You can’t possibly walk past Benjamin McCormick’s Under the Surface Gallery in Menemsha without being drawn inside by the colorful photos featured both on the front porch and beckoning from the open-fronted interior.
McCormick made a name for himself for his remarkable underwater action photos of Vineyard fish — a false albacore leaping to try to grab a tiny silverside from the surf, an up-close image of a squid’s eye, a bluefish approaching a fisherman’s lure, mouth wide open. The shots, captured by the longtime fisherman and diver, seem almost impossible. They represent a fish’s-eye view of the world — one which humans never see.
More recently, McCormick has focused on elevating the beauty of the commonplace. He shoots macro images of things like beach stones, shells, sea glass, and feathers, artfully arranged and superlit in his studio to bring out the fantastic colors and intricate patterns found in nature.
After 20-plus years of selling his photos at various Island outlets like the Artisans Festival and the Chilmark and Featherstone flea markets, last year McCormick realized a dream when he opened his own gallery at the top of Basin Road in Menemsha. His wife Cybelle owns and operates the Menemsha Deli a few doors away from the gallery, making the couple very familiar to Menemsha residents and regular visitors. The space occupied by the Under the Surface Gallery was formerly the swordfish cooler for Poole’s fish market. “I rent from Everett [Poole],” says McCormick. “It’s somehow appropriate. I love looking around and knowing that swordfish were once all stacked up in here.”
Although there isn’t a swordfish among the photographer’s many fish shots, most, if not all of the species fished for in Island waters are represented. McCormick has earned a loyal following throughout the years with avid fishermen. He is now attracting a new audience with his extreme close-up shots.
“I’m much more interested in macro work and the abstract approach these days,” he says. “I shoot with a very long shutter speed and with controlled lighting in my studio. I don’t use filters except for a polarizer.”
It’s hard to believe that McCormick’s colorful images are not colorized or otherwise artificially enhanced. One of his most popular photos of beach rocks underwater features a rainbow of colors from vibrant yellows and reds to a saturated turquoise and vibrant green. Each stone has its own unique striated pattern. The photographer has captured the look of rocks as they appear underwater before they dry out to become just ordinary, unimpressive gray stones.
As he writes on his website, “Martha’s Vineyard lies at the terminal moraine of the last ice age. As such, there is an outrageous variety of rock types, scraped and gathered for hundreds of miles, and ultimately pushed here by the glacier’s relentless advance.”
Another shot features the berries of a porcelain vine, a plant found all over the Vineyard. Each berry — caught close up — pops with a different shade of the spectrum. Similarly, McCormick has worked his magic with groupings of purple wampum and other shells, seaglass, feathers, ice crystals, the kernels on a corn cob, and other natural elements. In some cases it’s almost impossible to tell exactly what you’re looking at, which is why the artist likes to refer to these images as abstracts.
In one case, the artist shot the side of a fish with a macro lens to give the effect of a softly colored impressionist painting. The natural curve of the body provides texture and a wavy look to the surface of the skin, which appears in pale pinks, greens, and turquoises. It’s fun just to look around the gallery and try to identify what each of the abstracted images represents.
Under the Abstracts section on his website, McCormick quotes Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
The Under the Surface Gallery, 16 Basin Road, Menemsha. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 am to 5 pm. 508-955-9439; benjaminmccormick.com.