Gay Head lighthouse
The ordinary becomes extraordinary in Dick Sherman's aerial photograph of the Gay Head lighthouse. Photos courtesy of the artist.

Bird's-eye views

By Brooks Robards - October 18, 2007

East Chop seasonal resident Dick Sherman has been flying since the age of 19. Nearly four years ago, he bought a digital camera and began taking aerial photographs of the Vineyard and other locations. The results, "Under the Sea, On the Sea and By the Sea," were on display last week at Featherstone Center for the Arts.

Sherman describes himself as a self-taught photographer. "I just point and shoot," he says, and his Nikon digital is the first camera he has owned. Both his father and grandfather were accomplished amateur photographers, however, and his grandfather's glass-plate photographs have been exhibited at Rhode Island School of Design.

While Sherman may not be highly trained in photographic technology, his photos demonstrate how he has developed an eye for composition and color. The 32 giclée images in the exhibit were handsomely reproduced on canvas that wrapped around the stretchers, repeating one inch of the image for a three-dimensional effect. The texture of the canvas often makes them look more like detailed paintings than photographs.

Dick Sherman
Photographer and pilot: Dick Sherman's single-engine plane with its bubble canopy is well suited for taking aerial photographs.

In addition to aerial shots of Island towns, the exhibit included many abstract compositions of water, currents, and shifting sand that he describes as "Under Water," even though they were shot from the air.

"I'm really photographing the bottom of the sea in very shallow water," he says of his abstract shots.

Although the images are shot from 800 to 1,000 feet, Sherman uses zooming and cropping, along with brightness and contrast adjustments, to create the final effect, with help from Photoshop 7. The vivid colors are not adjusted otherwise.

While his abstract "Under Water" works play with form, they sometimes seem to take on familiar shapes. "Sand Gulls, Wasque Point" is filled with blues, greens and ripples that approximate birds, and "Fan, Norton Point, Katama," employs royal blue, green, black and a pale salmon to create its composition. In "Crane Key, West of Florida Keys," the photographer has created a speckled pattern, with a portion of the canvas looking like a rust-colored industrial complex next to green shoals and a coastline. "Spanish Channel, West of Florida Keys" captures a turquoise blue current that looks like an underwater highway.

Several more representational works include "The Schooner Shadow," where black sails are juxtaposed against a speckled green, black, red and blue background that could pass for a tree canopy. This image was manipulated through Photoshop from another photo that appeared in the exhibit, "Three-Masted Schooner, South of Gay Head." The boat in this picture cuts through gleaming water like a pair of scissors. While the texture of the canvas slightly blurs the image, the crispness of the light balances it. "Beam Me Up, Scotty, Mid Point Woods Hole to Martha's Vineyard" catches the Islander as it makes it way through the water under a red sunburst.

One of the most dramatic photographs, "Marsh, Caleb Pond, Chappaquiddick," creates a startling pattern of deep indigo water and lime-green marshland dissected by drainage canals. The flattening effect of the overhead angle makes the marshland look as thin as pie crust.

A series of aerial shots of towns and sections of the Vineyard have a more traditional look, but they also show off Sherman's ability to create new perspectives on familiar places. "East Chop Drive, Oak Bluffs" pairs the muddy pond water of Crystal Lake with Vineyard Haven's bluer harbor water, edged in sand and dock scallops. The photographer's "Gay Head Light, Aquinnah" diffuses its surfaces like an intricate painting.

One of the photographs not of the Vineyard, "Wild Horse, Cumberland Island, Georgia," shows the animal standing like a brown spectral figure in the midst of a wide stretch of beach with surf-edged water fingering its way in. Two arresting abstract shots include "Nantucket, Under Water," with its turquoise patterns of currents and sand, and "Sand Wave, Wasque Point Shoal" with a wonderful blue-green series of ripples moving across the canvas in a wedge.

Brilliant blues and greens provide the hallmark of most of Sherman's richly saturated aerial photographs. One that stands out as different is "Norton Point, Katama Bay," where a more subdued mix of green and yellow achieves an unusually earthy effect.

A Connecticut-based vice president of marketing and sales for an international paint company, Sherman flew extensively for business in his 1948 Navion L-17 before retiring in 1995. His single-engine plane with a bubble canopy was used as a spotter during the Korean War, and because of the canopy, it has adapted well to aerial photography. Sherman slides the canopy back to shoot with his tripod-mounted camera, operating the shutter by remote control.

"It's a very stable airplane," he says. He rocks the wing up or down and uses the rudder to achieve the angle he wants. He also explains that you can tell the depth of the water by its color: tan is shallow, and blue or green is the deepest.

The power of these aerial photographs comes from their unusual perspective, intense colors and, in the case of the "Under Water" shots, the dizzying abstract patterns created. The photographs can be viewed on Sherman's web site,