Perhaps another title for Dan Waters’ stunning portrait photography show “Face Value” could be “The Value of a Face,” for his works not only capture the countenance of each sitter but convey their essence as well. His exhibit runs through Nov. 24 at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
Despite their larger-than-life size at 4 by 5 feet, Waters establishes an intimacy between us and his subjects by keeping the camera sharply focused on his subjects’ eyes, which glint with personality, and in looking straight at the camera, engage us in a visceral dialogue as we look back at them.
This rapport is essential because, Waters says, “Many visitors, particularly summer ones, may not know these faces. They have no way of getting beneath the surface of the community, and my work is my way of letting them take a peek behind the scenes and see who we are year-round. They’ll probably never meet a single one of these people, but they’ll feel like they did. I want them to feel a little bit closer, more connected to the community by looking at them.”
Even if you recognize any of these folks, you will see them in a new way — a deeper way. Standing in front of the photograph of Abigail McGrath, niece of Dorothy West, philanthropist and founder of the Renaissance House writers’ retreat, Waters says, “I asked them specifically not to smile because, for instance, this photograph is a serious one. In a hundred years, it may be the only photograph of Abby around, and I wanted to capture as much of her being as possible.” Clearly, his work struck a chord, as she told him after seeing the finished picture, “You captured the sadness inside me that no one has ever captured before.” Waters adds, “She’s a serious artist; it makes sense for her to look that way.”
Waters shoots with a traditional 8 x 10 inch view camera with an old-fashioned bellows. The film creates a highly detailed negative, with a richness that eludes digital photography, and produces a sensuous range from richly saturated blacks to those that are almost translucent.
He uses these gradations to great effect. Take, for instance, his portrait of Mariko Kawaguchi, a photographer in her own right and a renowned master of floral design. She sits front and center, and her iconic salt-and-pepper hair flows down over her pitch-black top, leading our eyes to the startling white orchids resting in her hands. By contrast, the indistinct background in shades of black and gray recede, pushing Kawaguchi’s image that much more forward, and emphasizing the reality of the flat picture plane. The view camera limits Waters’ depth of field, and anything other than his main focus, which is always his subject’s eyes, softens as you move farther out toward the picture’s edges.
Typically, Waters asks his subjects to wear something they feel is emblematic of themselves. And sometimes they bring meaningful items with them. He says of Carole Vandal, “It makes sense for her to be holding a drum. It’s one of the things she plays. She’s a Wampanoag. She wanted to wear some of her shells, and braided her hair. She’s also wearing an Apple watch, which to me completes the picture. She’s a modern woman straddling many, many worlds.”
Another who straddles multiple worlds is Reina del Taco, who, unlike all the other portraits, is most definitely smiling. “I tried photographing her without the smile and she just looked like an unhappy man in a dress, and I realized her smile is actually part of the outfit, the gold lamé belt, long eyelashes, luscious lips, necklace, and teardrop-patterned dress. It’s a real person. There are many layers to everybody, and it’s Reina in all her glory. She’s half Mexican, half American. During the day she’s Timothy McNerney, the UPS driver,” Waters explains. “She started doing the story time at the West Tisbury library a couple of years ago, and reads stories about diversity and the feeling of being an outsider. The children respond to that. Her story times are packed.”
A quieter portrait is the very striking one of Sean Conley standing in front of wooden door in his attire for aikido, which he has taught for more than 30 years. “It’s an intense portrait, but there is an intensity to Japanese martial arts,” Waters comments. “He’s actually a fun, relaxed guy … but not when he’s practicing aikido.”
Waters began with his first portrait in 2004 of Katherine Long and Tom Vogl, which the Martha’s Vineyard Museum used in its entryway. When the curator offered him a show, he jumped at the prospect, and received funding from the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council to help with the project. He decided to shoot all new work, some of which he took just last month. But while they’re current pieces, Waters refers to them as images for the ages, saying, “This exhibit is for now, but the photographs are for eternity.”
He is indeed dedicated to recording the “now,” and his portraits are part of a much bigger project, as he explains, “There are many things I am recording, and not just people’s faces, but also their homes and their studios and their Island. My hope is to make us think about who we are and how we’ll be thought about in the future, when people who don’t know us look at these photographs. What will they include about us from what we’re wearing and what our expressions are?”
And in the vein of keeping history ever present, Waters says, “We are hoping to swap some of these portraits out halfway through the show, and have new ones. Ones that haven’t even been taken yet. It’s that fresh. This project points out that ‘now’ is also history. And we should be recording what is happening right now, rather than seeing what survives of it and then grabbing the remnants.”
“Face Value, Vineyard Portraits from the 21st Century,” an exhibit at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, will be up until Nov. 24.