I arrived at the Chilmark library last Saturday to find the reception for Dena Porter’s first solo show packed with her friends and family. The exhibit was hung with the sense of a heart beating, or taking in a fresh breath of air, as the framed works grew in size from clusters of 8 ½ x 11 ¼ framed prints to the largest 20 ½ x 29 ½. Adorning a table was an exquisite array of flower arrangements; there were a couple of bins full of matted prints in assorted sizes being manned by friends. And then there was a table lovingly laden with homemade sweets to savory treats and apple cider, all provided by friends.
I came out of curiosity, not knowing the photographer, a Chilmark resident and New Yorker, and I had to ask Judi Worthington to point her out. Ms. Porter was busy posing with friends and loved ones while cell phones clicked away, so I introduced myself. Her 89-year-old dad shared his parmesan and cilantro scone with me. I loved being at an event where almost every face in the room was a new one for me. Ms. Porter, who retired from working as a sociologist and administrator in academia, took up photography only six years ago. When she first began, she was still working and would shoot on her coffee break and lunch hour, finding herself wanting to take photographs as much as possible.
I was curious how she had ended up on the Vineyard 20 years ago.
“My husband used to fly onto the Vineyard for work and he never really got time to experience the Island. We were trying to figure out what we wanted to do one summer and I said, ‘Why don’t we rent on the Vineyard?’ So we rented a shack on Beach Road. It was full of crickets. We bicycled the whole Island that weekend,” Ms. Porter said.
Dena Porter looked at the cost of summer rentals and realized that it was equivalent to a down payment, so they saved enough in a couple of years to put a down payment on a property in Chilmark, where they became neighbors with Jules and Judi Worthington.
I wanted to learn how photography came into Ms. Porter’s life and she explained she was asked to step in at the last moment to be the photographer at a friend’s wedding. She was handed a Nikon by the photographer, who’d stepped in to be a groomsman. Before that moment she’d never used anything besides a point-and-shoot camera. The bride and groom added 23 of her photos to their wedding album, but Dena knew she was not interested in becoming a wedding photographer.
She sought out Island photographer Alison Shaw because she “feels a kindred spirit with her” and generationally they’re the same. She told Ms. Shaw, “I didn’t go to school for this, but I love it and get lost in it.” Ms. Shaw told her, “Don’t be afraid about credentials, be passionate about what you do.” Ms. Porter showed the Island photographer one body of her work at Maine Media College and said, “she fell in love with it.” Ms. Shaw’s gallery was the first she went to on the Island, Ms. Porter added, and she was drawn to Ms. Shaw’s “hyper-colorized” imagery, saying “I love her newest work now, getting to see the evolution. She doesn’t know how much of a mentor she is.”
Ms. Porter said she’s thankful her husband bought her a camera and lenses so she could begin her exploration into this new world. She shoots daily and loves exploring light, reflection, texture, and the wonder of nature. While I was talking to her, a friend was pondering aloud how a particular image was created. Her friend said she had a sensation of being underwater from the photograph, or perhaps she had shot from a window. Ms. Porter kept us guessing for a few minutes before she explained.
“I’m standing in a building in Battery Park City (NYC); down and across that promenade is the Goldman Sachs Building. There’s an overhang sheet of glass that you’re looking at between my building and Goldman Sachs. So I’m shooting out a window of a building through the glass, which is showing you a reverse reflection of what’s happening underneath the glass. The reason it’s dark is there is a building across from us. The glass is really thick and bolted to the building. It’s late afternoon and the sun was going down, it was an overcast day. I’ve gone there many times when the hues are yellow or golden and this was an overcast gray day.”
Her artist statement says she “has lived near the water for all her life, and is fascinated by the many forms that water can take: liquid, solid and vapor.” In the presence of light and color, she finds water to be dynamic and mesmerizing. The beauty of water and patterns of its movement are captured in her first solo exhibition at the Chilmark Public Library. She presents common yet unfamiliar views of water that we often overlook in our busy lives. This exhibition is part of an ongoing body of work on water. “Since studying water in its many forms, I’ve become more aware of how essential water is to our lives and the environment,” the photographer noted.
Inspired by her father’s love of film photography, Ms. Porter has studied landscape and macro photography at Maine Media Workshops (with Alison Shaw), the Smithsonian Institution, and the Cape Cod Arts Association. Her work has been exhibited in Asheville, N.C., and she has completed commissioned works for patrons along the East Coast. Her “Menemsha Harbor Fog” photo was selected for a juried, Island photographers show at the West Tisbury Free Public Library in 2016.
If you missed the reception you have two more chances to meet Dena Porter: a second reception will be held on Saturday, Oct. 21, from 2:30 to 4:30 pm at the Chilmark library, or you can catch her on the morning she takes her work down on Friday, Oct. 27. See more of her work on Instagram and Facebook as @denaporter.