Boat lover’s paradise at Seaworthy Gallery

Photo by Ralph Stewart

“Orange Boat,” is the name of the giant photo Seaworthy Gallery’s proprietor Jeff Serusa currently displays on the front of the gallery building. It announces to passersby heading to and from Five Corners on the harbor side of Beach Road in Vineyard Haven that he’s open for business. It also signals that this gallery packs a lot of powerful photographic art inside a deceptively small space.

Considering that Mr. Serusa, who is self-taught, works in such large formats, it’s ironic that the building once housed the Van Riper model boat business. He tries to produce three or four new works per year, and he already knows what he’s going to shoot this fall.

In addition to “Orange Boat,” other equally imposing and beautiful images of boats, lighthouses and marine scenes — such as a West Chop dock after Sandy blew through at 50 mph — line the inside walls of Seaworthy, now in its sixth year of operation. Each has a story behind it, reflecting the skill and remarkable eye of this photo artist.

With its dramatically long light beam cutting through the sky over the cliffs, “Gay Head Lighthouse at Night” hangs over the inside front wall in a 74-inch by 20-inch black-and-white rendition. He has also reproduced it in 10-foot versions and two other sizes. It took the photographer three months to figure how to do it, and he waited for a full moon to light up the section of the cliffs shown beneath the lighthouse.

“You’re layering light on light,” Mr. Serusa explained. After timing the 14-and-a-half-second rotation of the lighthouse’s beam with a digital stopwatch, he kept his camera shutter open one-and-a-quarter seconds eight different times to create the multiple exposure.

“I wait for weather or a moonrise,” he said. The right conditions for “Islander at Moonrise” came about after three years. His 2011 “Autumn Light” depicts a boat that won first prize at the Newport Boat Show, and its owner asked Mr. Serusa to photograph it. The photographer agreed on condition that the sailboat remain in the water in front of Mr. Serusa’s house for a month. The moment for the photo arrived three weeks later and 15 minutes before sunset, producing a striking image of the boat floating in dazzling blue water.

It’s no wonder Mr. Serusa concentrates on boats and marine subjects. He grew up on Island, and after working on water development projects in North and West Africa, he returned to the Vineyard in 1984. “I missed the foghorns,” he recalled. He does not own a sailboat, however. “I’m not a very good sailor,” he said. “I never got seasick shooting a sailboat…I love the hulls. Each one has a different shape. They’re as pretty out of the water as they are in it.”

New this year is “Violet,” the portrait of a boat he calls the queen of the fleet. The hull of this majestic wooden boat is suspended against a black background, as are many of his boat portraits.

“There are more wooden boats in Vineyard Haven than any other harbor in the country,” he said. Violet was sold and no longer is moored on Island, but many of the other boats he’s photographed still sail out of Vineyard waters. “If I shoot your boat, I always give you a copy.”

This year he sold the well drilling business he started and operated on Island. While photography was important enough to him that he traveled abroad with a darkroom, he didn’t pick it up again until 2004. After exhibiting at galleries in Newport and Annapolis, he chose to concentrate on selling his photos in his own gallery. Once the numbered editions of his photographs sell out, they are retired.

Mr. Serusa works with a large format wooden camera that uses 8-inch by 10-inch film. He shoots each of his images in both color and in black and white, working at a very slow speed (25 or 50 ISO) to achieve a high level of saturation, and sends the exposed images to Boston for processing.

“After the film is developed, I run both pieces into the computer and decide from there,” he said. Next he enlarges and transfers the image onto canvas or watercolor paper made in Germany. The advantage to putting photos on canvas is that it’s easier to ship and it doesn’t reflect light the way images under glass do. He uses Fuji slide film for his color work and llford for the black and white images. Interestingly enough, this photographer is colorblind. To achieve the effects he wants requires considerable technological expertise and equipment, as well as artistic vision, and his business, Nobska Art, does all the printing, mounting, and framing of his work. It also prints for 60 other artists.

New to the gallery this year is “Islander Lifeboat.” Mr. Serusa found this boat in the woods, although he won’t reveal where. He has rendered it in detail even he calls amazing, since his camera was 15 feet away at the time.

“You can’t get this [detail] from digital,” the photographer said. He explained that a digital image reproduces in 80 to 100 megabytes, while his camera reproduces them at three and half to five gigabytes. The faded reds and peeling white of the hull produce a rich effect.

“Seventy-five percent of the people who walk in have never been in here before,” Mr. Serusa said. And business, much of it word of mouth, is booming this year.

Seaworthy Gallery, Vineyard Haven. Open daily from 10 am to 5 pm through Columbus Day. For more information, visit