Photographer Gwen Norton captures wide-open spaces


Gwen Norton has done a lot of traveling in her life. Recently she decided to turn her globetrotting experiences to a more focused purpose. She’s taken a number of trips with photography groups in the past few years, and the output of a few of these working vacations is now on display at the Feldman Family Art Space at the M.V. Film Center through Oct. 14.

The exhibition features spectacular sweeping landscapes — primarily from two very different locales, Antarctica and the Palouse, a region of the Northwestern U.S. known for its fertile soil and verdant rolling hillocks.

Norton has done seven travel workshops so far, visiting locations in Europe (Scotland’s Outer Hebrides), Central America (San Miguel de Allende, Mexico), South America (Patagonia), Antarctica, and points around the U.S. Each location is known for unique terrain and natural beauty. “Landscapes give me time to stop and think and prepare,” says Norton. “I like capturing the expanse and the bigger vistas.”

This preference is clearly in evidence in the selection on display at the Film Center. The juxtaposition of the stark Antarctica shots and the lush prairie of the Palouse is striking. The contrast represents more than just the colors. For the Antarctica images, Norton seems to have been attracted to the power, beauty, and variety of snow and ice formations. Rippled white hills, jagged boulders, reflections in icy waters — all in shades of blue, gray and white, represent the stark, forbidding world of the southernmost continent.

Norton recalls the Antarctica trip as the most adventurous of her many photo outings. “We were on a small research vessel that now takes passengers. It was definitely not a cruise ship. The crossing was awful. It really tested me. It was cold and really hard to trek through the snow. It was my most memorable trip.”

In sharp contrast to the Antarctica shots are those of the Palouse, an area that encompasses parts of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. The area is a major producer of wheat and legumes. Norton visited in the summer, and was able to capture the lush green landscape unique for its dunelike topography. Imagine a vast desert suddenly springing to verdant life and you get an idea of the unusual look of this area, a favorite for photographers. Norton shot the Palouse landscapes at varying times of day, showing the different faces of this fairytale landscape. “I had no idea how amazing the area is for a farmland,” says Norton. “I was surprised.”

A handful of photos in the exhibit were taken in yet another distinctive locale — Patagonia, where Norton and her group stayed on a ranch. Although the burgeoning photographer prefers landscapes over portraits, she found a wonderful subject in two ranch hands. “There were a lot of people wanting to pose them,” she says. “I wasn’t drawn to posed pictures. She [one of the hands] was an amazing horsewoman. I liked the candid shots of her. Not a Ralph Lauren ad sort of photo.”

For one shot, Norton shows just the woman’s hands on a bridle. In another, just her dusty boots are seen.

Norton, a retired banker, was born and raised in the Caribbean. She lived in Atlanta and Philadelphia before meeting her husband, Peter Norton, in 2004. The couple now splits their time between New York City and their home in Oak Bluffs.

Although she had always dabbled in photography, it was only about eight or nine years ago that she bought herself a professional camera and got serious about the craft. Norton has taken a number of workshops, as well as one-on-one classes with local photographer Alison Shaw. “Alison is an amazing teacher, in that she’s very demanding but she meets you where you are,” says Norton. “I was in her mentorship and advanced mentorship for years. That’s when I just found the joy of taking photographs.”

Norton says that she caught the travel bug from her husband. The two travel frequently, but she says that traveling for pleasure is not so conducive to serious photography. “When you’re on a pleasure trip, there’s nothing more annoying than having someone with you who’s shooting all the time,” she says. “It’s really hard to do.”

Now with a number of photo adventures to her credit, Norton felt that the time was right for an exhibit. “I feel like I have a whole body of work,” she says. Her photos have been included in a few group shows, both here and in New York City, but this is Norton’s first solo show. It’s definitely worth a trip to the Film Center, whether you’re planning to catch a movie or not.