Paul Doherty’s stunning photographs are a treat for the eyes — sensuous explorations of color. Although completely abstract, they are in fact extreme close-ups of scratches, cracks, color striations, and peelings of dinghies that for him, “really show the boat’s history. What it went through.”
Whether explosive or more quiet compositions, Doherty’s photographs suggest sea or landscapes, shorelines, Japanese calligraphy, a sunburst, foggy day, birds, clouds, a spider’s web, or an entire land mass from above. Doherty is drawn to shades of blue, oranges, yellows, and reds. The scratches and cracks reveal the undercoating of color to create delicate variations of hues.
Other than sometimes pumping the color up just a tad, what we see is what Doherty got. Quite appropriately, his series came about organically. Vineyard Haven Harbor has been a source of inspiration for the evolution of his art. It all started with walking on the beach and looking down. He first became enchanted with beach stones, taking closeups and enlarging them. “I loved their different colors,” he says. “Then I did sea glass that I found when I was looking at the stones.”
In 2015 Doherty took time out on the water. “I spent a year taking nothing but reflective, abstract shots of the water,” he says. “I would go out in my kayak in the harbor early in the morning or late in the afternoon, and take images of the ripples with the colors of the boats, and then zoom in on those and blow them up.
“I had a ball doing it; you have to sort of glide into the shot because you have to go with the current. You want a little bit of ripple, but you don’t want to mess it up with the kayak. You have to time it, so you slowly go by and shoot it while you’re doing it and holding your oar.”
Then last year, Doherty was considering what to do next: “I went down to the harbor in the middle of winter with my camera.” He was actually trying to get a seagull to pose for him, but then, he explains, “I looked down and see all these striations of color on the dinghies that were sitting there. I’m walking all through them and by them and then suddenly I focused on them. And I love abstract art, so I started taking close-ups, and the more I took the more I wanted to take. I was just loving every minute of it. I was on my hands and knees. People were walking by and are going, ‘What are you doing?’” and he grins, saying, “I was like, Leave me alone.”
Doherty remarks about his current work, “To me it symbolizes the boat’s history and what it went through to get to the point it’s at. People go by these all the time and never look twice at them. I said to a camera club once, it’s not about the camera, but a good photographer is someone who sees what everyone else sees but in a different way. So, I was seeing this in a different way.”
Doherty’s compositions invite us to create our own interpretations. Your mind starts seeing all sorts of images. Fascinatingly, you could change any of the pictures’ orientation and they’d still work beautifully. Doherty himself says, “Sometimes I change orientation after I see it. Somebody said to me one time, a really good photograph you can turn in every direction and it still looks good, especially abstract art.”
Doherty’s photographs are decidedly painterly. He emphasizes, “I’m drawn to photography because I can’t paint. I have nerve damage in my hands, so I would be really shaky. I try to approach my photography with a painterly eye. I love finding subject matter that allows me to create my ‘painting,’ so I use a different medium to create art.”
Despite the exquisiteness of his work, Doherty downplays his technical skill, saying, “I don’t know the mechanics — the f-stops and all that. I just have a really good eye. I have the camera on automatic. I never play around with it. There’s a manual, but my mind doesn’t want to absorb that. I just want to go out and point and shoot. I was looking for something new, and I kept walking by, and it was right in front of me. It was already there. The more I looked the more I saw. It was so obvious, but I almost missed it by looking out and up.”
Remarkably, Doherty only began photography in 2013, but he says, “What I love is that the Vineyard lets you reinvent yourself. I was a professional actor, and then I had two brain surgeries and couldn’t do it anymore. But I’m still a creative person, and I didn’t know where to put my energy. For therapy I started doing photography, and someone offered me a show, which encouraged me to do more and do more.” He continues, “The Island is wonderful about that. If you’re serious about it, it lets you be what you want to be, and they’ll accept you.
“This is what I’m doing now. I have no idea what I’ll be doing 10 years from now. I don’t want to know. I want to have it layer by layer open up to where I’m going next. Having been so close to dying, it changes the way you think about everything. Every day is a gift.”
And Doherty’s gift to us is his current show at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center.
“Dinghy Scratches,” photographs by Paul Doherty at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, 79 Beach Rd., Vineyard Haven, through Oct. 27.