Student photo show brings Oak Bluffs history full circle

Martha’s Vineyard Museum exhibits re-creations of archival photos by MVRHS students.

Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School students from Chris Baer’s photography class have assembled an impressive exhibit at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum titled “Oak Bluffs Portraits: As Time Goes By.”

With the assistance of museum education director Ann DuCharme, the students pored through the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s archives in search of vintage Oak Bluffs images. Mr. Baer also shared postcards and photographs from his personal collection. After they made their selections, they hit the streets of Oak Bluffs to shoot modern-day versions of those old pictures, attempting to shoot them from as close as possible to the same vantage points where the originals were taken. Side-by-side comparisons of their contemporary shots with the antique images are the focal point of the show, and are subtitled “Then and Now.”

“Taking my comparison picture was actually quite hard,” student Brenda Deoliveira wrote in an email to The Times. “Trying to get the exact angle from the ‘then’ picture was difficult. In the end, I thought it came out pretty good.”

“Something on this shoot that surprised me was that so many of the buildings have changed,” student Ali Barlett wrote in a booklet, “Reflections,” that accompanies the exhibit. “There were even some that were completely different buildings. (For example: The Island House.) This was a challenge with some of the photos that we tried taking, but it also made them more interesting.”

“Personally, I find that most areas are either completely recognizable or utterly changed,” Mr. Baer said in an email to The Times. “It’s feast or famine. It’s also a reminder of how grand Oak Bluffs once was, with its gigantic and ornate buildings and hotels — almost all gone now.”

In the midst of their comparison work, Mr. Baer’s students also embarked on a photographic side project. Inspired by Neil Selkirk’s book 1000 on 42nd Street, and after a bit of tutelage from Times photo editor Michael Cummo, they roved downtown Oak Bluffs hunting for portrait subjects. They had 37 successes, the result of which is a portion of the exhibit subtitled “Strangers.”

“The students spent a couple of hours on a cold December morning recruiting any pedestrians they could convince to pose,” Mr. Baer said. “They set up a makeshift studio on the porch outside of Eastaway [Clothing] on Circuit Avenue, and asked them a few questions. They later invited them to the show, and a number showed up to see their portrait.”

“The high schoolers, who have never had experience approaching strangers and asking to take their photographs, did extraordinarily well. It is one of the most daunting aspects of photography, and after approaching several people, the students had it handled. They acted like professionals, and it shows in their work displayed at the museum,” said Mr. Cummo.

A third feature of the exhibit, subtitled “Old School,” is an oral history with accompanying photographs and memorabilia, including heirloom scallop knives, collected and presented by Kylie Hathaway. The shellfishing heritage of Ms. Hathaway’s family runs deep on the Island. To share it, she interviewed her uncle, Peter Hathaway.

“I chose audio to convey the history for my piece, because I felt like the Hathaway history would be more powerful and vivid [that way],” Ms. Hathaway wrote in an email to The Times.

“I was surprised at how much my uncle knew that hardly anyone else in my family knew,” she wrote in “Reflections.”

The students not only provided the subject matter for the exhibit, they volunteered as its curators. Practically the entire exhibit is the result of their handiwork.

“At the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, education is a fundamental part of our mission to engage and connect the public to the Island’s history, art, and culture,” Ms. DuCharme wrote in an email to The Times. “In the lower grades, like K-8 for example, we develop specific curriculum alongside teachers that meets Common Core standards as well as their classroom goals. With high school, it’s a totally different story; they have enormous demands on their time, with more opportunities to dig deeper. We try to be more reactive to that dynamic and act as a resource for student-driven inquiry. Curating their own museum exhibit is a perfect — and highly creative — way for kids to connect with Island history, art, and culture.”

The students didn’t even let a historic blizzard keep them from preparing for their opening last Friday. It was an added challenge, but they embraced the new experience.

“Learning how to dry-mount on foam core in a snowstorm was new to all of us,” said Mr. Baer.

As much as it has been a learning experience for Mr. Baer’s class, his students hope it will also be a learning experience for those attending the exhibit.

“I hope that when people come to our exhibit, they learn at least one thing about Oak Bluffs that they didn’t know before, and I hope that people recognize some of the 37 strangers,” student Amanda Bernard wrote in “Reflections.”

“What I hope that people take away from this exhibit is how the community and the students connected,” Brenda Deoliveira wrote in “Reflections.”

“Oak Bluffs Portraits: As Time Goes By” runs through March 3 at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.