While the January nor’easter brought challenges for some on the Island, it was a bonafide gift for photographer Michael Johnson. While he lived here year-round from 1981 to 1995, he now spends winters dividing his time between California and Arizona. But last fall he wanted to come back to enjoy a visit during the quiet season. It just so happens that a huge snowstorm hit us during his return. Dressed warmly and in a loaned four-wheel-drive vehicle, he ventured out all over the Island when most of us were digging out or hunkered down.
The resulting pieces are remarkable shots of the Vineyard, which in their snowy silence speak volumes about the intense beauty of the winter light. Talking about his upcoming show at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, Johnson says that in addition to his warm-weather photographs, “I wanted to premiere some of the work I did when I was here on my winter trip, because a lot of summer people never see that part of the Island at all. It was very fortuitous that I caught that very scenic snowstorm. I went out hiking from one end of the Island to the other, just shooting.”
Johnson says that it gave him a whole new view of the Vineyard as an artist: “The flora and fauna are different, as is the light, which is stellar. It is inspiring to create the work. You see all of the things that you see in the summer in a way that you don’t at that time. That’s like gold for an artist; to have some new input to stimulate you, especially where I’ve been shooting off and on since 1981.”
Johnson scoured the Island with his camera, hiking from Katama all the way to Chappaquiddick one day. He journeyed to the other end capturing the Aquinnah Cliffs, which he describes as his favorite place in the universe. Johnson’s images of the towering, snow-cloaked cliffs with the burnt umber and orange popping through are breathtaking. He also ventured to areas that are off-bounds during the high season. Johnson admits, “I’m a trespasser, especially to places where people don’t go. It’s in my job description. And if someone tells me to turn around, I just go.”
Some of the photographs are long panoramas, which increase the sense of the wide expanse of the landscape and particularly capture the winter sky, as you can see in “Inkwell Twilight” and one of lovely Ocean Park, with nary a soul in sight. Johnson shares, “I love low-light photography. It’s one of my favorite things to do; just at dusk, before it’s fully dark.” Johnson creates his mesmerizing panoramas by shooting multiple, overlapping digital files, and then uses software to blend them into a single image. He reports, “As far as I know, I’m the only one using that technique out here.”
Johnson discovered that one of the challenges of shooting in such cold weather, low 20s and often very high wind, was that while dressed warmly, he had to keep his fingers uncovered to work the camera and keep the lens clean. “Trying to do my creative process in the elements was challenging, but the challenge was fun,” he says. “Having it work out successfully, in the end, was a wonderful thing.”
In a vertical morning scene of Waban Park, the branches in “Crystal Trees” sparkle as their long shadows stretch toward the picture’s border, beckoning us into the magical place. Johnson doesn’t just see beauty in nature, but also in scenes such as in the heavily plowed, empty but unearthly silent “Five Corners Blizzard.” Of late, Johnson has also taken on commissions for those who would like fine art photographs of their homes, properties, or classic cars. An example is “Sea View Avenue,” in which a grand Oak Bluff cottage sits majestically on the corner, and we stand looking down the long, receding road toward the ferry slip, pulling us into the serene silence of the sunlit, post-snowstorm scene.
For those yearning for the warmer weather work, Johnson is also including a selection of his summer pieces. Among others his famous “Circle” and “Joy” of the popular Inkwell Beach ritual of the early morning Oak Bluffs Polar Bear Club’s water class, as well “Golden Light Aquinnah” and the greatly atmospheric “Lucy Vincent Fog,” round out a sense of the Island at all times of the year.
“Michael Johnson, Summer & Winter: Contrasting Seasons on Martha’s Vineyard,” M.V. Playhouse Art Space, June 22 to July 16. Opening reception Wednesday, June 22, from 5 to 6 pm. The Playhouse Art Space is open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 1 pm until 4 pm, or by appointment or by chance. All art is for sale.