Learning from a master

Photographer Alison Shaw’s advanced students have an exhibit of their own.


If the Vineyard declared a photo laureate, it would certainly be Alison Shaw. The awardwinning photographer has been capturing the Island’s beauty and personality with her unique vision for four decades. She has shown her work in numerous galleries, provided the photography for 19 beautiful books, and has, for the past 12 years, co-owned (with her partner Sue Dawson) her own gallery on Dukes County Avenue in Oak Bluffs.

But, perhaps just as important as the honors and accomplishments that she has accrued for her own work, Ms. Shaw has been sharing her knowledge, skills, and secrets with other burgeoning artists since 1988. Along with Dawson, she offers educational opportunities that range from a five-hour intensive class to six-month mentorships.

This month, the gallery features the fruits of Shaw and Dawson’s most recent advanced mentorship program students — photos by four women who recently completed the six-month program.

“This group has gelled just beautifully,” says Shaw. “They’re very connected even though each has their own unique style. I’m really proud of them. Their work is incredibly unique and personal to each of them.”

Jacqueline Abodeely of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., has roots to the Vineyard going back five generations, and she grew up spending every summer at her family’s East Chop home. For her, as an insider, the Island represents a mystical place that has resulted in her series of unexpected images of familiar Vineyard scenes. Each of her photos embraces a sense of mystery, whether it’s a deserted Ocean Park scene on a foggy day or a shot of Lucy Vincent Beach in the winter, where the twisted, barren shrubbery lining the path and an ominous sky gives the scene almost a sense of foreboding.

Abodeely writes in her artist statement, “As my childhood visions connected me with my spiritual familial past, my photographs offer you this dreamlike parallel existence, a secret that’s in our everyday world.”

Beth Horstman, who lives with her family on an organic farm in Maryland, also defines her surroundings with her own personal vision. Her landscapes tend to be stark, drawing the viewer to one emotional focal point — be it a lone cow in a field, a small stand of windswept trees or a bridge disappearing into the fog.

In her artist’s statement Horstman writes, “For me, visual clutter represents the clamor that invades everyday life. So my aim is to keep my compositions simple. I concentrate my efforts on isolating subjects using fog, perspective, and framing, to keep out distractions that clutter the image.”

Andrea Dawson of Ohio celebrates nature in a micro way, by focusing her lens on the simple elegance of a single leaf holding fast to a wintry branch, or an evergreen tree steadfastly weathering a swirling winter squall. With her minimalist style and focus on mixing texture, color, and form, the photographer shows a designer’s eye with a leaning toward an almost Asian aesthetic.

Using terminology borrowed from her work with a microscope as a pathologist, Dawson writes, “It’s all about pattern, and the play of light and shadow. I view my backyard photos as the ‘low-power’ perspective, highlighting the expanse of colors and textures in the big picture of my world.”

The most individual of all of the four artists represented in the show is Edgartown’s Lucy Dahl, who has created a striking series of images, all featuring a 1920s black evening gown. For over a year, Dahl carried the antique dress with her throughout her world travels, and arranged shots of herself wearing the dress in a variety of locations. From a waterfall to a pig stall, Dahl used the prop to set up a narrative in each location. The black-and-white images are very dramatic, and include interesting titles that help define the scene.

“I didn’t want it to be about me,” said Ms. Dahl in a phone interview. “I wanted to tell the journey of the dress and use the landscape for the emotion. This is a mini launch of the project. I have 5,000 images. There’s a story to be told. I want to take this as far as possible. It’s really intended to help women as we go through transformation and change.”

All pictures are offered either framed, matted, or unmatted, with prices starting at $150. The four photographers previously completed the mentorship program before moving on the advanced program, which includes two retreats, online instruction, and phone calls. All have found the experience to be extremely helpful. Not only have they been instructed in the art and technical side of photography, the course includes an education on every skill needed to move ahead from amateur to professional.

“Nobody teaches you about printing and framing and marketing — all those details that are so vital to being an artist,” said Abodeely. “We’re trying to navigate all of these aspects. There’s nowhere else I know of where you can go and take a class this comprehensive.”

Just as important as technique is the focus on individuality. Shaw says, “With the mentorships, I get to work individually with these students over a long period of time. I help them to realize their own unique vision.”

Dahl found Shaw’s encouragement to experiment with style very helpful: “I have a bit of a strange artistic voice,” she said. “I’ve always been a little afraid to show it — afraid that I’ll get criticized. The photos that I submitted for the mentorship were very inside the lines. They said color outside the lines. Don’t worry about. Take it and run as fast as you can and far away as you can.”

With this group show, all four artists have proven that they aren’t limited in their vision by convention in subject or in style.

Alison Shaw Gallery, 88 Dukes County Ave., Oak Bluffs; 508-693-4429; alisonshaw.com.