When photographer Alison Mead first moved to the Vineyard nine years ago, she felt somewhat uninspired artistically by the landscape. “I felt slightly disoriented as a photographer,” she says. “For years, I had been shooting landscapes that looked nothing like what I was surrounded by here.” While living in her home state of Connecticut, Mead had focused her lens on abandoned buildings, graffiti, junkyards, and other signposts of decay. The natural beauty of the Vineyard did not at first resonate.
However, a job photographing and writing for the Vineyard Gazette introduced her to a new appreciation for facets of Vineyard life. She started shooting old fishing boats and moved on to farm animals — subjects that have come to fascinate her. Now, for the first time, she is showing a selection of her Island images in a solo show at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center.
The 13 photos on display are pretty equally divided between farm and fishing scenes, in both cases honoring the Vineyard’s tradition as an agrarian and fishing community.
Representing the latter are close-up shots of two former fishing boats — the Unicorn and the Quitsa Strider. These images highlight the wear and tear the vessels reveal during decades of service. “Similarly to how I was fascinated by the destructive landscapes at home, I was drawn to the old fishing boats here,” she says. “In my attraction to the boats that have now been sent off to be used as scrap metal, I’m drawn to the history and also the sort of grittiness to them. I feel like they had a sort of character.”
Animals also speak on a deeper level to Mead. Sheep and lambs dominate the farmyard scenes in the exhibit. “When photographing animals, it’s important to let them lead, to give them space and make them comfortable,” the photographer writes in her artist’s statement. “I often don’t even raise my camera until I see that trust in their eyes. I always move to their eye level, speak softly, and slowly start to shoot. I want to capture their spirit and beauty as it would be if I wasn’t there.”
One of the most compelling of the animal images is a shot of cows in the field at the Farm Institute. Two females stand calmly by while a border collie is poised — keeping watch — atop the flank of a resting bull. The photo, titled, “That’ll do, Pigeon” won the blue ribbon for Best Vineyard Subject at the Ag Fair a few years ago.
After earning an undergraduate degree in sociology in 1995, Mead did quite a bit of traveling in the U.S. She made four trips across the country and lived variously in New Hampshire, London, Seattle, Idaho, and Wyoming. It was while she was out West that Mead developed a passion for photography, taking some courses at a local art association in Wyoming. Upon her return to Connecticut, Mead completed a degree in communications and worked for a while in television journalism. “During that time I wasn’t doing any photography at all, just producing,” she says. “Then I started working at UConn, and I signed up for photography courses. One of them, landscape photography/cultural geography, really got me back into photography.”
Mead began looking around her community — an area of old mills, some of which have remained in disuse, and was inspired by the decay and the sense of history. Since moving to the Vineyard, she has discovered new subjects for her work, but she has retained a love of what she refers to in her artist’s statement as “neglected beauty” — railroad tracks, junkyards, decaying structures.
Luckily, the photographer recently had the opportunity to visit a site on the Vineyard which appealed to her passion for the distressed and abandoned. She was given access to the old Marine Hospital before any renovation work had begun, and was able to spend a couple of hours exploring the massive institution.
“I was in there by myself for about an hour or two,” recalls Mead. “I spent time just roaming and taking pictures, with the wind rattling the windows. I was so excited. That’s exactly what I really love to shoot. I haven’t done anything with those images yet. They’re so beautiful and just amazing.”
There will be an artist’s reception at the Film Center on Friday, April 13, from 6:15 to 7:15 pm.