborfront building and up-to-date ceiling lights illumine the artwork, making the formerly dim gallery feel bright and spacious. An ingenious hanging system allows pieces to be attached to movable wires, making it more efficient to arrange the work and eliminating the need for nails or hooks in the walls.

"It's been a very great symbiotic relationship," said gallery manager Melissa Breese of the arrangement with the preservation trust. The organization owns and maintains the building while the Martha's Vineyard Art Association continues to operate the gallery there.

Striking as each photographer's group of images is, it is also impressive simply to experience the wide diversity of material and style among the quartet. For all its two-dimensionality, there is something very alive about photography. And so the gallery seems particularly vibrant with all the color and movement as the four artists show the fruits of their explorations of nature and the world. Just like we do, they find scenes that catch their fancy - a dock in the mist, a seabird on spindly legs, a sweep of ocean, a boat - and they capture them. Just like us, they lift their cameras, they point, and shoot. But then the magic comes in. For while most of us come away with a reasonable representation of the scene, enough to make us smile and recall it a few months hence, these camera virtuosi come away with art that moves, inspires, amuses, and intrigues.

Nancy Noble Gardner
Like many of Nancy Noble Gardner's flower photos, "Pond Lily" is serene and graceful.

Benjamin McCormick goes down to the sea with his camera, capturing images of sea life so crisp and immediate we can feel the ocean breezes. Most dramatic are his undersea and waterside shots - fish churning up the water in a feeding frenzy, an ominously huge fish about to gulp down a tiny one as his baitfish schoolmates high-tail it away, another straining for a lure in a roiling, light-sparked sea. One fish is up close and very personal, eyeball to eyeball with the viewer, and in another we gaze at the beautiful jewel-like eye of a squid, straight into its cephalopodan soul.

A number of smaller pictures of coastal creatures and scenes are crisp and bright. A thoughtful gull stalks a marsh, rocks shine on a beach at twilight. Mr. McCormick has a knack for finding interesting compositions in everyday subjects - a row of fish hooks hanging on a red rail, an upturned hull mottled with peeling paint, thread-fine frost etching a design on glass, the pastel scalloped pattern of herring scales.

The room where Nancy Noble Gardner's photographs hang fairly shimmers with the soft, pastel light of her images. There is magical luminosity about her work, each flower or shell or statue captured in stillness, molded ever so gently and carefully with soft shadow, details accented with brilliant light. She photographs shells, one or two at a time, with a soft and loving touch, creating portraits imbued with more character than one could ever dream a shell could have. They become like thoughtful little Buddhas, wrapping around themselves, embodying the wisdom of time. A pink shell floats on glassy blue-gray water, edged in light. A pure white quahog shell floats in a milky way of stars spread across an inky sky - or is it the ocean in deep of night? Two white shells snuggle cozily together on a piling, earning the photo the apt title "Mother and Daughter."

Her flowers are as lush and lyrical as her shells are contemplative and simple, frilly and lissome as ballerinas, "Drifting" shows elegant lilies, supple petals curved, each detail clearly defined, bathed in a garden-green light and so clear you can smell their perfume. Several images were taken in Greece, a place where the artist travels extensively and finds much inspiration. Ancient statues stand in moonlight, evoking a serene timeless quality; a slender tree is a black silhouette against a gleaming white wall.

Alison Shaw's photos for years have been so closely associated with Vineyard landscapes that it is easy to assume we know her work well. This current collection calls the viewer to look again, as Ms. Shaw, who now owns her own Oak Bluffs gallery, has taken some new directions in recent years - with captivating results.

One center wall holds four large ocean views, two rectangles and two squares. All are informed by a palpable stillness and serenity, yet all four are different too. The sea in Atlantic Ocean 2005 shows sculpted swells in deep blue water under a clear sky. The rectangular Squibnocket II 2004 offers a grand sweep of blue sea fringed with white, the sky achingly sweet tones of lavender pink and powder blue. Its companion piece, another rectangle, is a similar scene but in a cool, stormy green; a menacing dark shadow on the water is struck by a layer of glistening sunlight on the far horizon. Ms. Shaw depicts these views through a slightly softened lens, making them easily shift from real seascapes to abstract designs and back again.

Unlike her many landscapes and seascapes over time, Ms. Shaw has begun presenting inanimate objects in unusual ways. Front and center, a brilliant hued blue, yellow, and red buoy hangs against a paint-splattered wall. Printed on canvas, the large piece is easily taken for a painting. A worn paint tube from artist Cindy Kane's studio and a well-used mustard jar from Marjory Mason's are shown supersized. With their vibrant color splashes, so obviously the result of being used in busy studios, the objects suggest something of the artists who use them. Of course, everyone still loves the tried and true, and a photograph of the Islander gilded with a low sunshine will surely grab the hearts of many gallery visitors.

(An earlier review by Brooks Robards of Ms. Shaw's work exhibited at the Granary Gallery appeared in the July 12 Times Calendar section.)

Louisa Gould's maritime images, many of them shot in the heat of major ocean races, are known to many. Her photos here show both the dynamic excitement of competitive sailing in strong wind as well as the blessed serenity of boats at anchor, at dusk or in moonlight.

"Vineyard Farm" is a bright departure from most of her work, a gold-washed summer scene of a tractor silhouetted in a wide field, a low sun glinting off it. "The Moment" captures the exultation in Valencia, Spain, barely four weeks ago when the victorious Swiss Alinghi sailing team received the America's Cup as the sky vibrates with an exuberant burst of confetti.

Old Sculpin Gallery, 58 Dock Street, Edgartown. Hours Monday through Saturday 10 am to 9 pm, Sunday 12 noon to 8 pm. For more information, call 508-627-4881.