The more you look, the more you see in Rissland’s ‘Hull Series’

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Edwina Rissland’s stunning photographs in her newest exhibition, “Hull Studies,” are a must-see. This show, curated by Featherstone at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, brims with work from 2007 to 2022, focusing on one of Rissland’s favorite subjects — boats. Not the whole vessel, but rather bits and pieces of them.

Coming in close, Rissland draws us into a universe of saturated color, texture, and shape, constructed from glimpses of peeling paint, rusting and crumbling metal, and exposed wood grain. In some photographs, you can make out a hull, keel, or stern. However, the images are focused so tightly that they morph into brilliant abstract compositions, bursting with a life untethered from their origin. 

In fact, Rissland’s titles themselves range from descriptive, such as “Orange Prow” or “Hull with Tape,” to others that are more elusive. Regardless, with their focus on composition rather than nautical depictions, her art allows for a multitude of interpretations. Rissland says, “If you let your imagination roam, you can see things when you look; you can have some fun. Maybe no one else sees it, but what does it matter?” For instance, the black markings in “Cryptic Keel” have a calligraphic flair. The exposed background shape, created by the chipped paint in “Revealed,” could be a horse stretching its neck and head toward the left. Not being able to make out exactly what you’re seeing creates intrigue and, along with their sheer beauty, keeps you looking to see what more emerges.

Rissland began exploring photography in school with a rudimentary Brownie camera. She got a 35-millimeter Zeiss that she loved as an adult, saying, “Zeiss lenses are just out of this world.” After shooting with it for many years, Rissland bought a Nikon with a zoom on it in the 1970s that allowed her to focus in on her subject. “Most people probably do their cropping in the darkroom, but I found I could use the zoom to get me closer and eliminate a lot of extraneous things,” Rissland explains.

In the beginning, she was mostly taking pictures of places she had been, with Austria being the first. Over the years, Rissland shot a lot of landscapes, and, when her daughter was growing up, became the family documentarian. Gradually, Rissland broadened her subjects. Her tight composition work started in the early 1990s when she was in the marketplace in Hong Kong. “I find marketplaces to be really fun. There’s an energy to them,” Rissland says. “People are buying, people are selling, you have got to stay out of the way. The fruits and vegetables have interesting shapes and cast shadows, and the fish have vibrant colorations.”

Then came a day, she recalls, in 2005 or 2006, when she went over to Gannon and Benjamin boatbuilders. “I thought, Wow, look at this. It was a joy because it was all about wooden boats, with all this detail and craftsmanship. Plus, rust and old peeling paint can be very interesting for their colors.”

It turns out Gannon and Benjamin has become an endless source of inspiration. Rissland explains that she keeps returning over the years, thinking, “You’ve been here so many times, what could possibly be new? But there’s always something new. It’s never the same boats, it’s never the same repairs. Things are always changing, and all of a sudden, you’re in the middle of it again, taking pictures. It’s very energizing seeing new material.”

The intensity of Rissland’s colors and the painterly feel of her images imbue her photographs with immediacy. They are powerful the moment you see them. But careful looking allows time for the subtleties to emerge. And time is important, coming back and looking at things again and again. 

“Looking closely at your subject reveals a lot; you’ll start seeing things. For me, perhaps the first thing that captures my attention is the color. It just catches your eye. But as you pay attention, you notice the forms and texture,” Rissland says. “Look, these are everyday objects, albeit in a boatyard, but if you look closely, there’s kind of an interesting universe in there. The more you look, the more you see. Paying attention to detail, really looking hard, sometimes through a camera, makes you look more carefully. It’s an example of, Gee, if you look carefully, what might you find?” 

Edwina Rissland’s “Hull Series” runs through Nov. 6 in the Feldman Family Artspace

at the M.V. Film Center in Vineyard Haven.