Dena Porter’s alluring photographs invite us to look more closely at what we initially see. In her new show, “Reflections: Here and There,” Porter treats us to experiencing the familiar in a new way. All but one of the pieces are of the Vineyard, and, while recognizable, each pushes past the boundaries of what we might normally notice. The vehicle for this new level of observation is Porter’s reflections in windowpanes. There’s the actual object itself — in this case windows, which in their partial translucency let you see what’s behind them while the reflections concurrently distort the images, sometimes obscuring what you are exactly looking at.
Porter’s previous reflection work, shot in New York City, primarily has an underlying geometric structure, as opposed to the more organic elements seen in “Reflections.” But once COVID hit, Porter was determined to figure out if her new work, based on the Island, was going to meet the same criteria as that of New York, or if she would have to alter her expectations shooting on the Vineyard. “The answer was no,” she decided, “it didn’t have to parallel my rationale or methodology of shooting in the city.”
One of her favorite spots is the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Porter did a series looking into a window that is part of the original portion of the 1895 Marine Hospital building. Of the black-and-white “Martha’s Vineyard Museum I,” and color “Martha’s Vineyard II,” she says, “There’s one particular window I could shoot every day. It’s just magical. It doesn’t matter if it’s black-and-white or color, you see some really wonderful things from the trim work that’s in front of it that creates all those swirls in the reflection.”
The color print is luscious, metaphorically calling out for us to run our hands over the window’s undulating surface. The gorgeous contortions give it a jazzy, sensuous quality. The black-and-white version is quieter. Although the two chairs aren’t facing forward, they beckon us into the foreground space — to come sit on the porch ourselves.
In contrast to the window in “Museum I” and “Museum II,” the panes in “Martha’s Vineyard Museum III” are from the new Linnemann Pavilion addition. The flat, uniform glass marches across the picture frame, crisply reflecting the trees on the museum’s lawn. The early morning light infuses the composition with an otherworldly quality. “The light was really golden,” Porter says. “I liked the way the beauty of the morning light was casting off of the glass, but at the same time you can see into the building.”
“Beach Road” is an image of the restaurant of the same name in Vineyard Haven’s Tisbury Marketplace. In this lively piece, you can make out the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society and surrounding buildings as they swim across the composition. Porter creates the dynamic through slight manipulation: “I had a lot of fun stripping out what little color there was still in the clapboards on the building, and pushing the color in the trees. If you look at those windowpanes, there is some really crazy distortion going on that makes a normal tree look warped and crazy.”
“Bunch of Grapes” is of another familiar location — the outside of the bookstore on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. It is a lively puzzle of a composition, begging us to discern its many layers. There is a display of children’s books, and, well aware of what she was doing, Porter waited patiently for the moment when a mother and child were crossing Spring Street behind her to create their silhouette in the photo.
Porter shot the photo around noon, so the light is very strong. “When you shoot through glass with all that bright light, it’s pretty amazing what you can see through the window and the sharpness of what is behind on the street,” she explains. If you look carefully, you can also make out the photographer herself on the left as she shoots the photo, making the piece a work in the moment — made, in a sense, at the exact instant you are gazing at it.
“I think the downtime of COVID has forced me to see the beauty that’s right around me, but also how to shoot a number of types of images on the Vineyard and how to see the beauty in them,” Porter says. And, ultimately, Porter’s work encourages us to “reflect” on ways of seeing that go far beyond a first glance.
“Reflections: Here and There,” Dec. 12 through January at Pathways at the Chilmark Tavern, Friday through Sunday, 11 am to 5 pm, or when the space is open. Washington Ledesma’s “Early Paintings” exhibit runs concurrently. There will be a hybrid virtual and in-person opening Q and A with both artists at 2 pm on Dec. 12. To register for live attendance, visit bit.ly/porterpathways.