What floats her boat

In her new book, photographer Edwina Rissland brings Chappy to everyone.

The book is full of Chappy scenes accompanied by poetry and music lyrics. — Edwina Rissland

Edwina Rissland, a retired computer science professor at UMass Amherst, spends summers, and as much of the rest of the year as she can, in a house filled with windows and skylights in the woods on Chappaquiddick. Three mornings a week in the summertime, she rows across Poucha Pond in her single scull, catching the sunrise and settling in with her hot coffee in a thermos once she lands.

What she sees on her morning ritual inspired her to chronicle a year on Chappy in pictures, the recently published “Morning Shore: A Turn of the Year on Chappaquiddick.”

Ms. Rissland’s love of Chappy almost has a life of its own. She first came to the little island off Edgartown in 1979, and after renting many summers, built her current house in 1991.

“I was about to begin as assistant professor of computer science at UMass Amherst,” she remembered. “Classes started the day after Labor Day, and I walked in on that Tuesday prepared to do my first class, and signs were posted all over that the campus was closed due to low water pressure. I had planned to come down here to visit my friend Cory Dean, whom I’ve known since college. I called her up early, and told her there were no classes all week. She picked me up, and we went out to a rental near Wasque. We walked over the flats and Wasque was like the Cape before it was overrun, and I was smitten. It took my breath away.”

Ms. Rissland’s love of the New England coast goes back to her childhood, when her parents used to bring her to Provincetown every summer. She was an only child; her father was a painter and her mother, a decorator.

“They started taking me when I was a toddler,” she said. “I fell in love with the place when I was a little kid … I was in first or second grade when I started packing my suitcase in February. Eventually, we got so that the day after school closed, we’d drive up, and the day before it opened, we’d drive back. Father would paint, and Mother would read.”

Two of her father’s paintings hang on either side of her fireplace in the Chappy house. They’re both of boats in a boatyard, and convey a sense of the abstract, even though they would not be considered abstract paintings. His brushstrokes have a looseness to them.

While Ms. Rissland’s book is full of beautiful scenes on Chappy, like sunrises, sunsets, and marsh views, her abstract photo compositions of boats at the Gannon and Benjamin Boatyard in Vineyard Haven look like painted seascapes until you realize they’re actually a close shot of peeling paint or a fresh coat of varnish with a blue painter’s-tape sky. She still uses film, and doesn’t shoot a photo until she’s sure of what she wants to capture.

“Scraped hulls are phenomenally interesting, with their layers and layers of paint,” Ms. Rissland said. “I don’t care if you know exactly what it is; I’m interested in making a composition, and if it looks like a painting, so much the better.”

She said there’s a lot going on in a boatyard, but if you focus on one thing, you make a composition: “The first thing that catches my eye is color, and as you go closer you get drawn in.”

The view from the Dike Bridge is bathed in wonderful light. — Edwina Rissland

Ms. Rissland’s love of mathematics and reasoning are woven through her life, from her extensive work on artificial intelligence (AI) — she is considered a world leader in the areas of case-based reasoning (CBR) and AI and law — to her doctorate in mathematics from MIT. She lectured for many years at Harvard Law School on how people reason, with concrete cases and examples. “The process of using examples in reasoning is not unique to mathematics,” she said.

Her work as an academic computer scientist meant a lot of travel for conferences, and plenty of opportunities to focus her lens on another of her favorite subjects — markets.

“I’d try to save a day at the end to take pictures,” Ms. Rissland said. “I’ve been to Japan and took pictures at fish markets, to Barcelona, taking pictures of the food market. In Seattle, pictures of Pike Place Market. There’s a lot of hustle and bustle at markets. I love to take pictures of the market, and I love to take pictures of boats, any kind of boat.”

“Turquoise #1” 35mm film print. — Edwina Rissland

It’s her unabashed love of Chappy and nature that consumes her summers, though.

She was able to produce “Morning Shore” under the guidance of Jan Pogue, publisher at the now closed Vineyard Stories.

“Jan helped me edit, and I appreciated her guidance,” Ms. Rissland said. “I slept, ate, and breathed this book. You have to get images in correct order, rescan things, and basically madly scurry around so that you can put it to bed.”

At the end of last April, 45 boxes of books were delivered to her home in Belmont. They were sold this summer at the Chappy Community Center and at a couple of other venues, and are available now at Bunch of Grapes on Main Street in Vineyard Haven.

“Wave 3” 35mm film print. — Edwina Rissland

“You can feel how much they love books at Bunch of Grapes. I buy way too many books; there ought to be an organization for people who buy too many books,” she laughed.

Her goal with “Morning Shore” was to share her love of Chappy: “The elemental things — sky, water, marshes, beaches — they vary as you go through the seasons, and I just wanted to give people a little taste of this.” She said when she lands her scull on the little beaches around Chappy, she feels like she’s an explorer.

“You can land and make believe you’re the first person to ever be there. When I land at Poucha Pond, I feel like I’m an explorer. There are no footprints in the early morning, and the marshes are just shimmering.” There are other things that make Chappy so special, Ms. Rissland said, like the night sky.

“You can go to the Dike Bridge at night, and there’s no light pollution,” she said. “When you look up, you feel like you could touch the stars; it feels like you’re in a dark dome. This is my haunt, but no matter where you’re situated on Chappy, you think it’s the best place.”