When Dan Waters started taking photos with an old wooden field camera fitted with an antique lens, the Vineyard opened up to him in a new way. “Peering at the world through an old 1911 camera lens has been a comforting escape from 2020,” he writes on the Facebook page where he posts all of his images under the title “Seen Through an Old Lens.” He writes, “A flawed old lens recognizes an Island that’s been there since time began.”
The artist, poet, writer, photographer, and musician started exploring the Vineyard’s many nature trails, camera in hand, last year when the pandemic prevented people from engaging in many other activities.
“I’ve lived here over 40 years,” says Waters. “I just started discovering all of these trails and corners I’ve only ever heard about. In a way the Island is closing down, but the nature part is opening up more, and more is available to us.” Included in the newly opened trails is one in the Sheriff’s Meadow Sanctuary, which Waters was invited to visit and photograph before it was officially open to the public.
“This has been like a history book come back to life,” he says. “Walking these trails has been a humbling experience.”
It’s the historical aspect of the Vineyard that Waters is hoping to capture with his most recent series of photos. The large-format film camera and the old lens (as well as the addition of a sepia filter) combine to give an otherworldly sort of past-recaptured quality to the images.
The Verito lens that Waters employs is described as the pioneer of soft focus lenses. “Verito was very popular among the pictorialist photographers,” he explains. “It was photography’s answer to the impressionist’s work. The lens was deliberately left with a flaw in it to make it more diffuse, so the contours of the image aren’t full of all these distracting details. It puts halos around things so that you get more of a subdued look — not blurry as much as diffuse.”
Waters says that he has been experimenting with photography since his childhood, when his parents bought him a darkroom set where, as he recalls, he spent all of his time. “Processing the world through a lens has always been part of my vocabulary,” says the Renaissance man.
In 2019, Waters was asked by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to document everyday life on the Vineyard for a time capsule project titled “Capturing Our Moment.”
“I was shooting all of these portraits,” he recalls. “Then the pandemic came along, and I couldn’t take pictures of people anymore. I started going out into the nature preserves, and I was just amazed to look through this lens and to see the landscape, which is so familiar to me, reinterpreted.”
Waters decided to create a series of photos that would represent the Island in a way not seen by tourists. “People take these brightly colored digital photographs that show Martha’s Vineyard as a destination for tourists,” he says. “But those of us who live here are grounded in reality. The Island can be lonely and haunted, and sometimes a terrifying place. Life is as real here as it is anywhere.”
The images do indeed have a haunting quality. Tree-lined paths seem to beckon the viewer to enter a foreboding, forgotten world; the woods seen across a shimmering pond appear to hide mysterious figures which one can almost, but not quite, glimpse. A gnarled tree looks like it harbors secrets from an earlier time.
“The images have a slightly melancholy quality to them,” says Waters. “They look almost ghostly. The idea of spiritualism is not that far from what this lens is trying to do. I think that on the Vineyard, the spirit world is separated from us by a very thin curtain.”
“The Island is a really old place,” adds Waters. “There’s a lot of history — both natural and manmade history. It’s kind of haunted by the people who were here before us. We’re just another page in the history book.”
For now, Waters is just posting the images on Facebook, but eventually he plans to make prints using a process developed in the 1890s to simulate the look of old photos, and then he would like to exhibit them somewhere. For now, however, he’s just enjoying the experience.
“I get out almost every day and take pictures,” says Waters. “Just putting down these images and going back to these same places again and again has turned the project into more of a journal. Without intentionally doing it, I found myself going on a journey that it’s hard to put words to.”