Loving the light

Photographer Paul Doherty’s ‘Vineyard Refractions,’ on exhibit at MVTV.


As the winter rolls on … and on and on … do yourself a favor and see photographer Paul Doherty’s newest exhibit, “Vineyard Refractions,” at MVTV. A sublime master of light and color, his work floods the eye in the glorious light of the Island.

Doherty, whose previous career was as a successful actor in film, television, radio, and theater, didn’t begin to take photos until one year after moving to the Vineyard in 2014. Taking photography up with a vengeance, Doherty realized that looking through the lens helped relieve his migraine headaches and vertigo. He had a severe hydrocephalus in his 50s, an effect from a bout of encephalitis that happened after having the mumps when he was 8 years old.

“The migraine headaches and vertigo happened post-surgery, during my recovery. Medications prescribed didn’t help … but walking on a beach and focusing in on beach stones with the zoom lens of my camera did,” Doherty says. “So it encouraged me to take more and more photos, and eventually, the headaches completely disappeared.”

His favorite haunts include Vineyard Haven Harbor, the water off West Chop, Lambert’s Cove, Moshup Trail, and Squibnocket. While some of the locations are recognizable, others are not. However, Doherty expertly captures the unique quality specific to the Island so that there is never a doubt that this is the place we call home. He says, “There is something about the light here that is amazing. I don’t know why on an Island it is so incredibly different from the mainland, but it is. It’s really spectacular, and what keeps me wanting to do this.”

The quality of Doherty’s photographs is superior. He adores his small camera, a Canon SX730 with a 40X-zoom lens, which he always carries in his pocket so he can whip it out at a moment’s notice. He says, “It has a lot of bells and whistles, but I just never use them. I had brain damage when I was a kid from encephalitis. I can’t read directions or do math. My brain just goes in another direction if I do. So, I just started playing with the camera, and found I could take really good pictures without having to manipulate it.” Its diminutive size makes it easy to hold, allowing Doherty to step outside his car and set his elbows on the roof to get the shot, or find a place to sit and lean his elbows on his knees, giving him the stability to shoot crisp images. Although most of the works in the exhibit are mounted behind glass, a handful are printed on canvas, which emit an almost painterly feel and whose surface compels us to come in for a closer look.

The exhibit features the outdoors. The images capture a moment in time with a looming moon, sunsets, and warm sunrises. They also each encourage a visceral feeling of inner peace, such as when viewing “Pond Reflection,” whose still lily pads hover on the pastel-shaded surface, reminding us of Monet’s famous “Water Lilies.”

Doherty shoots throughout the seasons, either at the beginning or end of the day. He goes out regularly, feeling bereft if he doesn’t have a chance to look through his lens to see what the world has in store for him. “I try to go out every day. When I really get excited is when I see wispy, high clouds toward the west, and know it’s going to be a gorgeous pink or red sky,” he says.

One of Doherty’s signatures is shooting his subjects in silhouette. We see willowy beach grass emanating from undulating dunes against a sunset sky, and an empty beach house with sun rays illuminating the windows. A sprinkling of these images, which he refers to as sunset silhouette shots, include people in them. While being in silhouette makes them anonymous, Doherty captures the figures in iconic moments that speak volumes: children jumping a dock clearly having a gleeful time; a couple in an intimate, deep conversation; a fisherman with a long, Moses-type beard standing on a rock haloed by an enormous setting sun.

Sometimes Doherty looks away from the great expanses to much nearer at hand, creating photographs that are closer to abstraction. “R.A. #21” (standing for reflective abstraction) is indeed a reflection of a barely visible side of a kayak whose printed words reflect on the ever-so-slightly undulating water. He explains. “It’s a little game I used to play to not get ripples in these shots. You have to figure out which way the current is going, get ahead of it, and then slowly drift by holding one oar so you don’t go into the boat while snapping the camera as you go by.”

Doherty’s most abstract work though are his “Dingy Scratches” series, which are a captivating alchemy of color and design. He explains, “I was looking for something new to photograph in Vineyard Haven Harbor. It was too cold to go out on my kayak, and I was looking for something, like maybe a seagull or the light on the grass. I kept banging into the dinghys; there were about 20 of them all lined up. Then all of a sudden, I said, Look at this! I took a couple of shots and enlarged them. They looked like abstract art.” Always wishing he could paint, but never having done so, and with a leaning toward abstract art, he says, “I try to paint with my camera.”

“Vineyard Reflections” is a compilation of Doherty’s different subject matter over the past few years. Fortunately for us, the Island is a never-ending source of inspiration: “There is always something to discover,” Doherty says. 

“Vineyard Refractions” is on exhibit at MVTV at 58 Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road, Vineyard Haven, weekdays from 9 am to 5 pm, through March. Masks required. View an interview of Paul Doherty at mvtv.org/video-on-demand-castus.