In a good light

Peter Dreyer’s photos reflect his interest in lighting.


Peter Dreyer is an artist with a consummate eye who uses his cameras, of which he has many, to create elegant compositions inspired primarily by nature. But he traveled an interesting route to depicting the natural world.

Dreyer hails from Germany and came over to be, not a photographer, but a translator for the Christian Science Monitor in 1962. After about five years, between neither going back to Germany much nor keeping up with his reading, Dreyer explained that there came a point when he wasn’t sure of his German anymore. Also, he said, his focus began to shift.

“I had been very interested in filmmaking and the Christian Science Church started a film and broadcasting department,” Dreyer explained. By that time, he had taken industrial filmmaking courses, which led him to shooting 35-millimeter slide shows for the church. At the time, he learned a a great deal about lighting and continued perfecting his lighting skills when he went off on his own, eventually shifting to shooting commercial corporate industrial stills.

In his fine art photography today, Dreyer continues to take particular delight in playing with light in various ways. For instance, there are his photograms, which create unusual images. With photographs you shoot a negative and then print from it. In photograms, however, you construct images by placing objects on a sheet of photographic paper and then exposing the paper to light. The image comes out as a white silhouette of the object. And the size of the object placed on the photographic paper determines the size of the print. Each print is unique, depending on slight differences in placement of the object.

Examples include Dreyer’s “Curlicue” series in which he twisted strips of sturdy photo paper to create arching curves that stand out white against a dark background. “I’m after the curves and the general composition,” he says. What keeps calling him back to this series? “To have something abstract. Sometimes I come across some photographer’s work that I really like. But I don’t want to copy it. I want to change it or go one better. I don’t want to be an imitator.”

Dreyer and his wife, who had vacationed on the Island with their children in the 70s and early 80s, moved here full time in 2012. Today, much of his work is inspired by the Vineyard. His ultra-extreme close-up in Feather #1 found on an Island beach has grains of sand still scattered over its surface, which stand out in various shades of white against a stark black background.

There are also his images of leaves caught under the frozen icy surface that are mysterious plays of black-and-white tones and subtle shades of grey. We can almost hear the crunch as if we were walking through the woods on a cold winter’s day. The cracks and elegant curves of the leaves create patterns that appeal to him.

His combined photograph/photogram leaves are even more enigmatic. Here Dreyer combines photograms and continuous-tone photographs. Each print is unique, depending on slight differences in placement of the object. Dreyer explains the process in discussing “Skeleton Leaf” in which a stark white leaf, actually the skeleton of a decomposing one, floats on top of a grey-toned image of the same leaf. He says, “The large gray leaf is made from a negative I shot of it. I put that negative in the enlarger and placed a sheet of light-sensitive photographic paper in the easel. Then I placed the actual leaf on the paper and positioned it where I wanted it. When I exposed the sheet, I did it long enough to arrive at a print on which the large leaf was gray surrounded by deep black, while the leaf lying on the paper kept the paper underneath it unexposed, or white.” The result is both ghostly and gloriously exotic.

Another innovation of his are what he calls “reverse reflects,” which are stunning visual palindromes that can be viewed either right side up or upside down. Explaining the technique, he says, “I overrode the double exposure. I didn’t advance the film. I turned the camera 180 degrees and shot exactly the same image. I got this effect and I liked it a lot. You have to figure out what it is.” Initially, these photographs may look confusing until you detect that the top and bottom portion are exactly the same image facing each other, meeting seamlessly in the center. The Vineyard images include On-Time Ferry, which he took from up high on Memorial Wharf. Here you see the On-Time Ferry II and On-Time Ferry III in a doppelganger crisscrossing from Edgartown to Chappy. There is one with a sinuous path that connects a scene of the Edgartown Vincent House right side up with the upside down one below. Perhaps most intriguing is the one of the meeting triangular peaked roofs in Edgartown Roof #421055, that creates an ever-shifting central pyramid making the photograph, as Dreyer says, his homage to the artist MC Escher.

“My main interest in photography is to create black-and-white images that are original and visually interesting, whether they are made from negatives or in the form of photograms, or combinations of the two,” Dreyer shares. 

When the Artist Gallery at MVTV reopens, we will have a chance to delve into Dreyer’s inviting world of black-and-white images. In the meantime, we can only wonder what he will invent next.