Being asked to photograph a master photographer is a bit intimidating, but that was my mandate when The Times asked me to go to the Field Gallery in Chilmark to shoot the 2021 Alison Shaw Photography Advanced Mentorship Show, featuring the work of 10 outstanding photographers.
Co-owners Alison Shaw and Sue Dawson help their mentees figure out their identity and strengths as photographers. It’s pretty intense in that it gets you to take a long, hard look at who you are, sort of like psychotherapy with cameras (full disclosure: I took the mentorship program a couple of years ago).
Along the way, there is much valuable discussion of being an artist, of displaying work, of selling work, of the different ways you can reach people with your photography. Part of the beauty of the class is that Alison and Sue start with respect for the work that each photographer brings. There is no sense of people being at different “levels” on some abstract scale; it’s about people developing their natural creative perspective. Or, as Sue put it, “It’s like I’m wearing a miner’s headlamp on my forehead. I’m standing behind each person we’re mentoring, shining my headlamp in front of them and illuminating their path. We’re not telling them what path to go down; we’re lighting their path and offering insight.”
Alison and Sue are a highly productive team, much in the way that Bruce Springsteen and Jon Landau are. Though Bruce is the musical director of the organization and Jon handles all the back-office stuff, they overlap extensively in terms of the creative direction of the enterprise. The same is true of Alison and Sue.
Alison can actually be intimidating, but not because she’s mean or aggressive (on the contrary; she’s insanely nice). She’s intimidating because she has an incredibly discerning eye and doesn’t miss a thing. She’s intimidating because she will take every possible step, obsess over every single detail, in the pursuit of absolute excellence. It shows in her work and it shows in the work that she and Sue help their mentees achieve. I still hear Alison’s voice in my head, and while I wish I could shut it off every now and then, she has continued to push me to be a better photographer long after my mentorship program ended.
But back to the Field Gallery show. It covers a wide range of approach, from sweeping scenic vistas to macro abstractions and plenty in between, all beautifully displayed and thoughtfully arranged.
Some of the work is more in line with classic Martha’s Vineyard scenic photography, though with more ambitious aesthetic goals than a more typical picture of, say, a sunrise. Much of the work is macro in perspective, coaxing art from details of what would otherwise be overlooked as commonplace, particularly in the work of Hillary Noyes-Keene. I could walk by the elements in her photos a hundred times and never think to photograph them, but she renders them beautifully.
The display of Patti Roberts’ imagery takes her provocative work to a higher level. Detailed images of tree branches were displayed alongside abstract images of underwater swimmers, with shapes and colors from the trees paying homage to the shapes and colors of the swimmers and giving the viewer an “aha!” moment (at least when this viewer’s wife pointed it out to him). By the same token, Sarah Bowman’s wonderful abstract photos made for an amazing aggregate display. In both cases, the individual images stood beautifully on their own, but the aggregate display brought an additional dimension to the portfolio.
It was nice to see some of my former mentee-mates. Dave Lear, a highly talented landscape photographer, has somehow managed to go even further on his path. Elizabeth Rylander has discovered a new and stronger voice in the two years since I’d seen her work (intriguingly, her personal demeanor struck me as somehow more confident, too).
Sarah Bowman, on the other hand, was forced to completely shift gears. She was previously doing portraits of women in their homes, but due to COVID, “I couldn’t really shoot people anymore. I was isolated.” She felt stuck and went to Sue for help. Sue asked her if there was a favorite photo she’d taken in the past two years, and Sarah showed her an abstract detail photo she’d taken on one of many long walks on the UCLA campus near her home. They both loved the photo, and Sue suggested it as a good direction, so Sarah kept taking long walks and shooting abstract iPhone photos, and with brilliant results, as you can see at the show (this supports Ansel Adams’s observation that “the single most important component of a camera is the 12 inches behind it”).
The show runs through May 27 at the Field Gallery in Chilmark; fieldgallery.com. If you like photography even a little, you’ve gotta go see it.